Albert Camus, ‘The Stranger’ (L’Etranger)

Travelling back to Manchester on the train last weekend I decided on a short novel that I could finish in one sitting. Eventually, I opted for Albert Camus’ existentialist work The Stranger (‘L’Etranger’), which I had read on holiday a few years ago.

The Stranger follows a number of months in the life of Meursault, an alienated man living and working in the French Algiers. Divided into a two-part structure, the narrative is uncomplicated, and takes impetus from two key events: Meursault’s seemingly unprovoked murder of an Arab man, and the death of his elderly mother. The latter section details Meursault’s lengthy trial for murder and subsequent indictment, ending just prior to his anticipated execution via guillotine.

Narrated entirely through Meursault’s first-person perspective, the style is memorable for its detached, even offhand manner. Despite Meursault’s exposure to atypically troubling experiences, it is hard to locate any presence of unease or discomfit in his narrative. Events are relayed chronologically in a matter-of-fact manner, interspersed with thoughts and feelings (hunger is referenced a number of times). Only when Meursault is affected by physical sensations – particularly heat from the sun – does a more impressionistic form develop. Before shooting the Arab man, for example, he describes how ‘The sky seemed to split apart from end to end to pour its fire down’. This description echoes in some sense the ‘cloudy haze of heat’ purported at Mama’s (Meursault’s mother’s) funeral.

What makes Meursault such an outcast is his rejection of social norms. Unafraid of projecting his true character, he shows no apparent remorse for his crime and is unable to empathise with others. In the workplace he is bereft of ambition, spurning an implied promotion to a role in Paris because ‘none of that sort of thing mattered very much’. At his mother’s funeral he shows no signs of bereavement; and it is, in part, a failure to elicit emotion that condemns him in the eyes of the jury. The mother-son relation is notoriously unaffectionate, and Mersault sulks about the inconvenience of visiting the care home, forgetting his mother’s age when quizzed. Aloof, cold-hearted and unable to conform, Meursault represents a threat to society and the conditioned behaviour it fosters.

Despite the obvious theme of alienation, life is also rich and rewarding in the novel, and Camus takes great pains to describe sensual pleasures. Mersault is enticed by the darkly tanned skin and gratifying touch of his girlfriend Marie; he calls her beautiful, and their relationship includes moments of passion and fun, particularly at the beach. Yet, their bond is hampered by Mersault’s dismissal of marriage as a futile institution. Mersault is also prone to embracing simpler pleasures – the sensation of sun on his body, or in watching the world go by from his apartment balcony. Elsewhere in the novel, the value of companionship is realised through Salamano (Meursault’s neighbour) and his ageing and deformed dog. Salamano mistreats the pet until he disappears; at which point he despairs, realising the significance of their bond.

Throughout, Camus exposes the relativity of truth, and critiques the ways in which the individual is susceptible to popular beliefs, ideals and modes of behaviour.

Favourite quote: ‘Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter’.

Louis MacNiece, 1930’s Poetry and Jack Lindsay’s ‘not english?’

‘Poetry today should steer a course between pure entertainment (“escape poetry”) and propaganda […] The writer today should not be so much a mouthpiece of his community (for then he will only tell it what it knows already) as its conscience, its critical faculty, its generous instinct’. So wrote the esteemed poet Louis MacNiece at the back-end of the ‘Red Decade’. Although MacNeice believed it fundamental that the poet engage with topical socio-political developments, he was critical of the form being used merely as a vehicle for propaganda. Lindsay’s mass declamations, including ‘not english?’, defied these assertions by espousing marxist discourse, and contributing to the emergence of a popular front.

Jack Lindsay’s poem of 1936, ‘not english?’, debunks myths surrounding national identity, exposing the ‘english’ as an exploited race at the behest of the ruling-classes. With a mixture of lament and condemnation, Lindsay recalls the men who were manipulated into fighting:

‘All you that went forth, lured by great-sounding names

which glittered like bubbles of crystals in your eyes

till they burst and you burst with them’

The names of prominent politicians, and indeed the rhetoric they propagate – jingoistic nationalism – entice the working-class with grand claims and false promises. Eventually, the ‘bubbles of crystals’ dissipate, and the hollow essence of patriotic spirit is realised, breaking the illusion. War in the name of nationhood, brings only death to the ‘english’, whilst society’s governing forces – the merchant, the capitalist – grow ever wealthier. History is merely a collection of rubbish piles, in which the forgotten dead are piled up, a counter-image to the notion of historical progress. Lindsay powerfully evokes the waste of lives experienced in the Great War, grimly noting that ‘Flanders mud flakes off the latest dump’ (23). Despite this injustice, the dominant ideology secures its consent to rule through the superstructure, ‘providing dope’ (35) to the people and alienating them from reality. In particular, popular cultural forms like the ‘pictures’ (34) and ‘national newspapers’ (36), render the working-classes unconscious. England, an idyllic, pastoral environment, has been robbed from the men who give their name to the land. The poem envisages change in the form of collective action, impelling the subjugated to ‘depart from its rulers, to abandon traditional epistemologies (common sense), to reorientate itself through tumult and transition’. Lindsay’s concern with unearthing the dominant ideologies’ corruptive workings indicates he is a poet in the mould MacNeice advocates, an insightful agent of the community. He proposes the re-appropriation of english identity, whereby ‘unity is born from the sweat of mingled toil’ (186), and togetherness, not enslavement, is the underlying feature. In this way, the text’s communist and nationalist impulses are reconciled.

In ‘not english?’, the radical individuals and movements of English history are appropriated, and a historical tradition for the Left to inherit is forged. The middle-section details a lengthy historical procession, in which instances like the 1381 Peasants Revolt and the English Civil War are lauded as evidence of defiance against traditional forms of authority: the church and the monarchy. Common cause is found between breakaway Protestant sects and the rebellious reformists of the industrial era, ‘Anabaptists’ (84) and ‘Muggletonians’ (85) fall in behind the Chartists, who ‘sing songs of defiance on the blackened hills / invoking the storm’ (88-89). Nature submitting to, or even aiding the cause of the oppressed is a recurring motif, adding to impression that revolution is just, or even inevitable. Time vaults to the present, in which the proletariat are heralded as yet another revolutionary body who will fulfil the legacy crafted by their forebears, taking jurisdiction over England. In this way, Lindsay imposes a structure and purpose upon history. Lines from the Communist Manifesto penetrate the verse, disseminating from the radio, as a new insurgency forms. This is the ‘augural moment’ (160), vindicating Marx and the historical struggle. Doctrine echoes across the landscape of England, drawing the men from their beds in a dream-like state; the process of night becoming day is symbolic for the new level of consciousness that is reached. Once again an alternative history is posed, the industrial revolution is perceived as empowering, not undermining the workers, teaching solidarity in ‘mine and factory’ (190) and the ability to harness technology: ‘the turbines’s fury, the craft of dynamos’ (196-197). These resources, coupled with a form of eco-communism in which nature co-operates in the attack against the ruling-class, will ensure that England is returned, the ‘disinherited.. restored’ (204). The noun ‘disiniherited’ looks back to the anti-English forces of the middle section, suggesting they may finally be at peace.

The kind of community envisaged by Lindsay is decidedly male-centric. For a mass declamation designed to rally the working-class, female exclusivity is a prominent theme, part of the troubling gender politics in the work. Every historical figure referenced is male: John Ball, John Wycliffe and William Morris are signed out and commended for their resistance. They epitomise the radical, establishment defying spirit upon which ‘another England’ (189) will be founded. Anonymous peasants are too welcomed to join the parade, promoted to ‘leave the blowsy ale-wife’ (59). This kind of separation forms a darker undercurrent of the grand design; men must abandon women who are somehow morally suspect if they are to forge a new society. Indeed whilst the men march forward, female agency is mocked, and through Charles I – ‘the henpecked king’ (75) – patriarchal anxieties about authoritative female figures are realised. The obscure reference to a frightening homeless ‘woman under a bridge’ (158) reads indaequately. As the radio diffuses the rousing cries of the Communist Manifesto, bringing together the workers, she will be left behind, symbolically trapped by the bridge. Here Lindsay’s verse captures not the ‘generous instinct’ of the working-class community, but its latently patriarchal underbelly. Despite the drive towards unity, isolation evidently remains. Women are even displayed as synonymous with the corruptive essence of capitalism, advertising boards are dominated by ‘pink whore faces beckoning the bankrupt to buy’ (10). The facade of consumerism is likened to a sexually deviant woman. The poem’s conception of gender is archaic, recycling numerous derogatory archetypes associated with women in the literary tradition: femme fatale, ‘mad’ woman and adulteress. During the act of re-creating a decidedly rural England, the earth is compared to a ‘womb’ (201) yearning for the ‘seed’ (202) of men. Impregnating the maternal earth with their toil, these men are the true agents of the new world. Continue reading Louis MacNiece, 1930’s Poetry and Jack Lindsay’s ‘not english?’

John Steinbeck, ‘Cannery Row’

Not one of Steinbeck’s most coveted novels, ‘Cannery Row’ is worlds away from the kind of meaningful socio-political criticism invested in, say, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, or ‘In Dubious Battle’. The novel (or novella) is ultimately comic in tone, using satirical episodes to poke fun at the capitalist, bourgeoise value system: materialism, greed, egotism and consumerism all come under attack.

Set in Monterey, California, the 1945 work follows an eclectic group of down-and-outs – a kind of counter-culture exisiting on the margins of society. There is Dora, owner of a public-house; Doc, the moral compass and shining light of the Row, but most importantly Mack and the boys, a group of self-confessed ‘bums’ who, although poor in respect to wordly goods, are rich in spirit, camaraderie and fellow-feeling.

The style of the prose is nostalgic. Cannery Row, although a beacon of industrial America, is also pre-capitalist, sometimes pastoral space. Steinbeck implictly compares the ideals of the wealthy businessmen who own the factories with the Row’s sub-community. Lengthy descriptions of tide-pools function as metaphors for the modern world; starfish prey on tiny fish and eels sting their prey, each species inherently selfish, competitive and prone to taking advantage of the weak.

One enduring message of the novel is that ‘all men everywhere are and must be inextricably identified with their kind’; no greater evil lurks in Cannery Row than loneliness, such is Steinbeck’s essential faith in companionship. Empowered by the deep bond that constitutes their relations, Mack and the boys channel their respective energies; aligned in goal and outlook, they carefully negotiate the perils of the modern world.

Favourite quote: ‘Crabs rush from frond to frond of the waving algae. Starfish squat over mussels and limpets, attach their million little suckers and then slowly lift with incredible power until the prey is broken from the rock. And then the starfish comes out and envelops its food… And black eels poke their heads out of crevices and wait for prey’. (p. 30)