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’.