Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: The Stranger by Albert Camus

Title: The Stranger
Author: Albert Camus
Genre: Literature
Publisher: Vintage
Published: 1942 (as L'Étranger)
Pages: 155

Rating: 7 out of 10

This philosophical piece of French literature opens with the main character, Meursalt, announcing frankly to the reader that his mother is dead. While at the funeral, he seems to find stirring his coffee or observing those in attendance far more interesting than his deceased family member.
The next day, he meets a beautiful girl named Marie, and immediately, a mutual attraction between them flares up. When Marie learns that Meursalt attended his mother's funeral just one day before they were having fun at the movies and in bed, she is slightly put off, but they remain together.
While on the beach one day in French Algeria, Meursalt, feeling mildly annoyed at present circumstances because the sun is in his eyes, takes out a gun and repeatedly shoots an Arab man who is laying on the sand.
He appears surprised that he is actually arrested and now finds himself being shuffled between police stations and lawyer's offices. He does not view his crime as serious, and seems to be puzzled as to why anyone else would.
He is tried for the crime, and given the death sentence.

This book was so interesting to read. Even though it is well known that Camus rejected the popular association he was given with existentialism, I can see how the label stuck to him. The book touches into other areas of philosophy as well, and I liked picking them out as I read.

Meursalt is a fascinating character study. There are a lot of small details in things he says, or thinks, that would probably be very easy to miss. He mentions things so passingly and quickly, never with emphasis or passion, that they appear automatically unimportant. I passed over many of them without thought, but stopped to wonder about them after finishing the book.
Whenever anyone asks or consoles him about his mother's death, Meursalt always feels that he must say "It wasn't my fault," though most of the time this statement is irrelevant.
When he and Marie witness a crime in the streets, Marie urges him to call the police. He declines, because he "doesn't like police."
And what is his connection with sunlight about? It is mentioned a few times earlier in the book, but of course it stands out most memorably in the terrible murder scene, where his main motive actually does seem to be "the sun was in my eyes," as he later testifies in court.
Why would he be so baffled at being arrested for his crime? He seems to be aware that murder in general is morally wrong, but he never sees his own crime as being the same type of thing.
Up until the very end - literally the last few lines - of the book, Meursalt appears to be void of all emotions, simply existing rather than really living, and so he was difficult to figure out.

Even though I knew it was coming, I was still shocked at the murder scene. Not because it was bloody and graphic (it wasn't), but because it was so utterly pointless.
No background story about the Arab man is given, and he had not been involved in the story or with any of the characters beforehand. We know nothing about him, but even so, I found myself wondering what his life was like, if he had a wife or children, and exactly how old he was. Meursalt himself wonders none of these things, acting as if shooting a breathing human being is as unremarkable as casually firing at a random target. His indifference and disregard for human life made me feel all the more sad over the man's death.
I was not expecting the murder scene to be so beautiful, either. For such terrible events, the language and writing Camus used to illustrate the scene was dark and lovely. It has a building rush of momentum and furious eloquence, which feels all the more dramatic compared to the bland preceding chapters.
I thought to myself that it was the first time Meursalt had actually seemed alive.
And indeed, this shock of vivacity is likened by the main character himself to a beginning, as a door. He says of the four shots he fires into the man: "It was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness." (page 59).

During his trial, attorneys pounce on the discovery of Meursalt's detachment from life and common, normal emotions. They paint him as a depraved, cold villain, which greatly sways the severity of his sentence.
Are they right, or has he been misunderstood and twisted into something that he's not? It's hard to say.

Close to the end of the book, as he awaits his execution, a chaplain visits Meursalt's cell and speaks with him about God, urging him to repent and believe. Meursalt rejects in no uncertain terms, and reveals himself to be an atheist (if he must be labeled). Although I didn't find this shocking, readers in the 40's would have found it a bit more controversial. After the rejected chaplain leaves, Meursalt thinks about God and religions and beliefs and life. His pondering was, again, interesting to read.

All in all, this was a fascinating book about a seemingly emotionless man, a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, and about life itself.