I’d heard of Albert Camus. I knew he wrote a few books, he won a Nobel Prize, he was a philosopher, and we shared a birthday. That was about it. There wasn’t anything about him that pinged on my radar. I mean, I like to read a wide variety of literature, fiction and non-fiction, but his work never caught my eye.
But while perusing some public domain works I found a copy of The Stranger. The book had good reviews, so I figured I’d give it a go. I’m glad I did.
The thing about The Stranger is that it’s not a fast-moving novel. It’s has a slow, meandering narrative, which actually mirrors the settings. The story takes place in Algiers, North Africa. It’s hot, dry, with a blazing sun in the sky during the day. It’s told from the protagonist’s point of view. Meursault is a young man who works a dead-end job. He lives alone in an apartment that’s much too large for him. His mother had been living with him, but she had health issues and he couldn’t provide for her in a meaningful way, so he got her into a retirement home that he pays for out of pocket.
The story opens with the death of his mother. Meursault attends the funeral in another town. It’s so hot that the funeral procession – mourners on foot following the horse-drawn hearse – feel their shoes sinking into the melting asphalt of the road. The heat and blinding sun are recurring themes in the story.
Despite the death, Meursault isn’t grieving. He seems to simply accept that his mother is gone. This surprises some of the other people he encounters. They expect weeping, crying, mourning. Our protagonist accepts things for what they are. It was interesting to note that, as I read the first few chapters, I wasn’t sure if Meursault had a Zen-like view of life or if there was something more to his attitude.
In fact, it seemed like in almost every situation Meursault encountered he was merely carried along by the currents. For example, in one scene his girlfriend asks him if he’s in love with her. He tells her no. Then she asks if he would marry her. He says yes. When she asks why he would marry her if he didn’t love her, he tells her that it just seems like the thing to do. When pressed if he’d marry another girl if she asked, he also replies yes. In his words, he doesn’t dwell on the past and only looks at today and the near future. Nothing else matters. It’s an interesting perspective.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story. It’s a quick read (I finished in a day when I was in bed nursing the flu). The language is definitely of its time…meaning, it’s somewhat formal, and the characters aren’t terribly fleshed out. But in the end I don’t think those things matter. To me, the point of The Stranger is to show the absurdity of life in general. The protagonist is shown to be someone who simply floats through life without much concern, but because of this other people think there’s something wrong with him, that he’s damaged or broken. He’s not. At least, not in my opinion. I was like that when I was in my twenties. I was self-absorbed to a point, I didn’t have anything tying me down, I floated from job to job. All I cared about was enjoying myself, living for the present. I didn’t think much about past or future. Meursault is the same way. Maybe that’s why I felt as if I understood him as I read the book.
Taking it a few steps further, I also found the story showing the absurdity of other people’s expectations. In the second half of the book, Meursault is treated like a criminal mostly due to his mannerisms, his personality. For example, at his mother’s funeral he doesn’t cry. The other attendees see this as a sign that something is wrong with him. Why? Because in their minds you MUST cry at a funeral. It’s that mindset of, “That’s the way it’s always been done, so we’re going to continue doing it that way, and you have to follow suit or else.”
In other words, you’re expected to play the game even if you don’t want to. Even though The Stranger was published in 1946 (English version), the story is still timely. I know I see this kind of mentality every day. Hell, I grew up with it. “You have to meet our expectations, be who we want you to be.” It’s a shame I didn’t read this book back when I was younger. I think it would have done a lot to help me find myself much sooner than I did.
In the end, it’s a good book. It may not be for everyone since it’s not driven by action or extensive drama. It’s a sleeper…a good book to read on a lazy afternoon.