by Albert Camus (trans. Sandra Smith)
I wrote this review in 2013. I am now in a German city, but at the moment it lacks a sun. I might squint, but only for the figurative effect. I am a lot closer to reading L’Etranger by Albert Camus (sans translation) now, in that I can read through it, and get the gist when I lack meaning; but it is still hard work, and lacks the experience of reading literature, as opposed to reading a street sign. Literary fluency is still something to achieve.
Writing about the most influential single book of your life (not that that means anything) is a little like staring into the sun, the same sun here in an Australian suburb as that of an Algerian beach: so I shall squint, if you don’t mind.
Firstly, Sandra Smith’s work is excellent. I have read all four English translations of L’Etranger that I am aware of at least once over the years (Stuart Gilbert, Joseph Laredo, and Matthew Ward being the other three. If you know of another, please let me know). Each has its own life, appropriately; which could be just as much to do with me as it does with the translation itself. I am learning French, starting this year, with the express intention of one day reading this book as the author wrote it. It’s a five year plan.
I have particular imaginings related to Camus writing this story. He wrote it between 1939-40, but it was not published until the Spring of 1942 in occupied Paris. This is a story about how someone lives. Meursault is an ordinary enough office clerk, with a strange kind of anti-social sincerity that the reader immediately encounters in the first two sentences, one of the most famous opening couplets in literature. Meursault talks to us in a candid manner, as if he’s talking to himself. As if, sometimes, he’s trying to re-assure or convince himself of what he’s saying. He’s worried about something foundational, and tries to own his retreat back to first principles.
Some have accused him of being a sociopath. Perhaps there’s a spectrum there, but he is aware of how people react to him, and he genuinely wants people to not be upset. But he also wants to engage with people clearly and openly. He is disinterested in that kind of scientific manner, but not uncaring. His manner of caring is to be honest. Most of all, it is to experience that he leans. He is a caring hedonist, a hedonist who wishes to experience pleasure, but doesn’t wish any more meaning be ascribed to it than the universe offers. Which is none.
When Marie asks him if he loves her:
She asked me if I loved her. I told her that didn’t mean anything, but I didn’t think so.
When Meursault sees her pain in reaction to his response, he softens his honesty as best he can. It surprises him when he answers genuinely and others are so surprised. He is capable of lying, and he does so several times, when someone is bothering him and he realises what they want to hear and so he says it so they will go away and leave him alone. But to people he cares for, as for himself, he is more himself. And that’s the self we are privy to. When he looks at the world his descriptions of a plain Sunday afternoon are almost like a striking impressionist work of art.
He likes smoking. He likes chocolate. He likes swimming and women. He tells the Judge in Part II: One of the characteristics of my personality was that physical sensations often get in the way of my emotions. He shoots and kills a knife-wielding Arab on a beach. Later, in the courtroom, he says it was because of the sun. The ever present heat overhead, the inevitability of life, that-which-cannot-be-avoided-and-beats-down-on-us-all. This was not before he stopped his friend from doing the same thing earlier.
The sky seemed to split apart from end to end to pour its fire down upon me. My whole body tensed as I gripped the gun. It set off the trigger.
…and it was then, with that sharp, deafening sound, that it all began.
Until he is on the way to the guillotine and:
…it might be finished.
That journey is Meursault’s journey towards an acceptance of the Absurd: to put simply, Camus’ notion that human beings live in an essentially meaningless universe where they are compelled as part of that living to search for (and often demand) some sort of essential meaning. It is not until his last outburst at a chaplain purges him of evil, and empties him of hope, that he can finally, for the first time, open himself up:
…to the tender indifference of the world.
This indifference, a tender indifference, is an understanding of how to live in that gap, to be happy, to allow for happiness, within that Absurd gap. He is happy on the path to death, and he is willing the participation of others in it, even if they are hateful. Meursault becomes the ‘…only Christ we deserve.’