Books

Absurdly Fan-Fic

A review of The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (trans. John Cullen)



Much as I felt like literally throwing this well-written fan-fic book away (I think I refrained because it was on loan from the library, and I have respect for the public library system of my country … at least their history, anyway) there are ways this book can be enjoyed.   



Firstly, it can be enjoyed by the post-Said Arab decolonization crowd (of which I am not one) and I believe that’s maybe the chief way it is enjoyed and the means by which it is most chiefly lauded by Western intellectuals and literary prize-givers. There’s plenty of this discourse packed in there, almost as if through a megaphone sans any kind of irony, dramatic or otherwise. 

It can also be enjoyed as fan-fic for lovers of the parent book. Even in my annoyance and despair with it, there were moments when I thought things like ‘Ah, nice work Daoud, I see what you did there, how you’ve taken something from Camus’ oeuvre and done this this this to it. Interesting. And that’s the allure of fan-fic for the fan, obviously; and I am definitely a fan of the parent work here. It strokes your ego like any in-joke. But it does get tiresome, particularly when it’s heavy and ham-fisted.  Apart from these moments, there’s no question that the book is well-written: well-writ fan-fic. 

Perhaps a more interesting way to approach it would have been as a prima-facie police-procedural of an actual investigation? Maybe that’s what I was expecting? Maybe that’s what Daoud wanted me to expect? Instead of this Jean-Baptiste Clamence figure narrating as if to Doctor Rieux about Meursault … you get the gist. The very hotch-potchyness that makes it well-writ fan-fic makes it tiresome and a little nauseating as a stand-alone work. 



The narrator himself is interesting, particularly when it gets into his personal relationships and his relationship with his country and his religion, and here the over-reach for the Camusian “brand” plays against it, if anything. But it gets you to read the book (as it did me) so it would probably have never been read otherwise. It was a good commercial decision, if not artistic. And there is a string of irony if you want to look for it, in the effect of independence on the nation, the very effect Camus wished could be avoided even though he was ‘cancelled’ for his ideas in the fifties, well before it had become a culture…

Another way to enjoy the book might be to make a social-political comparison between Camus’ liberalism of his day, and its abject repudiation of nihilism as an end-product of liberlism; and our current age of liberlaism which has become almost too vacuuous to be nihilism; a sort of nihilism that doesn’t even believe in nihilism?

If you are a Camus-lover, as I am, and have maybe read The Outsider/The Stranger in every English translation (some of them more than once) and maybe have even worked your way heroically through the first forty or so pages of L’Etranger in French (like me) then you should perhaps read it, just to get it out of the way. If not, then I would not bother. 


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Books

Tyll

by Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)



On the stage people were themselves, completely true, fully transparent.

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

This is a very clever book, a very mischievous book (appropriately) and a very mythic book (somewhat appropriately). The title implies that the book is about Till Eulenspiegel, a semi-mythical ideal-jester figure who may or may not have lived in the 14th century or so. He was a mixture of a kind of Shakespearean fool, slapstick comic, acrobat, circus performer, ribald pervert and shock jock. If you read the 16th century English translation of the German chapbook, it’s often difficult to work out where the gag actually lies, and how it is in anyway particularly notable, as opposed to just mean, nasty, brutish and shortly savage.

You belong to the travelling people, no one protects you, and when it rains, you have no roof. No home. No friends but others like you, who will not like you very much, because food is scarce. That is the price you pay to be free.

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

Kehlmann points toward a disruption immediately by setting the book in the 17th century during the Thirty Years War (around a hundred years after the chapbook publication). He doesn’t care for the history of the figure, but more for the mythos. However, he begins the novel in a very traditional manner. He lulls you in. We get a described history, that crashes from view; followed by another described history that also slowly unravels…

And I can see what he’s doing here, and I can see his purpose … and it’s interesting, certainly. And his writing is powerful and often highly effective.

But…

I really wanted more Tyll. The parts of the novel that were more specifically about him (about 20% of the story) were when I was excited as a reader, as opposed to simply interested. When we got into long asides with the Princess Elizabeth (despite the lovely little bit with Shakespeare) and various other figures who encounter Tyll along the way (or maybe they didn’t) I must admit I would glance ahead to see when it was going to end, and if Tyll was going to show up again soon.

“To save time I have already written the chapter in Rome.”

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

And he does show up (at least in some form) regularly enough to keep you interested. And yes, he’s a mythic figure and so he’s being treated in this mythic clever way etc etc… And there’s a strong dare-I-say postmodern theme throughout the novel of how stories are all stories within stories etc and yes, that’s all been done before, but Kehlmann doesn’t push it on you in an unpleasant way at all. At one point, a person who witnesses a battle uses another account he read of a different battle to describe it, who used another account of a different battle again to describe that battle, by a man who had never witnessed a battle. And of course, we the reader know that Kehlmann has just described the original battle in the usual way we are used to having battles described to us in our era, about the horror and blood and fear and death … and he too has never witnessed one either etc etc. And this all smacks very nicely of Tyll-like trickery and chicanery etc etc.

But…

… I walked away dissatisfied. Is Kehlmann playing me for a fool? As the Reader, am I the King he has the right to mock? Again maybe…

But…

“In front of distinguished lords and ladies I always miss. Then they give more money.”

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

I gave it three stars on Amazon. It’s a 5 star story with a 1 star focus.

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The Outsider

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.’

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