My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Stranger or L’Etranger (1946) by Albert Camus (who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957) is translated from the French in my edition of the book by Matthew Ward.
In the preface Ward explains how he differs from Stuart Gilbert’s more Britannic translation/rendering and focused on creating a more ”American” quality and more straightforward approach into realism in order to ”capture what [Camus] said and how he said it, not what he meant [and] in theory, the latter should take care of itself” (p v-vi). Camus, regardless of any linguistic form, dominates in his book (a novella consisting of 123 pages, good for one sitting in the afternoon) a representation of how content is able to shape language.
In the first half of the book (Part One: pages 1-59) the protagonist, an Algerian named Meursault, attends his mother’s funeral, the next day heads to the beach and falls in love with a young woman, Marie, who he beds that same day. Meursault’s journey spirals down into a critical moment when he and his friend and neighbor, Raymond, are confronted by two Arabs on the beach, which ends with Meursault shooting one of them. The second half of the book (Part Two: pages 63-123) focuses on Meursault’s trial and imprisonment.
What is interesting to note is how Camus uses language in both parts of the book. In Part One, Camus uses a more direct and precise recalling of action through a ”tough guy” tone which uses sentences much resemblant of Hemingway.
In the final paragraph of Part One, Camus writes of the shooting:
The trigger gave; I felt the smooth underside of the butt; and there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, is where it all started, I shook off the sweat and sun. I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness (p 59).
Meursault is detached and somewhat more logical than emotional in this act of murder, yet he knows that what he has done cannot be undone and just as his mother has left him at the book’s opening (such Oedipal connotations hidden in this reference) so has his happiness left him by the end of the section. Some writers/readers translate the title as ‘The Outsider’ and this too fits with the themes of the book.
The second part of the book (the arrest and imprisonment leading up to the final execution scene) involves mostly a reflective state of memories and dreams, allowing Camus to employ at his command a roaming through a more lucid lyricism. Here is one such instance:
When I was first imprisoned, the hardest thing was that my thoughts were still those of a free man. For example, I would suddenly have the urge to be on a beach and to walk down to the water. As I imagined the sound of the first waves under my feet, my body entering the water and the sense of relief it would give me, all of a sudden I would feel just how closed in I was to the walls of my cell (p 76).
Notice the free rolling sentences in this passage, unlike the previous example which provides choppy sentences.
Granted, there are themes in this book involving theology and the absurdity of the real, which even Camus would not argue as being ever present in this story. Camus often professed that he was captivated by ”the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.” In many respects, I am not writing an elitist review that is esoteric by nature (I leave that to the New York Times book review writers who end up saying more about what a book means to them rather than what the book is actually about). I write in hopes of sharing a love for books and passion for reading to all individuals, both the wise and common person. With that, I digress.
The ending to The Stranger reminds me of Charles Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities, which in my mind is one of the top endings in all of literature. When Sydney Carton, out of his love for Lucie, takes the place of Darnay (Lucie’s husband) and steps to the guillotine, and as he does he reflects: ”It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”
And like Carton, Meursault heads to his own rest, despite that Meursault’s rest will be one that is a separate peace away from the likes of humankind. In the final lines the book folds into itself and the entire story unfurls into a wonderful, yet twisted, sense of complete understanding: perhaps Meursault is not who we have thought him to be and have, therefore, identified with for so many pages and hours after all; or perhaps he is:
For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate (p 123).
Camus has the reader at his fingertips through each page of the novella and by the end he cuts the puppet strings, detaching the reader’s identification with Meursault and dropping the reader into a truer sense of reality, which involves the raw and chaotic side of human nature.
The Stranger is a strong recommend.