Imagine a white hot day blazing around you, created by blinding and numbing sunlight, all colours scrubbed cleaner and brighter and the air too hot to breathe. As I read L’etranger – usually translated as either The Stranger or The Outsider – a similar atmosphere appeared to surround me, created by Albert Camus to accompany his ‘stranger’ through the absurd trap lying in wait from the very first page. A man – surname Meursault – notes the death of his mother with the words “Aujoud’ hui, maman est mort. Ou peut etre hier, je ne sais pas” – something like “Today, mother is dead. Or it could be yesterday, I’m not sure” – in these famous opening lines. The man’s detachment only becomes more evident as the novel progresses. His life is lived through an intense appreciation of what might be called life’s simple pleasures: watching the progression and procession of an entire afternoon from his window, desiring his girlfriend when she wears a read and white striped dress or swimming in the waves on a sultry day. He is not unappreciative of company but rather seems able to derive only a very superficial feeling from it; this is more than sufficient for him. In many ways, he could be described – and I imagine a Daily Mail headline would – as cold and soulless… in short, a stranger to ‘normal’ human feeling – a devil. Meursault’s powers of observation are immense; he takes careful and precise notice of his surroudings and actions, often noting bizarre occurrences of human behaviour. He also tries to understand himself and his motivations, however simple they may appear to us. Most interesting to me however, is the complete lack of judgement he demonstrates towards the choices made by others, something which resonates especially in the currently fashionable ‘non-judgemental’ trend of allowing people to live their lives – to a certain extent – as they want. On a day of glaring sunlight, walking along a beach, the ‘stranger’ enters a semi-delirious state and with the evening coming on, shoots and kills a nameless, although menacing, man. Then, for no apparent reason, he shoots a further four bullets into the dead man’s body. Meursault is subsequently jailed, understandably. His trial however, is an absurd nightmare, that proceeds in any case, with a sense of the utmost normalcy. The prosecutor, who initially likes Meursault, takes a sudden and very personal aversion to the ‘stranger’s’ disbelief in God. From then onwards, Meursault’s destiny – the guillotine – becomes entrenched. The courthouse is merely a zoo and Meursault an encaged animal, judged mostly on the lack of emotion he showed at his mother’s funeral. It is moreover an incredibly human and moving. The last four pages especially, read like the explosion into light of a human brain. Meursault’s acceptance of his fate and of the absurdity of all human life and relationships is condensed into these truly powerful pages. His life, or rather his death, is a certainty and there is nothing left to do but take pleasure from the warm summer night and the stars, open for the “first time to the tender indifference of the world” (loosely translated from “je m’ouvrais pour la premiere fois a la tendre indifference du monde”). L’etranger is a book that tilts our understanding of human souls and their myriad forms, of the way in which we are unable to accept anything beyond our narrow view of the world. Meursault – a stranger in his society – is cold by some measure. But what meausure are we using? Who are we to judge? In 2013 it seems adequate to pose these questions. I think Camus poses these and many, and more complex, questions in his L’etranger.
L’etranger by Albert Camus, Editions Gallimard 1942 The Outsider by Albert Camus in a new translation by Sandra Smith, Penguin Classics 2013