I was eighteen when I read L’Étranger for the first time. I read it in French in a freshman class at York University in Toronto, probably read it in English simultaneously. I think I even wrote an essay about it in French, and that essay might still exist somewhere in a box. Or possibly I dream this, trying to impress myself. I still do remember lines of poems I memorized that year: Mignonne, allons voir si la rose / Qui ce matin avoit desclose / Sa robe de pourpre au Soleil. . .
I remember the instructor, a pale, heavy-lidded young man who rarely rose from the chair behind his desk, droning on with his face in a book. He wore a shiny grey suit and a white shirt open at the neck, which I took to be Continental attire. His eyes were invariably puffy and irritated – the word dissipated comes to mind now. I often sat next to a girl named Karen Yolton who was also sleepy, wore black nail polish but nervously tore her cuticles, and whispered scandalous tales of her escapades in a city that was new and alien to me.
I was a little lost and amorphously rebellious and wanted desperately to be an outlaw. I got an F on my first English paper. And perhaps this bled into my reading of Camus, especially Meursault’s carefree sensuality with his lover Marie and his inarticulate defiance of conventional normative language. I remember my teenage outrage at being told to feel what I didn’t feel. That was the thing you noticed in the novel as a young person – the appeal to false authority, the sense of people asking things of you that you didn’t feel and you didn’t feel like giving. Hell, I wanted to sleep with girls and defy authority; Meursault and I were one in my heart, aside from, you know, the small matter of shooting the Arab to death on the beach.
Somehow I always slid over the actual murder any time I summarized the novel to myself, seeing Meursault as a victim of social and linguistic tyranny not a confessed killer. Camus himself famously, and perhaps mischievously, confused his readers by saying, “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.” This is neither an accurate description of the French criminal justice system nor the novel itself. Meursault shoots the Arab once, then pauses before pumping another four bullets into his body. Meursault’s interrogation before the examining magistrate turns on this fact, for which he has no explanation. But it shreds any chance of his pleading self-defense.
I was eighteen, as I say, and enamoured with the outlaw girl I met in French class, with her ragged cuticles, cigarette rasp, and freckles, and I had no clear idea what Existentialism was except insofar as I had seen a picture of Camus, looking dour and swarthy with a cigarette in his mouth, and somehow had decided this was the very image of the Existentialist hero, a phrase I now realize is an oxymoron, and I would imagine Karen, Camus/Meursault, and myself becoming really good friends, comrades against the (adult) world.
I adopted Existentialism as an attitude rather than an idea. Though deep down I quickly divined the speciousness of its crucial ethical argument, the basic and unworkable paradox of having to create value by making decisions without recourse to values. In time, I came to realize that Existentialism hadn’t amounted to much, had quickly been abandoned even by Sartre who invented it (he became a Communist, then a Maoist). It was only a moment in a long argument in the West between the language of the gods and the language of a world without a supernatural life support apparatus, a world without gods, a world of mere existence. This argument culminated first with Descartes’ Radical Doubt and later, in the early 20th century, in Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, after which philosophy veered sharply away from metaphysics into various branch lines: phenomenology, language philosophy, critical theory, structuralism, etc. Existential-ism, an extreme 20th century application of systematic doubt, is a version of positivism with a concomitant impoverishment in the ethical and emotional sphere; the human aspect of language wilts.
But at first reading, the critical attitude, the defiant rejection of traditional values, melded seamlessly with my hormones and the biases of the hour: late 1960s counter-culture, Vietnam war protests, the Free Speech Movement, and nationalist revivals in both English Canada and in Quebec. Like many people, I read L’Étranger through the zeitgeist. I had lost my sense of humour, and in my yearning for simple positions, it never occurred to me that a novel might be beautiful, funny, tragic, and mysterious all at once.
The version of the novel (originally published in 1942) I read most recently was Joseph Laredo’s Penguin Books translation, published as The Outsider. It is a scant book, 109 pages long, divided into two parts; six chapters in the first part, five in the second. The point of view is first person, the voice of Meursault. The first half of the book follows Meursault from the announcement of his mother’s death through the vigil and funeral, his love affair with Marie, and his entanglement with the pimp Raymond Sintes to the murder; the second half of the book takes place in prison: interrogation, trial, sentencing. At the end, Meursault is sleepless, waiting to be called to the guillotine. But he is strangely happy.
The plot has a noir torque insofar as Meursault can be said to be the victim of cynical manipulation, in part due to his own self-destructive inadvertence, that leads to the guillotine. Much has been made of the plot similarities between L’Étranger and James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Ring Twice, but there were plenty of French hardboiled noir models already, Francis Carco, for example, and, of course, Georges Simenon. And other influences are apparent; Kafka, easily, and Hemingway, whom Camus acknowledged in a published interview.
The noir plot presents Meursault as a somewhat dim bulb, awkward in most social situations, who becomes enmeshed in a sordid conspiracy with his pimp neighbour Raymond Sintes who befriends him one evening, professes mate-ship, and then convinces him to write a letter to Sintes’ estranged mistress so he can get her alone and slap her around (which he does, then Meursault covers for him with the police). This dubious alliance with Sintes is the fatal first step that leads inexorably down a death spiral of misogyny, racism, colonialism, and macho violence to the murder on the beach. The Arab Meursault kills is, in fact, the mistress’s brother, who is somewhat understandably trying to get even for her mistreatment.
If Camus is slumming (or experimenting) in what he called “the technique of the American novel” (Lyrical and Critical Essays, 348), his larger influences and his philosophical integrity are in the French classical tradition. The result is a terse, cleverly composed novel that proceeds in clear, distinct steps, beginning with the death of the mother, complete with gorgeous, emblematic, set-piece scenes and enchanting grace notes. I think here of the hilarious and horrifying march to the funeral: the sun, the unbearable African heat, and the aged fiancé lagging farther and farther behind only to catch up again and again because he knows shortcuts across loops in the road. Or the comic gem of a scene (puts you in mind of Samuel Beckett) when Marie asks Meursault to marry her:
That evening, Marie came round for me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said I didn’t mind and we could do [it]if she wanted to. She then wanted to know if I loved her. I replied as I had done once already, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t. “Why marry me then?” she said. I explained to her that it really didn’t matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married. Anyway, she was the one who was asking me and I was simply saying yes. She then remarked that marriage was a serious matter. I said, “No.” She didn’t say anything for a moment and looked at me in silence. Then she spoke. She wanted to know if I’d have accepted the same proposal if it had come from another woman, with whom I had a similar relationship. I said, “Naturally.” She then said she wondered if she loved me and[,] well, I had no idea about that. After another moment’s silence, she mumbled that I was peculiar. . .
Or the magnificently staged scene in the visiting room at the prison when Marie appears and the lovers shout across the room at each other over the hubbub of other prisoners and visitors (mostly Arabs). Even the shooting scene is wonderful, perhaps the most beautifully written and sensuous scene in the book, brilliant with the anvil heat, the flashbulb glare of the sun, the glittering sand, and the sea. (There is a sun and glare pattern throughout the book.)
For grace notes, I mean deft little motifs like Meursault’s clerical colleague Emanuel, dimmer than Meursault, so much so that Meursault kindly goes to the movies with him so he can explain the plots. Or the little robot woman, busily marking her radio guide (she comes to the trial, too). Or the little inset story about the Czech man who goes away from his village and makes his fortune only to be clubbed to death upon his return by his mother and sister who do not recognize him. And, of course, the amazing scene in jail the first night, Meursault dumped into a cell crowded with Arabs to whom he confesses that he has murdered an Arab (you get a sense of how really dull-witted he appears); the lights go out, we expect mayhem, but sweetly and astonishingly the Arabs quietly show Meursault how to unroll his sleeping mat instead, subverting the racist discourse of much of the novel prior to this scene.
There are other, extra-textual grace notes, harder to read without research. For example, Camus threads references to his own life through the novel. Sintes was his mother’s maiden name. Like Meursault, Camus worked as a clerk. Like Meursault, Camus was raised without a father, who died when he was young. When Meursault, in prison, remembers how his father once went to witness a decapitation, he is remembering an anecdote Camus’s mother told him about his father, an anecdote which Camus later used with a different twist in his essay “Reflections on the Guillotine.”
The novel’s structure is stripped down and elegant. It’s a diptych, two halves, like butterfly wings, the second half repeating the events of the first half in the course of Meursault’s interrogation and trial. The first half is bathed in light (heat, sun, sunlight, blinding flashes of light); the second half is dark, interior (with progressively less light as Meursault is moved from cell to cell). All but a couple of the characters who appear in the first half also appear in the second half to testify, to recapitulate the events in which they participated.
The first half of the novel is seen through Meursault’s eyes; the narrative is terse, dry, restrained, almost fragmentary (except, tellingly, for three stunning lyrical, sensuous flights – the city at night, swimming with Marie, and the searing beach during the murder scene). Events happen to Meursault; he resists trying to analyze causes or motives. In contrast, though the second half of the novel is still in Meursault’s point of view, much of the text is given over to questioning and analyzing. The examining magistrate and the prosecutor gradually assemble a plot, a pattern of premeditation, a string of motives and actions that culminate with the murder on the beach.
Both halves of the novel end with an outbreak, a spasm of passion and eloquence. The first half climaxes with Meursault walking along the beach with a gun. It’s midday, exceedingly hot, the sun blazing above, reflecting off the waves and the Arab’s knife. Crucially, “It was the same sun as on the day of mother’s funeral.” The language here is impressionistic, physical, bled of thought, except at the very end, after the fatal shots have been fired: to Meursault, those last four shots are “like giving four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness.”
The second half of the novel erupts with the prison chaplain’s visit to Meursault’s cell and the condemned man’s explosive anti-religious, self-justifying tirade, articulate and rhetorically complex. Meursault has spent the previous chapters listening to the machinery of the law fabricate his life story. And now, provoked by the chaplain, Meursault delivers his own summation.
And yet none of his certainties was worth one hair of a woman’s head. He couldn’t even be sure he was alive because he was living like a dead man. I might seem to be empty-handed. But I was sure of myself, sure of everything, surer than he was, sure of my life and sure of the death that was coming to me. Yet, that was all I had. But at least it was a truth which I had hold of just as it had hold of me. I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right.
Then he recalls the funeral, recalls his mother’s fiancé, and has a moment of understanding her impulse to start life afresh as death approached. Finally: “I realized that I’d been happy, and that I was still happy.” Thus, the novel follows what Northrop Frye described as the classic U-shaped structure of comedy (The Great Code, The Bible and Literature, 169), from happiness with Marie to unhappiness after Meursault shoots the Arab to happiness on death row – albeit with considerable irony.
There are elements of caricature in L’Étranger, a lightness too easily missed when you are eighteen and struggling with a book narrated by a man waiting to have his head cut off. The interrogation and trial scenes are comical, with echoes of Kafka. We find the prosecutor proclaiming, “Yes, the gentlemen of the jury will take note. And they will conclude that a stranger may offer a cup of coffee, but that the son must refuse it beside the body of the one who brought him into the world;” then, in the same scene, the defense lawyer loses his temper and announces, “Here we have the epitome of this trial. Everything is true yet nothing is true!”
Meursault will insist on saying things like (describing his conversation with the examining magistrate): “I thought it most convenient that the legal system should take care of such details [finding him a defense lawyer]. I told him so.” And, “On my way out I was even going to shake his hand, but I remembered just in time that I’d killed a man.” And, on the first day of his trial, “In fact, in a way it would be interesting to watch a trial. I had never had the chance to see one before. ‘Yes,’ the other policeman said, ‘but it ends up being boring.’”here are elements of caricature in L’Étranger, a lightness too easily missed when you are eighteen and struggling with a book narrated by a man waiting to have his head cut off. The interrogation and trial scenes are comical, with echoes of Kafka. We find the prosecutor proclaiming, “Yes, the gentlemen of the jury will take note. And they will conclude that a stranger may offer a cup of coffee, but that the son must refuse it beside the body of the one who brought him into the world;” then, in the same scene, the defense lawyer loses his temper and announces, “Here we have the epitome of this trial. Everything is true yet nothing is true!”
The examining magistrate and the chaplain care less about facts than about the state of Meursault’s beliefs, and they take his resistance personally. This is from a scene with the examining magistrate:
But he interrupted me and pleaded with me one last time, drawing himself up to his full height and asking me if I believed in God. I said no. He sat down indignantly. He told me that it was impossible, that all men believed in God, even those who couldn’t face up to Him. That was his belief, and if he should ever doubt it, his life would become meaningless. ‘Do you want my life to be meaningless?’ he cried.
The examining magistrate is waving his crucifix and shouting during this interchange. Meursault feels threatened but realizes that’s ridiculous because “I was the criminal.” This is funny, hyperbolic, and thematic; the clash of belief and non-belief, traditional Judaeo-Christian truth versus Absurd truth, like matter and anti-matter, in a nutshell, with Meursault playing a blinking, deadpan Buster Keaton naif.
Meursault is throughout enigmatic, naive, and uncalculating, also a bit bone-headed, short-sighted, tacitly racist and self-regarding. Because he doesn’t analyze situations, doesn’t look ahead, and can’t imagine what other people think or feel, he is often quite surprised by life. For example, he is astonished to find that, in her dying days, his mother had friends, even a boyfriend (he doesn’t remember how old she is either). He has a difficult time imagining that other people have lives when he is not present. So we have the great comic interchange between Meursault and Marie: she’s just asked him to marry her and then she has to leave.
For a while neither of us said anything. I wanted her to stay with me though and I told her that we could have dinner together at Celeste’s. She’d really have liked to but she was doing something. We were near my place and I said goodbye to her. She looked at me. “Don’t you want to know what I’m doing?” I did want to know, but I hadn’t thought of asking. . .
In his Afterword to the Penguin edition, Camus writes that Meursault has a passion for the truth. He doesn’t tell lies. But of course that’s not precisely the case. The pimp Sintes inveigles Meursault into composing that misleading letter for the purpose of luring his mistress into an ambush. And then Meursault lies when he vouches for Sintes to the police. Like his pal Emanuel, he cannot read his life for plot. He loves the sun, days on the beach, swimming with Marie, but he is easily bored, has few inner resources and, most importantly, has a limited ability to comprehend social situations. He is neither passionate nor heroic in the common use of those words; rather he resembles someone suffering from mild Asperger’s Syndrome.
The mystery of the novel is how Camus intends his reader to read Meursault. Why did Meursault shoot the Arab? (And why did he shoot him five times?) Is he meant to be an absurd hero? In which case, he would be an accidental, rather milquetoast hero. How closely should we identify author and character? Where does the fault line of irony cut? And how, especially, are we to read his closing cri de coeur “I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right,” when what is right includes abetting a pimp and murdering an Arab?
Two issues make L’Étranger a difficult read in this respect. First of all, Camus deliberately obscures the point of view: by this I mean he chose a limited narrative consciousness (limited but first person, thus unreliable if not pathological – see above re Asperger’s Syndrome). On his own say-so, Camus borrowed this point of view structure from the American novel, not James M. Cain, but Hemingway. Let me quote at length:
But the technique of the American novel seems to me to lead to a dead end. I used it in The Stranger, it is true. But this was because it suited my purpose, which was to describe a man with no apparent awareness of his existence. By generalizing this particular technique, we would end up with a universe of automatons and instincts. It would [be]a considerable impoverishment. That is why, although I appreciate the real value of the American novel, I would give a hundred Hemingways for one Stendhal. (Lyrical and Critical Essays)
This is a complex passage, but Camus mentions Hemingway and we know from other sources that he particularly had in mind the novel The Sun Also Rises, and the technique he is referring to is Hemingway’s strategy of ellipsis, leaving things out. Mostly the narrator of that novel, Jake Barnes, describes what happens and reports what people say, but he never tells the reader why he can’t consummate his (unspoken) love nor is he much good at analyzing situations or taking the measure of people. Even in dialogue, the general trend is for characters to avoid talking about what they are talking about.
I could mention any number of instances of this technique in Hemingway and his myriad epigones. It’s a style Hemingway developed out of Modernism, via Gertrude Stein, a heavily stylized, self-conscious, telegraphic narrative mode that sometimes comes across like a Grade 3 reader: “We often talked about bulls and bullfighters. I had stopped at the Montoya for several years. We never talked for very long at a time.” In many ways, the language imitates the modus operandi of film, which almost completely eliminates character thought except for soliloquies and voice-overs. The upshot of the elliptical style is a character who seems unaware of his own motives, the larger meaning of his actions, and even his own thoughts. This austerity can present as Existentialist, is often mistaken as such, when, in fact, it is not. Existentialism is a philosophical position achieved by logic; the American style (Hemingway’s version) is sentimental and self-pitying; it evolved out of disappointed idealism.
Camus contrasts Hemingway with the classical French novelist – Stendhal, in this case – who fills page after page with character thought, analysis of situations and reactions, motives, hopes, and desires. This is a literary conversation the French were having with themselves at the time. Sartre succinctly described the difference in an essay he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly called “American Novelists in French Eyes.”
The heroes of Hemingway and Caldwell never explain themselves – do not allow themselves to be dissected. They act only. Some have said they were blind and deaf, that they allowed themselves to be buffeted about by destiny. This is false and unjust. On the contrary, each of their spontaneous reactions is complete, what it would be in real life – something that lives and that does not contemplate itself. We learned from Hemingway to depict, without commentaries, without explanations, without moral judgments, the actions of our characters. The reader understands them because he sees them born and formed in a situation which has been made understandable to him. They live because they spurt suddenly as from a deep well. To analyze them would be to kill them. When Camus shows us his hero, Meursault, emptying his revolver at an Arab, he takes care not to explain. But he describes the pitiless heat of the day, the merciless horror of the sun. He encircles his hero with a criminal aura. After this, the act is born of itself; it is obvious to us without any analysis.
For a long time we have been using certain techniques to make our readers understand what was going on in the souls of our characters. We wrote bravely: “He told himself, ‘It is warm. How shall I ever climb the hill?’” Or else we used the “indirect” style which Flaubert, according to Thibaudet – La Fontaine according to others – introduced into our literature: “Paul walked with difficulty. It was warm. Good Lord, how would he have the strength to climb the hill?” Or still another technique recently taken from England and imitating Joyce: “One, two, one two, atrocious heat and I – the hill – how shall I ever. . . ?” These different artifices, equally true or equally false, allowed us to reveal only what the character said consciously to himself. They omitted necessarily the whole obscure zone where feelings and intentions seethe, those feelings and intentions which are not expressed in words.
L’Étranger, like The Sun Also Rises, is a first person novel so it is all character thought in a literal sense. But both Meursault and Jake Barnes are incapable of thinking beyond a certain narrow range; they resist thinking beyond that range.
Cohn made some remark about it being a very good example of something or other, I forget what. (The Sun Also Rises)
They [the hotel owner’s collection of photographs of bullfighters]often had the most flattering inscriptions. But they did not mean anything. (The Sun Also Rises)
There were some things I never liked talking about. (L’Étranger)
I was about to tell him that he was wrong to insist on this last point: it didn’t really matter that much. (L’Étranger)
‘Do you want my life to be meaningless?’ he cried. As far as I was concerned it had nothing to do with me and I told him so. (L’Étranger)
Meursault has no imagination for what he has not experienced, loves his routines, and endures boredom (because he can’t invent something else to do). He has enough social imagination to know how and when he should pacify someone (Marie about love, the examining magistrate about belief) with white lies but not enough to engage actively with the other (except, oddly enough, the pimp Sintes). Over and over, people ask him what should I do about this or that (Sintes re his mistress, Salamano re his old dog, Marie re marriage, his boss re a job in Paris), but the comic truth (shtick) is that Meursault doesn’t think (rather, impressions run through his mind).
In this regard, we should not forget that delightful little robot woman, one of the grace notes, who fascinates Meursault in Celeste’s diner and then reappears at the trial, staring at him “intently.” Camus’s phrase “a universe of automatons and instincts” echoes this lonely duo as they sit together in the restaurant. The woman – “she moved in a series of jerks and her bright-eyed little face was like an apple” – represents an impoverished spirit one step from Meursault’s; she is Meursault distilled. This is a man who, after his mother went to the old folks’ home, shifted the dining room table into his bedroom to simplify his life.
In that Afterword, Camus reminds his readers that he once described Meursault as “the only Christ we deserve.” He says he meant this ironically. (In the novel, the examining magistrate calls him “Mr. Antichrist.) Meursault is no Jesus, but in his näiveté, his innocence of motive and calculation, he is the closest facsimile our world can produce. He is much like his literary antecedent Candide who, after stabbing his brother-in-law to death, exclaims, “I am the best man in the world, and yet I have already killed three men; and of these three two were priests.” In this view, he is less an Existentialist hero than a caricature of one, less a Nietzschean Superman than Chance, the gardener, or Forrest Gump, or Prince Myshkin, Dostoevsky’s saintly walking disaster in The Idiot.
The second issue that makes the novel problematic for a reader (eighteen or sagaciously aged) is the way it became enmeshed in the philosophical discourse of its time, became, yes, a ball in someone else’s soccer match as soon as it was published. This is largely Sartre’s doing, so quick was he to herd L’Étranger into the Existentialist sheep pen. For example, here is Sartre in that same Atlantic Monthly article yoking Camus’ choice of narrative technique with an Existentialist theme.
But when Camus uses Hemingway’s technique, he is conscious and deliberate, because it seems to him upon reflection the best way to express his philosophical experience of the absurdity of the world.
All at once, it was a novel larger than life, a celebrity novel, the very image of a philosophy of existence its author did not share (Camus always insisted he wasn’t an Existentialist), an item of abstract debate, and a romantic (adolescent) rallying point. As Jacques Derrida once wrote (quoted in Benoit Peeters, Derrida: A Biography), “. . . all the critico-philosophical apparatus that Sartre plonked on top of it [L’Étranger], seems, in my view, to lessen its meaning and its ‘historical’ originality, hiding them from view, maybe from Camus himself, since he took himself too quickly to be[ . . . ]a great thinker.”
The horizon (to use Hans-Georg Gadamer’s felicitous term) shifted and took the discourse of the novel out of the reader’s hands and focused interpretation on a pre-set meaning, the absurd hero in an absurd world. The effect of this is to flatten the reader’s experience of the novel, render it trivial and superficial. It hastens to make sense of things (this equals that), cutting short the necessarily long period of dream-like engagement with the mysteries of a book that is the process of reading. Certain aspects of any great novel only reveal themselves after long study, and, when revealed, only expose a deeper mystery.
At the end of my current reading of the novel, I am content to abandon conjecture and list questions. Why is the sun that choreographs the murder the same as the sun at the mother’s funeral? Why does Salamano remark that Meursault’s mother loved his dog? Why does Meursault think of his mother when he hears Salamano weeping in the next room? Why do the mother and daughter (in the inset Czech story) kill the father? Why is the climactic murder scene so gorgeously oneiric with its crescendo of heat and glare as Meursault approaches the spring (la source in French – my goodness, what gets lost in translation)? And why is the Arab waiting for Meursault at the source, dressed in a suit, brandishing a knife? All at once, the image seems charged with more meaning than it can bear, over-determined as Freud would say.
Derrida said he always saw L’Étranger as an Algerian novel, before all the absurdist claptrap got loaded onto the text. The suppressed plot of the novel is about an Arab whose sister is seduced into prostitution by a white man who lives off her earnings and beats her up. The brother protests, so the white man beats him up, too. The brother and his friends follow the white people to the beach and there’s a fight. Naturally, the white men win; they are used to dealing with coloured people. Then, mysteriously, as if in a dream, the novel dream, Meursault and the Arab meet again at the spring (source). Never mind why Meursault is there (the sun made him do it). Why is the Arab there? Even more mysterious. Waiting to be killed.