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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Stranger (Fiction)

by Albert Camus (translated by Mathew Ward, introduction by Peter Dunwoodie)

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (1993)

Hardcover 153 pages

Finished 9/25/2017

Amazon Listing

    “He said the truth was that I didn’t have a soul and that nothing human, not one of the moral principles that govern men’s hearts, was within my reach. ‘Of course,’ he added, ‘we cannot blame him for this. We cannot complain that he lacks what it was not within his power to acquire.’”
Originally published in French in 1942 under the name L’√Čtranger, (which can also be translated as The Outsider). It is the breakthrough novel of Albert Camus, a nihilistic text in the absurdist tradition, about a bland man who commits a murder and his subsequent incarceration and trial. Considered by many to be a masterpiece, to me it did not live up to the large amount of hype attached to it. The main character is an unpleasant man who feels nothing, merely trudging through life, without joy or passion.
One of the protagonist’s main problems is that he constantly answers truthfully to any direct questions about his feelings. Like Prince Myshkin, in Dostoevsky's The Idiot, he cannot recognize the danger he puts himself in by not lying or at least pretending to conform to society’s norms. Unlike the Russian character however, our anti-hero is not open hearted and good. He is in fact a sociopath who sees no need to conceal himself, who has not learned the art of faking emotion. This is what makes him The Stranger, he doesn’t know the rules of the game. 
Author Alfred Camus
    He is devoid of anything but the idea on continuing through life. He takes no pleasure in it, has no love. He agrees to things, like his engagement, simply because it was there to do. He wants nothing. His time in prison complements his flat personality, his lack of emotional connectivity. It is almost a non-existence, with the constant regulations, isolation, and one day bleeding into the next. He is a character that it is impossible to feel any pathos for. It is almost as difficult to truly hate him. The murder he commits is an accident and apart from that, he commits no evil against others.  
    His lack of emotion is ultimately his undoing. It is interesting that during his trial he is condemned more for his treatment of his mother (he places her in an old age home) and the lack of remorse at her funeral, than the actual murder. His execution by the state is more of a cleansing of the hive from those who are different than an act of justice. It is a warning to us all, the nail who sticks out gets hammered down. 
Cover of the book's first printing

    I have never been a fan of the flat deconstructionist style of writing- though whether this is deconstructionist is a matter for debate, the author claims it be of the absurdist style. But to me the absurdist tradition is proto-deconstructionist. One naturally became the other. The novel was a great influence on the writers of this genre (Raymond Federman for example), hence it’s constant laudation over the decades. There was a time when I did enjoy it, having read so much I was keen to grab onto something new to quell my book lust, but have since grown cold towards the genre. The banality of it, the simplicity, almost comes across as a lack of effort. While not an entirely fair assessment, the text being in first person, the style reflects the mental state of the protagonist, but it still makes for a somewhat simple read.
    It has always been a bauble for the literati to masturbate over and feel superior to the unsophisticated masses who prefer emotional substance in their reading material. I’m aware that the book was a breath of fresh air in 1947. The writing is miles away from the heavily florid descriptions and overly dramatic characters popular at the time. It was very timely. It was something new for the hungry young writers to rally behind. In retrospect it is somewhat passe. I’m aware that last statement is tantamount to literary heresy to say the volume has no dust jacket, but the book, while still readable, has been done to death. To many imitations, good imitations, have been created in its wake. 
Poster for the 1976 Italian film adaptation of the novel

    I think part of my blah attitude is that I am reading it for the first time after a long career of catering to my reading addiction, and this book has been touted for years as a masterpiece. It is consistently placed in top 100 book lists, many of my old college professors raved about it. It had just always slipped through the cracks before now. So I was expecting something else, something new. The build up and expectations in my mind might have been too great. It’s not a bad book, it’s just not the writing achievement I was lead to believe it would be.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

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