After a series of books lately that left me somewhat disappointed – and made me question whether I was losing the pure, unadulterated enjoyment of books that I used to have as far back as I can remember – I picked up Camus’ The Stranger, at the recommendation of my high school daughter, who had been assigned this as one of her reading books this year. The Stranger is a classic that I had not read, and I hoped that a book that had withstood the test of time would get me out of my reading blues. While Albert Camus was familiar to me by name, I had not actually read any of his books, so I really did not know what to expect. But I was heartened by the fact that it was a slim book, as it meant that even if I didn’t like it, I could stick it out till the end. It was a classic, after all, and I wanted to see what it was about the book that had made it so enduring, well past the author’s death.
I would have to say that The Stranger helped restore my faith in books and reading. It tells the story of Monsieur Meursault, a man who is seemingly ordinary but who has such an unusual outlook on life – he is an atheist, and not only does he not believe in life after death, he also does not believe that there is any meaning to life itself – that it is almost impossible for most people to relate to him. He doesn’t wear these feelings on his sleeve, however, so up until the time the book starts, he was living a regular life – he worked in an office, was reasonably social, and had girlfriends, like most young men of his age. Things start to change when his mother, who has been living in a home for the elderly for the last few years, dies. He goes for the funeral, where his seeming lack of emotion strikes everyone else as a little strange. While he accepts his mother’s death as a matter of course and is not devastated by it, it doesn’t not occur to him to fake some emotion to show to others that he cares – he simply doesn’t think like that.
After the funeral, he goes back home and resumes his normal life – and as his mother was not staying with him, this was relatively easy. He meets an ex-girlfriend the next day and takes up with her again, going swimming, then to the movies, and finally to his place where they spend the night together. She soon becomes his regular girlfriend and they start seeing each other more often. At the same time, he becomes friendlier with one of the neighbors in his apartment building, Raymond, and somehow becomes involved in a conflict with Raymond’s enemies, culminating in Meursault thoughtlessly shooting one of them on a beach. There was no particular reason why he did this – it was something that happened on impulse rather than something he had planned or even thought about doing.
Needless to say, he is arrested and brought to trial, and this is where his unusual attitude to life – which is not only alien to everyone else dealing with his case, but also extremely annoying and frustrating – comes to play. While there is no question that he actually shot and killed a man, the argument centers around his character. The prosecution tries to prove that this was a premeditated crime and that he was a fundamentally cruel and evil person, as evidenced by his cold demeanor at his mother’s funeral where he didn’t show any emotion whatsoever. The fact that he hooked up with his girlfriend just a day after the funeral is an additional nail in the coffin. The defense attempts to contradict this reasoning by bringing some of his friends to testify on his behalf. But ultimately, the prosecution wins and Meursault is sentenced, not just to death but death by the guillotine – which was still around in France in the 1940s where this book is set.
The book ends with a chaplain making an unsuccessful attempt to make Meursault believe in God and an afterlife and to feel remorse. He just can’t fathom how someone can be so totally indifferent to death and not cling to some kind of meaning in life. But Meursault is like this, and he awaits his death with the same manner in which he has lived his life so far – by taking things as they come without getting caught up emotionally in them — making him the ultimate “stranger” compared to how most people think and feel.
I found it interesting how this attitude comes so close to the Buddhist philosophy of detachment, or even Krishna’s exhortation to Arjun in the Gita (Hinduism’s sacred text) to continue to act without being motivated by the fruits of your labor. There are millions of spiritual seekers in the world who aspire to have the same kind of outlook on life that the fictional Meursault has – to live without becoming wedded to the “pleasures” of the world, to not get caught up in it. Of course, for Meursault this comes from the conviction that “it doesn’t matter whether you die at thirty or at seventy,” and I imagine it would be hard to feel that sense of detachment without this conviction.
I am also amazed at how Camus was able to explore such deeply philosophical questions – which are still being debated today as much as ever – in his very first book. I was not surprised to find out that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. I also have to say that I am even more impressed with how famous this book has become, given that the protagonist is someone that I think not many people can relate to or identify with. I think we deserve a lot more credit that we give ourselves.
Author: Albert Camus (translated from French by Matthew Ward)
Publisher: Vintage International
Publication Date: March 1989
(Originally published in French as L’Etranger by Librairie Gallimard, France, in 1942.)
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.