The rather odd cover of Vintage's edition of The Stranger which I have owned for decades.

The rather odd cover of Vintage’s edition of The Stranger which I have owned for decades.

The Stranger (L’Étranger)

  • Rank:  #4
  • Author:  Albert Camus  (1913  –  1960)
  • Published:  1942  (French)  /  1946  (English)
  • Publisher:  Librairie Gallimard
  • Pages:  154
  • First Line:  “Mother died today.”
  • Last Line:  “For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.”
  • Acclaim:  Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century
  • ML Version:  none – which is odd since Vintage, which is also published by Random House, has had paperback rights for decades and 5 of Camus’ other works have been published in the ML
  • Film:  1967 (*** – dir. Luchino Visconti); 1991  (Fate – dir. Zeki Demirkubuz)
  • First Read:  Fall 1991

The Novel:  I once wrote a paper in college that was had the title Existentialism as Black Humor: A Look at Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Camus’ The Stranger.  I spoke of this kind of thing once already when I wrote about The Trial.  There is the old theory that you laugh so you don’t cry.  In existentialism, with the bleakness staring you straight in the face, the laughter at what can only be the height of absurdity is the reaction.  That’s what these novels do.  So many readers find them to be bleak and hopeless.  But on another level they are funny, because that’s the only way to react to the world anymore.

In The Stranger it begins with those first words: “Mother died today.  Or maybe it was yesterday.”  This is the stranger of the title talking, Meursault, the man so divorced from his society that he will end the novel in the same place that Joseph K. did – staring death straight in the eye without blinking and realizing that it’s the only option.

But it isn’t just those opening words that make us realize how much Meursault is different fromt the rest of us.  Look at this line: “There was the promise of a very fine day.  I hadn’t been in the country for ages and I caught myself thinking what an agreeable walk I could have had, if it hadn’t been for mother.”  Oh yeah, if it hadn’t been for mother.  Because it’s the walk alongside the coffin from the retirement home he had placed her in to the cemetery.  And when he returns to the city after the funeral, he lets us know “Really, nothing in my life had changed.”

It would be easy to dismiss these early parts of the book as someone who has emotionally and psychologically distanced himself from his mother, someone who can’t bring himself to express this in any logical way.  But there is the rest of what happens after he returns to the city, after he returns to his life without any pause.  “There was an advertisement of Kruschen Salts and I cut it out and pasted in into an album where I keep things that amuse me in the papers.” he tells us, this person who doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor that connects with any logic or humanity.  “A moment later she asked me if I loved her.  I said that sort of question had no meaning, really; but I supposed I didn’t.”  This is how he interacts with the woman he is sleeping with, with the woman that he returns to the same day he returns from the funeral, out swimming in the sun, making love in the bed.

It is all of these actions that bring the police down on him later in the book, after he has committed the crime that has become almost as famous as the book itself, thanks to some 142 seconds of rock and roll.  The prosecutor points out all his heartless actions, almost demanding that the death penalty is necessary for someone who is so incapable of remorse, so unable to mix with other humans in an acceptable fashion.

But that is the absurdity of it all.  We have this man, Meursault, who doesn’t react coldly out of malice.  He reacts because he doesn’t know what else to do.  He comes to what he thinks is the aid of a man that he seems to believe he has a friendship with, and in a moment that could have been better left alone, has the gun in his hand when he comes back across the Arab on the beach.  “And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire – and it would come to absolutely the same thing.”  This is someone who has realized the absurdity, the meaningless of it all, the dark void staring him straight in the face.  And so he fires.  “I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I’d been happy.  But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace.  And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.”

And so ends the first part of the book.  In the second part, which takes place entirely with Meursault at the hands of the criminal justice system, he still doesn’t seem to understand the way in which other humans have managed to cope with it all, how they manage to find some meaning and learn to interact with each other.  In the initial investigation as to how he came to commit the crime, Meursault concludes with “When leaving, I very nearly held out my hand and said, ‘Good-by’; just in time I remembered that I’d killed a man.”    When asked later if he feels nervous about his upcoming trial (which will likely end in his conviction and execution), “I said, ‘No,’ and that the prospect of witnessing a trial rather interested me; I’d never had occasion to attend one before.”

In the end he finally at last finds some traces of human emotion.  He doesn’t seem to find any understanding of what he has really done, of how his own actions have lead him here (“And so I learned that familiar paths traced in the dusk of summer evenings may lead as well to prisons as to innocent, untroubled sleep.”), but he finds something at least.  He finds anger: “I went close up to him and made a last attempt to explain that I’d very little time left, and I wasn’t going to waste it on God.”  And in that anger he finds some sort of meaning.  And the absurdity of it all is the moment in which he finds it: “And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again.  It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.”  The meaning is in the lack of meaning.  That is the darkness of it all.  That is the humor of it all.  And now nothing lies before him except the empty expanse of his own impending execution.

note:  all quotes from the Stuart Gilbert translation

Luchino Visconti's 1967 film of The Stranger.

Luchino Visconti’s 1967 film of The Stranger.

The Film:  There’s something that never quite clicks right with Luchino Visconti’s film version of The Stranger.  Perhaps it’s that Visconti is the wrong director for dark existentialism?  Yes, Visconti had teamed with star Marcello Mastroianni before for an attack on Dostoevsky, and their White Nights is a marvelous film.  But it’s a different type of Dostoevsky – far removed from the dark existentialism of Notes from Underground or Crime and Punishment.  Visconti is a director for grand visions, romantic gestures.  He can’t quite pull off the dispassion inherent in Camus.

Or maybe the problem isn’t Visconti.  Maybe the problem is Mastroianni.  Maybe someone who is so capable of the romance of White Nights, of the hedonism of La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, of the farce of Divorce Italian Style is the wrong kind of actor to show complete dispassion (certainly his reaction before the actual shots are fired is pretty badly done – but is that the direction or the acting?).

Or perhaps the real problem is that this isn’t a book to be filmed.  For a book that is so entirely tied into the interior monologue, of the displacement of it when connecting to the world around, of the balance of the humor in the darkness or the absurdity of the situation, there is nothing on film that can adequately represent this without going into really, really heavy voiceover.

But all of this makes it sound like Visconti’s film version of The Stranger is a bad film.  It’s not a bad film, not by any means.  It’s a perfectly fine film, with, for the most part, a perfectly fine performance from Mastroianni.  It just can’t quite make the book come to life and in the end that makes it a rather pointless film.

The Song:

I have a theory that there are two types of great bands.  One type is a transformative type.  They take a genre of music and they move it, creating a new genre.  Those bands can not control what they create and they self-destruct in a blaze of glory.  The list includes The Velvet Underground, The Clash, Joy Division and Nirvana.  But then there is the other type, those bands that find their musical path in that newer genre and blaze a trail forward, sometimes for decades.  The grunge that Nirvana gave us found its pinnacle in Pearl Jam.  U2 turned The Clash’s post-punk into decades of ground-breaking work.  The mope rock that began with Joy Division found its epitome in The Cure.  And the single that began it all was “Killing an Arab”, a 1978 song released before their first album whose inspiration lies in the pages of Camus.

It’s a short song, only 2:22 and there aren’t that many lyrics:

Standing on the beach
With a gun in my hand
Staring at the sea
Staring at the sand
Staring down the barrel
At the arab on the ground
I can see his open mouth
But I hear no sound

I’m alive
I’m dead
I’m the stranger
Killing an arab

I can turn
And walk away
Or I can fire the gun
Staring at the sky
Staring at the sun
Whichever I chose
It amounts to the same
Absolutely nothing

I’m alive
I’m dead
I’m the stranger
Killing an arab

I feel the steel butt jump
Smooth in my hand
Staring at the sea
Staring at the sand
Staring at myself
Reflected in the eyes
Of the dead man on the beach
The dead man on the beach

I’m alive
I’m dead
I’m the stranger
Killing an arab

(Smith/Tolhurst/Dempsey, 1978)

The song, released as a single, was not on Three Imaginary Boys, the band’s U.K. debut album.  But it was added to Boys Don’t Cry, the U.S. version of the album (which also packaged it with other Cure singles that hadn’t been on the album).  It has, at times, generated controversy among those who have never bothered to read Camus and think that the song might have racist connotations.  In fact, the song is a perfect rendition of the book in just a couple of minutes, combined with a great guitar hook – one of the single best songs of the late 70’s and a perfect herald of what we to hear in the coming decades from the band.  It has long been recognized as one of the band’s best songs, and when they released two different versions of their singles collection in the mid-80’s (because the tape and cd had different tracks on them), both versions took their title from the song.  The tape was called Standing on a Beach (which had four fewer singles but had a whole side of B-sides) while the CD had the title Staring at the Sea.  Even if you don’t want to read the book, you can listen to the song.