“I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.” Says Albert Camus of his own first novel ‘The Stranger”. This is his first foray into what we call ‘existentialism’ and what he called ‘the absurd’. “The world is neither (completely) rational, nor quite irrational either.”
The Stranger is a simple story, took me about 3 hours to read, and written in what some call the “American Style,” shorty choppy sentences and characters that introduce themselves not in paragraphs of floury flowing prose but by their actions. Sort of like Hemingway. I’m not a huge fan of Hemingway – and my own writing doesn’t really follow this ‘style’ very well. For this reason I didn’t find “The Stranger” particularly compelling or interesting, or well written.
It is the simple story of an ‘absurd’ man. Somebody who doesn’t really care. Could he get married? Sure. Could he not? It didn’t really matter. He didn’t weep at his mother’s funeral – he’d put her in a home because he could not afford to keep her – he worked at a job which he did not like, from which he did not seek any promotion – he killed a man on the beach because he’d been agitated by the sun. A no-man. A man who neither loved nor hated; who certainly did not want to die but seemed to never quite be alive.
Camus owes the success of his first novel to Jean Paul Sartre in his pre-release article “An Explication of The Stranger”. “The absurd, to be sure, resides neither in man nor in the world, if you consider each separately. But since man’s dominant characteristic is “being-in-the-world,” the absurd is, in the end, an inseparable part of the human condition.” According to Sartre “Since God does not exist and man dies, everything is permissible. One experience is as good as another; the important thing is simply to acquire as many as possible.”
I am not a fan of existentialism or ‘absurdism’; or the entire post-modern French flirtation with amorality. To believe in nothing; in neither the rational, nor the irrational. In neither right nor wrong. In neither before nor after – only the eternal now. Well that doesn’t really satisfy my thirst for meaning. I actually have an easier time with the rationalist, or on the other extreme the zealot – at least their beliefs are consistent and their actions compatible with them.
Nevertheless, there is a great deal of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in the world around us; for this reason its important to know the source of the ideas and read them firsthand. Knowledge never returns barren.