The Stranger
A Novel
Albert Camus
I remember reading The Stranger some fifty years ago, in my second year of college. I didn't get it then; I don't get it now.

It is the story of a nobody from Algiers named Meursault who absently goes to his mother's funeral, idly sleeps with his girlfriend, smokes cigarettes, writes a letter for a friend --- a pimp --- which ultimately results in a woman getting beat up. Finally, he kills an Arab on the beach. In the trial that follows, Meursault says that it was the blazing noonday sun on the hot sands that made him shoot the innocent man.

In my college years, I recall being struck (even enamored) by this nonchalance ... entranced by the unwillingness of Meursault to take responsibility for anything. Not even for his own freedom.

I recently rereadThe Stranger. As I say, I don't get it. Its popularity --- in my college days, probably now --- may have to do with the fact that it's more a paradox than a novel. Or perhaps it's a fable, one of the great satiric fables of the 20th century.

So I wrote to two literary friends, asking for their take on it. One responded,

    Actually, I never understood The Stranger. But my admiration for Camus was so great that when I was living in Paris, I used to drop in to the Cafe Flore regularly wearing a turtleneck and smoking, or rather trying to smoke, a Gauloise. That coffin nail made me cough so much that eventually I tried wearing the cigarette and smoking the turtleneck.

Another friend responded, "I completely understood the killing on the beach in L'Etranger when I was in Bali about forty years ago. My husband and I had ordered (and eaten) a magic mushroom omelet in a restaurant there. They had a strange pet tied to a coconut palm which was not a cat or a dog or anything else that we could recognize. There was also an Easter lily on the table."

    After our meal we visited with other people at the table for about 45 minutes then left forgetting to pay. My husband went back to pay while I dawdled. The sun was getting stronger and stronger and we soon realized that we had better get hats for protection. It was our intention to walk to the next village.

"By the time we had gotten hats and all it was high noon and we were at the beach and everything had turned blazing blind white. Everything. It was impossible to think or walk or do anything.

"That's when I finally understood that scene where Camus writes that the pied-noir killed the Arab because of the sun." He wrote,

    Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs ...

    Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift.

"My husband and I made a retreat back to the lush garden where we were staying and watched black butterflies the size of salad plates cruise by very slowly with little polleny type clouds around them. These flowers were from another planet and we had a lovely visit with a painter who poked his head in and also took shelter from the heat with us. He showed us his paintings which were eye-popping and told us about the visit of the Queen of England to his island."

§     §     §

My own favorite take on The Stranger appeared twenty years ago in an obscure San Diego literary magazine, reviewing Matthew Ward's 1988 translation. The critic wrote,

    It makes no difference.

--- A. W. Allworthy
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