Camus’ Strange Fiction

Anyone with pretensions of authorship must be filled with envy by Camus’ prose. He conveys a world of detail and meaning with the utmost economy of language. He is also the only major existentialist author who is at all readable. Having looked into some of his essays, I undertook his first novel, The Stranger (1946), which I found both artistically compelling and intellectually frustrating.

No doubt when The Stranger first appeared its rebellious novelty was part of its appeal. Since then, the world has been flooded with second-rate copies of Camus, all vying for attention and proclaiming the same message. As AndrĂ© Maurois once said: “You have been told that the world is absurd . . . . But to say that everything is absurd is of itself an absurdity.” Unfortunately that was my impression of Camus’ novel.

The story never lagged. But its tale of futility seems forced and more the indulgence of artistic luxury than the response of a normal human being in a similar situation. Mersault is so shallow and bland that we wonder how the author manages to generate as much interest in him as he does. The magistrate, priest, prosecutor and defense attorney are all desperate (at times hysterical) to dissect a soul that Camus insists is not there. Those points, at any rate, lie well beyond the scope of any criminal court. For this reason, the book’s protest against capital punishment is highly contrived.

We are given to understand that Mersault is condemned to the guillotine by a relentless and conformist judicial process as much for his apparent emotional apathy as for the killing of the Arab on the beach. In real life he would not have been charged with first degree murder. He might even have been acquitted on grounds of self-defense. But no one can doubt that he put himself in a stupid situation through his careless choice of friends and pastimes. In conclusion, the strange juxtaposition of the neglected mother’s funeral and the Kafkaesque trial makes for artistic and psychological symmetry, but the story cannot be taken very seriously as a social commentary. And perhaps that’s just as well, since literature seldom succeeds when it is overtly didactic.

The alternative is that Camus’ real meaning lies on a deeper and more ironic level than a superficial reading of The Stranger would have us believe. Perhaps it is such tantalizing hints and loose threads that give the novel its enduring interest.

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