In 2012 I read Camus’ book The Stranger in French and The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud in 2015. First, here’s a short summary of The Stranger. Meursault, a French Algerian, begins the tale with the announcement of his mother’s death. He shows disrespect by drinking cafe au lait, smoking, and dozing as he sits by her coffin. A few days later he shoots a man he doesn’t know (“the Arab”) on the beach almost by chance. He pauses, then fires four more bullets into the inert body. A trial and conviction follow that he feels unconnected to. He becomes animated only when he is castigated by a priest for his cold heart and lack of belief in God. The disrespect he displayed at the time of his mother’s death is a factor in his conviction. As his execution nears, he refers to the “tender indifference of the world.”
The Meursault Investigation is narrated by the younger brother of “the Arab,” to give him a name, to tell the story of their mother’s sadness (still alive, he says at the outset), and ultimately to tell the story of Arabs in Algeria. It’s a powerful book that skillfully uses Camus’ work.
So now I’ve read a book that takes a deep dive into The Stranger. Camus was born in Algeria; his father died when he was a child, and his mother was deaf, nearly mute and very poor. He had tuberculosis, which began when he was 17, and recurred in later years. Despite these circumstances he graduated from the university, was outgoing and active in theater and in the political arena.
Kaplan, using notebooks Camus kept over the years, can trace the source of many important aspects of the book. Though the majority of the book was completed in 1941 in Paris where Camus had found work and was living an isolated existence, his reliance on the notebooks is clear. Meursault’s trial reflects Camus’ time in courtrooms as a journalist. It was in 1938 that he recorded the first paragraph of The Stranger in his notebook and that paragraph never changed. It begins this way, “Today, Maman died. Or perhaps yesterday, I don’t know….” He was influenced by James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, whose narrator recounts events in a flat, neutral tone, as Meursault does. The author believes the limited vocabulary of Camus’ mother was another influence on this character. This book revealed a fascinating record of his thinking.
Camus rejected the label “existentialist,” but preferred thinking in terms of “the absurd.” Once life’s meaninglessness is understood and accepted, a person can live a better life. When Meursault comes to terms with his impending death, he experiences receptive moments; he recognizes the “tender indifference of the world” and experiences genuine emotion.
To our sensibilities the comment of Edward Said in an essay from 1989 is key: “The Arabs of The Stranger are nameless beings used as background for the portentous metaphysics explored by Camus.” Reading that near the end of the book brought relief to the tension of ignoring that elephant in the room. It’s hard to think of this as a story of someone who came to terms with life as he is nearing his own death, given that occurred after he randomly killed a man, paused, and fired four more bullets into his body. The author also quotes Cyril Connolly’s introduction to the British version written in 1946 that has a similar political criticism.
One last point I want to remember: the first English translation done by eminent translator Stuart Gilbert was, by all accounts terrible. He changed the tone by changing the expected translation of “I’ll arrive” to “I should get there” and “It’s not my fault” as “Sorry, sir, but it’s not my fault, you know.” The mood created by those short declarative sentences would have been very different had I read the first translation of the book rather than struggling with the French.
Alice Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, University of Chicago Press, 2016, 217 pages (289 with notes, bibliography, index). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.