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In my 40-by-40 quest to read a novel per month for 12 months, my novel for the month of November was The Stranger by Albert Camus. I had always intended to read it, and my copy of the book had been collecting dust on my bookshelf at home for over 5 years. I also knew that my November was going to be packed with a lot to do, so I chose this novel mostly because of its length (a really quick 123 pages).
I’m glad for the fact that my only knowledge of the book was that it was a classic. I had no idea of the plot, the author, or that it serves as the standard bearer for existentialist novels. I discovered these things after I looked up more information on Albert Camus.
For those of you who have never read the book, BE WARNED…there are some spoilers here. If you don’t want to know anything about the story, then STOP NOW and go read someone else’s blog.
Go ahead…I’ll wait….
Okay, good. Now that we got rid of those lollygaggers, listen up.
My first impression immediately after completing the book was on the writing itself. I went back a couple of times to try to figure out exactly how Camus did what he did with his main character (a young man named Meursault). Camus wrote so matter-of-factly about a main character who approaches life so matter-of-factly, that I was utterly surprised when Meursault murdered a man on the beach in broad daylight. Meursault wasn’t an evil man, nor was he in any danger. In fact, the man was unarmed.
The book is split into two parts–the bridge between these parts being Meursault’s murder of the man known only as the Arab. The first part of the book gives a glimpse of Meursault’s odd personality which others around him (including me) attribute to his reaction to his mother’s death. It turns out that he’s just odd…a true “stranger” in normal society. He’s odd because he just doesn’t seem to care about anything in this world. BUT not in the lazy, slacker, nonchalant way that young folks these days avoid caring about things. Meursault is different because he takes that to an extreme. He allows others (and life in general) to just move him along like a feather caught by the wind.
It’s only in the second part of the book that we see a bit of his thought process. Being on trial for murder, and facing an impending death penalty leads to some interesting dialogue about his beliefs. I feel a bit like Camus could have used this section of the book to write a lot more. It seemed like the drama in the first part of the book set up the dialogue needed in the second part, but it was all a bit rushed and forced for my taste.
Strange, man. Just strange.
I actually love reading about philosophy…but existentialism is a difficult concept for me to understand completely. I’ve always maintained a passing familiarity with it (the way I have a passing familiarity with many things in pop culture…like Pinkberry or Twitter or Dancing with the Stars). But reading The Stranger left with me with the same impression I had after reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. My reaction was first, “That was cool. How did the author just do that?” (By do that, I mean wrap complicated philosophical ideas in a well-crafted story complete with plot, characters, setting, and dialogue.) My next reaction was to find out more about the author. I did this with Ayn Rand years ago, and I did it now with Camus.
The beauty of these novels is that rather than writing dry and drawn out explication in an attempt to explain their complex philosophies, Rand and Camus tell stories. They both did a great job of committing me to their main characters, eventually buying into the choices they make (although I think Ayn Rand did a better job of this than Albert Camus)…
It’s late, and I have to rest my brain (just thinking about existentialism is wearing me down a bit.) Maybe for December, I’ll choose something a bit less taxing.
Suggestions? Email me some titles.