The Stranger was one of those books I read at eighteen that left almost no impression on me. I’ve had no desire to revisit any of Camus’s writing until recently when a friend, who is one of the most astute readers I know, recommended reading some of Camus’s other, less well-known, writing. For the past week or so I have been captivated by Camus’s 400 pages of Notebooks that span the years 1939 through 1951. He includes vivid descriptions of scenery, personal reflections, ideas for new novels and plays and his philosophical views on life, death, love and art. In an entry from 1942, Camus writes a response to a negative review of The Stranger which he never sends. It is the response to his critic which inspired me to reread The Stranger this week alongside the Notebooks.
Of course a lot has been written about Meursault’s taciturn nature and the fact that he only speaks when answering direct questions. On this reread what stood out to me most was Meursault’s inner strength, especially when settling into life in a small prison cell. Typical for anyone incarcerated he misses his freedom, seeing and interacting with nature, and women. But he settles into a routine that gives him comfort and he remembers an important bit of advice his mother gives him (trans. Matthew Ward):
I waited for the daily walk, which I took in the courtyard, or for a visit from my lawyer. The rest of the time I managed pretty well. At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything.
Camus often writes about death in his Notebooks and believes that the only way to attain true liberty in this life is to free oneself from a fear of death. His protagonist hopes for a stay of execution but eventually accepts his fate, without the help of the prison Chaplain who is utterly annoyed with the prisoner’s disinterest in God. In one final speech at the end Meursault reflects on his argument with the Chaplain and the absurdity of life:
It was as if I had waited all this time for this moment and for the first light of this dawn to be vindicated. Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew why. So did he. Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising towards me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living. What did other people’s deaths or a mothers’ love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter tome when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also call themselves my brothers?
Camus’s own description of Meursault in the Notebooks (1942) are enlightening, to say the least, and completely changed the way I view Camus and his most famous novel (trans. Philip Thody):
It’s a very studied book and the tone…is intentional. The tone is heightened four or five times, to be sure, but this is to avoid monotony and to provide composition. With the Chaplain, my Stranger does not justify himself. He gets angry, and that’s quite different. I’m the one to explain then, you say? Yes, and I thought about that considerably. I made up my mind to this because I wanted my character to be led to the single great problem by way of the daily and the natural. The great moment had to stand out.
One final side note, I am also reading Sade and thinking about Lucretius and Epicureanism. I see some of these same thoughts and threads in Camus—dispelling the fear of death, deity as a distant figure that cares nothing for humans, the random absurdity of the universe. Camus writes about Lucretius and Sade in his Notebooks. A wonderful reading coincidence for me.