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Sunday, May 13, 2012

I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.

L'Étranger (The Stranger) by Albert Camus

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
L'Étranger is the story of Meursault, a French man living in Algeria, who gets himself into some trouble after his mother dies. He goes to her funeral and is mostly blasé throughout, and after he returns to Algiers after the funeral, he starts up a relationship with a girl named Marie that he used to work with.  They go to the beach, they relax, and he is generally unbothered by his mother's passing. He has a job offer to go to Paris, but he is ambivalent; he doesn't mind his life here in Algiers. He becomes friends with his neighbor, Raymond, who tells people he is a "warehouse guard" but is in fact a pimp.  Raymond is angry because he thinks his girlfriend cheated on him, so he asks Meursault to help him write an angry letter to her. When the girlfriend comes to confront him after receiving the letter, Raymond beats up the girl, and Meursault does not call the police, even though the whole apartment complex is watching and Marie asks him to. The next day, Raymond takes Meursault and Marie to the beach to stay at a cabin with his friend Masson and his wife. They have a lovely day at the beach, but they realize that the Arab men who are relatives of Raymond's ex-girlfriend have followed them there, and there is a showdown on the beach. Raymond is hurt (cut across the face and arm) and after they get him help, Meursault returns to the beach with Raymond and Masson. Raymond takes a gun this time, and considers shooting the Arabs, but Meursault tells him he can't shoot unless the Arab pulls his knife on them. They stare at each other, but the  energy of the moment is gone, and things de-escalate. Still later that day, Meursault is walking on the beach with Raymond's gun, and, rather inexplicably, he shoots one of the Arabs who is lying on the beach by himself five times at close range, killing him. Meursault is arrested and goes to trial, where the prosecution brings up his indifference at his mother's funeral as a sign of his cold-blooded capacity for murder. A few of his friends stand by him (Raymond, Marie, Céleste, a local café owner, and Salamano, a neighbor of Meursault's) but many others testify against him, pointing out his seeming coldness and lack of compassion. Meursault is convicted and sentenced to death by guillotine.  He spends his remaining days in prison contemplating life and his former happiness; a chaplain visits him and tries to convince him of the importance of accepting God before his death, but Meursault says he doesn't believe in God.  The book ends with Meursault welcoming his execution on the day it is to take place.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I didn't like this book the first time I read it (while I was studying abroad in France) and... BIG SURPRISE! I didn't like it any better this time around. I think Meursault is so unlikable and unpleasant - he seems to have no real aspirations or feelings in the beginning, and when he talks after he's been condemned about all these previous happinesses he misses, it just rings completely false to me, because he doesn't seem happy at all before! He doesn't seem unhappy, he just seems bored and indifferent. 

And just in case you were thinking that maybe I missed some of the literary power because I read the book in English (translated from the French), worry not! I read it in French the first time and disliked it, and I read it in English the second time and disliked it. So I disliked it in not one, but TWO languages! 

A few thoughts on this (in my humble opinion) unlovable text...

-Meursault smokes a lot of cigarettes in this book, and when he's in prison and they take away his cigarettes, he seems surprised. They have to explain to him that cigarettes are a privilege and he is being punished. This felt like such a typically French moment - mais j'ai besoin de mes cigarettes! Je ne peux rien faire sans elles! It reminded me of when there was a transportation strike in Nantes while I was there (une grève, en français) and all the cars were stopped in the radial arms of a rondpoint and their horns were blaring while a single Frenchman stood staring them in the face in the middle of the street, calmly smoking a cigarette. Surely he could spare one for Meursault.

-Meursault is obsessed with talking about the weather -- his classic line during the defense is "it was because of the sun". During the moments just before the murder, Meursault mentions the sun over and over, and talks about it beating down on him and how insufferably hot it is. But what I don't get (aside from "I did because of the sun" being a COMPLETELY ridiculous excuse) is that he's lived in Algeria his whole life, it seems. So isn't he USED TO THE WEATHER by now?

-The many moments that are later used against Meursault do make him unlikable (though technically they aren't proof of the murder, as they are intended to be) -- he doesn't know his mother's age, he falls asleep at her wake, and he talks about how much better his day would be if his mother hadn't died. Later, he talks about things he loved about Maman, and I'm like, really? Because you seemed really unperturbed before when she DIED! He follows up this by saying things like, "At one time or another all normal people have wished their loved ones were dead." Um, false. This is a false statement, Meursault.

-Probably the only thing that Meursault and I have in common is that we don't like Sundays. I don't mind Sundays when I'm on vacation, or when I don't have to be anywhere the next day (so sort of a fake Sunday, if you will) but in general, I always feel like there's a sand hourglass staring me down and it's spilling faster and faster as the day goes on and I'm powerless to stop it. I often find myself staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning, and even though technically Monday has begun, I'm dragging my heels, resisting its arrival.

-Salamano has a dog with whom he shares a parasitic relationship (they don't like each other, but they're used to each other) and Meursault points out that they've started to look like each other. I often think that people resemble their pets, especially their dogs. (Halley, You're a Pug! We'll call you Hot and Crusty.)

-Salamano has dinner with Meursault and serves him blood sausage. When I first arrived in Paris, I stayed with my mom's friend from when she studied abroad, Frédérique, and her husband, Olivier. Olivier made blood sausage for me for dinner that night, and after the ambiguous airplane food, I was hard pressed to force it down my throat for purposes of politeness.

-The only moment I really liked was when Meursault and Marie swim together in the ocean: 
"Marie wanted us to swim together. I got behind her to hold her around the waist. She used her arms to move us forward and I did the kicking." There was such tenderness in this moment.
-I don't really get what Marie sees in Meursault, though, and I was kind of glad when she dropped out of the book after she stopped writing to him in prison. You deserve better, Marie!

-One of my favorite lines from when Meursault is in prison: "During the last few months I've been sleeping sixteen to eighteen hours a day." Do you know what that is, Meursault? Did you guess... A sign of serious depression? DING DING DING Correct!

-The only reading material Meursault has in prison is a newspaper clipping of a story about a Czech family. The son leaves the village and goes off to make his fortune. He returns to the village many years later, rich now, and with his wife and child. He stays at his mother's hotel and shows off his money, but doesn't reveal his identity right away. His mother and sister beat him to death with a hammer in the night and rob him. After his wife comes looking for him the next day and tells his mother who the man was, the mother hangs herself and the sister throws herself down a well. Meursault's thoughts:
"On the one hand it wasn't very likely. on the other, it was perfectly natural. Anyways, I thought the traveler pretty much deserved what he got and that you should never play games." Oh Really, Meursault? So, game playing = worthy of vicious violent murder? You know what I think? I think that story is HORRIFYING. And I'm more than a little concerned about your response to it. Mmkay?

-Meursault tries to blame the murder on chance, bad luck, the sun - anything but himself. He never takes responsibility, or expresses remorse (he even says more than sorry, he feels ANNOYED). This makes it really hard to feel any sadness or compassion for him when he rots in a prison cell awaiting his execution. Like I said, I'm not a big Meursault fan.

Off I go, to eat parmesan chicken and baked sweet potatoes with my sister and brother-in-law! Yum-O, as Rachael Ray would say. ;) I look forward to perusing A Painting of Ionian Silver.

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