Sharpened rays of sunlight and four trigger pulls, how to live when life and death are interchangeable?
Albert Camus was a proponent of the idea that life becomes absurd once a man learns he is living only, one day, to die. Whether any one of us came into being in the first place is a chance occurrence that alters any other life on only a very insular level. And when we do die…well, we won’t be here to remember the things we did.
And we know this and yet we live this short little march with our full attentions. This is what Camus said was absurd. The Stranger is a slim book that puts Camus’ ideas in the clearest terms.
Days melt into each other. Maman’s funeral procession is interminable under the Algerian sun and still Mersault walks on.
“Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward 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.”
But Camus doesn’t equate absurdity with pointlessness or futility. Mersault values life; he never thinks in terms of suicide (nor did Camus), and his response to the prison chaplain’s question about life after death is that he’d prefer an afterlife in which he could remember his present one.
Absent from Mersault is the fevered depression and the brooding crises that mark Nietzsche’s or Kafka’s heroes. Instead we find tempered amusement, distraction, languor and, in the murder that is the novel’s climax (and also its anti-climax), exhaustion, but an exhaustion that provokes experiment and an attempt at escapism.
Life and death, like much in Mersault’s experience, are one and the same. He recounts his maman’s funeral in the same tone of deadpan observation that he does an enjoyable movie or a lazy Sunday morning swimming with his Marie, his Marie whom he “probably didn’t love” but whom he would marry if she really wanted it.
Mersault lives at the steady pace of inertia, accepting the default setting of life: he was born, so he must live until he must die. These are the rules and he’ll abide by them.
He sends his maman to a home simply because he cannot afford to keep her. He attends her funeral because he ought to do so. He befriends his neighbor Raymond, a lustful, vengeful man, because he is convenient. He goes to the cinema because it passes the time. At his work we know he will never try for promotion just as we know he will not turn lazy and lose his job.
The murder in The Stranger, like everything else in Camus’ book, is placid. It is a last experiment for Mersault, and it stands only to confirm what he had already accepted as far as the importance of living his human life. Somehow it leaves us with little feeling for the victim and much empathy for the murderer.
The Stranger shows that life is a bundle of distractions from the main thing, i.e. inevitable death. Careers, love, movies, weekend bungalows…murder, prison…it doesn’t last.
Camus’ book defines us as visiting strangers to this vaudeville that is a decades-long funeral procession. Depressing? Absurd, Camus would say. But how else should we live?
The Stranger · Albert Camus · 1946
Matthew Ward translation · Vintage, 1989 · 123 pages, paperback