Impressions before Reading
This is one that I read many times as a teenager. I think I even attempted it in the original French, but my laziness won out. I wanted to read this concrete, sparely worded novel again mainly to see if I’d understood it as a teenager. I can never be sure that I retained half of what I read in my overly ambitious teen years, full of doorstop Russian novels and philosophical arguments for and against god. Teenagers have every new idea exploding in their heads on a daily basis, so the debris that stays intact often makes weird associations with other ideas and emotions that shared the blast.
Meursault’s mother died today. Or yesterday maybe. During the night vigil and the following day’s hot, slow walk to the grave he is judged as having shown “insensitivity” in the face of his Maman‘s death. When he happens to kill a man for no immediate reason, the trial becomes an investigation into his personality and his lack of remorse.
Now, if you haven’t read the book, that above summary sounds pretty bleak. And it can be, oh yes. But through Meursault’s first person narration the reader learns to accept and identify with this man. And it isn’t that hard to do. I found myself thinking of Seinfeld while rereading. The show’s characters had a ludicrous trial for a last episode, but the comparisons go deeper than that. Seinfeld‘s characters seemed to show an indifference to normal emotional values, going about their day in free range patterns. The show was purportedly about “nothing,” going for a different type of sitcom that abandoned traditional romantic attachment story arcs, relationship building, and overt emotionalism at joyous or tragic events. The characters stayed largely calm and self-possessed in the face of their misadventures. Meursault does the exact same thing, even if his story assumes the serious mask while Seinfeld portrays the same attitude to life comically.
I mean sure, there’s a hint of Kafka in the book too, but Kafka’s trials and castles were more symbolic. Camus deals with a very realistic set up and presents it laconically.
The book was written in an American style, which for Camus apparently meant Hemingway. Sartre commented in an early review of the book that “Each sentence is an island”–the reader has to assemble a meaning from these isolated sentences. Not sure I agree with Sartre’s sentiments exactly–an 20×20 island with a lone palm tree cannot exist and significantly more vegetation/words make up a real island. But I’m taking him too literally just so I can say Proust makes island sentences.
Anyway, Meursault can come across as a rather blank figure due to his lack of opinions and how rarely he speaks to others. The reader is privileged to his viewpoint far more than the novel’s characters. This is a man who only speaks when he has something to say, and this effect gives him the air of a man without conscious thoughts. We can judge him by his actions, which the judge and jury are surely going to do. He is told many times not to speak up for himself as it could only harm his case. The readers are allowed to impose themselves upon Meursault’s occasional blankness, making him highly sympathetic.
The same goes for Seinfeld. Even when one of the characters does something morally suspect, we laugh. We can see their side of the matter, and laughter is really a tacit agreement with the joke’s meaning. We are accepting the criticism that the joke is making. And yes, I know this is starting to sound like one of those horrible humor deconstruction lectures. The reader accepts Meursault because we can feel ourselves moving in the mundane acts of his life, a skin around the book’s skeletally precise sentence structures. And despite the fact that he is on trial for his life, I never get the feeling that Meursault is an unreliable narrator. The man’s voice is disarming and plain, but it never sounds as if he is lying.
Before rereading, I knew what I believed the novel was about as a teenager. I wasn’t looking at my conclusions with much depth, but I realized that the trial had disregarded his murder. The final verdict seems to be delivered against a man up for willfully killing his mother. The prosecution even says, “I accuse this man of burying his mother with crime in his heart!” (Having no interest in real life televised court cases, I always find it odd how lawyers in old books and movies get away with their impassioned speeches; those heart-string tugging speeches, far from rational arguments, can’t be legal. Has legal prosecution mellowed or was it never like it’s depicted in art?)
Meursault wants to approach his predicament emotionally, but he cannot define his emotions in neat words, especially in the confining structures of legal morality where right and wrong are labeled as direct truth and consequences.
A surprisingly complex book given its size; within roughly 120 pages Camus distilled a large ambition and a concise representation of his philosophy.
“Big tears of frustration and exhaustion were streaming down his cheeks. But because of all the wrinkles, they weren’t dripping off. They spread out and ran together again, leaving a watery film over his ruined face.”
“I shook off the sweat and sun. I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.”
“I felt the urge to reassure him that I was like everybody else, just like everybody else.”
“The fact that the sentence had been read at eight o’clock at night and not at five o’clock, the fact that it could have been an entirely different one, the fact that it had been decided by men who change their underwear, the fact that it had been handed down in the name of some vague notion called the French (or German, or Chinese) people–all of it seemed to detract from the seriousness of the decision.”
“As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.”