“Today, mother died. Or perhaps yesterday, I don’t know.”
You’ve got to admit, that’s one heck of an opening. The first time I read it, I laughed. I’m not heartless, I was simply shocked. How is it that something so short and simple can be so striking? Perhaps it was an instinctive fear towards death combined with the uncomfortable lack of compassion, or the sudden depths of a story I was plunged into knocking me unexpectedly off my seat. Either way, it prods sharply at your curiosity; a story you’ll be reluctant to emerge from once you’ve started.
L’Étranger, first published in 1942, is a classic French philosophical novel divided into two parts: the life before and after an emotionally detached French-Algerian office clerk, Meursault, shoots dead an Arab for no apparent reason, supposedly because the sun is shining in his eyes. Interestingly, as his trial progresses, it becomes evident he is being condemned to death for refusing to shed a tear at his mother’s funeral and then continuing to live life without mourning, sent to the guillotine for having “the heart of a criminal” as opposed to the fact that he actually is one. The final days before his execution are fascinating, describing an encroaching fear of the dawn where all but his thoughts are paralysed as he abandons sleep to sit and wait patiently for the sun to rise.
The novel makes us wonder whether, if the shadow of execution were looming overhead, we would lie to save our skin as Meursault’s lawyer seems to so strongly suggest; rewrite each principle defining our existence in accordance with what the world perceives to be the right response. Or whether we would insist on telling the truth and stare death in the eye with our principles by our side in order to save our soul as Meursault persists in doing, refusing to say he regrets his crime – he feels “annoyance” if anything at all – or deny that the death of his mother hasn’t affected him in the slightest.
I’ll admit, the line between honesty and heartlessness is difficult to distinguish. When Marie Cardona, the girl he’s seeing, asks if he wants to become her husband, his reply is simply “I don’t mind.” In the author’s note, Camus describes lying as “not only saying what isn’t true,” but also “saying more than is true, and in the case of the human heart, saying more than one feels.” It may seem like narration is stripped bare to the bone, skeleton-like owing to an unusual lack of emotion, but beautiful metaphors are hiding among the mundane. Each screw on his mother’s coffin, the hearse that reminds him of a pencil tray, the “nest of wrinkles” on the old people’s faces – all are described in disturbingly vivid detail, each sentence merely a shadow of the society he struggles to fit into.
In his final hours, a chaplain comes and concludes that his heart must be “blind.” But ask yourself this: is seeing the world but choosing to ignore it blindness? Not really. Society told him he must show compassion towards death, that he needn’t necessarily feel it, just show it. He was told to regret his crime, to start believing in God, to tell a girl he’d be the happiest man alive if she were to become his wife, when in reality he’d be the exact same emotionally estranged man he was before. Meursault was told to live a life that wasn’t his, but he recognized this insincerity and rejected it.
Meursault is an outsider: an outsider to society, an outsider to himself. But search below the surface of his emotionless expression and you’ll see an honesty so sincere it terrorized the society that created it. I can quite confidently say that L’Étranger by Albert Camus may well be one of the strangest but most thought-provoking pieces of literature you could read this summer.