Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Stranger by Albert Camus ― Apr 13, 2012



The reputation of Albert Camus has never been higher. He was the novelist who captured the post-war sense of European civilisation in tatters. In his 1957 Nobel speech he said: "For more than twenty years of an insane history, hopelessly lost like all the men of my generation in the convulsions of time, I have been supported by one thing: by the hidden feeling that to write today was an honour."

Zakia reads about the trial

Camus' thought evolved with his writings and experience. When this novel is read with his later philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus, we see a vision emerging of how Camus surmounted the nihilism pervasive in much of European thought at the time – which gave rise to various streams of existentialism. But Camus' stance is unique as man of action, writer engagé, and novelist.

Thommo left early to test drive his Tata Nano

Is Meursault a 'queer fellow' as his girl-friend Marie suggests, or is he the normal male who enjoys the simple pleasures of life, and seeks to avoid the kind of  involvement with others that would abridge his own freedom? The irony is he gets caught up in a fracas, though he had no dog in the fight (as Texans say); and ends by losing his freedom totally!

Talitha, Priya, and KumKum at the Camus reading

Be surprised by who else read this novel lately:

Here are the readers at the end:

 
Talitha, Zakia, Priya, KumKum, Bobby, & Joe

Click below to read more ...

The Stranger by Albert Camus
Reading on Apr 13, 2012 



Present: Priya, Talitha, KumKum, Zakia, Thommo, Bobby, Joe
Absent: Sunil and Mathew (to Kottayam to attend a meeting), Sivaram (last minute meeting), Verghese (?)

The next session is Poetry, on May 11, 2012. The next novel for reading is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens on Jun 15, 2012. The novel selection after that is up to Sunil and Mathew by end April, please.

Everyone wished Thommo God-speed on the first part of his solo drive in a Tata Nano car from Mumbai to the North-east and then back via central and South India to Kochi in June; the second leg is from Kochi to Ladakh. Joe offered to be his cleaner, if he needed a companion; various family members will be joining him in stages. Thommo will be maintaining a blog and Tata Motors will be posting a log of his journey on their Web site.

For a scholarly and comprehensive link to the works of Camus, please see:

(Update: The novel was chosen by The Guardian reading group as their Nov 2013 selection; see
http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/nov/06/the-outsider-albert-camus-reading-group 


Read the recollections of his daughter, Catherine, on the 100th birth anniversary of Albert Camus on Nov 7, 2013:


Thommo
The first reading Thommo presented was Meursault's response to his employer when a posting to Paris was offered with a promotion. He is quite non-committal, and the employer, discerning his indifference, chides him for his lack of ambition. This brings out one side of his character. The second passage has a bit of humour in the light banter about marrying Marie who is keen for the relationship to be formalised. Meursault is not, and though he's not in love, merely wanting to have a good time, he finally obliges Marie: they will get married. She remarks he's a 'queer fellow'.

KumKum thought he was quite a guy, with his ability to get his girl without any any show of commitment. But it was common in the free-love days after the war, and continues that way today in many countries. Talitha thought Meursault was 'emotionally blunted.' She didn't see the 'absurd' in the novel, venturing that Meursault in the end finds some meaning. But is it not a meaning made-up by him to overcome the finality of death? He does not 'discover' meaning in life, as believers do, but invents one for himself. Regarding this, the following thesis on the Web may throw further light:

Talitha wondered if Meursault was capable of love. In response to which Bobby quoted a para from Camus' Nobel banquet speech:
Truth is mysterious, elusive, always to be conquered. ... artists scorn nothing: they are obliged to understand rather than to judge.
Talitha wanted to know why Meursault gets involved with Raymond. Joe thought it was a casual sort of neighbourly involvement. Meursault was not stand-offish or solitary. He was a normal guy, who doesn't want to be tied down, and lose his liberty of action.


KumKum
The author took great care to describe each physical situation as the story unfolds. We see the world and feel it through the protagonist, Meursault.
Meursault is keenly observant of his surroundings, yet he floats through the narration untethered. Or nearly so. He lived for himself. The author implies that when a man bonds, if at all, with other human beings, it is to satisfy his own needs, and he offers as little as needed to get something which he wants.

Meursault certainly did not care for his mother beyond her death at the beginning of the story, as he no longer needed her. It was a mere formality that he attended her funeral, and he did not try to conceal his feelings.

His relationship with Marie is basically need-driven, to satisfy his physical desire. There was no love from his side in this relationship, either. On the other hand, Marie talked about love and she sought permanence in their relationship.
It was by chance that Meursault met Raymond, and everything that followed from the first meeting is series of accidents. Killing a man came easy to Meursault. And he did not repent for his act. Here is his reaction after the heinous act:
I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.

He only thought about "the balance of the day" being shattered, and something else, "the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy." From this it appears that Meursault wanted only a superficial connection with people around him. Life is a stroll from birth to the death for him; why bother chasing permanence, when existence is transient. Meursault did not believe in God or in useless benevolence, for he did not hope for anything from life. Whether Meursault's character represents the belief system of the author or not, is difficult to tell. Authors invent characters to tell stories.

Camus has taken great care to describe the scenes. One of the odd things about Meursault is that he did not need his mother beyond death. There is a series of accidents that lead to a senseless death. These phrases are signals to Meursault's response to events:
'I knew I shattered the balance of the day.'
'I had been very happy.'

It's a superficial world Meursault inhabits; he didn't hope for anything from life.


Bobby
The passage Bobby read is a striking one which describes the fateful murder. It's a an apocalyptic scene:
a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end,”
This reminded KumKum of the words in Matthew's gospel when Christ is crucified:
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split.

A discussion ensued about the virtue of the two translations the readers used, the older one by Stuart Gilbert (SG), and the more recent one by the American, Matthew Ward (MW).

English translation by Stuart Gilbert
I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.

The Original French
J'ai compris que j'avais détruit l'équilibre du jour, le silence exceptionnel d'une plage où j'avais été heureux. Alors, j'ai tiré encore quatre fois sur un corps inerte où les balles s'enfonçaient sans qu'il y parût. Et c'était comme quatre coups brefs que je frappais sur la porte du malheur.

The question was whether in the context of the passage
(a) équilibre is better translated as 'balance' (SG), or 'harmony' (MW), and
(b) should porte du malheur be the 'door of my undoing' (SG), or the 'door of my unhappiness' (MW)?

Regarding (a) Joe thinks 'balance' is nearer to the original than harmony, keeping in mind that 'equilibrium of the day' would sound pedantic. And if harmony was what Camus intended he would have used the exact same word in French: 'harmonie'.

In (b) the noun 'malheur' in French means 'misfortune', although the adjective 'heureux' does mean 'happy'. So 'door of unhappiness' would be off the mark. The 'door of my undoing' is an unusual choice (some alliteration afoot there), but apt, since it points to all that goes wrong from that point on in Meursault's trial, and thereby in his life.

Stuart Gilbert has taken liberties. The last sentence of the passage faithfully translated is "And it was like four brief knocks (or blows) on the door of my misfortune." There is nothing about "each successive shot was another loud, fateful ..." 'Successive' is not present, nor is 'loud' or 'fateful'. They've been added but in totality SG's translation is an improvement on the original – if that can be said.

For a critical article on translating the simple opening sentence of the novel, see:
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/05/camus-translation.html

One way of accounting for the out-of-character murder is that Meursault was transported to a trance state by the joint effect of the heat and light and the build-up of excitement in the encounter with the Arab. Bobby thought reason left him in those moments. Priya opined that things like that happen and mentioned something about the Bhagvad Gita. But the question is the responsibility of the agent through whom evil happens. Talitha thought a moral void within Meursault allowed him to commit such a senseless act.

Bobby remarked that in the end Meursault does not want to be left alone in death. Rather he wishes that a crowd of spectators should be there to curse him at the execution. It is a macabre wish.

Remarking on the poor defence mounted for Meursault at the trial, Joe considered the lawyer as quite incompetent and Meursault thought as much. After all, the Arab did bring out a knife first; he was armed and ready to use it. Justifying Meursault's action as self-defence would have been quite credible. The prosecutor had a field day citing all sorts of irrelevant facts to prove that it was not merely culpable homicide, but premeditated murder.

Bobby mentioned his shifting to a Philosophy MA from PolSci without any preparation, and having a hard time of it, reading Dostoevsky, Kafka, and the lot. KumKum mentioned that our guest from the last session, Tom Duddy, wanted to come, as he had lived at a time when Camus' reputation was on the ascendant, culminating in his Nobel prize. It was a novel that made a deep impression on him. KumKum recalled the days in Calcutta University when people would hold readings in the Coffee House on College Street. Camus made no sense to her then, and she misunderstood many things. She was surprised later when she married Joe to find a collection of Camus' books on his shelf. That still did not impel her to read Camus, so this novel was a revelation for her and she rather took to the unique character of Meursault.


Joe
The style is detached, precise and without ornament. In English, portions seem to suffer from a staccato harshness: short sentences beginning with the initial announcement of the mother's death, but it sounds elegiac in French:
(Reading 1)

The spare style goes with the story of a man who is not inclined to weep at his mother’s funeral, and feels overcome, rather, by the heat and the tiresome people he has to deal with at the old-age home after his long bus ride. He is glad to get back but the scenes of that first chapter revisit him later at the trial when the Prosecutor sees a way to assassinate his character as being heartless: a man who would not shed tears even for his dead mother had to be sinister. This is to reinforce the lack of remorse Meursault apparently shows for the killing of the Arab, froim which its premeditated nature could be inferred by the Prosecutor.

Meursault is a man who'd like to live in the uncomplicated present, and occupy his life with the pleasures of taking a girl out to the movies or for a swim at the beach, having a weekend in the countryside and so on. He is an ordinary person, everyman. He is not a hero, not even a tragic hero, he is simply us. His interaction with his neighbours is limited, but it's not because he is reclusive or arrogant. He shows no ambition at the office to get ahead. When he has to make decisions he's alright with either option, and shows a pleasant reluctance to act decisively, just like most of us. He is indifferent to the human emotions of grief and not given to violence; he describes the abuse of a dog by his neighbour clinically, but manages some sympathy for the victimiser too. He's cool, he's low-key. He helps if pressed (for instance, by writing a letter for the pimp, Raymond, which by a series of twists of fate leads to the fatal shooting of the Arab).

Why does he then whip out the revolver? It does not seem to be in character with a man who lacks commitment, to act so decisively; he had, you recall, dissuaded Raymond from doing the same murderous act twice earlier. We must blame the sunlight:
(Reading 2)

The sunlight is a disordering influence on his mind; Camus has been careful to sketch scenes of heat and light on the brilliant beaches in the run-up to the killing. Camus himself in essays on his homeland of Algeria has described the lasting influence of that light on his own life (The Minotaur of Oran).

The absence of God and the after-life is the subject of the final debate with the chaplain. Given his lack of belief, Meursault finds nothing comforting in the chaplain's talk. Yet in his own predicament at the end when he finds execution will soon close his life, he comes to understand why his mother in her final years embraced companionship with an old man. It was a clinging to life, the only good there is, and re-asserting the ability to claim a second wind when the first is about to expire. His own second wind is seeing the stars in the night sky from his barred cell.
(Reading 3)

This is a far different thing from recovering the honour of a person beset by Sisyphean existence in the world, forever condemned to the futility of raising the rock from the bottom of the slope to the pinnacle, only to see it roll down again by a fiat of the vindictive gods. Reading this novel enables one to appreciate where Camus stands in the struggle to recover something from 'le condition humaine.' His view evolved from mere nihilism to the conquest of nihilism by adopting a permanent attitude of rebellion against life's circumstances and achieving creative activity against the odds. That philosophy was explicated a few years later in his most influential work: the Myth of Sisyphus.

Albert Camus - abjuring abstraction and extremism, he found a way to write about politics that was sober, lofty, and a little sad (photo - Cartier-Bresson)


Zakia
The scene of the trial which Zakia read makes Meursault seem a stranger to himself. Talitha noted that he relishes the simple state of joy, and this could be a 'religious' experience for him, even though he disavows religion. Priya made the point that all of us at times feel the pointlessness of life keenly, though we might come to terms with it and recover some meaning, and balance the pointlessness against some purpose that we discover; yet the dark feeling still hovers in the background.

Bobby noticed the expression 'absurd hurry' about people in the street where Meursault lived, and a bit later that a cat crossed the street unhurrying.

Zakia found it strange that Meursault should go back to his cell to sleep and derive joy from that. Joe noted that the French title L’ÉTRANGER, could also have the meaning 'The Outsider,' which in a way Meursault is. He seems like a disembodied being floating through life's simple pleasures, and then absurdly trapped by a single inadvertent act.

Priya thought of the protagonist as detached in the sense of the Gita. But Joe demurred, for he saw the Gita as advocating adherence to the dharma each person must discharge, and detachment should only be in the matter of the success or otherwise that results from performing the obligations of your state of life. Was he wrong in his understanding, Joe asked?

About the alleged callousness of Meursault towards his mother’s storage in an elder care home, KumKum remarked that though the mother cried when taken away from her own home, later she liked the place and made friends there and found companionship.

Talitha brought up the opening sentence: Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. (see reference to the New Yorker article above in Bobby's piece). It is translated as 'Mother died today.' by SG and 'Maman died today' by MW. Why 'Maman' was the question raised by Talitha. In French it's quite natural according to Joe, since people would refer to their mothers by a familiar expression, and not the formal word 'mère'. However, he didn't think 'Maman' was the word to use in English and that would be straining for an effect half-way between English and French. But the use of upper case letters for the telegram in SG's translation of the opening paragraph produces a jarring effect that is not present in the original.

Priya referred to a personal experience when her father-in-law passed away and her husband referred to the the corpse as the 'body' repeatedly, whereas for her it was still 'Papa.'

Bobby found a genuineness in Meursault in that he does not pretend to feelings he does not have, affecting sorrow or some other feeling from human respect. Talitha is convinced he ceased to be a stranger and his alienation left him when he had a religious experience, seeing signs at the end ('gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars'). But that may be attributing to Meursault a sentiment he'd deny – witness his stout rebuff of the religious exhortations by the chaplain.


Priya
Priya read the passage in which Meursault tells the chaplain 'not to waste his rotten prayers' on him. All are privileged, not merely those who have religious faith, and all are marching toward the same fate, death. Meursault feels that 'none of his [the chaplain's] certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair.'

Meursault wonders why the chaplain, as a man also condemned  to death ultimately, cannot sense the dark wind from the future that 'had been blowing toward me, all my life long, from the years that were to come.'

About his character, Priya said Meursault does not seem to analyse himself. But is that true? He is quite self-aware and knows what's important for him and all the things to which he should be indifferent. In most of the final chapters he is speaking his mind as he observes the trial, and the proceedings that propel him toward his certain execution.

Priya liked the well-observed description of the aged mourners at the vigil over his mother's body:
I was very tired and my legs were aching badly. And now I realized that the silence of these people was telling on my nerves. The only sound was a rather queer one; it came only now and then, and at first I was puzzled by it. However, after listening attentively, I guessed what it was; the old men were sucking at the insides of their cheeks, and this caused the odd, wheezing noises that had mystified me. They were so much absorbed in their thoughts that they didn’t know what they were up to. I even had an impression that the dead body in their midst meant nothing at all to them. But now I suspect that I was mistaken about this.


Talitha
In the passage Salamano, the geezer whose dog was abused and loved by him at the same time, is having a chat with Meursault. Talitha mentioned that the phrase Il était avec son chien in the original is differently translated by SG and MW:

SG translates it as
As usual, he had his dog with him.

MW as
He was with his dog.

Ward felt his version better reflected Meursault's character. Indeed, later in the novel Meursault notes Salamano's dog is worth no more or less than his wife. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Ward_(writer)

Talitha said that Camus adopted an American style in writing his novel; Hemingway comes to mind. Here is a quote from Albert Camus, The Stranger by Patrick McCarthy, p. 98:
The Stranger has no obvious ancestors in French fiction, which led Sartre and many others to wonder whether Camus had not been influenced by the American novel.

Sartre writes that the short, parallel sentences of The Stranger are islands like Hemingway's sentences. From there to detecting Hemingway's influence was a short step and Camus seemed to take it himself. In a 1945 interview he declared that 'I used it [the technique of the American novel] in the Stranger, it's true. It suited my purpose which was to depict a man who seemed to have no awareness'. When we remember that American novelists were widely read in France and Italy at the time, the case seems proved: The Stranger was influenced by The Sun Also Rises.

But Kafka's is the philosophical influence:
"Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka," the appendix to Camus' influential essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, serves to link Kafka's ideas with Camus' own. Both authors treat 'existentialist' themes of estrangement, death, absurdity, and anxiety.

The trial in the novel clearly derives from The Trial by Franz Kafka.

Talitha saw a version of gallows (guillotine?) humour in the section where Meursault ruminates on his impending death and her recitation brought out a ripple of laughter among the readers:
For after taking much thought, calmly, I came to the conclusion that what was wrong about the guillotine was that the condemned man had no chance at all, absolutely none. In fact, the patient’s death had been ordained irrevocably. It was a foregone conclusion. If by some fluke the knife didn’t do its job, they started again. So it came to this, that—against the grain, no doubt—the condemned man had to hope the apparatus was in good working order! This, I thought, was a flaw in the system; and, on the face of it, my view was sound enough. On the other hand, I had to admit it proved the efficiency of the system. It came to this; the man under sentence was obliged to collaborate mentally, it was in his interest that all should go off without a hitch.

Bobby quoted the phrase
'this business of dying had to be got through, inevitably.'
as another example of putting on a humorous face as he contemplates the end. Talitha, whose sense of wit is always alert when reading, referred to the second paragraph of the novel in which Meursault has to petition for leave to attend his mother's funeral. He detects his employer is irked:
I said, without thinking: “Sorry, sir, but it’s not my fault, you know.”

KumKum's was the final remark, directed to all women, while glancing toward Priya in particular:
Doesn't matter we married men of this kind. We won't let our daughters marry the same kind.

Meursault-ian men everywhere be advised!

An exercise for the reader:
Define the Meursaultian man according to his philosophical, psychological, moral, and morphological essence.

1. Priya's answer:
The Mersaultian man is hard to fathom. As much as one respects the individuality of another fellow being, Mersaultians (and such kinds do exist, hopefully rare) are personalities incompatible with a healthy society.

Mersault wants utopian freedom that allows no questioning. Does not the freedom of one man begin where the freedom of another ends? Much as he understands that, he seems to fall victim to senseless action. The blinding light, the rising heat, the piercing glare, the beating sun, the burning sands, the flies, the whirring fans etc all seem to irk him to a point where the physical world gets the better of his mental faculties (not balance) and he ends up murdering a man who was following his friend.

Even a very smart and astute advocate would find it difficult to get justice for Meursault.

His philosophy is one of measured detachment, desiring to enjoy or relish anything on his terms. The minute it changes and does no longer suit his philosophic, psychological and physical parameters a Meursaultian cannot handle it. How much do non-Meursaultians accept each other and physical irritants to carry on with a life which is harsher than what Mersault was living before he committed the crime? Meursault comes across as a cold, though not calculating, but selfish man. His love life is more or less one sided, need based and even Marie finds him “queer.”

Psychologically he is an interesting case. Freud would clearly see an element of mental sexual dysfunction that caused such irrational behavior. Existentialism was the flavor of the day which arose more out of the bloody wars that raged in those times, causing people to question the very nature of existence. Society was in turmoil and entire generations were moving through unprecedented times of death and disaster. Mersault is a perfect creation of the time and his philosophy found many takers and appreciators then. In fact, many would justify his motiveless killing and his reasoning, his atheism and absurdity. It must have almost been fashionable then to talk absurdism and Mersault in the corridors of colleges and at tea shop corners in the world where ideologies are discussed and dissected. Mersault would even be a character discussed by soldiers ordered to kill the enemy, who as a fellow human being has not caused him any harm. Mersault’s crime would be a justifier in cases of motiveless killing.

In today’s terror ridden world Mersault is way down the ladder in terms of a heinous crime. He is a paradox and more of a neurotic. Nobody kills these days without a motive, except Italian marines in our waters:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Italian_shooting_in_the_Arabian_Sea 

That Mersault does not weep at his mother’s funeral is not a basis on which one should judge him morally. He enjoys nature, the breeze, sand, surf, stars and even finally understands why his mother chose a fiancé at the age when she did. He seems to understand Thomas Perez’s desperate walk to reach the burial of his mother on time. But he does not understand that a reclining Arab with a knife need not be shot dead. Of course, he does not look at the act morally. There is no good or evil in his scheme of things. His world is amoral, there is no right or wrong, though he realizes he is a criminal and should be treated like one. He is ready for his execution and in fact seems to romance the whole act with a kind of excitement where crowds will chant cries of hate when he is guillotined.

Morphologically Mersault has no trait of even an anti-hero. He comes out as a man for whom life on this earth is just a passage with no highs or lows. He has no great love or great hate. The one act which is the high and low point of his life, the game changer is taken in stride. He is aware that his peace will be shattered but that too is part of his existence. It is as if this is something that was to happen to him and an unavoidable part of his existence. He does not rebel or react or even grieve his act. He accepts and moves on, never trying to justify it.

Mersault is a self-centered being of measured detachment, of low threshold of discomfort, amoral and an intelligent, aware man. He is not villainous or heroic; he is commonplace and an idiot to throw away a regular life.

2. KumKum's answer:
I do not quite believe that Meursault killed the Arab on the beach without provocation. Actually, the act of killing was far from his mind. It was he, who stopped Raymond from taking a similar drastic step earlier. And concerned Mersault took away the gun from Raymond for safe keeping. The gun now remained in M's jacket pocket.

It was a mere accident that Raymond's gun was still in M's pocket when he went out for his second stroll on the hot, blazing beach in the afternoon. This stroll was not a premeditated action. It was spontaneous; he just went out, wishing to be away from whatever activities were taking place inside Mr. & Mame Masson's beach side chalet. He did not even care that no one else followed him. He was alone, walking on the hot sand, under the blazing sun and was "thinking of the cold,clear stream behind" the small black hump of rock that was in his view.

And he was longing, not to kill any one, but "to hear again the tinkle of running water. Anything to be rid of the glare, the sight of women in tears, the strain and effort---- and to retrieve the pool of shadow by the rock and its cool silence!"  

Look at Mersault's thoughts, there was no trace of violence; even in that extreme condition, his mind could imagine and transport him to a cool private recess.

Then suddenly, as he came nearer he noticed "Raymond's Arab had returned." Mersault was "taken aback; my impression had been that the incident was closed, and I hadn't given a thought to it on my way here."

That's right, M had not expected that he would encounter again any of those Arabs on this stroll. What happened next:

"On seeing me, the Arab raised himself a little, and his hand went to his pocket. Naturally, I gripped Raymond's revolver in the pocket of my coat." Merely a cautious action for self-defence. No aggression.

The Arab displayed aggression and he waited for his chance to pounce on Merausalt. M could have tried to run away from the situation. And the thought did cross his mind: " It struck me that all I had to do was to turn, walk away, and think no more about it".

Mersaultian men are not cowards, surely. Nor could they think ahead, they are uncomplicated "simpletons." And live in the NOW. It was the oppressive heat, the blinding light reflecting off the knife of the Arab, and the dazzling sunlight, that was bathing the beach, that overwhelmed M.

"I couldn't stand it any longer, and took another step forward. I knew it was a foolish thing to do; I wouldn't get out of the sun by moving on a yard or so. But I took that step, just one step, forward. And then the Arab drew his knife and held it up toward me, athwart the sunlight."

This was not the confession of a killer. How beautifully he described what actually happened; it has a detached, yet sublime with poetic feeling; no criminal mind could think so truthfully.

Mersaultian men are not killers. So if they are faced with a situation when they do kill, it is never premeditated, but always for self-defence as a violent reaction.

Had Raymond's revolver not been in M's pocket, he would have faced the Arab bare-handed and got himself killed, instead. That's why, in a nonchalant manner M could make light of this heinous act and introspect thus:

"I knew I'd shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing."

Meursaultian men cannot be tethered. They live in the NOW, not beyond. And the past has ceased to be of any consequence to them. That's why the mother's death failed to evoke any emotion in him. He enjoys Marie and her allures NOW, not bothering to think beyond that.

M men are drifters, too. It is a mistake to domesticate them. Mother could not tame him, nor will Marie be able to change him. They do not wish much out of life, just enough to get by, and be happy with. They do not believe in God, benevolence or anything that stands for permanence or the unattainable. They will not desire to harm their fellow men, but their actions often cause pain to those who care for them. They are in constant communication with their inner-self, but not much with other human beings.

Lastly, the Meursaultian man is a poet, and philosopher. 

 3. Bobby's answer:
 Meursault calls a spade a spade. His reluctance to judge and be judged has a Christian echo.

Camus is able to portray the man as a man living for the day ... give us this day our daily bread.

It is a book that requires re-reading ... to enjoy the nuances. The prose is minimalistic and yet searing , full of sarcasm at the bourgeois practices of society.

Meursault is able to console Salamano for the loss of his dog.

Meursault is able to give in to Marie's needs for reassurance.

He has no idea of the "afterlife" and is not interested. He is interested in today.

His crime was making that one step forward , his undoing.

4. Talitha's answer:
The Meursaultian man appears sub-human. Since he is seems incapable of entering into the joys and sorrows of others and is hardly aware of his own, one wonders why he cannot be classed as autistic.

However, there are stray glimpses of some latent humanity - his perception of the strange link between his neighbour and his pathetic dog; his realisation that by his almost robotic shooting of the Arab, he had opened the door of his own misery; his musings during the court scene and after his outburst against the chaplain, that the scents, sounds and simple joys of the world had in some way meant something to him. That if anything could have made him happy, he had been happy.

I see two religious motifs in the book, unintended by Camus, I am sure. One is the description of the shooting. The motiveless act, scarcely volitional, seems to mirror the Fall of man, which was just as lacking in a positive motive. The eating of the apple was such an insignificant act of disobedience, and yet it opened the door to Man's undoing, condemnation and death, as Meursault's act does for him.

The other is the experience of the universe "speaking" to Meursault through the "signs and stars" that he saw from his prison cell. Meursault was condemned for his callousness and amorality by the judicial world. But this mystical experience that Meursault had, offsets in a perverse way the madness that the sun had earlier infused in him.

Despite these flashes of human feeling, the only sign that he is reacting to the world of men is his macabre desire that cries of execration should accompany his last moments on earth.

Though he was a poor lover, loving his mother, his neighbour and Marie with so a faint and feeble love, he proves quite animated in his hate, if only in his last hours on earth. 

5. Joe's answer:
 Philosophical:
M thinks being alive is the only good in life. For it gives access to the simple pleasures of being with a woman, going swimming, walking on the beach, etc.
M lives and lets live. He respects his neighbours' space, and if necessary stops to sympathise with them in their loss.
M lays no store by getting ahead in life. He's okay where he is.
M does not believe in the after-life.
Psychological:
M is laid-back, and indecisive.
M is not capable of long-term commitment to others.
M 's potentiality for grief, and the stronger emotions like hate, is strictly limited.
M is erratic, waylaid by his repressed prejudices, resulting in unintended consequences.
Moral:
M is self-centred and evaluates situations in terms of whether it will circumscribe his own freedom or not.
M is not affected by injurious acts of his that violate other people's rights.
M subscribes to no societal code of ethics above himself, that will govern his actions.
Morphological:
The Meursaultian human has no particular morphological characteristics. Either sex, could be Meursaultian, every ethnic type can have its Meursaultians; they could be fat or lean, athletic or sedentary; ordinary-looking or handsome.


Albert Camus is buried in Lourmarin, the Luberon village he loved in Provence


Sivaram
In Sivaram's absence here is the reference to the Nobel Banquet speech of Albert Camus:

Here is the excerpt, which he intended to read:
For myself, I cannot live without my art. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men, and it allows me to live, such as I am, on one level with them. It is a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings. It obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others. The artist forges himself to the others, midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community he cannot tear himself away from. That is why true artists scorn nothing: they are obliged to understand rather than to judge. And if they have to take sides in this world, they can perhaps side only with that society in which, according to Nietzsche's great words, not the judge but the creator will rule, whether he be a worker or an intellectual.

By the same token, the writer's role is not free from difficult duties. By definition he cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it. Otherwise, he will be alone and deprived of his art. Not all the armies of tyranny with their millions of men will free him from his isolation, even and particularly if he falls into step with them. But the silence of an unknown prisoner, abandoned to humiliations at the other end of the world, is enough to draw the writer out of his exile, at least whenever, in the midst of the privileges of freedom, he manages not to forget that silence, and to transmit it in order to make it resound by means of his art.




Readings

Thommo
1. Part I, Section V, p. 28
Just then my employer sent for me. For a moment I felt uneasy, as I expected he was going to tell me to stick to my work and not waste time chattering with friends over the phone. However, it was nothing of the kind. He wanted to discuss a project he had in view, though so far he’d come to no decision. It was to open a branch at Paris, so as to be able to deal with the big companies on the spot, without postal delays, and he wanted to know if I’d like a post there.
You’re a young man,” he said, “and I’m pretty sure you’d enjoy living in Paris. And, of course, you could travel about France for some months in the year.”
I told him I was quite prepared to go; but really I didn’t care much one way or the other.

He then asked if a “change of life,” as he called it, didn’t appeal to me, and I answered that one never changed his way of life; one life was as good as another, and my present one suited me quite well.

At this he looked rather hurt, and told me that I always shilly-shallied, and that I lacked ambition—a grave defect, to his mind, when one was in business.
I returned to my work. I’d have preferred not to vex him, but I saw no reason for “changing my life.” By and large it wasn’t an unpleasant one. As a student I’d had plenty of ambition of the kind he meant. But, when I had to drop my studies, I very soon realized all that was pretty futile.

2. Part I, Section V p.28
Marie came that evening and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn’t mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married.

Then she asked me again if I loved her. I replied, much as before, that her question meant nothing or next to nothing—but I supposed I didn’t.

If that’s how you feel,” she said, “why marry me?”

I explained that it had no importance really, but, if it would give her pleasure, we could get married right away. I pointed out that, anyhow, the suggestion came from her; as for me, I’d merely said, “Yes.”

Then she remarked that marriage was a serious matter.

To which I answered: “No.”

She kept silent after that, staring at me in a curious way. Then she asked:

Suppose another girl had asked you to marry her—I mean, a girl you liked in the same way as you like me—would you have said ‘Yes’ to her, too?”

Naturally.”

Then she said she wondered if she really loved me or not. I, of course, couldn’t enlighten her as to that. And, after another silence, she murmured something about my being “a queer fellow.” “And I daresay that’s why I love you,” she added. “But maybe that’s why one day I’ll come to hate you.”

To which I had nothing to say, so I said nothing.

She thought for a bit, then started smiling and, taking my arm, repeated that she was in earnest; she really wanted to marry me.

All right,” I answered. “We’ll get married whenever you like.” I then mentioned the proposal made by my employer, and Marie said she’d love to go to Paris.


KumKum
Part I, Section VI Page 37-39 – The encounter on the beach with the Arab
The small black hump of rock came into view far down the beach. It was rimmed by a dazzling sheen of light and feathery spray, but I was thinking of the cold, clear stream behind it, and longing to hear again the tinkle of running water. Anything to be rid of the glare, the sight of women in tears, the strain and effort—and to retrieve the pool of shadow by the rock and its cool silence!

But when I came nearer I saw that Raymond’s Arab had returned. He was by himself this time, lying on his back, his hands behind his head, his face shaded by the rock while the sun beat on the rest of his body. One could see his dungarees steaming in the heat. I was rather taken aback; my impression had been that the incident was closed, and I hadn’t given a thought to it on my way here.

On seeing me, the Arab raised himself a little, and his hand went to his pocket. Naturally, I gripped Raymond’s revolver in the pocket of my coat. Then the Arab let himself sink back again, but without taking his hand from his pocket. I was some distance off, at least ten yards, and most of the time I saw him as a blurred dark form wobbling in the heat haze. Sometimes, however, I had glimpses of his eyes glowing between the half-closed lids. The sound of the waves was even lazier, feebler, than at noon. But the light hadn’t changed; it was pounding as fiercely as ever on the long stretch of sand that ended at the rock. For two hours the sun seemed to have made no progress; becalmed in a sea of molten steel. Far out on the horizon a steamer was passing; I could just make out from the corner of an eye the small black moving patch, while I kept my gaze fixed on the Arab.

It struck me that all I had to do was to turn, walk away, and think no more about it. But the whole beach, pulsing with heat, was pressing on my back. I took some steps toward the stream. The Arab didn’t move. After all, there was still some distance between us. Perhaps because of the shadow on his face, he seemed to be grinning at me.

I waited. The heat was beginning to scorch my cheeks; beads of sweat were gathering in my eyebrows. It was just the same sort of heat as at my mother’s funeral, and I had the same disagreeable sensations—especially in my forehead, where all the veins seemed to be bursting through the skin. I couldn’t stand it any longer, and took another step forward. I knew it was a fool thing to do; I wouldn’t get out of the sun by moving on a yard or so. But I took that step, just one step, forward. And then the Arab drew his knife and held it up toward me, athwart the sunlight.

A shaft of light shot upward from the steel, and I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead. At the same moment all the sweat that had accumulated in my eyebrows splashed down on my eyelids, covering them with a warm film of moisture. Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.


Bobby
Part I, Section VI end, p.38
Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. And so, with that crisp, whipcrack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging veil of light. I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.


Joe
1. The opening.
Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J'ai reçu un télégramme de l'asile : « Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués. » Cela ne veut rien dire. C'était peut-être hier.

2. The Murder
A shaft of light shot upward from the steel, and I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead. … Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. And so, with that crisp, whipcrack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging veil of light. I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy.

3. The ending
Once he’d gone, I felt calm again. But all this excitement had exhausted me and I dropped heavily on to my sleeping plank. I must have had a longish sleep, for, when I woke, the stars were shining down on my face. Sounds of the countryside came faintly in, and the cool night air, veined with smells’ of earth and salt, fanned my cheeks. The marvelous peace of the sleepbound summer night flooded through me like a tide. Then, just on the edge of daybreak, I heard a steamer’s siren. People were starting on a voyage to a world which had ceased to concern me forever. Almost for the first time in many months I thought of my mother. And now, it seemed to me, I understood why at her life’s end she had taken on a “fiancé”; why she’d played at making a fresh start. There, too, in that Home where lives were flickering out, the dusk came as a mournful solace. With death so near, Mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again. No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her. And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.


Zakia
Part II, Section IV, p.65 (the Trial)
When I was brought back next day, the electric fans were still churning up the heavy air and the jurymen plying their gaudy little fans in a sort of steady rhythm. The speech for the defense seemed to me interminable. At one moment, however, I pricked up my ears; it was when I heard him saying: “It is true I killed a man.” He went on in the same strain, saying “I” when he referred to me. It seemed so queer that I bent toward the policeman on my right and asked him to explain. He told me to shut up; then, after a moment, whispered: “They all do that.” It seemed to me that the idea behind it was still further to exclude me from the case, to put me off the map. so to speak, by substituting the lawyer for myself. Anyway, it hardly mattered; I already felt worlds away from this courtroom and its tedious “proceedings.”

My lawyer, in any case, struck me as feeble to the point of being ridiculous. He hurried through his plea of provocation, and then he, too, started in about my soul. But I had an impression that he had much less talent than the Prosecutor.

I, too,” he said, “have closely studied this man’s soul; but, unlike my learned friend for the prosecution, I have found something there. Indeed, I may say that I have read the prisoner’s mind like an open book.” What he had read there was that I was an excellent young fellow, a steady, conscientious worker who did his best by his employer; that I was popular with everyone and sympathetic in others’ troubles. According to him I was a dutiful son, who had supported his mother as long as he was able. After anxious consideration I had reached the conclusion that, by entering a home, the old lady would have comforts that my means didn’t permit me to provide for her. “I am astounded, gentlemen,” he added, “by the attitude taken up by my learned friend in referring to this Home. Surely if proof be needed of the excellence of such institutions, we need only remember that they are promoted and financed by a government department.” I noticed that he made no reference to the funeral, and this seemed to me a serious omission. But, what with his long-windedness, the endless days and hours they had been discussing my “soul,” and the rest of it, I found that my mind had gone blurred; everything was dissolving into a grayish, watery haze.

Only one incident stands out; toward the end, while my counsel rambled on, I heard the tin trumpet of an ice-cream vendor in the street, a small, shrill sound cutting across the flow of words. And then a rush of memories went through my mind—memories of a life which was mine no longer and had once provided me with the surest, humblest pleasures: warm smells of summer, my favorite streets, the sky at evening, Marie’s dresses and her laugh. The futility of what was happening here seemed to take me by the throat, I felt like vomiting, and I had only one idea: to get it over, to go back to my cell, and sleep ... and sleep.


Priya
The final encounter with the chaplain, at the end.
Then, I don’t know how it was, but something seemed to break inside me, and I started yelling at the top of my voice. I hurled insults at him, I told him not to waste his rotten prayers on me; it was better to burn than to disappear. I’d taken him by the neckband of his cassock, and, in a sort of ecstasy of joy and rage, I poured out on him all the thoughts that had been simmering in my brain. He seemed so cocksure, you see. And yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair. Living as he did, like a corpse, he couldn’t even be sure of being alive. It might look as if my hands were empty. Actually, I was sure of myself, sure about everything, far surer than he; sure of my present life and of the death that was coming. That, no doubt, was all I had; but at least that certainty was something I could get my teeth into—just as it had got its teeth into me. I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right. I’d passed my life in a certain way, and I might have passed it in a different way, if I’d felt like it. I’d acted thus, and I hadn’t acted otherwise; I hadn’t done x, whereas I had done y or z. And what did that mean? That, all the time, I’d been waiting for this present moment, for that dawn, tomorrow’s or another day’s, which was to justify me. Nothing, nothing had the least importance and I knew quite well why. He, too, knew why. From the dark horizon of my future a sort of slow, persistent breeze had been blowing toward me, all my life long, from the years that were to come. And on its way that breeze had leveled out all the ideas that people tried to foist on me in the equally unreal years I then was living through. What difference could they make to me, the deaths of others, or a mother’s love, or his God; or the way a man decides to live, the fate he thinks he chooses, since one and the same fate was bound to “choose” not only me but thousands of millions of privileged people who, like him, called themselves my brothers. Surely, surely he must see that? Every man alive was privileged; there was only one class of men, the privileged class. All alike would be condemned to die one day; his turn, too, would come like the others’. And what difference could it make if, after being charged with murder, he were executed because he didn’t weep at his mother’s funeral, since it all came to the same thing in the end? The same thing for Salamano’s wife and for Salamano’s dog. That little robot woman was as “guilty” as the girl from Paris who had married Masson, or as Marie, who wanted me to marry her. What did it matter if Raymond was as much my pal as Céleste, who was a far worthier man? What did it matter if at this very moment Marie was kissing a new boy friend? As a condemned man himself, couldn’t he grasp what I meant by that dark wind blowing from my future? ...
I had been shouting so much that I’d lost my breath, and just then the jailers rushed in and started trying to release the chaplain from my grip. One of them made as if to strike me. The chaplain quietened them down, then gazed at me for a moment without speaking. I could see tears in his eyes. Then he turned and left the cell.


Talitha
Part I, end of Section V, p.31 (Salamano's dog is lost)
Just then I yawned, and the old man said he’d better make a move. I told him he could stay, and that I was sorry about what had happened to his dog. He thanked me, and mentioned that my mother had been very fond of his dog. He referred to her as “your poor mother,” and was afraid I must be feeling her death terribly. When I said nothing he added hastily and with a rather embarrassed air that some of the people in the street said nasty things about me because I’d sent my mother to the Home. But he, of course, knew better; he knew how devoted to my mother I had always been.

I answered—why, I still don’t know—that it surprised me to learn I’d produced such a bad impression. As I couldn’t afford to keep her here, it seemed the obvious thing to do, to send her to a home. “In any case,” I added, “for years she’d never had a word to say to me, and I could see she was moping, with no one to talk to.”

Yes,” he said, “and at a home one makes friends, anyhow.”

He got up, saying it was high time for him to be in bed, and added that life was going to be a bit of a problem for him, under the new conditions. For the first time since I’d known him he held out his hand to me—rather shyly, I thought—and I could feel the scales on his skin. Just as he was going out of the door, he turned and, smiling a little, said:

Let’s hope the dogs won’t bark again tonight. I always think it’s mine I hear. ...”

3 comments:

TM said...

Meursaultian man appears sub-human. Since he is seems incapable of entering into the joys and sorrows of others and is hardly aware of his own, one wonders why he cannot be classed as autistic.

However, there are stray glimpses of some latent humanity - his perception of the strange link between his neighbour and his pathetic dog; his realisation that by his almost robotic shooting of the Arab, he had opened the door of his own misery; his musings during the courtscene and after his outburst against the chaplain, that the scents, sounds and simple joys of the world had in some way meant something to him. That if anything could have made him happy, he had been happy.

I see two religious motifs in the book, I am sure unintended by Camus. One is the description of the shooting. The motiveless act, scarcely volitional, seems to mirror the Fall of man, which was as shorn of positive motive. The eating of the apple was such an insignificant act of disobedience, and yet it opened the door to man's undoing, condemnation and death, as his act does for Meursault.

The other is the experience of the universe "speaking" to Meursault, whom the world of men condemned for his callousness and amorality, through the "signs and stars" that he saw from his prison cell. It was a mystical experience that Meursault had, and offsets in a perverse way the madness that the sun had earlier infused in him.

Despite these flashes of human feeling, the only sign that he is reacting to the world of men is his macabre desire that cries of execration should accompany his last moments on earth.

Though he was a poor lover, loving his mother, his neighbour and Marie with so faint and feeble a love, he proves quite animated in his hate, if only in his last hours on earth.

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness. I love what I am reading here. I am a high school teacher in New York City. My class is reading "The Stranger" now. I look forward to sharing with them your meditations on this novel. Two years ago I visited your beautiful city. I was there for almost two weeks. I hope to visit again someday. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on-line. How generous!

Management - Learning from Experiences by Reflection said...

Dear teacher from NYC,
I am glad you came to the blog I maintain for the Kochi Reading Group (KRG). May I encourage your students to also comment, if they wish.

Please do come again to Kochi and get in touch with me, kjcleetus“at”gmail.com

Perhaps you can attend one of our monthly sessions as a guest, if our session date, posted at top right, happens to coincide with the visit. We welcome visitors and they can participate too - Tom Duddy from Brooklyn did at one of our poetry sessions:
http://kochiread.blogspot.in/2012/03/poetry-session-on-mar-16-2012.html

My wife and I celebrated her birthday in August this year by spending a great weekend in NYC with our children.

- joe