Stranger than Fiction? Indeed, Absurd!

Harbouring the Stranger (circa 1649) by Michiel Sweerts. Public Domain via Wikimedia.

The StrangerThe Stranger by Albert Camus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Upon finishing this book, I found it difficult to shake the images it left behind. Coupled with Guy de Maupassant's powerfully class conscious Bel Ami, I felt like the chips on my own shoulders now had Maupassant and Camus sitting on them, haunting me like spectres and no way to shake them off. Not as if the books had been absorbed into my identity, which most good books seem to do, but as if they were somehow added on and would require surgery to be removed. One sleep after finishing the book, I feel like John Nash's character in A Beautiful Mind, I know they are there, but they do not bother me too much if I don't engage with them. I have had the urge, since reading The Myth of Sisyphus, to read all of Camus' work, as I did with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I had purchased The Plague and The Outsider to read, not realising at the time that The Outsider is actually a different translation of L’Étranger, the latter translated by Sandra Smith. I was annoyed that I had purchased the same book, but a quick perusal of Smith's translation shows some differences that will be worth exploring. Nonetheless, with these two spectres haunting enough as it is, I was not ready to read the same story again - it is much too vivid still. On the back cover of Sandra Smith's translation, a quote by William Boyd says it more eloquently than I:
One of those books that marks a reader's life indelibly.
I'll say. When I went in search of William Boyd, I discovered a review in The Guardian that seemed to be somewhat sour grapes. In a review entitled "Bamboozled", Adam Mars-Jones says:
It's a mystery how some of William Boyd's journalism was published the first time, let alone reprinted in Bamboo.
Very clever! But maybe not as clever as the New York Times review by David Haglund:
It’s difficult, in fact, to argue with any of Boyd’s conclusions. But if one can’t argue with a review, why bother with it at all? One would rather — at least, I would rather — read a striking if ultimately dubious argument about a book or a movie than the level-headed evaluations provided in these pages. It is more important for a critic to be interesting than to be right.
The artist as critic. But Boyd says what I felt about Camus: remembers vividly the actual reading of the book itself, the sense of unfolding revelation afforded, however modest, of doors being opened, the power of one writer's imagination impinging irrevocably on your own... the urge to consume the entire oeuvre was a vital part of this writer's allure.
Camus died at age 46. For some reason his James Dean-like cover photo and his candid discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus had me thinking he had suffered the same fate as other literary greats. But it wasn't the case, he was killed in a car crash while holding a train ticket - he had caught a lift rather than catch the train. And in this example of life imitating art, we find Camus' idea of the absurd (apparently he didn't like being called an existentialist) neatly captured in The Stranger:
Since existence itself has no meaning, we must learn to bear an irresolvable emptiness. This paradoxical situation, then, between our impulse to ask ultimate questions and the impossibility of achieving any adequate answer, is what Camus calls the absurd. Camus’s philosophy of the absurd explores the consequences arising from this basic paradox.
When Meursault, the protagonist, is attempting to accept "the machine" (I couldn't help thinking of the term "machinery of government"), the idea of the system and indeed the guillotine all occupy one's imagination in a swirling confusion of "absurdity". I was perplexed by the idea of the guillotine in a novel written in 1942, so I did a little research. The last use of the guillotine in France, and the last official "beheading" in the West was in Paris in 1977, when I was seven years old. In my lifetime. Just over forty years ago, in France. I am still flabbergasted. Yet the last public execution by guillotine was in 1939, only three years before Camus published the novel, so the terror of that machine was very much still in the public memory. (It makes me shudder to think of the guillotine simulation at Questacon - I don't think I could put my head in there nowadays.) Marcel Chevalier was the last Chief Executioner (the position was informally known as Monsieur de Paris) of France - can you imagine a public service position with that title in Australia? And yet, there it was in France in my own lifetime. Now that is absurd! The bottom line is that I don't know what to think, and Camus' absurd philosophy suggests that there is no point anyway. Having said that, the second part of Camus' philosophy deals with rebellion, and so the absurd and the rebel provide some understanding of the "why". I will have to reserve judgement for now, but if I do find I am actually in The Matrix, at this point I would be wishing I had told Morpheus to shove that red pill up his butt! For Aristotle, the root of education may be bitter and the fruit may be sweet, but he never said that once you were planted, you would grow until you die and you could never cut off those nasty philosophical roots, no matter what you did, ever again. How absurd!