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Meursault™s discourse is both more radical and more sophisticated,
deploying irony as its weapon.
Free indirect speech is a third form that stands beside direct and
indirect speech. Instead of ˜I wish to leave™ or ˜he said that he wished
to leave™, one may use ˜he wished to leave™. More interestingly, free
indirect speech is a case where the speaker does not appear in his
64 THE STRANGER

own right as an ˜I™ and does not use his own language. Nor does
he appear as the autonomous author “ the ˜he said that™ “ of his
statements. Indeed, these appear on the surface to have no author.
But, although this supports Barthes™s view that the language of
The Stranger is ˜neutral™, the phenomenon of the seemingly absent
author is more complex.
Direct speech is usually a sign that experience is being transmitted
with immediacy. In The Stranger there is comparatively little direct
speech, which con¬rms the conclusion that even in the ¬rst half
of the book Meursault is a creature of frustrated awareness rather
than a thoughtless barbarian. Not surprisingly, there is a great deal
of indirect speech where the ˜he said™ reminds the reader that expe-
rience is being ¬ltered through language. But free indirect speech
allows the ¬ltering to be done not by the character himself but by
someone else, which undermines the character™s autonomy.
When the boss asks Meursault to go to Paris, all three kinds of
speech are used: ˜He declared that he was going to talk to me about
a plan that was still vague . . .™ (indirect speech); ˜he intended to set
up an of¬ce in Paris that would conduct his business on the spot and
directly with the big companies . . .™ (free indirect speech); ˜“You are
young and it seems to me a life you would like”™ (direct speech) (68).
By using free indirect speech for the middle and most important
section, Camus weakens the validity of the plan, which is then more
convincingly rejected by Meursault.
It is no coincidence that the boss is a ¬gure of power, because free
indirect speech is used chie¬‚y in the second half of the book and its
goal is, as Fitch has pointed out, to de¬‚ate the lawyers™ rhetoric. In
one passage Meursault ironically reclaims the ˜I™ that is elsewhere
appropriated by the defence lawyer. The prosecutor ˜declared to
the jury that it was generally known that the witness exercised
the profession of a pimp. I was his accomplice and his friend. The
whole business was a squalid intrigue of the lowest kind™ (147).
Here the ˜I™ reminds the reader that the narrator is not the lawyer
but Meursault, who is mimicking the lawyer™s words. Not only does
this point out the pomposity of ˜squalid™ and ˜lowest™, but it creates a
comic effect because Meursault is allowing himself to be castigated.
Free indirect speech does not remove the author, but it enables
him to exert a subtle power over the speaker. Since Meursault, the
character, is in a position of weakness, his assertion of power via his
The Stranger 65
role as narrator is all the more striking. No longer are the represen-
tatives of the state in control of what they say; instead they become
comic characters in the work of ¬ction that Meursault is offering us.
Their creations of a Meursault who premeditated his crime or was
a model son are unconvincing alongside his creations of pompous
men using meaningless language.
This is why the ambiguity of Part 1 gives way to a self-assured
irony. Meursault™s language is no longer interrogating itself; rather
its lack of certainty becomes the same vantage-point from which
one laughs at the presumptuous antics of the judges. The second
half of The Stranger may be read as a comic novel. Meursault™s ability
to ¬nd anything and everything interesting always had possibilities
for humour, but they are not exploited until these chapters. ˜Even
when you™re in the dock it™s always interesting to hear yourself
talked about™ (151) is a sentence that mocks the court™s sacrosanct
aura, while placing Meursault, the humorist, outside the dock. His
willingness to approve of a legal system that is so clearly absurd
reinforces that absurdity: ˜I had to give the details of who I was all
over again and, although I was annoyed, I thought it was really
pretty natural because to judge one man in place of another would
be very serious™ (134). Best of all is Meursault™s reply when told that
the magistrate will name a defence lawyer: ˜I thought it was very
convenient that the justice system should take care of these details. I
said this to him. He agreed and concluded that the law worked well™
(100).
By such comedy Meursault wins the reader™s sympathy. Dissi-
dence de¬es authority and, if the contemporary reader can still not
quite forget that somehow an Arab has been murdered, he is certain
that the judges are guilty and Meursault innocent. As Fitch points
out, Meursault becomes ˜our spiritual brother™ (Fitch, Narrateur et
narration dans ˜L™Etranger™, p. 58). One may see at least one reason
why The Stranger was so widely read during the Occupation. At a
time when French institutions had lost their legitimacy and when
the legal system was perverted by the Nazi invaders and the Vichy
regime to brand the Resistants as terrorists, Camus™s satire had great
appeal.
The reader™s only reserve is that Meursault™s victory is rather too
easily won. Critics who accept the notion of probability are correct
to argue that no court would have condemned a man to death for
66 THE STRANGER

not weeping at his mother™s funeral. Even critics who refuse to stray
from the text must surely feel that the lawyers™ rhetoric is in¬‚ated,
and that the magistrate who marches around his of¬ce with a cruci-
¬x that he had pulled from his ¬ling cabinet is too grotesque a ¬gure.
Fitch wonders whether the narrator, Meursault, would be capable of
such irony and whether some of the more comic passages are not
written by a cleverer man called Camus. One tends to agree, espe-
cially since Meursault™s awareness of the trap into which he has
fallen grows slowly from Chapter 2 on, whereas the passage about
the law working well comes from Chapter 1.
These are, however, minor objections and the last one may be
inherent in the genre of the journal-novel. By the end of Chapter 4,
Meursault is established as the man who lives honestly and who
is victimized by an oppressive, falsely humanistic society. This
theme will receive further development in the last chapter, where
Meursault must face death not in its social guise “ the death penalty
imposed by unjust men “ but as the great fact of the human
condition.


10 God is dead and Existentialism is born
The ¬nal chapter has been described by one critic as ˜an inter-
pretation of what has preceded, a summing up of the knowledge
gained™ (Viggiani, p. 885). The allusions to fatality which are scat-
tered throughout the book take shape in what Meursault called ˜the
mechanism™ that will terminate his existence. In Part 1 death was
wrapped in lyricism and, while Meursault the character was saved
because others died in his stead, Meursault the narrator defended
himself with his ambiguity. There is no such ambiguity in the last
chapter, nor is there much irony, for Meursault can no longer out-
wit his enemies by humour. Now he has to ¬nd a new language
and in fact he discovers two: an attempted meditation on his own
extinction and a cry of revolt.
There is fresh doubt about the sequence of this chapter because
the ¬rst page is written in the present tense, which leads Fitch to ar-
gue that it is chronologically the last moment of the book, that the
interview with the priest has already taken place and that Meursault
is now writing his journal. This may well be true, although one
The Stranger 67
remembers that The Stranger takes some care to prevent us from un-
derstanding when and how it has been written. As for this chapter,
it may be read, as Viggiani has suggested, as a separate entity
where unity lies in the clash of extremes: the way that an extremely
intellectual discourse breaks down and triggers an emotional
outburst.
The number three stands at the outset “ ˜For the third time I
refused to receive the chaplain™ (165) “ to remind us that we are
outside history and that the political struggle of Part 2, Chapters 1“4,
is over. Meursault™s awareness has grown and he is focusing it on his
forthcoming end. He himself puts it differently: ˜What interests me
at this moment is to escape the mechanism™ (165). But the trouble
is that he cannot escape it and the structure of his meditation is that
a cycle is repeated ¬ve times. Each time Meursault seeks to divert his
mind from death but each time he is brought back to it.
The ¬rst time he thinks of escape and spins out a tale of books
on escape “ fabulous, unread and unwritten texts that depict last-
minute ¬‚ights “ and then he concludes: ˜But, all things considered,
nothing allowed this luxury, everything denied it to me, the mecha-
nism took hold of me again™ (166). The difference between this lan-
guage and the rest of the book is that doubt has now vanished. The
usual formula of ˜all things considered™, which used to announce
an awareness stranded in uncertainty, here announces the cate-
gorical statement emphasized by words ˜nothing™ and ˜everything™.
Meursault has attained certainty by coming up against his own
limits.
Unable to confront this “ ˜despite my good will I could not accept
this insolent certainty™ (167) “ he spins out a second ¬‚ight which
avoids the imminence of death by demonstrating that the penalty
was imposed arbitrarily; but this tale has as its conclusion that,
arbitrary or not, the decision is ¬nal. There follow similar tales where
Meursault imagines that he is a spectator at the execution, that the
guillotine might not work or that, since it is high above the ground,
it is an imposing and noble edi¬ce.
It is not fanciful to suggest that Camus is here explaining the
ground rules of his own ¬ction, which refuses to accept the imag-
inative ˜world™ as the equivalent of reality. By using the language
of analytical thought “ the guillotine is described as ˜a work of
68 THE STRANGER

precision™ (170) “ he undercuts the tale-telling of traditional novels.
Meursault, who has always distrusted imagination, is thrown back
on reason which offers him, however, an equally unsatisfactory dis-
course.
His next subterfuge is to plunge into his fear: ˜the most reasonable
thing was not to force myself™ (171). Yet he retains control, even if
the reader feels already that the breakdown is near. First Meursault
imposes on his mind the target of surviving past dawn “ prisoners
to be executed are taken out at dawn “ and then during the day he
juggles with his appeal, imagining now that it is accepted and now
that it is rejected. The distinctive feature of these exercises is their
intellectual rigour, which is forced on the reader™s attention even as
its tenuous control is equally stressed: ˜Therefore (and the dif¬cult
thing was not losing sight of all the reasoning that this “therefore”
represented)™ (174).
Meursault™s task, which is also depicted in La Mort heureuse and
which will be discussed in the next chapter, is to compel his sane
mind to face death. Whereas most people combat death with the
consolations of having played a role in a larger historical process or
of perpetuating themselves biologically via their children, Meursault
confronts it alone. Whereas most people are racked with pain, be-
wildered by age or befuddled with drugs, Meursault is healthy,
young and in full possession of his faculties. His loneliness is ac-
centuated by the way he speci¬cally rejected Marie “ ˜outside of our
two bodies which were now separated nothing bound us together™
(175). Indeed it is because this meditation refuses the usual non-
transcendental forms of consolation that it forces the reader back to
God and constitutes “ in my opinion “ religious writing.
Meursault™s rigour is designed to compel man, a creature de¬ned
by his desire for immortality, to confront his mortality. This is what
Camus will call ˜the absurd™ in The Myth of Sisyphus, where the
confrontation will be handled differently. Here Meursault is tested
by his conversation with the priest.
Although he enters without permission and although he is yet
another false father, the priest is not to be dismissed as a mere ad-
junct of the state. The conversation of Part 2, Chapter 1, depicts the
cruci¬x-wielding magistrate as a false priest who deploys clich´ s. e
In a banal parody of pious jargon he invites Meursault to become
The Stranger 69
˜a child whose soul is empty and ready to welcome anything™ (107).
But this time the priest is not to be dismissed with easy irony.
He offers two kinds of arguments: the existence of sin and the
impossibility of a world without God. In secularizing the concept of
sin, by refusing to admit anything more than that society consid-
ers him guilty, Meursault is rejecting the framework of theological
values that embraces sin. The term has no meaning unless one also
believes not merely in free will but in grace and forgiveness, which
in turn presupposes a loving God. This leads easily to the af¬rmation
(shared by Camus) that God does not exist and to a further af¬rma-
tion (unshared by Camus) that desire for immortality is ˜no more
important than wanting to be rich, to be able to swim very fast or
to have a better-shaped mouth™ (181).
Against transcendental values, Meursault asserts the kind of life
he had lived in Part 1 and of which he became gradually aware
in Part 2, Chapters 1“4. When the priest asks him to perceive in
the prison stones ˜a divine face™ (180), Meursault replies that he
has only ever seen there Marie™s face and that he can now see only
the stone. Stone, which is in Camus™s work associated both with
happiness and distress, is here an image of earthly life, and this is
the life which Meursault asserts against the priest. Enraged at the
illusion he is being offered, he breaks into the cry: ˜Something broke
inside me and I started crying at the top of my voice™ (182). Like the
Arab woman, he begins with a denunciation, when he insults the
priest and insists that he does not want to be prayed for.
The language of this cry is a variation on ordinary rhetoric. Ques-
tions, repetitions and antitheses abound although the clauses are
short and the vocabulary is simple. The weakness of these pages
lends credence to Gassin™s contention that the book™s ending is not
convincing, although one might argue that this discourse should
be read not for itself but as the metaphor of a cry which cannot
exist inside the pages of a book, and which is echoed by the ˜cries of
hatred™ with which society will greet Meursault™s execution.
After denouncing the priest, Meursault repudiates as intellec-
tualizations all judgements, whether moral or religious. The verb
˜to understand™ is used in a new sense. It is the priest who is being
challenged and who fails to understand “ ˜Did he understand, did
he understand this?™ (184) “ while Meursault is in possession of
70 THE STRANGER

wisdom. This consists in being able to articulate a preference for the
¬‚ux of sensory experience and a refusal to categorize: ˜I had lived in
one way and I could have lived in another. I had this and I had not
done that. I had not done one thing while I had done another. So
what?™ (183).
The Stranger ends as Meursault af¬rms the worth of his daily
round on the Algiers streets, a life that is both alienated because of
the seeming absence of values and honest in its refusal of illusions.
Non-intelligibility is changed by the act of recognizing and choosing
it. In this way The Stranger offers the reader an early version of French
Existentialism, which further explains the book™s success.
But if this is the last word of such an elusive text, then it must
be quali¬ed in two ways. First, a wisdom that involves re¬‚ection
on as well as involvement in concrete existence will surely strive to
draw values from that re¬‚ection. The Stranger ends with an outburst
where the simplicity of the language is a barrier against this develop-
ment, but elsewhere such wisdom must spawn new moralities and
ideologies. This will take place in Camus™s other books, especially in
The Myth of Sisyphus.
The second quali¬cation is present in The Stranger itself and has to
do with the vexing issue of oneness. In the last two pages the lyrical
language returns and sensations of light, noise and smell take on a
signi¬cance that is more than physical: ˜Sounds of the countryside
rose up to me. Odours of night, earth and salt refreshed my face.
The marvellous peace of this sleeping summer came ¬‚ooding over
me™ (185). This is different from the images of Part 1, Chapters 1
and 6, for no terror is involved and nature is not hostile, but is
in sympathy with Meursault™s revolt against the priest. Indeed it
contains a language that is intelligible to him: ˜in the face of this
night full of signs and stars I opened myself for the ¬rst time to the
tender indifference of the world™ (185).
So the experience of oneness marks not merely that death is near
but that some kind of truth or harmony has been attained. Meursault
does not develop this theme and the lyrical vein is less strong than
in the earlier passages. Moreover, he ends on a note of dualism,
because he imagines himself going to the guillotine amidst the cries
of hatred. However, the special insight into his condition which he
expresses in these last pages is linked with the moment of oneness.
The Stranger 71
Hard as it is for me to de¬ne this experience with simple language
and without injecting into it religious content, it is equally hard
not to believe that Meursault™s statement that the desire for God is
no more important than desiring to swim well is misleading. It is
the awareness of some sort of harmony that enables Meursault to
appreciate both the happiness and the shortcomings of his absurd
existence. This is surely why he compares himself with Christ on the
¬nal page: ˜So that all may be consummated™ (185).
Christ was God and man, and Camus believed he was chie¬‚y the
latter. But Christ is an uninteresting ¬gure unless He retains some
tiny trace of the Godhead, and this trace is what lurks behind the
˜night full of signs™. At the very least the absence of God is not to be
forgotten or overcome. And this in turn means that the ¬nal chapter
of The Stranger does not merely sum up the rest of the book “ and
does not really ¬t with Part 1, Chapters 1 and 6 “ but looks outward
to Camus™s other books.
Chapter 3
Early Camus and Sartre




As stated in Chapter 1, Camus considered that The Stranger, Caligula
and The Myth of Sisyphus should be read together, because they
make up the cycle of the absurd. However, Camus also writes in
The Myth that the works of an absurd artist may seem ˜to have
no connection one with the others™ (OC 2,190). Caligula has few
signi¬cant links with The Stranger and hence we shall treat it brie¬‚y.
The Myth will be discussed at greater length because it takes up the
issues of Meursault™s growing awareness and of the religious motif
in the last chapter. Indeed it will be argued that The Myth represents
both a conclusion and an interpretation of The Stranger, even if its
interpretation resolves in an unsatisfactory manner the ambiguity
of Part 1.
There are contrasts and parallels between The Stranger and
Sartre™s early ¬ction, Nausea (1938) and The Wall (1939). While
Camus recognized the kinship between his sense of the absurd and
that of Sartre, the differences between them were great and the ori-
gins of their famous quarrel in 1952 may be traced to their early
writing. A glance at Camus™s other books and at the young Sartre
enables us better to situate The Stranger.


11 The cycle of the absurd
Caligula does not belong entirely to the same period of Camus™s
writing as The Stranger and The Myth, because it was revised in
1944, 1947 and 1957. The impact of the Second World War led
Camus to emphasize his condemnation of Caligula™s brutality and
to strengthen the role of the emperor™s antagonist, Cherea. At the
time when Camus was writing The Stranger, Caligula may have been
an even more problematic ¬gure than in the 1957 version.

72
Early Camus and Sartre 73
Super¬cial parallels between novel and play abound. In Caligula
the ¬gure of the mother recurs: Act 1 begins with Drusilla™s death
(as a sister with whom the emperor had an incestuous affair, she
reminds us of Meursault™s mother) and near the end of the play
Caligula murders Caesonia (who is both mistress and mother and
whose death reminds us of Meursault™s ˜matricide™). Caligula con-
tains a radical political discourse which reminds us of the class
con¬‚icts in The Stranger. The emperor notes that ˜governing is steal-
ing™ (OC 1,22), and the freed slave H´ licon denounces virtue and
e
justice as ¬ctions that mask oppression. Although this is not the
main political theme of Caligula, it echoes the satire of the judges in
The Stranger.
Yet Caligula and Meursault are very different, for Caligula is
haunted by the absolute: ˜This world, as it is made, is unbearable.
So I need the moon or happiness or immortality or something else
which may be mad but is not of this world™ (15). Such remarks are
the antithesis of Meursault™s assertion that the stones of the earth
and Marie™s body are suf¬cient for him.
Instead of combating his need for immortality, Caligula seeks to
become God by assuming the divine prerogative of taking human
life. His version of immortality is ˜the unlimited joy of the unpunished
assassin™ (06). At the end he offers his self-critique “ ˜killing is no
solution™ (107) “ but he then acquiesces in his own assassination.
Murder and suicide are the twin poles of his existence and, once
more, they are the opposite of Meursault™s desire to live.
If we move from the characters Meursault and Caligula to the
narrator Meursault and the dramatist Caligula, we see more inter-
esting links between Camus™s ¬ction and his theatre. In both cases
his aim was to disturb the reader-spectator and to prevent him from
identifying with a hero or entering a story.
Caligula is not merely an emperor but an actor, stage-manager
and dramatist who from Act 2 to Act 4 offers the city of Rome a
piece of theatre: ˜I invite you to a limitless feast, to a mass trial, to
the ¬nest of shows. I need people, spectators, victims and villains™
(28).
Although the sinister allusion to a trial reminds us that Camus
lived in the age of show trials, the audience is partially won over
by Caligula™s theatre. It laughs with him and at the patricians as he
74 THE STRANGER

strips away the hypocrisy behind which they conceal their privileges.
Caligula is engaged in demythologization: in undercutting the gods
and institutions of Rome and also the conventions of the theatre.
The issue of how the audience is supposed to react to the play
becomes the main theme, because this self-aware work is littered
with characters who are artists, with plays within the play, with po-
etry competitions and with aesthetic discussions. It also has its own
audience within the play: the patricians, Scipion, Cherea, H´ licon
e
and Caesonia.
When we remember that Caligula was originally written for
Camus™s troupe, we are not surprised that the spectators™ reactions
are mixed. They run the gamut from H´ licon™s sympathy to Cherea™s
e
rebellion. But the most interesting spectator is Scipion, who is un-
able to formulate a coherent attitude because he is torn between
loving and loathing Caligula.
This is, of course, different from the ambiguity that marks Part 1
of The Stranger. The spectator is not left without explanations, so he
does not feel that Caligula remains unknown to him as Meursault
did. Instead, he feels the emotional reaction that Camus considered
necessary in the theatre. Still, this reaction is as mixed as Scipion™s:
sympathy for Caligula™s anguish and disgust at his brutality; ad-
miration for the satire in Caligula™s theatre and irritation at the
dramatist who forces his work on a captive audience. So the spec-
tator™s position is as uncomfortable as the position of Meursault™s
readers, and we are reminded of Jean Grenier™s comment “ quoted in
Chapter 1 “ on the parallels between Camus™s novel and his theatre.
The Myth of Sisyphus, however, offers explanations for Meursault.
To complicate matters further Camus accepted some of them and
used them as the springboard for the next phase of his work: The
Plague, The Rebel and The Just, which make up the cycle of revolt. Yet,
as well as displaying the inevitable differences between a novel and
an essay, The Stranger and The Myth depict the absurd differently, The
Myth presenting it, so I shall argue, in a religious context.
It begins with the by now familiar issues of language and genre.
The topic of the absurd is one where ˜classical dialectic™ must give way
to ˜common sense and sympathy™ (OC 2,100). Can a philosophical
treatise, Camus wonders, be written about a topic that de¬es philoso-
phy? He resolves the matter in two ways. He claims that he is writing
Early Camus and Sartre 75
with ˜common sense™, because he is dealing with the practical mat-
ter of whether the absurd should lead man to suicide. But he admits
that ˜classical dialectic™ cannot be banished, because man cannot
prevent himself from analysing and making judgements. Indeed,
his inability to do so is part of the absurd. So, although Camus says
that he is describing an absurd sensibility rather than analysing the
concept of the absurd, he is not unwilling to admit that he is doing
both. The Myth is description-analysis; it is an essay-treatise. If this
displeases philosophers, Camus might have written, then so much
the worse for them. However, Camus cannot avoid the fact that, as
the essay goes on, he changes the absurd by analysing it.
In the early pages he writes: ˜I said that the world is absurd but I
was going too fast. In itself the world is not reasonable, that is all one
can say. What is absurd is the confrontation between the irrational
and the frenzied desire for clarity that springs from the depths of
man™s being. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world™
(113). To a tree the universe is not absurd for the tree has its place;
the universe is absurd to man who has no place and is tormented by
a ˜nostalgia for unity™ and a ˜hunger for the absolute™ (110).
Camus lists examples of the absurd that are generally reminiscent
of The Stranger: the daily routine of work, which is rendered tolerable
by habit, can trigger an onrush of futility (we remember Meursault™s
comments on work in Part 1, Chapter 1); man lives for the future
but ahead of him lies nothing but death (Meursault talking to the
boss about careers); a landscape may by its very beauty indicate
its indifference to man (Meursault on the hills around Marengo);
a man speaking in a phone booth seems to the observer a puppet
making empty gestures (to Meursault, most people appear in this
light).
These examples revolve around the antithesis of man™s determi-
nation to see in the universe a re¬‚ection of himself and the universe™s
inability to resemble him. It is important to understand the nature
of the demand that Camusian man is making. He is asking for cer-
tainty: not intellectual knowledge, but the feeling that he is part of a
greater intelligence, which means an emotional and spiritual bond
with some sort of God.
This is why Camus can write that no scienti¬c comprehension
can satisfy man and that ˜to understand is above all to unify™. Even
76 THE STRANGER

reason is identi¬ed with the hunger for the absolute “ ˜man™s thought
is above all his nostalgia™ (134). Psychoanalytical and historical
interpretations of the human condition are as irrelevant as science,
which leaves only religion.
However, The Myth goes on to argue that religion offers a false so-
lution. Camus lists the thinkers who have taken leaps of faith that are
mere forms of suicide. The early Existentialist, Karl Jaspers, the phe-
nomenologists Husserl and Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky,
Shestov and Kafka are scrutinized and rebuked. Camus praises them
for asserting that the world cannot be explained by reason, but be-
rates them for then deciding to embrace the irrational. The reader
may be surprised at seeing so many different artists and philoso-
phers lumped together in a fairly brief discussion (although these
are the names that crop up everywhere in 1940s™ French writing),
but Camus is using them to illustrate his central theme. Man needs
the totality which only religion professes to offer, but religion cannot
really offer it.
One of Camus™s friends, Louis B´ nisti, said that the young Camus
e
was not an atheist nor even an agnostic, but that he believed in ˜a
God of whom you could ask nothing™. So the curious entity that
Camus calls man is de¬ned by his need for an absent God. But since
this need cannot be satis¬ed, why should man not try to shrug it off
and concentrate on history or psychoanalysis? Certainly not, replies
Camus. The attempt to satisfy the need for God is indeed a sickness
or a suicide, but the need, which we might rede¬ne as the capacity
to be aware of the divine, can become a positive force. It involves
a dual act of de¬ance in that man spurns the false explanations of
the world that are offered by judges and governments, and also in
that he refuses to yield to the need itself. Although the absurd may
now be rede¬ned as a de¬ance of the godhead, it remains a form of
religious experience because it stems from man™s awareness of the
godhead. Without what Camus calls nostalgia, the absurd “ that
non-meeting of man and the universe “ could not take place.
Before we trace the positive implications of the absurd, we must
return to The Stranger and consider how our interpretation of it is af-
fected by our reading of The Myth. First, if the religious urge involves
the temptation of suicide, we may brood, retrospectively, on the
¬gures of the mother and the Arab. Might they not possess “ along
Early Camus and Sartre 77
with their psychoanalytical and political associations “ religious
elements before which Meursault recoils?
More importantly, the trace of the godhead that was present in the
last chapter has grown clearer in The Myth, and we might reread the
passage about ˜the night full of signs™. The absurd existence, which
Meursault has learned to value, is happy because of these signs,
which are the signs not of the night but of his nostalgia. Already in
The Stranger the absurd was acquiring a shape and a coherence.
The second half of The Myth spells out what this coherence might
be. The ˜heartrending, marvellous gamble of the absurd™ (137) lies
in the lucid refusal of reconciliation with the universe. Key words in
The Myth are ˜enumerate™ (in contrast with ˜explain™) and ˜quantity™
(in contrast with ˜quality™). Since there is no causality, experiences
must be listed rather than re-arranged into an order. Since there are
no qualitative distinctions, choices are to be made by quantity. It is
not better, for example, to be an actor than to be a judge; a man can
merely act or judge with greater or lesser intensity. Yet here again
Camus suggests two or three ways of organizing experience, which
emerge from the lucidity that is inherent in the absurd. Man may
become homo ludens or he may create new moral values.
If the universe offers no values, life can be a game or a play.
Camus offers as a model the actor who feels no emotions but mimes
them all, who combines intensity with distance, and who acquires
a large quantity and diversity of experience. He may be Hamlet and
Prometheus on successive nights. If he so wishes, he may be Hamlet
offstage as well as onstage, because the stable human personality is
an illusion.
Another model is Don Juan, who plays out the game of seduction.
Reversing the traditional notion that Don Juan is the man in pursuit
of an ideal love, Camus de¬nes him as not believing in love and
simply seducing a number and variety of women. The word ˜simply™
is signi¬cant because Don Juan is not a complex or a superior ¬gure;
there can be little complexity and no heroes in a world where there
are no hierarchies of values.
Yet the second code outlined in The Myth involves the rebirth
of moral values. There are two very different directions in Camus™s
moral thinking. Having stressed common sense at the outset, he goes
on to invoke the body. Although it suffers from the absurd “ this is
78 THE STRANGER

what constitutes ˜nausea™ “ the body refuses its own extinction in
suicide. So it is a source of wisdom and, if man follows its suggestions,
it will lead him to happiness. Just as The Stranger emphasized the
body™s grace, The Myth shows its health and sanity. They lead man
to reject the aberrations of his mind, and they guide him towards
what we might call the morality of happiness. Man can enjoy his
own sexuality and the beauty of the natural world; he will avoid
extremes; he will trust in his instincts.
Implicitly “ in The Plague it will be explicit “ this contrasts with the
second and heroic direction of the essay: the road taken by the con-
queror. Once more the starting-point is lucidity, which leads man
to admit that no political miracle can transform the human condi-
tion. Yet, while not believing in revolution, the conqueror engages
in revolutionary action because the action rather than the goal is
valuable. His is an ascetic, masculine code that emphasizes courage
and sacri¬ce. Happiness is set aside in favour of bravery.
If moral thinking has found its way back into the absurd uni-
verse, so has politics. When he tells us that he distrusts ˜politi-
cal churches™ (167), the conqueror is offering both a criticism of
Malraux™s Bolshevik man and a hint of Camus™s future onslaughts
against messianic Marxism. The Myth repeats the main political les-
son of Caligula: that Rome cannot be transformed, and that attempts
to do this must end in futile bloodbaths.
When Camus writes in The Myth that the ˜only concept I can
have of freedom is the prisoner™s™ (140), he is undermining tradi-
tional forms of middle-class idealism, as he had done in The Stranger.
However, while The Myth indicates its distrust of all social orders, the
most pernicious are those which pretend to absolute legitimacy. The
political churches are another form of suicide, and the conqueror is
¬ghting for a revolution that he not merely does not believe in, but
also does not want.
The Myth ends by insisting that Sisyphus is happy. In his re-
view Maurice Blanchot argues that, since the absurd lies in the
domain of the non-rational, it contains an anguish which cannot
be lived with, much less transformed into happiness. For Camus,
writes Blanchot, ˜the absurd becomes a resolution or a solution™
(Maurice Blanchot, ˜Le Mythe de Sisyphe™, Faux Pas (Paris:
Gallimard, 1943), p. 70).
Early Camus and Sartre 79
This view, which is akin to Sartre™s, seems to me correct, as long
as it is not taken as a negative criticism. The absurd has become a
sort of resolution by acquiring ¬rst religious and then moral and
political connotations. The stage is now set for the cycle of revolt,
where the new values, whether of happiness or of asceticism, will
be developed. The sceptical reader may, however, wonder how far
such a development can go, since moral and political values cannot
take on an independent existence, but remain a part of the static
confrontation between man and an absent God. Politically, The Rebel
opens few perspectives and most of its pages reiterate the attacks on
political churches that were made in The Myth.
To the reader of The Stranger the value of perusing The Myth is that
it offers additional insights into Part 2. However, these accentuate
the difference between the two parts of the novel. In Part 1, the
absurd has no coherence and Meursault cannot become aware of
it, much less perceive signs in it. In this sense The Myth merely
highlights the way that The Stranger resists interpretation.


12 Different views of freedom
To discuss the religious aspect of Camus™s thought is to assert
the difference between him and Sartre. Since the parallels between
the two men are obvious but general, whereas the differences are
in the long run of greater signi¬cance, we shall return to the topic
of Camus and religion. But the young Camus and the young Sartre
discovered each other as writers of the absurd, even if, as Camus
pointed out in the review already quoted, their experience of the
absurd was not the same.
They also shared the view that literary French contained an alien-
ation, but the conclusions they drew from this are equally different.
Nor are such differences a matter of greater and lesser pessimism.
If they were, we might summarize them by saying that Camus was
less pessimistic about what man is, and more pessimistic about what
he might become.
What Camus and Sartre share is the belief that man™s only guide is
his direct experience, and that ˜others™ “ parents, bosses and judges “
seek to distort that experience in order to subjugate him. This is the
conclusion at which The Stranger and Childhood of a Leader arrive by
80 THE STRANGER

separate routes. A comparison of these two works is the best way
to approach our subject, although we must make a brief detour via
The Wall, the collection of stories that contains Childhood.
In his review of The Wall, Camus writes that the stories are
case-studies where the characters ˜stumble against an absurdity
that they cannot overcome™ (˜Le Mur de J.-P. Sartre™, OC 2,1420).
Sartre™s heroes and heroines are correct in dismissing the hypocrisy
of French society, which is satirized through minor ¬gures like
M. Darb´ dat (The Room), who is a patriarch and a paragon of tradi-
e
tional virtues like clarity and precision, and Pierre (Intimacy), who
incarnates male sexual dominance.
But, if she is right to reject her father, Eve, the heroine of The Room,
then indulges what Camus calls her ˜nostalgia for self-destruction™
(OC 2,1421). Interpreting The Wall via The Myth, Camus argues that
Eve and Hilbert (Erostratus) cannot tolerate the absurd and evade it
by ¬‚ights to madness or, in Hilbert™s case, murder.
In a short review Camus cannot deal with the title story, which
does not unfold according to the principle of self-destruction. Locked
in prison, Pablo tries to confront death lucidly but he is thwarted
when he unwittingly betrays a comrade and is released as a reward.
To Sartre, Pablo™s release is an ironic example of man™s lack of control
over his existence. The story reveals a sense of human helplessness
which is not present in The Stranger and which points already to the
differences between the two authors. At the same time, however,
Pablo had been starting to invent a life in his cell and had been
winning the freedom that Sartre would explore in his later books. A
similar awareness of freedom is provoked in the reader by Childhood,
which has a very different hero-narrator.
The relationship between Childhood and The Stranger emerges
from a comparison of the opening lines. Childhood begins: ˜“I am
adorable in my little angel suit.” Madame Portier had said to
mummy: “Your little boy is terribly sweet. He is adorable in his
little angel suit”™ (Le Mur (Paris: Gallimard, 1950 edition), p. 135).
Like Meursault, Lucien Fleuri´ offers us two kinds of language. The
e
¬rst is supposedly his own because it is introduced by an ˜I™, while
the second is the language of others. This is a discourse of banality
and affectation “ ˜terribly sweet™ and ˜adorable™ “ and yet the narra-
tor does not criticize it as Meursault criticized the telegram. On the
Early Camus and Sartre 81
contrary, he adopts it as his own. The ˜I™ at the outset is ironic be-
cause, as the time sequence “ ˜had said™ “ reveals, the ˜I™ stems from
the ˜your™ and the ˜he™. Lucien™s identity emerges from the words of
an ˜other™, Madame Portier, who is identi¬ed only by her class, for in
Childhood the designations ˜Monsieur™ and ˜Madame™ are reserved
for the bourgeoisie.
The de¬nition imposed on the child Lucien troubles him, because
the others speak of him as a girl. This provokes a crisis about his body,
his sexuality and his relationship with his parents, but he resolves it
by further acts of submission. It may seem silly to compare a child-
narrator with the adult, Meursault, but Lucien does not change as
he grows older. He continues to accept other people™s de¬nitions of
him and, as a disturbed adolescent, he is relieved when an older
man, Berg` re, labels his state ˜Distress™ (170). Once more, his relief
e
is tinged with trouble, ostensibly because he fears the word and the
state of ˜Distress™, but also “ so the reader is led to conclude “ because
he is not living out his own experience.
This is the difference between Lucien and Meursault, who refused
other people™s notions of love and career, and clung to his existence
as he felt it. By contrast, Lucien goes from mentor to mentor in
an evolution that takes him through three stages. As a boy he is
moulded by his family, which is patriarchal and factory-owning; he
rebels in a classically middle-class way and ¬‚irts with Freudianism,
Surrealism and pederasty; by reaction against such corruption he
turns to the far Right, becoming an anti-semite and a follower of
the Action Francaise. This is depicted not as embracing extremism,
¸
but as a return to his father™s values for, beneath the super¬cial
benevolence with which Monsieur Fleuri´ runs his factory, lies the
e
reality of power. In Childhood, beating up Jews is not very different
from giving orders to workers or wives. Lucien lives, then, in inau-
thenticity: since he is dependent on others, he needs to be feared
by them. So, whereas Meursault gradually becomes aware of what
separates him from the social and metaphysical order and ends the
novel as a rebel, Lucien destroys whatever might be special in him
and becomes a man of authority.
A similar difference is present in their attitudes towards language.
It has been argued that Meursault distrusts language, whether his
own or the state™s; Lucien, however, allows himself to be terrorized
82 THE STRANGER

by it. As a schoolboy he becomes aware of the ˜other™s™ gaze when
he sees scrawled on the lavatory wall the phrase ˜Lucien Fleuri´ is e
gawky™ (150). Later he is overawed when a classmate recites a poem
he has written according to the Surrealist technique of automatic
writing. Far from being a genuine protest against the French of the
education system, automatic writing is a deviance that bourgeois
society allows because it presents no threat. The proof is that Lucien
passes next to the traditional prose of Charles Maurras, the high
priest of the Action Francaise. Once more the circle is complete and
¸
Childhood has demonstrated not merely that Lucien is a bad reader,
but that even in its supposed rebellions French culture is an arm of
the ruling class. Lucien enters that class not merely by beating up
Jews, but by having his signature printed in the Action Francaise ¸
newspaper. Now he too participates in what we earlier called the
language of authority.
Inevitably, the reader draws further away from Lucien just as he
drew closer to Meursault. As narrators, the two play different roles.
While the reader feels a barrier between himself and the puzzling
narration of Part 1 of The Stranger, he is convinced “ or almost “ by
the self-assured irony of Part 2. In Childhood, the reader continues
to be struck by the falsity of Lucien™s narrative. Comedy takes the
form not of laughing with Lucien, as one laughed with Meursault
at the judges, but of laughing at both Lucien and his family.
This is achieved by simple devices that increase the reader™s dis-
tance. Childhood presents itself as an inner monologue but, whereas
the inner monologue is usually written in the ¬rst person and draws
the reader into a ¬‚ux of immediate experience, Childhood is written
in the third person and its experience is second-hand. The story also
has the form of the roman-a-th`se, where Lucien is shepherded by
e
a series of role models towards a form of wisdom that is present at
the outset. But the models are so unpleasant and the shepherding
so obvious that the reader is led to a very different brand of wisdom,
namely, the Sartrian concept of freedom that was glimpsed in the
title-story. Signi¬cantly the quality that is absent from Childhood is
the one which Sartre considered essential to genuine ¬ction: the
complicity between author and character. Childhood invites us to
reject it in favour of an unwritten novel where the narration could
not be analysed so mechanically.
Early Camus and Sartre 83
Since The Stranger is ¬ction and not parody, it is a better piece of
writing than Childhood. But, if one leaves this aside, the contrasts
between the two works give way to similarities. Each defends lived
experience against the alienation imposed by the social and cul-
tural order. But this leads us to a further distinction: in The Wall
authenticity is rarely depicted directly because the absurd cripples
the characters. To understand how this is so, we must turn to Nausea.
Camus was struck, correctly, by the misery in which Roquentin
lives. Whereas Meursault evolves towards a position where he as-
sumes the absurd as a triumph, Roquentin suffers from the collapse
of an orderly world view. His inability to control objects or to sum-
mon up memories causes him what Blanchot would call anguish.
Far from being a de¬ance of suicide or a re¬‚ection of some godhead,
the absurd is a debilitating malady.
One of many examples is furnished by the ways Camus and Sartre
treat the body. Like Lucien, Roquentin dislikes his body, is convinced
of his ugliness and satis¬es his sexual needs sordidly. Both Camus
and Sartre feel that the body offers certain truths. One remembers
how Marie™s strong sexuality contrasts with her silly, romantic ideas
about love. An episode in The Age of Reason (1945) provides the
most complete illustration of Sartre™s view that the mind invents
self-interested ¬ctions, which the body reveals for what they are.
In a nightclub, Miss Elinor does a strip-tease, allowing Sartre to
dwell on the exploitation of working-class women. But, since Miss
Elinor cannot dance, she is unable to disguise the strip-tease as an
aesthetic experience; her clumsiness reveals the sexual exploitation
and compels the spectators to recognize their voyeurism. This is her
body™s revenge.
But, if the truth offered by Marie™s body is joyful, the message
Miss Elinor sends is one of shame. Sartre™s treatment of sex rather
disgusted Camus and, conversely, Sartre may have felt that Camus™s
depiction of physical grace was facile. To Sartre there could not be
oases of grace that survived amidst the absurd; instead, the human
condition as a whole must be transformed. But before examining
how this leads to the split between Camus and Sartre, we must
consider the problem of language in Nausea and The Stranger.
Camus criticized the concept of writing exposed in Sartre™s clos-
ing pages: Roquentin is foolish to imagine that he can save himself
84 THE STRANGER

by writing a novel. This criticism, which re¬‚ects the self-critical nar-
ration of The Stranger, is correct if one takes Roquentin™s statements
literally. After the war Sartre himself repeated Camus™s rebuke. How-
ever, Roquentin never writes the novel he discusses; instead we read
a journal which presents itself as incomplete and full of self-criticism.
The role of imagination in Nausea is to expose Roquentin to the ab-
surd rather than to save him from it. The incident where he imagines
that the bar-owner, Fasquelle, is dead is an example of how his imag-
ination offers him correct insights: Fasquelle may not be dead, but
the universe is.
This is not in itself an adequate refutation of Camus™s criticism,
because writing is not a matter of imagination but of words. Yet
Nausea shows exemplary awareness of how the written language
distorts and, like The Stranger, it may be read as a criticism of tra-
ditional story-telling. Remembering Barthes™s interpretation of the
gulf between Camus and Balzac, one is not surprised that Roquentin
feels a discrepancy between the dialogues of a Balzac novel which
he reads in a restaurant and the conversations that are going on
around him. But, if the former have a shape that the latter lack,
Roquentin rejects such shape as an arti¬ce when, for example, he
gives up his biography of Rollebon. He gives up the positivist view that
a biographer can know and recreate another person in a book. In a
phrase reminiscent of The Myth he mentions his need ˜to unify my
knowledge™ (La Naus´e (Paris: Gallimard, 1983 Folio edition), p. 28),
e
but Rollebon remains an unknowable other. Nor does Roquentin
have better success with his journal. From the start he warns him-
self: ˜don™t make up exciting things when there™s nothing™ (11).
Soon the journal form breaks down and, as the famous chestnut-
tree scene approaches, Roquentin repeats himself, uses long sen-
tences composed almost entirely of main clauses (one remembers
Barthes™s comment on subordinate clauses), and oscillates between
˜I™ and ˜he™.
The difference between The Stranger and Nausea is not that
Roquentin is saved by writing or that Nausea does not criticize it-
self, but rather that Roquentin ostentatiously reasserts his need
to write. Whereas Meursault the narrator hides from the reader “
especially in Part 1 “ in order to emphasize the problematic of writ-
ing, Roquentin ¬‚aunts his narrator™s role. During the chestnut-tree
Early Camus and Sartre 85
scene the tree supposedly rids itself of language: ˜Things have been
freed of their names™ (177). But at the end of the scene Roquentin
notes ˜I left, I came back to the hotel and, there you are, I wrote™
(190). The ˜there you are™ (˜et voil` ™) marks the contradiction.
a
In his review of The Stranger, Sartre rebukes Camus for ¬ltering
out of Meursault™s experience not merely all idealism but all ˜the
meaningful connections™ which are an integral part of that experi-
ence™ (˜Explication de L™Etranger™, p. 116). This leaves the novel as
a mere assertion of the absurd, and its language as merely reiterat-
ing the futility of literary discourse. But this, argues Sartre, is not
the point because language, like man himself, is condemned to ¬nd
meaning. Participating in the absurd, it cannot seek to be neutral
or classical. It will become a discourse of liberation and, if no such
discourse is present in Nausea, it will soon enter Sartre™s work.
For Sartre, the absurd is intolerable and man can do nothing but
construct out of it a new existence; Camus, however, saw in this an-
other of the leaps of faith that he castigated in The Myth. The term
˜existentialist™ has been used to describe The Stranger, and it is legit-
imate if it is limited to its simplest meaning of the primacy accorded
to lived experience. But Camus ¬‚atly rejected Existentialism in the
Sartrean sense of man™s freedom to chose what he would become. In
particular, he rejected Sartre™s subsequent decision to seek meaning
only in history.
A further difference between Nausea and The Stranger is that in the
former novel the bourgeoisie is present as a class. In the portrait-
gallery scene the burghers of Bouville are set in their social con-
text; their professions, the events through which they lived, and the
strikes they repressed, are all depicted. This is a caricature rather
than an analysis for, as in Childhood, the bourgeoisie is irredeemably
evil. Yet it forms an easily identi¬able target, whereas the ruling class
in The Stranger (which seems to readers of the 1980s a better novel
about how power works in a modern society) is oppressive, because
it is amorphous and because its workings are hard to fathom.
Sartre™s view of the bourgeoisie led him, once his interest in pol-
itics was aroused, to the class-war. He took easily to Marxism and
considered violence a necessary part of man™s revolt against his
historical situation. By contrast, Camus was deeply worried about
violence and a critic of Marxism.
86 THE STRANGER

Yet the quarrel which separated the two men at the height of the
Cold War was not merely between a Sartre who was anti-American
and a Camus who was anti-Soviet. Rather, it had its roots in The
Stranger and in Sartre™s reaction to it. Camus, Sartre felt, was com-
placent about the absurd. Meursault™s happiness, the body™s grace
and the self-critical language were mysti¬cations; the absurd was
intolerable and the writer™s task was to liberate man from it. To
Camus, however, the body™s grace was real and should not be sac-
ri¬ced to an illusory proletarian revolution. Moreover, the absurd
was not intolerable because it was the mark of man™s capacity to
be aware of the divine. This religious view, which was anathema to
Sartre, separated the two writers from the outset. Even Part 1 of The
Stranger, on which Sartre lavishes praise, could not altogether sat-
isfy him because, while he admired its refusal to explain, this refusal
could only, he felt, be a stepping-stone to new forms of freedom.
Chapter 4
Camus and the Algerian war




When the Algerian war broke out in late 1954 it came at the wrong
moment both for France and for Camus. The French army, which
had been obliged to surrender to the Indo-Chinese Viet-Minh rebels
at Dien Bien Phu, was still smarting from its defeat. It blamed the loss
of French Indochina (later known as Vietnam, although at the time it
had also included the two smaller countries of Laos and Cambodia)
on the civilians and it was determined there should be no more
such defeats. French citizens were af¬‚icted with the schizophrenia
that runs amok at times of colonial crisis; passionately in favour of
a French Algeria, they were equally passionate in their view that
their children were not going to die in order to defend a bunch of lazy
colonials. Then there was Camus, whose reputation as the defender
of moral values was rooted in his editorials, ¬rst published in the
clandestine Combat, the newspaper of the Resistance movement that
bore the same name. Camus continued them in the legal Combat
from the Liberation until 1947. His aim in these was to impose on
politics the language of morality.
In 1947 he abandoned Combat and published The Plague. Here,
Camus excludes ˜ideological dogma, political or judicial murder and
all forms of ethical irresponsibility™ (Tony Judt, ˜On The Plague™, New
York Review of Books, 29, November 2001). He advocates the forms
of courage and work that help man to face death. By now he has
moved a long way from Existentialism for courage and fraternity are
general values he advocates.
Camus™s personal life became more troubled as his fame grew.
In 1948 he resumed his love affair with Maria Casar` s which had
e
started under the occupation. Yet he would not abandon his wife;
Francine, who came from Oran in Algeria, did not want a divorce
so Camus lived an irregular life, returning home to see his children

87
88 THE STRANGER

and then leaving again. He continued this way of life throughout
the 1950s. Amusingly, he was surprised at the free habits of ˜¬lles
du demi-si` cle™ (the mid-century girls) who stayed a night or two
e
with him and then moved on.
Meanwhile the intellectual struggle Camus engages in in The
Rebel was his greatest setback of these dreary years when the Cold
War imposed its simplistic dogmas on Western culture. Camus had
tried in The Rebel to show the ethical and political dangers of revo-
lution. Its absoluteness allowed it to present itself as all good and its
opponents as all evil; all means are good if the end is good. The Rebel
may be seen as part of the God-that-failed motif, as an integral part
of the Camus“Sartre dispute, as an icy peak in the Cold War and as
an onslaught on messianic Marxism.
The notions of limits and of the rules of a game, which are arbi-
trary but accepted by the players, are positive aspects of Camus™s po-
litical thought. They are, however, dif¬cult to explain to grass-roots
militants and not an incitement to action. In his reply to Camus
and his long essay Les Communistes et la paix (The communists and
peace), Sartre was right in one respect: Sartre could see that the
Cold War was being used to re-establish French and international
capitalism. Camus was helping this process by voiding the left of its
revolutionary heritage. This accusation is less plausible. Camus was
not speaking for capitalism any more than Sartre was speaking for
Stalinism. Camus knew more about the daily round of politics than
Sartre. He had been a militant in the PCA (Algerian Communist
Party); indeed he got up early on a Sunday morning to sell the party
newspaper.
Who won this battle? In France Sartre, while in the United States
Camus was hailed and Sartre denounced as a communist. (The
principal documents in the argument are: Francis Jeanson, ˜Albert
Camus ou l™ame r´ volte™, Les Temps Modernes, May 1952; J.-P. Sartre,
e
`
˜R´ ponse a Albert Camus™ and ˜Les Communistes et la paix™, Les
e
Temps modernes, August and July 1952.)
The result of the quarrel with Sartre was to isolate Camus, to
increase his distrust of Parisian intellectuals and to throw him back
on his Algerian friends. With these he labelled most French intel-
lectuals as gay and used unpleasant language about them “ words
like ˜queer™ and ˜pederast™. He created his Algeria against them. It
Camus and the Algerian war 89
was virile, fraternal, a place of sun and beaches. It always seemed to
friends who lived all year round in Algiers an imaginative construc-
tion, quite unlike the hot, frenetic, violent Algiers where they lived.
But it was all the greater a blow when the ˜real™ Algeria showed itself
in 1954.
Camus made one last attempt to continue the moral effort
that had brought about The Plague when he published The Fall in
1956. The parallels with The Plague were far less obvious than the
contrasts: Jean-Baptiste Clamence talks incessantly in a long, only
occasionally interrupted monologue which allows him to debunk
the values of The Plague and to create a false self. He admits to all
kinds of wrongdoing which he legitimizes by talking about them.
In particular he has chosen to live on the site of one of the great
horrors of history “ a massive round up of the Jews during the
Second World War. It is tempting to think that Camus was setting out
to examine the holocaust but he does not in this short book under-
take such a task. He does show how a false confession may become
the instrument of a false awareness for words are lightly spoken,
Clamence might have said. The reader is invited, by implication, to
dig through such awareness to ¬nd her/his true self. But there is no
such self present in The Fall, nothing but Clamence™s monologue.
Using the language of the period one might say that the absurd
reigns supreme in The Fall. Using the language of Catholicism one
would state that there are three elements in the sacrament of con-
fession; confessing one™s sins, feeling sorry for committing them
and doing penance where one atones for the sins confessed and sets
out on the path of good. The last two are absent from Clamence™s
language.
By now Camus was deeply involved in the Algerian war. In 1957
he published Exile and the Kingdom, which examines critically the
notion of Arabs and pieds-noirs living together in one community as
equals. In the context of the war, The Stranger itself looks different.
It is easier to see Part 1 as a struggle for the countryside of Algeria
between Arab and pied-noir. To be sure, this theme is incomplete, but
then such inability to face up to the reality of a colonial society is,
according to Pierre Macherey, characteristic of the colonial writer.
Part 2 re¬‚ects the alienation of the colonial from his/her home coun-
try. This alienation is hidden by parades, ¬‚ags and rhetoric about
90 THE STRANGER

the French language or the mother country. Meursault™s indiffer-
ence is his way of avoiding the issue. (For the various interpretations
see Camus™s L™Etranger Fifty Years on, edited by Adele King, London:
Macmillan, 1992.)
Camus played the by now traditional role of the committed in-
tellectual. He joined a group that wrote regularly for Jean-Jacques
Servan-Schreiber™s newspaper L™Express. In January 1956 he went
to Algeria and tried to arrange a truce. The attempt came to nothing
and Camus suspected that his visit was manipulated by the Front
de Lib´ ration nationale (FLN “ The National Liberation Front). In
e
the French parliamentary elections Pierre Mend` s France, in whom
e
the Express group placed much hope, did less well than the back-
ward Socialist leader Guy Mollet, who became Prime Minister and
expanded the war. General Massu™s parachute regiments were given
free rein and with the use of torture they won the Battle of Algiers.
Meanwhile Camus continued to sign petitions and make pro-
nouncements, like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. But there was a
great difference. To Sartre Algeria was a cause like any other and
the obvious goal was independence. To Camus Algeria was sacred,
the land of his mother and his childhood. He refused to accept the
FLN as interlocutor because it supported violence. At the time he
rejected two theses that were popular among French intellectuals.
The ¬rst was that acts of terrorism were a natural response to the
everyday violence of French rule. The second was that terrorism
created a nation that was willing to ¬ght for its freedom.
The second thesis was presented by Mouloud Feraoun, a Berber
writer with few sympathies for the FLN but a clear-headedness about
its role. In his Journal “1955“1962 (Paris: Gallimard, 1962) he de-
scribes the difference made by FLN violence to the self-con¬dence of
young people and he denies Camus the right to call himself Algerian.
Only FLN supporters can claim that right. It is worth remembering
in this context that the FLN stated that they would only accept Andr´ e
Mandouze™s group (left-wing Catholic intellectuals who sided with
the FLN and with whom Camus was not on speaking terms) if they
agreed to carry guns. Feraoun was killed by a gang of right-wing
Europeans in 1962.
Does the issue of terrorism and torture seem any different to-
day? To limit oneself to Algeria, certainly the FLN has proved
Camus and the Algerian war 91
disappointing in government. It is undemocratic, and has produced
a string of authoritarian governments limited in their arbitrary rule
only by the FLN itself. This has used its power and its prestige as
the architect of independence to plunder the state and misuse the
natural gas, which constitutes Algeria™s main wealth and future. It
has thus strengthened the Islamic forces, which were traditionally
weak. By the 1990s these were strong enough to win a parliamen-
tary election which was promptly declared null and void by the
FLN-backed government. But the government has been unable to
win a de¬nitive victory over the Muslim guerrilla force. Both sides
have used terror and torture.
France fears the spread of the intra-Arab con¬‚icts to France. This
is one reason for its support for the FLN, which has been steadfast
since de Gaulle ¬rst laid down the policy. Until now, that policy has
worked better in France than in Algeria. On a world level terrorism
has, since 11 September 2001, provided the Bush administration
with a raison d™ˆtre and the West with a perhaps unwanted cause. To
e
Camus goes some of the credit for refusing to have any dealings with
gunmen. Similarly the sympathy that was lavished on Third World
countries ¬ghting for their national independence has declined as
the revolutionary rebels revealed themselves brutal in government.
The latest example is Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe.
Pied-noir society has been studied more now that it no longer
exists. This is also an interesting way to approach Camus™s writing.
Jeanne Vend` s-Leroux has published a long, well-researched book,
e
Les Fran¸ois d™Alg´rie (Paris: Fayard, 2001 “ The French People of
c e
Algeria). The best book on the emergence of the other Algeria re-
mains Andr´ Nousci™s La Naissance du nationalisme alg´rien (Paris:
e e
Editions du Minuit, 1962 “ The Birth of Algerian Nationalism).
One could argue that there is nothing positive in Camus™s vision,
no new way to defeat terrorism, no new perspective on it. But there
is a sensitivity towards violence, which could alter the priorities of
governments and rebels.
Part of this trend is the in¬‚uence of post-modernism: the dis-
trust of revolutionary projects that sacri¬ce the present to a future
utopia. Camus should not be seen as a post-modernist since in his
thought there remains an absent God whom man cannot and should
not ignore and who cannot be dissolved into some Wittgensteinian
92 THE STRANGER

language game. Camus has no desire to desanctify the world. But
he does wish to desanctify left-wing politics, which was a heretical
viewpoint in the 1950s and 1960s but gets more support today.
In 1957 Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
He went to Sweden with a rented dinner jacket, leaving behind
hundreds of letters of congratulation for his secretary to answer.
Francine accompanied him as his marriage was reconstructed for
the occasion. At a news conference FLN students tormented him
with questions about Algeria and elicited from him the famous
but misunderstood reply that he would defend his mother before
justice. His words were: ˜I have always condemned the use of ter-
ror. I must also condemn a terror which is practised blindly on the
Algiers streets and which may any day strike down my mother or
my family. I believe in justice but I will defend my mother before jus-
tice™ (Le Monde, 13 December 1957). In context, the third sentence
means: for me justice is not an abstract entity that justi¬es violence;
it is caught up with my mother, my family and the French-Algerian
community. It was, however, interpreted as a stark opposition be-
tween mother and justice with a disregard for the latter.
Camus returned to Paris exhausted, unable to write and facing
new problems in Algeria. In May 1958 the army launched a
coup d™´tat in Algeria and threatened France. De Gaulle exploited
e
the situation to return to power. Sartre and the Communists were
utterly opposed but Camus was willing to give de Gaulle his
chance. He himself ran out of time: in early January 1960 he was
killed in a car crash. (For a recent, well-informed biography see
Olivier Todd, Albert Camus, une vie, Paris: Gallimard, 1996; English
translation: Albert Camus, a Life, New York: Knopf, 1997.)
The publicity, the headlines, and the photos and the quarrels
kept the popular press going for weeks (the best of the obituaries
is Sartre™s, ˜Albert Camus™ in France-Observateur, 7, January 1960).
Yet the problem that one cannot help thinking about, however use-
less it may be, is what stand Camus would have taken on Algeria.
Already in 1959 de Gaulle, whom the army had backed so that he
would keep Algeria French, showed signs of changing his mind, if
indeed he had ever believed in a French Algeria. De Gaulle wanted
a modern France and a modern army, which would play its part in
Western defence and would be given nuclear weapons. The Algerian
Camus and the Algerian war 93
war needed to be concluded and the army must not spend its time
chasing Arabs around the desert. De Gaulle began to talk of holding
a referendum on Algeria. Camus could hardly oppose the referen-
dum but he said that he would go to Algeria and campaign in the
press against independence.
A matter of days after Camus™s death came the Revolt of the
Barricades. The white settlers set up barricades in Algiers. They
were put down by the army, which did not hesitate to use force
against them. Next came the Revolt of the Generals, headed up by
General Salan. De Gaulle made a splendid speech denouncing the
˜quarteron de g´ n´ raux™ (˜quarteron™ means ˜four™ and has the same
ee
root as ˜quatre™). He appealed over the heads of the four generals “
Salan, Zeller, Jouhaud and Challe “ to the conscripts who listened to
him on their transistor radios. It was a battle of words and de Gaulle
won it. By now he was moving towards independence and talks
were held with the FLN at Evian. The desperate pieds-noirs formed
a terrorist group, the OAS (Organization de l™arm´ e secr` te “ the
e e
organisation of the secret army) which made very serious attempts
to assassinate de Gaulle. The main group of pieds-noirs left Algeria
just before independence took place. They crowded onto boats and
headed for France. French Algeria was no more.
So, how would Camus have taken it? It is hard “ if not impossible “
to believe that he would have sided with the OAS or approved of pied-
noir violence against Arabs. But surely he would not have looked
on as the pieds-noirs ¬‚ed, many to southern France, a contingent to
Corsica, where they clashed with the Corsican nationalists, others
to the distant island of New Caledonia, where racial and ethnic
tensions grew worse and then erupted in the 1980s. One feels that,
rightly or wrongly, he would have spoken for his people as he had for
his silent mother. The First Man offers hints of what he might have
said; infact, the account of his father™s birth confers legitimacy on
the European settlement in Africa. I shall return to The First Man,
but Camus would surely not have remained silent as the pied-noir
diaspora unfolded before him.
As it was, Camus left behind at least two un¬nished works, the
¬rst of which was his diary or journal (Carnets 3, mars 1951“
d´ cembre 1959, Paris: Gallimard, 1989). In a foreword the pub-
e
lisher observes that, for reasons that are easy to understand, certain
94 THE STRANGER

names and initials have been changed. The main reason is to pro-
tect the reputation of Camus™s women friends and has nothing to
do with Algeria. It does not suf¬ce to explain why Gallimard waited
thirty years before publishing the Carnets. There are differences in
the journal between pre- and post-1954: the Carnets grow more
personal; they are no longer jottings for future works. Camus notes
his fears when he receives the Nobel Prize: ˜a kind of madness™ gives
way to an ˜interminable anguish™ (p. 215). The post-1954 Cahiers
are more tormented, but Camus remains brief and does not elabo-
rate on his ¬ts of pessimism. Algeria is the lost land to be re-created
in The First Man.
The of¬cial reason given for the deliberate delays in publication of
the novel, which was held back until 1994, as well as of the Carnets,
was the desire not to tangle Camus™s reputation as a good man and
moral guide with a war that France has never succeeded in forget-
ting or setting in its historical place. A trite but widely used phrase
in all discussions of the war is ˜a France n™a jamais fait son deuil
pour l™Alg´ re™ (France has never mourned for Algeria). Mourning
e
does not merely provide an outlet for grief; it structures that grief,
making it easier to bear and creating a distance from it. This is an
odd argument because The First Man is precisely an effort to come to
terms with a changing but not lost Algeria. It is, however, the only
explanation we have.
The novel begins with the birth of a male child, in a pioneer
setting and in the presence of two Arabs. French Algeria is born too,
although how Camus would have developed the theme we do not
know since the next chapter depicts an adult son who visits the grave
of his father, killed at the Marne. This is the book™s great weakness:
the reader knows nothing about Jacques, how he spends his time,
what he thinks and feels. Jacques delves into his past and has clear
images of his childhood but not of parents, grandparents and family
houses. His mother is only a partial exception for she does not reply
to his questions. When he does discover his father™s grave Jacques
feels nothing but emptiness. Yet he has been talented in school, and
has escaped from the poverty which has crushed his family. It is easy
to see in Jacques not Albert Camus but one of several Camus and in
particular the one weary of being a celebrity and distrustful of Paris
and of Parisian intellectuals. The best chapters of The First Man are
Camus and the Algerian war 95
the adult™s memories of his childhood: a hunting expedition with
his uncle or a ˜colonie de vacances™ (summer camp). The sense of
place is very strong here: Algiers lives as the child™s universe and
interlocutor. He responds to it not with Meursault™s indifference but
with an explosion of happiness. To give all this up in the name of
freedom and justice seemed to Camus a false contradiction.
Chapter 5
Why and how we read The Stranger: a
guide to further reading



13 Contemporaries, precursors and followers
Sartre™s article on The Stranger helped to make Camus famous,
and also to impose a reading of the novel which has remained the
dominant reading. In this he was ¬‚anked by Blanchot and Barthes,
who contributed towards establishing The Stranger as the novel of
the absurd.
Sartre, whose essay was ¬rst published in Les Cahiers du Sud in
February 1943, stated, as clearly as censorship would allow, the
book™s meaning to Occupation readers: ˜Amidst the literary produc-
tion of the time this novel was itself a stranger™ (J.-P. Sartre, ˜Explica-
tion de L™Etranger™, Situations, vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1947), p. 99).
Whereas the of¬cial culture of Vichy castigated the Third Republic,
wept over France™s shame and encouraged conformity to the new
order, The Stranger offered a discourse that stood outside the control
of others. The absurd was a refutation of the ¬ctions offered by the
Vichy government.
Like Sartre, Blanchot understood that the novel™s ¬rst quality
was a refusal and that Meursault™s indifference was a critical, nega-
tive force. ˜We enter the characters™ souls while ignoring the nature
of their feelings and thoughts™, writes Blanchot, ˜this book under-
mines the concept of subject™ (Maurice Blanchot, Faux Pas (Paris:
Gallimard, 1943), p. 249). Blanchot does not approach the work as
joyously as Sartre. He detects in it something of his own anguish “
an anguish that is, in his view, too easily banished in The Myth.
It was left to Barthes in the post-war years to re¬ne and to alter
Sartre™s view of The Stranger™s refusal to explain. The zero degree of
writing that Camus adopted was a moral choice, which rejected the
ideology of the ruling class and enabled him to reach ˜the existential

96
Why and how we read The Stranger 97
roots of experience™ (Roland Barthes, Degr´ z´ro de l™´criture (Paris:
ee e
Seuil, 1953), p. 48). Barthes, whose thinking was at this time more
obviously Marxist than it subsequently became, argues that, since he
was living in a capitalist society, Camus™s attempt to write ˜neutrally™
or ˜classically™ was doomed to failure. Camus was trapped, and
the problematic of The Stranger™s language re¬‚ected the dilemma of
bourgeois culture.
To Barthes, only a change of society would permit a different
and freer discourse. In the meantime he distinguished between
avant-garde writers like Camus and Marxists like Brecht, whose
work contained an awareness that society could be changed. Of
course Camus did not accept either this distinction or the concept
of a radically different discourse or society. Yet Barthes™s analysis of
how Meursault™s language struggles to avoid causalities and value
judgements was persuasive. Barthes™s article on the sun (˜L™Etranger,
“roman solaire”™ is most easily available in Les critiques de notre temps
et Camus, edited by Jacqueline L´ vi-Valensi (Paris: Garnier Fr` res,
e e
1970), pp. 60“4) repeated his view that The Stranger rejected a false
rationalism that was based on power.
So Camus™s novel was read as a landmark of the most important
trend in 1940s™ French thought: the sense that man was trapped in
an alien universe, and that he must protest against the arti¬ciality
of existing social systems and against his metaphysical condition. In
his preface to the English translation, Cyril Connolly, who had read
Blanchot™s article, called Meursault a ˜negative, destructive force™,
even if he correctly stressed that Meursault was ˜profoundly in love
with life™ (Cyril Connolly, ˜Introduction™, pp. 11, 8).
As the absurd and Existentialism swept not merely across Saint-
Germain but across Europe, The Stranger was ever more widely
read, inside and outside France. It became such an important part
of Western culture not merely because it was a very good novel,
but because it incarnated a way of thinking and feeling that was
and still is important. This is not necessarily true of great books.
A work like C´ line™s Fairytale for Another Time, which seems to me
e
just as good a novel as The Stranger, has been much less read be-
cause it seems marginal to the way most people think and feel.
A further reason for The Stranger™s success is that it is, super¬-
cially, an easy work. This impression is deceptive, but The Stranger
98 THE STRANGER

does not require of the reader the initial effort that Joyce™s Ulysses
requires.
The Stranger™s success created distortions, some of which have
already been discussed. One has to do with Existentialism: Camus
had to keep repeating that his novel was not, in the Sartrean sense,
existentialist. Another, which was particularly widespread in the
Anglo-Saxon world, was that Meursault was perceived as a hero
and that Part 2 was stressed at the expense of the more interesting
Part 1. A third was the way that the colonial issue was conveniently
forgotten, because Meursault was seen as a universal ¬gure rather
than a pied-noir. Camus helped to foster ˜easier™ and more optimistic
interpretations of his novel by his cycle-of-revolt works “ which were
even more widely read and discussed than The Stranger “ because
readers tended to look in his early writing for the ˜positive™ moral
values that they found in The Plague.
We shall return to these topics in our brief examination of the
criticism that has been written on The Stranger, but ¬rst we must
set the novel in the history of novel-writing. Although Malraux™s
Man™s Fate made such an impact on Camus, the two men had very
different ideas of what the novel should be. Indeed, The Stranger has
no obvious ancestors in French ¬ction, which led Sartre and many
others to wonder whether Camus had not been in¬‚uenced by the
American novel.
Sartre writes that the short, parallel sentences of The Stranger are
islands like Hemingway™s sentences. From there to detecting Hem-
ingway™s in¬‚uence was a short step, and Camus seemed to take it
himself. In a 1945 interview he declared that ˜I used it [the tech-
nique 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 aware-
ness™ (OC 2,1426). When we remember that American novelists
were widely read in France and Italy at this time, the case seems
proved: The Stranger was in¬‚uenced by The Sun also Rises.
The matter is, however, more complex. The question of the
American novel is often discussed too loosely, as if every French
writer who knew of Hemingway and Faulkner were seeking to em-
ulate them. Their impact should not be treated as mere osmosis, but
should be traced through speci¬c milieux. If one conducts such a
study in Camus™s case, the results are largely negative. His diaries,
Why and how we read The Stranger 99
his journalism and the statements of his friends reveal little contact
with American writing. Moreover, the ˜tough guy™ side of Meursault
may more plausibly be attributed to the French-Algerians™ view of
themselves. Certainly, Camus saw American ¬lms and enjoyed imi-
tating Humphrey Bogart, but that does not in itself amount to much.
An American observer, Owen J. Miller (˜Camus et Hemingway:
´
pour une evaluation m´ thodologique™, Albert Camus 4 (Paris: Lettres
e
modernes, 1971)), points out that in the interview Camus re-
vealed scant knowledge of Hemingway since he argued that the
American technique reduced men to automatons. This is untrue of
Jake Barnes™s narration of The Sun also Rises, and indeed the differ-
ence between this novel and The Stranger is precisely that Meursault™s
narration is less full.
Once more, the ¬rst pages reveal the contrast. Where Meursault
concludes that the telegram tells him little, Barnes offers a series
of speculations about Robert Cohen™s wealth and his Jewishness.
Although Barnes is undecided about what he thinks of Cohen, this
is less a lack of knowledge than a con¬‚ict between his dislike of the
man and his desire to be generous. Throughout the book Barnes
succeeds, in spite of a reticence that is easily explained by pride or
masculinity, in telling the reader things about himself: his religion,
his impotence and his love for Brett. In short The Sun also Rises is “
no value judgement is intended “ both more of a traditional novel
and one where the narrator™s terseness contains values that are
obviously positive.
Hemingway™s novel does explain, and two further contrasts, cho-
sen among many, point to the same underlying difference. The
¬shing episode in The Sun shows Barnes in harmony with nature,
whereas Meursault™s contact with water and sun is more problem-
atic; Hemingway writes much dialogue, and the banter between Jake
and Bill, while seeming inconsequential, reveals male comradeship.
By contrast, The Stranger contains little dialogue, because Meursault
is a lonelier ¬gure who recasts other people™s words in free indirect
speech.
The parallels are more obvious between The Stranger and James
M. Cain™s The Postman always Rings Twice. At his trial, Frank, like
Meursault, remains outside the proceedings, forgets to raise his right
hand for the oath and laughs with genuine mirth at the magistrate™s
100 THE STRANGER

jokes. But, if here too the con¬‚ict lies between Frank™s authenticity
and society™s false values, then both protagonists are presented more
directly than in The Stranger.
The trial, for example, is simply a piece of manipulation by the
insurance companies; Cain shows the capitalist forces lying barely
beneath the surface of Californian justice. We are tempted to con-
clude that the difference between the two novels arises because there
is less mysti¬cation in American society than in a European and
colonial society. This in turn allows the individual to reveal himself.
Frank™s love of the open road is stressed, the violence of his actions
goes beyond the discreet sadism of The Stranger, and he feels for
Cora a passion that is unlike the desire Meursault feels for Marie.
In French-Algeria Meursault must criticize the existing order and
must express himself in far more oblique ways.
So it seems to me that the ˜in¬‚uence™ of the American novel on The
Stranger is super¬cial. I would like to restate the view expressed in
Chapters 1 and 2 that, if we wish to de¬ne the relationship between
The Stranger and previous ¬ction, we should begin by seeing Camus™s
work as a development and, more importantly, as a criticism of the
French journal-novel.

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