‘I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day’: Thoughts on The Stranger

This is the second of hopefully 10 Turbo Book Reviews helping me resolve my Mid-Life Reading CrisisAs embarrassing as it is to make it known that I’ve gone months between reading the books that I’ve announced I intend to read, I’ll soldier on.

Meurseault takes his mother’s death in stride. He blinks in indifference as his girlfriend asks him whether he loves her. He barely reacts when he shoots and kills a man. He makes no effort to save himself from execution. He concludes with a shrug that there’s no soul to save when execution is imminent. There’s not much to like.

So why do we care when he reports that ‘the presiding judge told me in bizarre language that I was to have my head cut off in a public square in the name of the French people’?

It’s more than pity. We can identify.

As much as we’re weirded out and perplexed by this dude, he’s no robot. If swimming with Marie isn’t real happiness, what is it? (‘I had the whole sky in my eyes and it was blue and gold. On the back of my neck I could feel Marie’s heart beating softly.’)

If his aching for a pardon and for more time doesn’t reflect a love of life, where does it come from? (‘I would somehow have to cool the hot blood that would suddenly surge through my body and sting my eyes with delirious joy.’)

If he could take or leave life’s pleasures, why the foreboding when he pulls the trigger? (‘I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. It was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.’)

Besides, which of us hasn’t been too stoic for the occasion? Which of us hasn’t smiled a big enough smile? Which of us hasn’t opted for selfishness and not generosity? Why do we care whether he lives or dies? Because we’re more like Meursault than we’d care to admit.

What makes The Stranger even more unnerving is that there is such beauty in the economy of Camus’ language. In spite of ourselves, this tale about a man we feel should be despicable casts a spell on us. Has a linguistic style ever matched a character so perfectly?

the stranger cover
Meursault, weird but familiar
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