Sunday, 31 March 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day seven


Meursault has been arrested, it is not clear how much time has passed since the killing. He's been to the police station to be processed and a week later is being interviewed by the examining magistrate. The first meeting with this man seems unreal to Meursault, like something he's read about in books. The following day he is visited in prison by a lawyer who tells him that while the case is tricky he's confident of success. The lawyers asks Meursault about his private life, including events that took place at his mother's funeral. He asks, somewhat embarrassed, whether Meursault felt grief on the day of the funeral. Meursault gives a strange answer that makes the other man uncomfortable. The lawyer attempt to get Meursault to change his answer into something more acceptable for the court but he refuses.  Meursault's refusal angers the lawyer who doesn't turn up to the next meeting with the examining magistrate. During this meeting the magistrate is concerned with one detail of the case, why Meursault fired four times into the body of the dead Arab. Meursault doesn't give an answer which provokes the man into reaching for his crucifix. Brandishing the cross at Meursault, the magistrate tells him that he must fully confess if he is to be pardoned by God. Meursault tells him that he doesn't believe in God to which the magistrate replies with indignant outrage. Finally Meursault is asked if he feels regret for what he's done; he replies that he feels a kind of annoyance. The attitudes of the magistrate and Meursault's lawyer change after this. There are many more meetings but the two other men barely talk to him, unless the conversation is about something general. They are not unkind to Meursault and even friendly at times. The investigation lasts eleven months.

“The first time at the police station, nobody seemed very interested in my case.”

The murder seems shocking to us, we were there. For others, Meursault shot and killed a man who was armed and who had just previously slashed and wounded another man in the face. Add to this the fact that in European dominated Algiers, a white European who killed an Arab (whether in self-defense or not) would not be considered a heinous criminal. Conor Cruise O’Brien asks us to compare this killing with, for example, the killing of a black man by a white man during the civil rights era in the US.

Note that Meursault himself does not take his crime too seriously, not just in his attitude towards the trial but with the sentence he expects – just a few years and possibly avoiding hard labor as well. We will discuss this later.

“I’d read similar descriptions in books before and it all seemed like a game.”

More games, everyone acting out their designated role.

“On my way out I was even going to shake his hand, but I remembered just in time that I’d killed a man.”

Meursault finds it difficult to play his part as ‘the criminal’.

The lawyer asks Meursault if he’d felt any grief on the day of his mother’s funeral

“This question really surprised me and I thought how embarrassed I’d have been if I’d had to ask it.”  Meursault empathizes with the lawyer, who has just expressed his embarrassment at having to ask the question. Meursault is sympathetic towards some characters in the novel and, seemingly, not to others (Raymond’s girlfriend and her brother, for example).

It’s worth remembering that modern readers of The Stranger come to the book knowing that Meursault’s behaviour during the funeral will play an enormous part in the coming trial. The lawyer bringing up his mother isn’t a surprise for us.

“I replied though that I’d rather got out of the habit of analyzing myself and that I found it difficult to answer his question. I probably loved mother a lot, but that didn’t mean anything. To a certain extent all normal people sometimes wished their loved ones were dead.”

The first thing to notice is that Meursault used to analyze himself – he used to and no longer does. Remember his saying that he used to have ambition back in his student days.

The second thing is that what Meursault says is quite uncontroversial, most of us would agree that he’s expressing some kind of truth. The strangeness comes from when he is saying it. The situation is totally inappropriate for this kind of discussion. The lawyer isn’t seeking a philosophical discussion on the nature of love and Meursault – who is not an idiot – would know this. So why say it?

“But I explained to him that by nature my physical needs often distorted my feelings. On the day of mother’s funeral I was very tired and sleepy. So I wasn’t fully aware of what was going on.”

Most commentators put great store in the things that Meursault says. However, by Meursault’s own admission he isn’t very good at explaining things. Think of his later failure to communicate in court (“Mixing up my words a bit and realizing that I sounded ridiculous, I said quickly that it was because of the sun.”) and his reluctance to discuss his ideas with others (not telling the others his suspicions on how the Arabs knew where to find them on the beach) or to even speak unless he has something to say. Meursault is struggling to express an idea with the lawyer but failing. The problem here is one of communication. In the end Meursault can’t be bothered to continue in trying to get his ideas across. “I wanted to assure him that I was just like everyone else, exactly like everyone else. But it was all really a bit pointless and I couldn’t be bothered.” Does Meursault mean something like ‘everything is pointless’ and ‘I can’t be bothered with anything’ or is he simply referring to his attempt to communicate a particular idea to this other man?

“He thought for a moment. Then he asked me if he could say that I’d controlled my natural feelings that day. I said, ‘No, because it’s not true.’”

Why not let the lawyer lie? Meursault will have to know that this lie will help him in court and what harm could it do? The answer usually offered his that to lie violates Meursault’s ethic of sincerity. It would. But the question is, in a meaningless universe, why does Meursault have an ethic at all? For those commentators wanting to consider Meursault a nihilist this is an big problem. It is odd, to say the least, to think of Meursault as believing everything is pointless but steadfastly abiding by an ethical rule.

“He [the examining magistrate] told me first of all that people described me as being taciturn and withdrawn”

Was he withdrawn when he ran with Emmanuel to leap onto a moving truck? Was he withdrawn when he spotted Marie in the water, seduced her, took her out and back to his apartment? Was he taciturn as he chatted with the old caretaker at the care home or with old Salamano? Or when he complimented Masson and his wife on their beach chalet? Céleste and Raymond consider Meursault a ‘man of the world’. For sure, Meursault doesn’t engage people in philosophical conversations or discuss  his emotions but his reluctance to do this hardly makes him ‘taciturn and withdrawn’. It is more likely that inquiries into the character of a man on trial for killing someone have produced the ‘weird loner’ and ‘kept himself to himself’ stereotype that always comes out in these cases.

“’Why, why did you fire at a dead body?’ Once again I didn’t know the answer.”

Why did Meursault fire those extra shots? Note that the magistrate actually asks him several times and Meursault remains silent. Commentators have observed similarities between this and Jesus standing before Pilate. We can believe that Meursault doesn’t know why he fired the extra shots, he doesn’t know why he fired the first one. The question is why Camus chose to put them in.

Meursault, in summarizing the magistrate’s position, says “the rest was alright” – everything that occurred prior to the extra four shots (including the first shot that killed the Arab) – “but this [extra shots] he could not understand.” This reiterates the point that no-one, not Meursault nor the arresting police-officers, the magistrate, even later Meursault’s friends in court, take the killing of the Arab to be very troubling. Commentators, notably Conor Cruise O’Brien, have accused Camus of creating a myth that a European in Algiers would receive a strong sentence for killing an Arab but the point is made, several times over, that no-one really cares about the killing itself.

“Do you want my life to be meaningless?”

Surely the faith of a committed Christian would not suffer too greatly from the failure of one man to elaborate on his crime? Why is Meursault’s attitude so troubling for the magistrate?

“I thought it over and said that, rather than true regret, I felt some kind of annoyance. I had the impression that he didn’t understand me.”

Why does Meursault feel neither regret nor remorse for taking another man’s life? We have touched on this previously, that Meursault may not consider the Arab a man at all but more like a block of stone, but this isn’t very satisfactory. It is difficult for the magistrate to understand him and it is difficult for us to understand him. Meursault has admitted in his account to us (bear in mind that The Stranger is a first-person account) that he doesn’t follow the magistrate’s argument. Meursault also failed to communicate his ideas to his lawyer.

“That’s all for today, Mr. Antichrist.”

The magistrate and Meursault’s lawyers have several meetings. We don’t get to hear what is being discussed because Meursault is left out of the discussions. The investigation, for what appears a very straightforward case, has lasted eleven months. What is going on? Why is so much time and interest being spent? We will learn, later on, from a journalist that the case has been ‘blown up’ but why?

Tomorrow - Day 8

[Text by Simon Lea]

Saturday, 30 March 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day six


It's Sunday and Meursault is having trouble getting up. Marie manages to get him out of bed and they go down, knocking on Raymond's door on the way. The days is hot and sunny and Marie is in high spirits, Meursault is feeling better but the sun hit him like 'a slap in the face', They are off to Masson's chalet, to spend the day at the beach. The day before Meursault, with Raymond, had gone to the police station to file his witness statement. Raymond is nervous when he spots the group of Arabs but relaxes once they are on the bus and not being followed. Masson is a huge fellow and his wife is friendly, they have a nice wooden chalet near the beach. Masson, Marie and Meursault all go off to the beach for a swim and a doze on the sand. Back at the chalet they have a lunch of fried fish and lots of wine. After lunch the three men go for a walk while the women stay behind. The trio bump into two Arabs, one of them the brother of Raymond's girlfriend. There is a fight with Raymond and Masson on one side and the two Arabs on the other. Masson quickly deals with his man and Raymond gets the better of his but when he turns, to show off to Meursault, the Arab pulls a knife and slashes Raymond's arm and mouth. The Arabs escape and Masson takes Raymond, who is only superficially injured, to a nearby doctor. Meursault returns to the chalet to tell the women what has happened. Raymond is in a bad mood when he returns and walks off down the beach on his own with Meursault following after him. They bump into the same Arabs but this time Raymond pulls a gun. Meursault persuades his friend to hand over the gun, telling him that it would be unfair to use it. The Arabs retreat and Raymond feels better. He and Meursault walk back to the chalet. However, when they get there Meursault doesn't want to go inside and talk with the others. He turns around and heads back out to beach. This time he bumps into the Arab and it's just the two of them. Raymond's gun is still in Meursault's pocket and the Arab still has his knife. The sun is beating down on his head and he steps towards the other man who draws his knife. Meursault's gun is drawn, the trigger gives and he fires. And then he fires four more times into the now lifeless body of the Arab.

“That Sunday I had trouble waking up.”

Sleep and fatigue. When Meursault walks out on the beach with Masson and Raymond he will ‘feel sleepy’.

“I had a bit of a headache [...] the bright morning sunshine hit me like a slap in the face.”

Sounds like a hangover. The previous day Meursault had been out with Raymond. On all previous occasions when those two have gotten together, they've drunk alcohol.

Raymond's beach clothes

Camus paints a ridiculous picture of Raymond. “He'd put a straw hat on, which made Marie laugh”. On the bus Marie will ignore him but glance at him every so often and laugh. Meursault also points out Raymond's white forearms which leave him feeling disgusted. Note that Meursault ends his negative description of Paris to Marie with “The people all have white skin”. In his essay “Summer in Algiers” Camus idealizes the young beach-going working class men of Algiers as 'tawny gods' – Raymond is no tawny god.

“Raymond told me that the second one from the left was his man, and he looked worried [...] Raymond informed me that the Arabs weren't following us [...] We caught the bus. Raymond, who seemed altogether relieved, kept on cracking jokes for Marie.”

Raymond is clearly very nervous. This is contrasted with his macho anecdote in chapter three and willingness to beat his girlfriend.

“They [the Arabs] were looking at us in silence, but in their own special way, as if we were nothing more than blocks of stone or dead trees.”

The Arabs looked at Meursault and his friends like they weren’t people but objects. Meursault will later shoot and kill one of these Arabs, feeling no more remorse at firing into the man’s body than if he had fired at a block of stone or a dead tree.

“I told him [Masson] how much I liked his house.”

Meursault is polite and friendly, When he and Marie return from swimming Masson “immediately announced to his wife that he liked me.” Meursault is a pretty sociable guy, he doesn't turn up to a man's holiday home and make strange observations, he isn't withdrawn, he's personable and complimentary. Note that Masson will stand up for him in court, telling the jury that Meursault is an honest and 'decent' chap. Meursault has to be one hell of a charming guy – imagining standing up in court for a guy you've met only once and that was on the day he turned up to your house for lunch and murdered a guy!

“Masson drank a lot of wine and kept on filling my glass. By the time it came to the coffee, I had a rather thick head and I smoked a lot.”

Everyone is drinking heavily, Meursault suspects Marie has had a bit too much to drink also. When he walks off on his own, just before he bumps into the Arab he will kill, Meursault talks of tensing his whole body “in defiance of the sun and of the drunken haze it was pouring into me.”

“Raymond said, 'If there's a fight, Masson, you take the one on the right. I'll take care of my man. Meursault if another one turns up, he's yours.'”

In 'Summer in Algiers' Camus offers some rules of the 'highway code' the working men of Algiers follow – one of these, that you look after your mother, we have already mentioned – another is that you don't gang up on someone, 2-to-1. Raymond observes this rule, there are three of them and only two Arabs so he tells Meursault to hang back. Picking Masson was a wise choice, Meursault has mentioned the man's enormous size twice already and Masson deals with his man in two punches.

Note that although, according to the code, it's dirty to gang up on someone 2-to-1, there doesn't seem to be a problem with other power imbalances such as a man hitting a woman or drawing a gun on a knife. (It's also worth mentioning that in the essay, just after mentioning that 'you're not a man' if you gang up 2-to-1 on someone, Camus talks of the sympathy the people feel when they see a man sandwiched between two policeman. Meursault, you'll remember, doesn't like policemen.)

“Raymond turned to me and said, 'You wait till I've finished with him.'”

Raymond shows off, wants to impress Meursault, and pays the price. He left the Arab's sister bloody, the Arab leaves him bloody. The wound in his mouth bubbles with blood and spit – it was his mouth that Raymond used to humiliate his girlfriend. First the policeman and now the brother, for a second time he is left shamed.

“It annoyed me to have to explain things to them [the women]”

Is Meursault annoyed that not only did he not take part in the fight but was left with the women while the two male combatants went off together? Hard-drinking Meursault, who hangs out with local bad boys and doesn't like cops, left with the women while the men go off.

Meursault skillfully disarms Raymond

Meursault has been considered, by some commentators, as a passive simpleton. However, on this day he twice shows us his intelligence. Not only is he the only one who works out how the Arabs knew where to find Raymond (“I thought they'd probably seen us getting on the bus with the beach-bag”) but he quickly and efficiently gets the gun off Raymond without provoking him into firing (“Raymond asked me, 'Shall I let him have it?' I thought if I said no he'd get himself worked up and be bound to shoot.”)

“I realized at that point that you could either shoot or not shoot.”

A reflection on the meaningless of taking a life or the ease, speed and efficiency at which a human life can be extinguished? A third option: Raymond in the heat of the moment could easily take a life; it is Raymond that is the focus of the observation; is Meursault reflecting on how events can lead up to one moment that changes your life forever? Nothing in this observation can convince us, as some commentators will have us believe, that Meursault thinks that killing a man is neither here nor there, flip a coin, shoot or not, etc.

The killing of an Arab

The murder has been crafted in such a way as to be impossible to understand. We know why Meursault has a gun in his pocket (and why he isn’t pleased to see the Arab) but there is no description of when the gun leaves Meursault’s pocket and points at the other man. The Arab puts his hand to his pocket, where Meursault knows he carries a blade. Meursault, naturally, grips the handle of the revolver in his pocket. But the shooting, the gun comes out without him noticing (at least he doesn’t think it worth mentioning) and the trigger gives way – rather like the gun fires itself instead of a man pulling the trigger.

Note that Meursault now describes things in a different way. The waves move like they are lazy, the ocean is molten metal, the knife is like a flashing sword, the cymbals of the sun clash. Before then, trams are just empty, street lamps come on, the sky has red streaks in it – they are not empty, or come on or have red streaks like anything.

The descriptions of the killing sound apocalyptic, like something out of the Revelation according to John. The sea sweeps forth fiery breath and flames rain down in sheets from the sky. Camus, in his preface, refers to Meursault as a ‘Christ’. There are parallels between Meursault’s story and that of Jesus of Nazareth (we’ll elaborate on this in later notes).

“And it was like giving four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness.”

Why does Meursault fire the gun four more times, after the first bullet has already killed the man? And what does he mean by the door of unhappiness?

Tomorrow - Day 7

[Text by Simon Lea]

Friday, 29 March 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day five


Raymond phones Meursault at his office to invite him to a friend’s chalet the following Sunday. He also warns Meursault that a group of Arabs, including the brother of his former mistress, has been following him (Raymond) around all day and wants Meursault to keep an eye out for them. After the call Meursault's boss asks to speak to him about a possible promotion that will involve a move to Paris. Much to the man's surprise and consternation Meursault turns him down. That evening Marie asks Meursault if he wants to marry her. He, hardly enthusiastically, replies that he doesn't mind. They walk through the town and she turns down dinner at Céleste's due to a prior engagement. In the restaurant Meursault observes and the follows a strange 'robotic' woman. Back home he bumps into Salamano who tells him that his dog is definitely lost and then opens up about his late wife and how he ended up with the dog. The chapter ends with Salamano revealing how some local people thought badly of Meursault for putting his mother in a home.

Raymond's phone call

Raymond begins the call with an invitation to his friend's beach chalet the following Sunday. It is during the visit to this chalet, after lunch, that Meursault will shoot the Arab with Raymond's gun. The real purpose of the call is to get Meursault's help. Raymond is worried by the brother of his former mistress (and his friends), these men have been following him around. In the next chapter we will see just how scared Raymond is of these men.

Note that Raymond has always made the first move in approaching Meursault and that he always seems to have an ulterior motive. He invites him in to his room so that Meursault will write the letter. He comes to Meursault's room after dishing out the 'punishment' to get Meursault to act as a witness for him (and to check what his neighbour thinks of him after the humiliating incident with the policeman). He invites Meursault to the chalet so that he won't have to travel alone and so that he enlist Meursault's help in staking out his building, checking for Arab threats.

The offer of promotion

Meursault's boss is surprised at his lack of ambition especially his turning down an offer to relocate to Paris. However, as we soon learn, Meursault has already been to Paris and he hates the place. Much has been made of his supposed lack of ambition however not many commentators have considered how good (or bad) the offer really is. If Meursault (a) doesn't particularly like his job, and (b) definitely doesn't like Paris, how great is an offer to move to Paris to continue doing his job? In addition, Meursault has lots of loyal friends in Algiers.

Note that Meursault mentions: “When I was a student, I had plenty of that sort of ambition. But when I had to give up my studies, I very soon realized that none of it really mattered.” We don't know why Meursault had to give up his studies. In A Happy Death Patrice Mersault had to give up his studies because his mother falls ill with diabetes. Camus had to give up his studies at 17 because he fell ill with TB. However, what we do know is that something happened during Meursault's student days that made him reassess his values. And that he does have values. If he didn’t, then why bother rejecting the promotion? In a meaningless world, Paris is a good as Algiers, and both are as good as a camel’s backside. Meursault doesn’t just shrug a ‘whatever’ to his boss, he tries to explain his motives for staying put.

There will be plenty of references to ambition in The Stranger, in fact it is one of the key themes of the novel. As we will see, the ambitious journalists and lawyers at Meursault's trial will play an important role in his fate.

Meursault notices the beautiful women

He points this out to Marie. She is a candidate for his long-term affection, the presence of other women puts her position in question. His decision to point this out just the women is game-playing on his part. Marie responds in kind by creating a rival for Meursault. She is somewhat successful. “She looked at me. 'Don't you want to know who what I'm doing?' I did want to know, but I hadn't thought of asking and now she seemed to be reproaching me for it.” As on other occasions, this courtship play ends with Marie laughing. Meursault is not doing too badly.

It is worth contrasting with Meursault's reaction the extreme jealousies that not only Patrice Mersault in A Happy Death but Camus himself felt when a woman he was involved in looked at other men.

The robotic woman

Most commentators have considered her to be a reminder of how we can fall into habit. She acts like an automaton, going through the motions – in Meursault's eyes. Perhaps she is supposed to ‘secrete the inhuman’. Is she like the man talking on the phone behind a glass partition, described in The Myth of Sisyphus? She will turn up again at as a spectator at Meursault's trial.

“I told old Salamano that he could get another dog but he rightly pointed out to me that he’d got used to this one.”

Meursault suggests that one dog is a good as another but Salamano ‘rightly’ points out that this is not the case. Note that the relationship between the old man and his dog has been juxtaposed throughout the novel with other couplings (Raymond and his mistress, Meursault and Marie); Just before this scene Meursault has pointed out other woman to Marie – she is just one woman among others – but as Salamano rightly observes other beings aren’t interchangeable.

“But according to him, its real trouble was old age and there’s no cure for old age.”

We discussed old age in our previous notes. Salamano’s wife gets old, his marriage gets old. She dies and the marriage is over. The puppy is young and vibrant but it too gets old. Death and decay are ‘real troubles’ for Camus.

“I told him that he could stay, and that I was upset about what happened to his dog”

Wait a minute! Meursault the nihilist, Meursault the man who cares only for his physical sensations allows a man who was “annoying” him, who was keeping him up, to stay with him? Not only this compassion but Meursault is upset over the disappearance of the dog! Camus noted that people often missed the ‘good will’ of Meursault.

Meursault’s relationship with this mother is now explicitly brought up. He hasn’t managed to feel upset by her death but he does feel this way about the dog. Compare Meursault’s treatment of the bereaved Salamano with the treatment he received from the care home staff.

Tomorrow - Day 6

[Text by Simon Lea]

Thursday, 28 March 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day four


It is Sunday. Meursault's been at work all week and gone out to the cinema a couple of times with Emmanuel. During the week Raymond stopped by to tell Meursault that he'd given the letter to his mistress. Yesterday, on the Saturday, he and Marie went out of Algiers to spent the day at the beach. She stays the night and they plan to have lunch together. On his way to the shop to get food Meursault hears a woman in Raymond's room and later the dog in Salamano's room. When he gets back Marie asks him if he loves her. Meursault replies that love doesn't mean anything. She looks sad but then she laughs as they prepare lunch. At this point they hear a commotion from Raymond's room. Raymond is carrying out the 'punishment'. Due to the loud screams coming from Raymond's room, Marie asks Meursault to call the police, which he refuses. Someone has called the police because a policeman arrives at Raymond's door.  Raymond tries to act coolly, in front of his neighbours, but the policeman humiliates him with a slap. Marie has gone off the idea of lunch so Meursault eats most of it. She leaves and he takes a nap. Raymond knocks on his door at three to discuss what happened and ask Meursault to act as a witness for him. Meursault agrees and they go out together ending up in a bar. Later they bump into Salamano who has lost his dog. That evening, after he has said goodnight to Raymond, Meursault gets a knock at his door. It is Salamano looking for some piece of mind over his missing dog.

Meursault and Marie

The chapter opens on a Sunday but Meursault talks briefly about the day before. That Saturday was spent at the beach with Marie. The previous Saturday he met her and picked her up on a different beach. Although he knew of her, she worked in his office, he has only gotten to know her for one week. So when she starts talking about love it's a bit premature. Some commentators have made much of Meursault's indifferent comments on love at this point but considering how early on the two are in the relationship (are they even in a relationship at this point?) his response isn't all that strange. Indeed, even though Marie looks a bit sad she is soon laughing again. It is much more likely that rather than showing Meursault's 'alienated, detached or emotionally numb' response to love, Camus is commenting here on the 'games' young lovers play. Jan, in Cross Purpose, in a misguided attempt to reach out to his mother, plays a game that has deadly consequences. Meursault himself will comment on this in chapter two of the second half of The Stranger. In the next chapter Marie will ask Meursault if he wants to marry her. This has often been interpreted as a marriage proposal but it is more likely to be closer to trying to work out Meursault’s future ‘intentions’. Later on Marie will play other ‘game’, testing to see if Meursault would be jealous if she had a date with another man.

Raymond’s punishment backfires

The intention was to lure his girlfriend back into his arms and then to humiliate her at the crucial moment. However, things don’t go according to plan. Instead of playing her part, the woman is outraged and fights back. The police are called and it is Raymond who is left humiliated with a slap to the face from the cop. He is truly a pathetic character. In chapter six, Marie will laugh at the slight of him. Raymond wants to be thought of as a man but instead is a figure of fun – a little man in a silly hat going to the beach with pasty white skin.

Call the cops!

Marie asks Meursault to call the police on Raymond but he refuses. Why? Because he doesn’t like policeman. This is an odd value-judgment for a character who is supposed (by some commentators) to believe he lives in a meaningless universe.

Salamano’s escape-artist dog

Camus was very concerned about the humiliation of infirmity and old age. Salamano is suffering from both. The elderly become ‘strangers’ living alone and ignored by society. In ‘Summer in Algiers’ Camus writes about how a man has basically played all his cards by the time he is thirty. In an earlier essay ‘Irony’ we read about the humiliation of various elderly people. The absurd has a sense of the ridiculous about it; note how Salamano’s dog wriggles out of his collar while his master is distraction by ‘the Escape King’.

Note that Meursault bothers to help the old man, to talk to him and share his problem. Salamano will choose Meursault to come to that evening. Perhaps he knocks on Meursault’s door because their isn’t anyone else’s he can knock on but still, he feels Meursault is someone he can turn to.


Camus keeps drawing our attention to different kinds of relationship couples: Meursault and his mother, Meursault and Marie, Meursault and Raymond, Raymond and his mistress, Salamano and his late wife, Salamano and his dog. Previously, we have had Meursault’s mother and Thomas Perez; we will have Masson and his wife. There is also the Arab and his sister and even the young court reporter and the robotic woman.

Tomorrow - day 5

[Text by Simon Lea]

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day three


Meursault returns to work. His boss asks after him and his mother. Emmanuel, a friend from the office, and Meursault go to lunch together at Céleste's. Because he has drunk too much wine, Meursault goes home to sleep it off before returning to work. After work we walks home feeling happy. On his way up to his apartment he bumps into his elderly neighbour Salamano and his mangy dog. Another neighbour, Raymond Sintès, appears and invites Meursault into his room to eat and drink. To save himself from having to cook his own dinner, he accepts, and over wine Raymond tells Meursault of his problem with his girlfriend. The chapter ends with Meursault writing a letter for Raymond that will draw this woman into a humiliating trap.

“I worked hard in the office today. My boss was kind. He asked me if I wasn't too tired and he also wanted to know how old mother was. I said 'about sixty,' so as not to get it wrong and for some reason he seemed to be relieved and to regard the matter as closed.”

There are three things to observe in this opening paragraph. Firstly the boss asks if Meursault wasn't 'too tired'. For him to ask this, Meursault must be looking fatigued. Is this part of Camus' focus on his character's sleeping/tiredness or is the boss mistaking a hangover (Meursault drinks heavily the day before) for grief?

Secondly, Meursault isn't sure how old his mother is, she's 'about sixty'. Is this a sign of his lack of concern about her or something perfectly normal? I can never remember exactly how old my mother or father is. If put on the spot I can say my father is about seventy.

Finally, notice that the boss appears relieved to have got the 'greeting a recently bereaved colleague' game over and done with.

The roller towel

Some commentators have made a big deal about this. Meursault makes an observation about the hand drying facilities available in the office wash room. He likes to use the roller towel at lunchtime but not in the evening because by the end of the day it has gone soggy. When he points this out to his boss he is told that it's 'detail which didn't matter'. Does this detail matter? Most of us have made similar complaints about facilities at work. It is not unusual that Meursault notices the soggy roller towel, nor it is unusual that he enjoys the ritual of washing his hands before lunch. His bringing the issue up to his boss would only be unusual of they were in the middle of an unrelated conversation but we don't know about that. Meursault tells us that he brought it up once, and that is all. The only unusual thing about Meursault's experience with the roller towel is that he brings it up to us in the narrative.

Chasing after the lorry with Emmanuel

This event appears in A Happy Death.

Salamano and his dog

Salamano is Meursault's elderly neighbour. He lives alone with only his dog for company. Both the dog and the man are covered in blotches and scabs. They also resemble each other in how they walk. Both the man and the animal appear to hate each other. Salamano walks the dog twice a day, the dog dragging on the lead with the old man stumbling after him. When it's too much, Salamano will beat the dog, who then cringes and needs to be pulled along. After a while the dog forgets the beating and starts running ahead and the cycle repeats. Salamano won't wait for the dog to urinate and then shouts at the dog when it relieves itself in the apartment.

“In eight years they haven't changed their route.”

Camus highlights routine and habit throughout the novel as well as in The Myth of Sisyphus. In chapter 5 Meursault will tell us about the strange robotic woman. When he finishes following her the next person he meets is Salamano.

“It's been going on like that for eight years. Céleste always says, 'Its dreadful,' but in fact you never can tell.”

Camus repeats the fact that this routine has gone on in exactly the same way for eight years.  Other people are quick to judge Salamano; we hear Céleste's view and shortly Raymond will repeat the idea and ask Meursault if it doesn't disgust him. Meursault, however, doesn't judge.

“He's [the dog] always there.”

But he won't be for long. The dog escapes in the next chapter. He wriggles out of his collar, ironically, while his owner is distracted by an escape artist.

“Local people say he [Raymond] lives off women. When you ask him what he does though, he’s a 'warehouseman’. Most people don't like him much.”

Is Raymond a pimp? Most commentators seem to accept that he is. I have my doubts and have written about this elsewhere. In his notes for The Stranger Camus writes that there is something tragic about Raymond. He is certainly a pathetic character. I imagine that the people (who don't like him) call him a pimp more as an insult rather than a description of what he does for a living.

“He told me he'd had a fight with a bloke who was looking for trouble.”

Raymond's anecdote is the same as one Camus once overheard on the tram.

“There was this girl ... she was sort of my mistress.”

She is the sister of the man he'd been fighting with. Her brother will be the Arab Meursault shoots on the beach. Raymond tells Meursault that he is keeping the girl but denies that he is a pimp. He then goes on to talk about how she'd been deceiving him. She gets all her money from him but he finds a lottery ticket he hasn't paid for and a pawn ticket for two bracelets.

“So I left her. But first I hit her. And then I told her a few home-truths. I told her that all she was interested in was putting it about.”

However, he doesn't feel like he's punished her enough. He wants her to come back to him so he can kick her out again, only this time in a more humiliating fashion. Odd, if she is supposed to be a prostitute that Raymond would accuse her of 'putting it about'. Raymond appears hurt that she has cheated on him as a mistress not as an employee.

“He wanted to write a letter 'which would really hurt and at the same time make her sorry'. Then, when she came back, he'd go to bed with her and 'right at the crucial moment' he'd spit in her face and throw her out.'”

Throughout his work, and in his private letters, Camus makes quite a few references to humiliation (sexual and otherwise) involving spitting.

“When he told me the girl's name I realized she was Moorish.”

I've heard people say that Meursault only agrees to write the letter after he discovers that the victim is an Arab. This isn't the case. He already has pen in hand and is beginning to write when Raymond tells him the woman's name.

“I wrote the letter. I did it rather haphazardly, but I did my best to please Raymond because I had no reason not to please him.”

Haphazardly because he was drunk, but could he really find no reason not to write this letter?

“I must have looked tired because Raymond told me not to let go of myself.”

Tiredness and fatigue again.

“But in old Salamano's room, the dog whimpered feebly.”

The story of Raymond and his beaten girlfriend is sandwiched between Meursault's account of Salamano and his beaten dog. Are we supposed to think Raymond is disgusting or to think that you never can tell?

Tomorrow – day 4

[Text by Simon Lea]

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day two


Meursault wakes up the day after the funeral. It is a Saturday and he decides to go swimming. In the water he meets Marie Cordona, a woman he fancies, who used to work as a typist at his office. They flirt a bit and he asks her if she wants to go to the cinema. She agrees and says there's a comedy that she wants to see. When Meursault gets dressed Marie is surprised to see his black tie and even more surprised to discover that his mother died the day before. That evening they go to the cinema and then back to his apartment. When Meursault wakes up the next day Marie has gone. It is a Sunday. The rest of the chapter is an account of Meursault spending his day alone in the apartment.

Meursault has 'trouble getting up'

Meursault's tiredness again. In notes taken for a novel, possibly The Stranger or A Happy Death, Camus writes: “He can be completely explained by his habits, of which the most deadly is to stay in bed.” (Notebooks 1935-1942). The next day he will stay in bed, smoking cigarettes, until noon.

Marie Cordona

Cordona was the maiden name of Camus' grandmother. Raymond Sintès, who we will meet in the next chapter, has the maiden name of Camus' mother. Meursault's name is made up of sounds in French from the word for sea and the word for sun.

“She recoiled slightly, but made no remark.”

Meursault picks up Marie with professionalism. He will later be told by the examining magistrate that people had described him as being 'taciturn and withdrawn'. However (and like Camus) he doesn't appear withdrawn with women. The next day, when he is on his balcony the 'local girls, with their hair down' will recognize him and wave. Much will later be made in court of Meursault's decision to go swimming and then on to a comedy film; Marie herself recoils, slightly, when she discovers his mother was buried just the day before.

“I remembered that it was Sunday and that annoyed me: I don't like Sundays.”

The description of Meursault's uneventful day is almost identical to that written previously by Camus for his earlier character Patrice Mersault in the unpublished novel A Happy Death (later published posthumously). The following Sunday Raymond beats up his mistress and Salamano loses his dog. The Sunday after that Meursault kills the Arab.

“I cut out an advertisement for Kruschen Salts and stuck it in an old exercise book where I put things that amuse me in the papers.”

Camus has similar interests to Meursault. He notes: Tailors like Marie-Christine are not only fashionable but always up to date.” Laxatives are “only a temporary remedy. The roots of constipation remain untouched.” (Notebooks, 1940)

“ I was coming back inside I saw reflected in the mirror a corner of my table where my spirit-lamp was standing beside some pieces of bread.”

Chapter two of the second half of The Stranger also ends with Meursault looking at a reflection. This time he is in prison staring at himself reflected in the back of a spoon. Mirrors and reflections appear in all three of Camus' 'absurds'. In Caligula, the emperor obsesses over his reflection in the mirror. In The Myth of Sisyphus, an essay Camus intended to be read alongside The Stranger, he talks about '... the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd.”

Tomorrow – day 3

[Text by Simon Lea]

Monday, 25 March 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day one

These posts are not intended to be some kind of study guide. Rather, they are merely observations. A much briefer version will be posted on the Camus Society's Facebook page each day. L'Etranger is published as The Outsider in the UK and The Stranger in the US. There have been discussions over which is the preferable translation of the title (the pro-Stranger camp are winning, I believe); however, personally, I don't think it makes much of a difference. I choose to use The Stranger because more readers know Camus' book by that title. Just to be difficult, I choose to use Cross Purpose rather than The Misunderstanding for Le Malentendu – but that's a story for another time.


Meursault has received a telegram from his mother's residential care home. She is dead and her funeral is arranged. As is the custom, he travels down to the home to sit in vigil over her coffin during the night before her funeral. Although he wants to 'see his mother' he turns down looking inside her coffin. Rather than go to the canteen for dinner he has a coffee and smokes cigarettes. During the night he is joined by ten or so residents and has the strange feeling that they are sitting in judgment of him. The next day he walks in the searing heat to the church. An old man, his mother's 'boyfriend', is permitted to attend but is ignored by all but Meursault. The old man, already described as being in a terrible state, is forced to run after the procession. He is crying and sweating when he arrives to the church and later faints. After the funeral Meursault catches the bus home to sleep for twelve hours.

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.”

The infamous first line of The Stranger. Meursault will be accused of treating his mother shabbily. Note that in Camus' essay 'Summer in Algiers' published in the collection Noces, treating your mother well is a sign of 'being a man' – it is part of Camus' highway code. Meursault's apparent lack of interest in the precise details of his mother's passing appears as shocking – until we read further. “I had a telegram from the home: 'Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.' That doesn't mean anything. It may have been yesterday.” His not knowing exactly when his mother died is more due to a careless notification from the home than to any lack of caring on Meursault's part. The telegram itself is a particularly callous way of informing a son of the death of his mother.

“I even said 'It's not my fault.' He didn't answer. Then I thought maybe I shouldn't have said that.”

Meursault is unsure how to play the game. Funerals are set-pieces. How we react to the bereavement of others is also highly stylized. There are rules of behaviour that people need to understand. Meursault feels awkward playing this game. Not because he has strong feelings against doing so but because it doesn't feel genuine. The motions he is going through seem wrong and he experiences a strange sensation of guilt.

Céleste and others feel sorry for him at the restaurant. Emmanuel, a friend from work, lends Meursault a black tie and armband.

Meursault has often been portrayed as a loner, a 'stranger' or 'outsider' by critics and commentators. Some have suggested that he is mentally disabled or schizophrenic. However, he has a circle of friends and other social relationships. He goes to the races with Céleste, the restaurant owner, and to the cinema with Emmanuel. He knows the latter man well enough to borrow clothes from him.

He dozes off on the bus journey.

Meursault spends a lot of the novel tired and sleeping.

“I wanted to see mother right away.”

At the trial the Warden of the home says that Meursault had not wanted to see his mother.

“You've no need to justify yourself, my dear boy.”

Justify himself is exactly what Meursault will have to do at the trial. The Warden says that Meursault was right to put his mother in the home but later at the trial simply says that she would reproach her son for sending her there.

“When she was at home, mother used to spend all her time just watching me in silence.”

As would Camus' own mother. As a child he once visited the home of a schoolfriend and was greatly surprised at how this boy's mother would talk and laugh with them.

“Near the coffin there was an Arab nurse in a white overall, with a brightly coloured scarf on her head.”

But he doesn't notice, until the caretaker points it out, that 'she had a bandage around her head just below her eyes. Where her nose should have been, the bandage was flat. Her face seemed to be nothing but a white bandage.' However, Meursault did notice that the caretaker had a white moustache, 'beautiful bright blue eyes and a reddish complexion.'

Note that Meursault chats pleasantly with the caretaker and takes an interest in him. Meursault doesn't act insensitively. It is the old man who makes an inappropriate comment regarding the need to bury bodies quickly in Algeria because of the heat.

Night falls and Meursault accepts a coffee. He thinks twice about whether it would be alright to have a cigarette and then decides that he can. The caretaker accepts one and they smoke together.

Meursault dozes off for a while.

Another reference to sleeping. Meursault sleeps off and on throughout the night. The first chapter ends with Meursault riding the bus back home knowing that he was going to 'sleep for a whole twelve hours.'

About ten of the elderly residents come in to join the vigil.

They all sit opposite Meursault and  'For a moment I had the ridiculous impression that they were there to judge me.'

We are introduced to Thomas Pérez

He is one of the residents and had become the boyfriend Meursault's mother. He was not permitted to attend the vigil on doctor's orders but is allowed to attend the funeral, a permission not usually granted to residents.

The funeral procession takes place during late morning. It is so hot that the tar on the road is melting. Pérez cannot keep up, a fact that only Meursault seems to notice. The old man hobbles along, takes shortcuts and when he finally makes it to the church, 'Great tears of frustration and anguish were streaming down his cheeks', he faints (like a dislocated dummy).

References to the funeral later in the novel

I have referred to the elderly people living at the home as residents. Meursault, however, refers to them as inmates. In the second half of the novel, when he is in prison, Meursault will spend more time thinking of this residential home that he does thinking about the crime that got him locked up. The comment by the duty nurse: 'If you go slowly, you risk getting sun-stroke. But if you go too fast, you perspire and then in the church you catch a chill' is recalled later in prison. Chapter Two (of Part II) ends with the line, 'I then remembered what the nurse said at mother's funeral. No there was no way out and no-one can imagine what the evenings in prisons are like.' The novel ends with Meursault thinking about his mother and why she'd “taken a 'fiancé' and why she'd pretended to start again.” We will look at this in more detail when we look at this chapter on [add date].

Playing games

In his 1955 preface to The Stranger, Camus writes that “the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.” We will examine this idea further but for now, we can see the idea of 'playing games' is established from page one.

The first chapter looks at what could be called social games. Meursault is expected to react in a set way to the death of his mother. The people in the home have their expected roles, as does Meursault's boss. Had Meursault wanted to look inside the coffin and chosen to go and eat dinner in the canteen that would have been acceptable. Not wanting to have the coffin opened and drinking café au lait next to it are, apparently, unacceptable. Meursault has a right to ask for days off to go the funeral but no more than is deemed acceptable. When he later realizes that because of the weekend he will be getting four days off he understands his boss's annoyance. The rules of the funeral game are fixed.

In the second half of the novel Camus will show us the rules of the game when it comes to distributing justice. The trial is not about justice for the Arab, the murder victim, but about people playing the roles set out in the (unwritten) rules of the game. Note that Meursault is criticized for not crying when he is 'supposed to' at his mother's funeral and for not crying when he is 'supposed to' at the sight of the crucifix in the examining magistrate's office. Had Meursault simply 'played the game' at his mother's funeral and then again during his trial (making an appropriate show of tears and regret) then he would have avoided the death sentence.

Tomorrow - chapter 2

[Text by Simon Lea]