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]

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