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‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus stands the test of time

March 9, 2018 GMT

Some novels endure the brutal test of time. Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” (1926) spoke to its “lost generation” and still finds readers. “The Stranger” (L’Étranger) by Albert Camus is a novel that spoke to a generation of French people under Nazi occupation in 1942, but its themes of absurdity in an existential world have made “The Stranger” an enduring classic. Born in French Algeria in 1913, Albert Camus (Ca-moo) won the Nobel Prize for literature at age 43.

The plot of “The Stranger” is simple enough. The protagonist is Meursault (“Mer-so”), an indifferent French Algerian described as “a citizen of France domiciled in North Africa,” a man who lacks any hostility toward or empathy for other human beings. The opening sentence, “Mother died, today” (“Aujourd’hui, Maman est morte”), has joined a list of classic lines in world literature. Meursault attends his mother’s funeral and falls asleep at the all-night vigil. He smokes heavily and takes his lover, Marie, to a comic film the next day. They have a romance, but he seems indifferent to marriage. He then befriends Raymond, a pimp who beats his Arab girlfriend. When the woman’s brother seeks revenge armed with a knife, Meursault shoots him dead on a hot beach, sun blinding his eyes. Meursault is tried and sentenced to death.

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Meursault, for all his apparent apathy and indifference to social conventions, is more sinned against than sinning. Society abhors Meursault as a monster because he doesn’t believe in God, or even worse, is indifferent to whether God exists or not. When he verbally assaults a priest sent to his cell and throws him out, Meursault reaches a strange secular redemption of his own. He wants the crowd viewing his execution by guillotine to greet him with “cries of execration.”

In January 1955, Camus wrote: “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death. I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.” (One purpose of Camus’ novel was to attack capital punishment.)

Freshmen in my university English composition class and even high school students hated the book and despised Meursault as an ugly immoral man, yet found “The Stranger” a novel they loved to hate. Who was this anti-hero who seemed freakish in his indifference to basic social demands and attitudes? They rejected Meursault’s insistence that no one had a right to judge him, yet their essays suggested they agreed with Camus: Meursault, a common man who lived for the moment and was indifferent to the future, did not deserve to die, despite his lack of interest in any philosophy or religion.

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In 1960, Albert Camus, the master of articulating absurdity, was killed in a car crash with a train ticket in his pocket. His publisher had offered him a ride at the last minute. The world of literature suddenly lost an extraordinary writer in his prime. “The Stranger” (or “The Outsider”) is still a vital novel that speaks to modern unease. Perhaps the excellent 1967 Italian film with Marcello Mastroianni will be released on DVD. Written in a simple but vivid prose, “The Stranger” remains in print and certainly deserves modern readers at any level.

Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.