Wednesday, January 2, 2008

L'Etranger

Since I was a young man, I have read Camus' The Stranger at least once every single decade. It's a great little existential story about the meaninglessness of life--if we allow ourselves to drift through it.

The little man protagonist floats through his existence living in Algiers, making dinner, sitting on his balcony smoking cigarettes and watching life flow by on the street below, making love to his girlfriend Marie. Here is sex in Camus.

Toward the end of the show I kissed her, but rather clumsily. Afterward she came back with me to my place. When I woke up, Marie had gone. She'd told me her aunt had expected her first thing in the morning.

Does it get any better than that? Everything's left to your imagination. What lovemaking they had that night! Probably after a long evening of romance and foreplay. Here is love in Camus.

She was wearing one of my pajama suits and had the sleeves rolled up. When she laughed I wanted her again. A moment later she asked me if I loved her. I said that sort of question had no meaning, really; but I supposed I didn't. She looked sad for a bit, but when we were getting our lunch ready she brightened up and started laughing, and when she laughs, I always want to kiss her.

This little man is in love.

But the story moves inexorably to its conclusion, the extinguishing of this man's life, the end of the world, really. Where does the world go when we die? Camus provides the answer through his protagonist. Other men and women will continue living, and the world will go on as before. Oh.

The narrator's Mother has recently died and he is working through his grief without knowing that's what's going on. He finds himself on a beach with a friend, confronting some local toughs, holding his friend's gun. He shoots one the the thugs in cold blood, without a moment's thought about the enormity of the deed.

He is put on trial and offers practically no coherent defense. He is sentenced to die and all the pleasant little vignettes of his life come to an end.

While his appeal process plays out, our little hero gets used to prison life. He describes his new life of confinement in my favorite passage.

Afterwards I had prisoner's thoughts. I waited for the daily walk in the courtyard or a visit from my lawyer. As for the rest of the time, I managed quite well, really. I've often thought that had I been compelled to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but gaze up at the patch of sky just overhead, I'd have gotten used to it by degrees, I'd have learned to watch for the passing of birds or drifting clouds, as I had come to watch for my lawyer's odd neckties, or, in another world, to wait patiently till Sunday for a spell of love-making with Marie. Well, here anyway, I wasn't penned in a hollow tree trunk. There were others in the world worse off than I.

Then one morning they come at dawn to take him to the guillotine. In his last moments he rebukes the attending priest in a fit of pique and sends him away. Here is death in Camus.

It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.

I love this little classic.

How does it relate to me now? I am so glad I took up running several years ago and changed my little life--do you hear that, Sharon? But I am heartbroken that you and your coterie of "professionals" wrecked, in my opinion, the childhoods of the three minor boys in the half-decade of divorce litigation that followed, by immersing them in it.

5 comments:

Dori said...

Living well is the best revenge. It is a shame about the children, but their life will work out.

CewTwo said...

Peter! I am never quite sure how to relate to some of your posts. You are one of the most cerebral people that I know. I think that makes you a great man in my eyes. But I also know that you suffer at times. I could cliche it, "Into every life a little rain must fall," but you seem to be living in a constant torrent. It shouldn't happen to a great guy like you! I do so hope that things
improve for you soon.

jeanne said...

ditto cewtow.

Bex said...

I haven't read The Stranger, but I did read Camus' The Rebel in high school. Heavy stuff.

Did you ever take my advice on that run we did on the Mall/Capitol Hill months ago?

David said...

Life is what you make it. What you let in, keep in, let go or generate from within. It's the withins that sometimes need to be let go so more can be let in and dilute the pain.