In a short blurb? We talk books.
A handful of scenes from Albert Camus’ The Stranger were still relatively fresh in my mind as I picked it up last month to read it for the first time in half a decade. They largely consisted of the scene that follows that unforgettable first line, “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know;” the epic final conclusion, and the scene where Meursault describes one of my favorite themes of the book:
“…I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms…after a while you could get used to anything.”
I had remembered the existentialist sentiments and apathetic attitudes that characterize the novel. I remembered the story’s structure, and even most of the characters. But something drew me to give it another exploration, and I’m so glad I did. I got to discover something so intensely emotional in this book that is so easily characterized as cold. From the heart-breaking efforts of Maman’s fiance during the funeral procession to the scene in Chapter 2 of Meursault’s Sunday life that had a stanza of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock playing in my head on repeat: “Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets / And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes / Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…” I got to re-realize that, hey, existentialists have feelings too.
I know it’s not exactly summer reading, but if you haven’t gotten to reading it yet, or haven’t read it in a while, I highly recommend picking it up. Look, it’s only about 120 pages, and there’s really no better time than when you’re in the middle of a killer heat wave like we’ve got up here in NYC to try to understand how the main action of the book was caused, in part, by evil summer rays. I swear, I was out there in the sun all weekend, and there were times when I got so irritated, I thought to myself… yo, Meursault… I totally get it.
Now for a dark quote-for-thought from the end of the book:
“I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done this thing but I had done another. And so? It was as if I had waited all this time for this moment and for the first light of this dawn to be vindicated. Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why. So did [the chaplain]. Throughout the whole absurd life I’ve lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living. What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or that fate they think they elect matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers? Couldn’t he see, could he see that? … he would be condemned, too.”
If you like The Stranger, please take the time to read or watch “Waiting for Godot,” the play by Samuel Beckett. And then, if you still trust my recommendations, read As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem (a recommendation from fellow blogger Nate Gatsby! Thank you!), in that order. And then you and I should get coffee together and discuss Gogo and Didi vs. Garth and Evan, Meursault vs. Lucky, and Lack vs. Godot. And then you and I will be BFFs. The end.
Happy existentialist reading!