Monday, June 30, 2008

The Stranger

I've started reading Matthew Ward's translation of Camus' The Stranger. I've read excerpts before, but I've been putting off reading the entire book (though it's short) because I feared it was going to be a philosophical dialectic that I would lose track of over the weeks or months it takes me to read such things. But this version, interestingly enough, is touted by the Chicago Sun Times as "a different and better novel for its American readers." I bet they mean the sentences are short.

A British girl told me she could always tell American writing by the brevity of its sentences. Read any book by Henry James, Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens and you will be treated to lengthy paragraphs often constructed by three or even one sentence connected by semicolons. Colonial and Romantic writers closer to the British tradition tended to write the same way. No one can ever accuse Ralph Waldo Emerson of brevity. But I don't think this girl was referring to earlier American authors.

This was a few years ago, and I confess I spend more time on the Internet, getting caught up on some "lighter" classics, and perusing entertaining rot than reading contemporary British literature. Yet one more thing to add to my "to do" list. There. I wrote a fragment. Do British writers do this in novels or in journalism? I will have to find out.

Anyway, I'm off track again, so let's get back to Camus and existentialism. Like many people, I've always found existentialism a depressing and confusing philosophy. I believe life has purpose, that we tend to define purpose through our experiences, and that lack of purpose often leads to meandering through life with nothing more than getting dressed and eating to take care of...as Monsieur Meursault shows with his endless rambling on eating, combing his hair and sweating....at least in this first part. I'm just starting the second part now, so expect some more commentary on this book later. Or don't expect it. It makes no difference, as far as Meursault would tell you.

For some reason, I have less affection for any of the characters than I do Salamano's dog, the mangy beast that endures constant abuse from his owner, an angry, lonely man who exists for the love/hate relationship. I don't blame the dog for running off. And I don't think at this point he has been run over. I think he's free no matter where he is and Salamano, no matter how pathetic he is, will have to learn no one and nothing will (or should) stick around for abuse--not even an animal.

Perez is probably the second saddest character in the book. An old man no one waits up for in a funeral procession--what kind of people let that happen? Not one member of the walking parade offered poor Perez water or a shoulder to lean on when obviously, he was the one who loved the Maman, Meursault's deceased mother, best. Meursault is no exception. Meursault, for whatever reason, isn't capable of human connection at this point, so I am wondering if he is a sociopath.

I'm not going to read this book right before bed. I already have anxiety about my aging dog passing to the next life, and the description of Salamano's dog really got to me, so much so that I slipped back to periodically checking to see if our dog was breathing in the night. I used to do this with the children when they were babies. I don't do it now because I assume at ages 10 and 11, they can sleep on their stomachs without risking death. But since my dog sleeps close to me, I found myself reaching out for her and touching her belly which rather annoys here. Finally, I turned on the light and put myself to sleep by reading the introduction to Madeline Albright's autobiography. Now there's a book that will take me a hundred years to get through.

I think, though, if you are going to be depressed and/or find no meaning in life, you might as well at least call it something impressive like existentialism. We all know the world seems absurd, but I guess some people would rather just think, "This is the way it is" rather than torture themselves with the why's and how's. I'd rather torture myself with questions than give into what I consider an empty way to live. But that's me.

So I guess I will complete the book in its entirety. But outside of not reading it before bedtime, I will avoid reading it when I'm hormonal. When PMS strikes, I tend to get sadder and/or more sentimental and I cry sometimes at the most ridiculous things. Camus isn't a good pick when period is impending. And I wouldn't recommend him for anyone already in a funk.

Maybe this is another reason why the book has been labeled a "better novel for American readers." We seem to thrive on media misery and conflict, violence and disrespect. If you're into that kind of thing, even if you aren't particularly interested in existentialism, then this might be the book for you. You don't have to take much time out of your busy lives to read it, you don't have to spend a lot of money on it, and it doesn't take a word master to understand the plot. It's action packed with Arab murdering, woman-beating, and the word "breasts." So go for it, Americans. Thrive in brief sentences and pick up a copy of The Stranger today. It's sure to entertain.

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Later....

Well, I've finished the book.

But finish or not, it doesn't matter, right?

What a stupid philosophy.

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