26 September 2012

The Stranger by Albert Camus

  I feel a little weird offering a review of a book that is considered a classic. I'm sure there are many people who have already written reviews and analytical papers and possibly a masters thesis on this book, so I feel a little ill equipped to offer much of anything, but I took some advice from a wise friend and write this blog for me. So, really, these are just thoughts I had about Albert Camus's The Stranger.

   I read The Stranger along with several people over at The Gospel Coalition. Leland Ryken led the discussion which was possibly the best way to read something like this. I can almost guarantee you would be sitting there reading it and thinking "WHY am I reading this? This is so BLAH. He's telling me every detail like all details are important and he's saying nothing matters!" Aha! You would have hit the nail on the head and you wouldn't even know why. If you want to read this book, I recommend the series of posts by Leland Ryken over at TGC.

   The story is absurd. No, seriously, that’s the genre. Most basic literature classes will also have this novel as a fine example of an existentialist novel as well. It’s about a man named Meursault (don’t worry, I couldn’t pronounce that either) who ends up on trial, not for the crime he actually commits, but for who he is. It’s also about a meaningless world, which Camus believes is our world. I don’t want to go into the details too thoroughly because I don’t like to spoil anything for anyone, and because I believe that Camus is less interested in telling us a story than telling us his worldview. Though I do admit the story is compelling as the main character becomes more sympathetic.

   Something Mr. Ryken brought up, which I think is very important, is that Christians need to read things like this to understand the world around them. Now, at first I balked at this thinking, WHY would I need to get in the mud to understand it is dirty? I once had a young man tell me that he watched some movie that I thought was very sexually inappropriate, in order to “really get a feel for man’s depravity.” I thought that was a bit of a cop out, but Mr. Ryken has a point. It is helpful to function in our world if we understand the underlying worldviews of others. It is particularly helpful to evangelism to understand how non-Christians think. This novel, as a quintessential existentialist novel can help you in just that way. Particularly at the very end of the novel, the existential mindset including the ultimate rejection of God is on display quite clearly.

   Another thing worth noting is the grace of God. I mean, I suppose the grace of God is always worth noting, but as Christians when we read something like The Stranger we can be even more thankful for it. I mean, why is everyone not going around committing crimes because it doesn’t really matter whether they do or not. Why isn’t everyone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife as depraved as they can possibly be? As one of the characters of The Brothers Karamazov would say “For if there's no everlasting God, there's no such thing as virtue, and there's no need of it.” It is pretty amazing that we worship a God who gives common grace to people to restrain them from doing all evil all the time.

   I think Camus is a very talented writer. He’s like a lyrical Hemmingway. Most of his prose is very sparse, but the way he manipulates words is the work of a genius. There were several sentences I had to re-read out loud because of how perfect they were. Not one word was unnecessary. You hear that Mr. Camus. Forget all the hat tips you’ve been given by actual literary theorists and literature professors. You have now been given credit as a good writer on my blog. Can you tell I still feel a little strange talking about this? I know I said earlier that I thought Mr. Camus was less interested in telling us a story than telling us his worldview. However, in order to get the reader into the worldview, Mr. Camus had to sell the reader on the story.

   Meursault is a weird guy. You begin the novel thinking he’s actually a psychopath. He can’t seem to feel emotions and when he does they are poorly prioritized. He got more upset about the towels in the bathroom at his office than the fact that his mother died. So, when he commits the crime, no one is surprised. It isn’t until nearly the end of the book that the reader begins to feel sympathetic to him. Mr. Camus himself has made allusions to Meursault as a possible Christ figure. "One would . . . not be much mistaken," he says at the beginning of the American translation of this book, "to read The Stranger as the story of a man who, without any heroics, agrees to die for the truth. . . .  I have tried to draw in my character the only Christ we deserve" At least for me, the strange fascination with Meursault was what kept me focused on the story and let me get a glimpse of Mr. Camus’s worldview. That and Albert Camus’s style are reason enough to recommend this book to others, particularly those interested in understanding the culture we live in.