When the young French writer Albert Camus published The Stranger, his second book, he was not yet famous even in his own country. The year was 1942: the context, the Second World War. However, this short novella was in his mind long before that date.
Together with Le Mythe de Sisiphe (a philosophical essay) and Caligola(a play), The Stranger fits within the first cycle of Camus’ writing that focuses on the human condition and the absurdity of life. The powerful effects of totalitarianism also had a great impact on his writing; he even tried to join the army. However, he faced rejection because of his poor health.
Although the first edition consisted of only 4.400 copies, The Stranger quickly became the peak of the first cycle. It was translated into 40 languages and ranked 1st in Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. At 44 years old, Camus received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.”
Fighting against compulsory empathy
When summarizing his novella, Camus said it was about the fact that “in our society, any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death”. The book starts with Meursault‘s discovery of the death of his mother.
Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.
The first striking characteristic of this Frenchman who lives in Algeria is how mildly he reacts to the news. He refuses to view her body and smokes and drinks coffee at her vigil. The very next day, he begins a relationship with Marie, an ex-coworker. In this first part, Camus describes everything mechanically, with detachment. Despite the narration being in the first person, the protagonist seems to feel nothing regarding his life, not even when Marie proposes to him. This gives the sensation that he is talking about someone else, and not even someone he cares about.
This first part creates a feeling of defamiliarization and alienation that keeps increasing up until the central event: the (seemingly without motive) assassination of an Arab man. Meursault ends up in prison, and so the second part begins.
I had only a little time left and I didn’t want to waste it on God.
A change in tone characterizes the second part of the novella. Since Meursault spends all his time in a cell, he has more time to reflect. Thus, the writing becomes increasingly elaborate and profound, not limited to the simple description of events. There is an interesting digression into Meursault’s cynism and apathy, a view of life that becomes even more apparent with his dialogue with the chaplain. In a rage attack, Camus’ protagonist finally frees himself of everything that was holding him back and he reconciles with the absurdity of life.
Meursault’s being “a stranger” to both life and himself has been widely analyzed over the years. Some compared this philosophy to existentialism, yet Camus repeatedly refused that label. The Stranger was also linked to absurdism. Indeed, Meursault sees life as something without purpose and meaning. He refuses to give a reason for his actions or anyone else’s, and he only finds peace in the acceptance of this.
Between myths and cinema
Young Camus was an eager student and many authors inspired his future works. As a teenager, ancient Greek philosophy fascinated him, but also more modern philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer. In many of his works, he took inspiration from religious and ancient myths: The Myth of Sisyphus, the figure of Prometheus in his second cycle of works, or the goddess Nemesis in The First Man.
The Stranger was twice adapted into a film: first, in 1967, by Italian director Luchino Visconti (Lo Straniero) and then, in 2001, by Turkish director Zeki Demirkubuz (Yazgi).
The Stranger also inspired many musical works. The most famous example is Killing an Arab, the 1979 song by The Cure, which narrates the story of Meursault. Both the folk singer Eric Andersen and post-punk band Tuxedomoon wrote a song called The Stranger or similar variations, clearly nodding to Camus’ novella. The song Asa Phelps Is Dead by The Lawrence Arms, instead, has the singer recite one of the final passages of the book.
In The Meursault Investigation, the journalist Kamel Daoud rewrote The Stranger focusing on the point of view of the Arab. There are traces of Camus’s absurdism also in Bojack Horseman, the Netflix animated series created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg.