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Friday
Oct142011

Book Review - The Fiction of Albert Camus

Those of us who consider ourselves existentialists have an exacting gauntlet to run:  reading the fiction written by existentialist philosophers.  This is the acid test:  can I bear to live through the fate of the existential protagonist, who is, of course, doomed?  Can I have any fun on the way, or is it all a slog-fest through god-awful tribulations under an indifferent sky?

            I recently watched William Hurt and Sandrine Bonnaire take such a journey in the film version of Camus’ The Plague and was disheartened not only to witness, but to experience, the Sisyphean journey myself.  As I couldn’t bear to read the book after living through the agonizing film version, I decided to try some of Camus’ other fictions.  And I’m here to report:  they’re as bleak and tedious as The Plague.

            Camus’ most famous work, The Stranger (that’s  ‘L’Etranger to you Francophones), begins with the immortal pronouncement, “Mother died today,” and goes downhill from there.  The protagonist, a humble French Algerian man with little to distinguish him from what I take to be the typical Frenchman growing up (humbly) in North Africa (if there is such a type), lives a life of manual labor, days at the beach, sex with his girlfriend, and hanging out with lowlifes.  That’s it.  Until his mother dies.

            The most memorable scenes were, to me, the visit to his mother’s nursing home and the excruciating funeral march under the Algerian sun.  The suit-clad son lets us share every exquisite rivulet of sweat, the itching of crawling bugs, and the halting staggers of mourners from the old-age home.  This seemed to me an admirable example of filial devotion, but I’m neither an Algerian nor a Catholic, so perhaps that’s why I was mildly shocked to find that our hero was considered unnatural and heartless for failing to weep at his mother’s funeral.  (Actually, I knew that already since the work is very famous and that detail is often cited by the people who read this sort of thing.)

            So, after accidentally killing someone, our man is condemned to death partly for his alleged lack of feeling toward his mother.  But, with his last view of the world before dying, he realizes he “was happy still,” as he lay his “heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.”

            Well. 

Still clinging to my Faith (that is, existentialism), I turned to a more agreeable clime, Western Europe.  Camus’ The Fall is the tale of a Frenchman living in Amsterdam.  This Frenchman avails himself of the (apparently) willing ear of a fellow patron in a seedy waterfront bar (I imagine all Amsterdam bars are waterfront bars; only some are seedy) called Mexico City.  He proceeds to describe his life, in impressively repetitious detail, as a lawyer, roué, and “judge penitent”—which may or may not be an official position. 

            Our judge’s narrative is damning.  “My emotional impulses  always turn toward me, my feelings of pity concern me.  It is not true, after all, that I never loved.  I conceived at least one great love in my life, of which I was always the object.”  How very French!

            Yet this committed narcissist, while maintaining that he enjoyed his life, still gradually reveals himself as guilt- and anxiety-ridden, living in a figurative “little ease,” the French version of the tiger cage of Vietnam.  This, we eventually learn, stems from an incident years earlier, when he saw a girl slip (apparently deliberately) into the Seine, then heard her cries for help.  And did nothing.  Merely kept walking away from her.  Finally, unable (after years) to bear this memory, he takes to his bed waiting for death, uttering the wish he has carried with him, “O young woman, throw yourself into the water again so that I may a second time have a chance of saving both of us.”  Yet, “The water is so cold!  But let’s not worry!  It’s too late now.  It will always be too late.  Fortunately!”

            Piecing together my experiences of  The Plague, where our protagonists, despite knowing the hopelessness of their task, continue to minister to the plague’s victims; The Stranger; and The Fall, I have reached some conclusions.  Faith is a matter of faith, not reason (sort of what William James [no relation to Jesse] was fond of saying) and, unreasonably, in spite of all the excruciating fictions I have endured, I can’t help but be seduced by that “benign indifference” and by the existentialists’ belief in the necessity of acting--regardless of any projected outcome--to escape imprisonment in the “little ease.”

 

            Now I can start reading Sartre.

Noel Mawer

 

Noel Mawer has a Ph.D. in English from Bryn Mawr College and is the author of A Critical Study of the Fiction of Patricia Highsmith: From the Psychological to the Political (Studies in American Literature V. 65 (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press). She has previously been a book reviewer for Utopian Studies and is the Book Review Editor for Lost Coast Review

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