Camus is the kind of writer who I need to immediately re-read. Not “read the book once and then read it again” re-read, but literal “read a passage and then re-read it.” I felt that way about The Stranger as a senior in high school – the ideas behind his narratives are just so strong and lyrical and dare-I-say scary that, the first time, you aren’t necessarily getting all the work has to offer. Of course, Camus also takes a serious level of concentration and the last week or so has NOT proved to be an optimum time to read serious philosophical literature.
That’s not an excuse though and Professor Yates would not take kindly to me not reading the book because I wasn’t in the right mindset – so I’ve just had to force myself into it a little more than usual and do a little more re-reading than I otherwise might have needed to. The result was (predictably) well-worth it. I do think, however, that I need to re-read this book sometime in a year or so – to really go back to it and understand it more.
The entire thing is a series of first-person monologues, essentially. We, the reader, become the other member of a dialogue (but our dialogue is never presented) with Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a former Parisian lawyer. His character is that right kind of creepy – he is charming and suave but also there’s something snakeish about him. He meets the reader in a seedy bar in Amsterdam and ends up spilling “his life story” to him – but in a way that seems contrived. I never once bought that this was the first time Clamence had done something like this and (Spoiler Alert) it turns out it wasn’t.
Clamence’s lawyerly past allows him to be gifted – even virtuosic – with words and so the meanings of his statements can get wrapped up, buried down, tossed aside before the reader is even aware they’ve been delivered. This, of course, makes things complicated and is the cause of much of the necessary re-reading.
Camus is totally in control though and as the novel ricochets to its end, the great reveal by Clamence – that he does not feel remorse for letting the woman drown and that he has exulted himself by way of his “fall” – really does pack a punch. Its that idea that evil exists in all men and that without God there is no way to really control it. This scares some people – but, I’ll be honest, it intrigues and even excites me. “We cannot be good” is essentially what Camus is arguing here but there is also that sense of the absurdity of Clamence’s path of action. Clamence has accepted the absurdity of life and even contributes to it. Camus uses Clamence’s monologue to help guide the reader’s reaction at the end and it seems as though we’re meant to be thrown off-balance, to try to laugh it off, but to mostly just be shocked at this man.
Yet I wasn’t exactly shocked. I was simply… intrigued. I wouldn’t say I felt totally on the good side of things – Clamence is, in many ways, a repugnant human being – but I cannot dislike him, either. It is that strange dichotomy between attraction and disgust that feels so right at the end of the novel. Because that’s how we feel about humanity in general.
Rating: 4 out of 5. It isn’t The Stranger but its still excellent. It is more challenging, definitely. Could it, perhaps, be elevated to a better score in the future? Perhaps – re-reading it may present that possibility. I just felt like (comparatively) there is a stronger explanation of Camus’ worldview to be found elsewhere and that this novel was a little too confusing to be used (as I’ve had to use it) in a Philosophy class.