The Sunny Absurd

 

Albert Camus’ Stranger (1942) has one protagonist, the first person narrator called Meursault, and one antagonist: the sun. The book is originally in French; I quote from a translation by Stuart Gilbert. I have italicised all the words related to the sun.

Quote: There was the same red glare as far as the eye could reach, and small waves were lapping the hot sand in little, flurried gasps. As I slowly walked toward the boulders at the end of the beach I could feel my temples swelling under the impact of the light. It pressed itself on me, trying to check my progress. And each time I felt a hot blast strike my forehead, I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trouser pockets and keyed up every nerve to fend off the sun and the dark befuddlement it was pouring into me. Whenever a blade of vivid light shot upward from a bit of shell or broken glass lying on the sand, my jaws set hard. I wasn’t going to be beaten, and I walked steadily on.

Any book blurb gives away that this is a story of how Meursault got drawn into a murder on an Algerian beach. There’s also mention of the story being Camus’ exploration of the nakedness of man faced with the absurd. The Quote describes Meursault walking along the fateful beach, and his physical fight with the absurdity of his situation.

The Quote is not a spoiler. The book is short, around 100 pages, and within the first quarter the following words play prominent roles in conveying the oppressive mood of absurdity: sun, light, heat, lamps. The remaining three quarters intensify the heat — summer and the plot set in.

Oh, and the opening words are: Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. That surely adds to the heavy mood, and yet, the only image that had stayed with me since I last read this book, half a life ago, was the dazzle of yellow and white that can wreck havoc on the mind.

 

What makes the Quote quiver?

Sun-glare.

 

The Quote is representative of the scene it was taken from. I am discussing a translation, so I must credit both Camus and Gilbert for the word-choice in the English version: the verbs, as well as, the italicised words convey an ominous atmosphere. Traditionally, heat is associated to crimes of passion and explosive feelings; here, I find the opposite: the language is hinting at crime, tilting towards crime, progressing towards crime, in a methodical, cool way. The contrast is unsettling.

 

What is at the core of the Quote?

Extended metaphor, synaesthesia, personification.

The light and the heat and the sun are given force, impact, a tactile presence that presses and pours befuddlement and that must be fended off.

I’ve seen various descriptors associated with Meursault: devious, stoical, anti-hero. I’d probably add: cold, detached, and ambivalent almost in a Taoistic sense (the way I think about it). Here are a few lines from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (translation by Timothy Freke) that I thought of when reading Meursault’s response to the gravity, and absurdity, of his situation.

Tao is like an empty space,
that can never be filled up.
Yet it contains everything:
Blunt and sharp,
resolved and confused,
bright and dull,
the whole of Creation.

I doubt that’s what Camus had in mind when he wrote The Stranger, and I doubt that Lao Tzu had The Stranger in mind when he wrote the lines above. However, I am permitted to note the similarity between Meursault’s moral ambiguity and the Middle Way of the Tao. (Both begin with M, you have to grant me that at least.)


Haven’t had enough of sun and metaphors? (The previous sentence is an example of a hendiadys.)

 

Still haven’t had enough, even after that picture? Or are you looking for further reasons to pick up The Stranger? 

Here are some more sunny quotes I enjoyed. Same author, same translator; same scene, a few paragraphs down from the Quote. (Again, the italics are mine.)

I was some distance off, at least ten yards, and most of the time I saw him as a blurred dark form wobbling in the heat haze. Sometimes, however, I had glimpses of his eyes glowing between the half-closed lids. The sound of the waves was even lazier, feebler, than at noon. But the light hadn’t changed; it was pounding as fiercely as ever on the long stretch of sand that ended at the rock. For two hours the sun seemed to have made no progress; becalmed in a sea of molten steel.

I waited. The heat was beginning to scorch my cheeks; beads of sweat were gathering in my eyebrows. … I couldn’t stand it any longer, and took another step forward. I knew it was a fool thing to do; I wouldn’t get out of the sun by moving on a yard or so. But I took that step, just one step, forward. And then the Arab drew his knife and held it up toward me, athwart the sunlight.

Nothing sensible ever happens athwart the sunlight.


Reading recommendations

  1. The Stranger, Albert CamusBecause you want to know how it ends.
  2. Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu. Because you don’t believe I have a clue what I’m talking about.
  3. The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka. Because you secretly hanker after the absurd, and this is the book that got away.

3 responses

  1. Right! I shall have to re-read Tao Te Ching – which is no hardship – because I can’t recollect that quote (which I suspect must come from the second half of the book?) And having never read any Camus, I had listed The Outsider to be my first taste of his work…. Maybe I should change to The Stranger? I’d appreciate your thoughts 🙂 (Kafka may have to wait a while..)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now that you’ve said it, I have to reread Tao Te Ching too 🙂 (It’s been a long time since I’ve read it cover to cover.)

      The reference is on page 4 of the translated text, but page 38 of the Timothy Freke edition I was quoting from.

      As for Camus: I believe The Outsider and The Stranger are the same book, titled L’Etranger in the original. So you don’t have to change your first choice! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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