The first line of ‘l’Étranger’ (the Stranger) by Albert Camus.
Two weeks (or so) ago I had a chat about this book with some mates who had to read it for their French exam. I read it about two years ago and got the Audio-CD shortly after. I then listened to it every day when I cycled to school and back. I used to know loads off by heart. If not the whole book. Now the only line I can remember is the very first one (engl.: Today, mother died). Well, good for me that – according to a friend – this is the sentence that (apparently) summarises the entire story…
For those of you who haven’t read the novel yet; it is basically about a man (Meursault) whose life is pretty sad. He meets a girl he likes but his relationship to her doesn’t really mean anything to him. Then he kills an Arab. Just so. Doesn’t really affect him. He goes to prison. He doesn’t care. Nothing matters. He’s sentenced to death. That doesn’t matter either. Nothing does.
Through Lonsdale’s monotonous voice the “I don’t care and nothing matters“-idea (my interpretation) is put across pretty well on the Audio-CD. It might make you a little sleepy at times, but if you listen carefully, you realise that this perfectly reflects Meursault – him or his life or both. He’s got some serious issues, he seems to be cold and to be alive but not really, if that makes sense. Maybe death is the right thing for him, it sets an end to his dreary existence. I suppose, if you’re emotionless like Meursault, you can’t really enjoy life – and then the question arises – why live if you can’t “live”? Isn’t live about the good, happy moments? And in order to feel happy, you need to be able to feel happy!? That reminds me of a documentary I saw a couple of months ago; it was about an Australian guy who had an accident or something and part of his brain was damaged leaving him unable to feel emotions. He said he could remember these feelings and that kept him ‘alive’ and that he could easily understand people becoming serial killers if they had no emotions.
Anyway. I wonder, why did my friend say the first sentence summarised the whole book? Maybe we should consider the second one, that kind of goes along with the first one, too. Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. (Today, mother died. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.) Actually, I think this one is the key. Mothers are regarded as care-givers, they love and nurture their children. Sure, this is not always the case, but it’s the concept we have in mind when we think of them. So when you read these first two bits, you wonder straight away: A guy who doesn’t care about his mother’s death? Not all mothers are good and his mum might have been a dreadful one. Maybe it was her ‘fault’ he became that person (however, we can’t always blame our parents (genes, upbringing…) for our faults). So instead of concluding ‘this book is about a man who doesn’t care about his mother and who is thus probably a cold person‘ (after reading the first two sentences), maybe it would be more reasonable to say ‘this book is about a man who just doesn’t care about life in general‘ (but that would be a veeeery broad ‘guess’ after these two sentences)?
Maybe Camus wants to question the importance of ‘one single life’? I mean, what does one life of 6+ billion matter, really? Nevertheless, if everyone thought this way and didn’t reproduce/waited for death to come/committed suicide, there’d be no-one left. And even though it may appear at times that some people are more ‘worth’ or more ‘useful’ to our planet (e.g. scientists), our system wouldn’t work well without the others (e.g. waste collectors). En fin de compte, for the world you are just someone but for some people you are the world.
Maybe Camus just wants to show how differently life can be experienced by someone else?
Meursault might have been hurt (by his mother) and subsequently ‘blocked’ his heart. Maybe this book is trying to make us realise that we should be happy about the ability to feel, even if it is pain?After all, this is part of what makes us human beings – the ability to feel love, anger, sadness… Many ways of interpreting L’Étranger, many ways of seeing life, many ways of living it…