Algerian absurdity…

Author:  Albert Camus

Cover of the original edition in 1942.

Cover of the original edition in 1942.

The word “indifferent” doesn’t quite capture how unusual this man is. Meursault’s mother has just died in the nursing home.  Displaying little emotion, he attends the usual services, but quickly resumes his work duties and spends time courting his latest girlfriend.  He proceeds to get caught up helping his neighbor who has a dispute with some local Arabs and he eventually kills one of them with a revolver.  Meursault proceeds to trial and is incarcerated, awaiting his final punishment.  Aptly entitled The Stranger, the most remarkable thing about this French Algerian’s story is the unremitting indifference he displays to everything that goes on around him.

Published in 1942, the same year he released The Myth of Sisyphus, The Stranger (aka L’Étranger or The Outsider) is part of Albert Camus’ Cycle of the Absurd. This collection of works explores the premise that while humans seem to be unable to live without believing that their life has meaning, they’re continually flummoxed because it doesn’t actually have one.  Determining how to go about living one’s life while acknowledging this absurd state was the main philosophical question Camus tackled during his short life.

Albert Camus in 1956.

Camus in 1956.


While both the plot and the writing style are rather simple, the radical ideas that Camus explores in this short novel had a profound impact on the philosophical world after World War II. As the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, Camus was recognized for his earnest illumination of the problems of human consciousness.  Undoubtedly, this strange book is a key piece of the man’s ground-breaking and award-winning oeuvre.

Cover of the translation by Stuart Gilbert that I read.

Cover of the translation by Stuart Gilbert that I read.

It’s hard to view Meursault as a protagonist or hero in the traditional sense. He did kill a man after all.  But he does fulfill his role as the key player in Camus’ peculiar thought experiment.  What happens when you expose the quintessentially indifferent man to the ultimate mortal convulsions of life?  How does society try to force him to conform?  Can he successfully reconcile the human search for meaning with the universe’s ultimate indifference?

One piece of Camus’ lifelong effort to explore and finally embrace the absurdity of the human condition, The Stranger is a curious book.  While it lacks literary flourishes or clever plot twists, it does provide plenty of food for thought, particularly if Camus’ brand of existential bravery appeals to you.  Highly recommended, but only if you’re in the mood for an odd philosophical adventure that remains cogent more than 70 years after it was written.

— D. Driftless

Other reviews of books about Camus:   The Age of Atheists   /   Brave Genius

The Stranger (Paperback)

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Ceaselessly seeking out non-fiction writing on almost any topic, Dave can carry almost forty pounds of books in the pannier pack on his bicycle and knows all the librarians at his local public library by their first names.

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