21 April 2010


As I arrived at the Cinéma Le Champo to watch Luchino Visconti’s L’étranger (The Stranger), I was struck by the disagreeable realization that I’d never read the novel by Albert Camus, on which the movie was based. Yet the really curious realization came as the movie played: I was already familiar with every bit of the story. Ordinarily, this phenomenon occurs only in pop culture. For example, I got all the jokes (such as they were) in Scary Movie, without having seen a single one of the scary movies being parodied, simply because they’ve made such an impression on the popular imagination that one needn’t see them to know what they’re about.

Still, a French existentialist novella isn’t quite the same thing as a horror movie. How could I possibly be so familiar with something so obscure? Or, coming at the question from a different angle, how could something so obscure have become so deeply embedded in my consciousness? Hoping for answers and fortified by Visconti’s vision, I set about to read the book.

On the set: Mastroianni (seated, left) and Visconti (standing, right)

Published in 1942, L’étranger is narrated by Meursault, a pied noir (Algerian of French descent) who leads a solitary, uneventful existence until the day his mother dies — “today, or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” In swift succession, Meursault begins an affair with a former co-worker, Marie, and launches a friendship with a neighbor, the disreputable Raymond. Halfway through the book, Meursault kills an Algerian Arab whom he doesn’t know. His motive is absurd, lacking logic, and it’s meant to tell us something about the hollowness of modern existence. In the novel’s second half, Meursault is tried and sentenced to death. This was exactly the story I expected the book to tell.

To a degree, there’s no mystery here. L’étranger was perhaps the foremost of a whole genre of fiction wildly popular among smart, disaffected young people. Surely some of them told me about the book, and it informed some of their discourse, so that I absorbed its message and much of its plot. But I was never so young: for whatever reason, I sought order and authority, preferring opera to rock, for example (and only later understanding that most of opera’s better composers were rebels, too).

In high school and college, I dipped a toe in several novels of this genre, first-person accounts of existential alienation by Sartre and Hesse, as well as Camus. But I grew impatient. In college, assigned to write an essay on La chute (The Fall), I drew a comic strip instead, depicting Camus’ self-important narrator and the poor slob in a barroom who has to listen to his tedious tale. Refusing to change the subject from himself, the narrator blathers on until his companion is driven to distraction and shoots him dead.*

Anna Karina as Marie, Mastroianni as Meursault

Coming at the form as a middle-aged man, I instantly saw Camus’ influence on Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, a novel that was among my favorites. Why did I respond to Percy and not to Camus when I was younger? Was it perhaps the setting? Percy’s narrator, Binx Bolling, and I had quite a lot in common, it seemed at the time, beginning with our old Southern families. Today, I’ve got something in common with Camus’ Meursault: we’re neither of us quite accommodated by the national structure in which we reside.

Camus’ writing is lucid and unadorned, almost Hemingwavian, though without Papa’s macho self-consciousness. With Visconti’s movie still fresh in my mind, I understood the sparseness of language to be an equivalent of the brightness of Visconti’s images, not only of sunlight, a major factor in the plot, but also of stark interiors, whitewashed walls and such. (I’m reminded of Al Hirschfeld’s explanation of his caricatures: he was inspired, he said, by the sunlight in Indonesia, which bleaches color and heightens contrast until he saw only outlines.)

Ultimately, one is left uncertain whether the stranger of the title is the unknown Arab whom Meursault kills without cause, or Meursault himself. The narrator passes through life without strong connections to any other person, including his mother and his mistress; as a pied noir, he is a foreigner (étranger) in his native country, as Camus himself was.

The greatest flaw in Visconti’s movie is the casting of Meursault. Marcello Mastroianni was an indisputably great actor, and he works very hard here (he also helped to finance the picture), but he brings too much Italianate brio to a role that is passive even when taking action. Especially in his prison scenes, alone with only his reflection for company, you can see Mastroianni struggling to restrain himself, and yet he still gives us too much. That’s a real shame, because Visconti had served prison time under the Fascists in World War II — that’s probably one reason the novel appealed to him — and everything else about these scenes rings true.

I’d have preferred to see Alain Delon, who starred in Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and who, I have since learned, was actually offered the part of Meursault. So was Jean-Paul Belmondo, but Delon would have been better: in his youth, his combination of extraordinary physical beauty and limited acting ability offered a kind of screen onto which good directors, like Visconti himself, could project their ideas. This is much what the other characters in L’étranger do with Meursault: to some, he is a friend, to others a monster, though nobody knows him well.

Rough trade: The actor who played Meursault’s victim was not credited.

Visconti does better with the casting of the Arab, played by a young actor so handsome that one can be excused for thinking that Meursault’s inability to forge a serious relationship with Marie and his abrupt friendship with the unsavory Raymond both may be attributable to latent homosexuality. (Visconti was openly gay.) That’s not the story Camus is telling, yet it doesn’t really contradict anything in the novel.

For this reader and viewer, the most striking scene in both the book and the film is that in which an examining magistrate attempts to browbeat Meursault into accepting Jesus. Brandishing a crucifix, the magistrate cries out “in an unreasonable way”: “How can you not believe that he suffered for you?” But at last he surrenders: “I have never seen a soul as hardened as yours. The criminals who have come before me have always wept before this image of pain.” Presumably things would go easier for Meursault if he played along.

It’s a ludicrous moment when the “system” breaks down definitively, an indicator that the absurd isn’t merely Meursault’s personal psychological problem but a characteristic of the society as a whole. The scene probably strikes French eyes today as otherworldly, yet to anybody who grew up in the South, it’s wholly recognizable.

Even so, when Camus maintains such a resonant emptiness throughout the rest of the book, the magistrate’s over-the-top outburst represents a significant disruption of tone: I’m still puzzling it out. The other principal anti-religion scene, a dialogue between Meursault and the prison chaplain in the book’s final pages, works more successfully, perhaps because the chaplain’s character is more fully rounded (he seems aware that he’s as empty as Meursault, though he’s resisting it).

Mastroianni as Meursault

If indeed I was resisting Camus and his contemporaries because I craved authority, I wasn’t entirely wrong: I would not have found what I sought in L’étranger. Our sympathies lie with Meursault primarily because he’s the one telling the story, yet we can’t escape the reality that “the sun got in my eyes” is not an acceptable justification for taking another man’s life — any more than it is right for the prosecutor to seek the death penalty because Meursault didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral.** If you are 18 and looking for sure footing, you will find L’étranger an uncomfortably slippery little book. If you are 48, you may find it painfully life-like.

In the publicity materials for their screenings of a new print of Visconti’s film, the Champo cinema quoted an interview that the director gave at the time of the movie’s release, in 1967. Of course he faithfully interpreted the novel, he said, because when a director imposes his own vision on a work, he merely reveals his own impotence. That’s a message that would have Visconti drummed out of Berlin these days, and quite a few other towns in Europe, too. Yet his vision of L’étranger provided me with an excellent foundation for reading the book. And how often is “See the movie, read the book” good advice?

Now I need to go back to the cinema, to see how Camus’ text will illuminate my appreciation of Visconti’s work; I may need to go back to some of the other novels I rejected in my youth, as well.

*NOTE: My professor, the distinguished Naomi Schor, remarked, “For better or worse, your comic strips are better than your essays.”

**A modern-day American will grow frustrated: why doesn’t Meursault just tell them he was in a state of shock over his mother’s death? The reason is two-fold: one, there would be no book if he did; and two, Meursault has never seen Oprah.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a most engaging piece.

I have no doubt that the title refers to Meursault. Think of some of the vignettes scattered throughout the novel -- i.e. the old Salamano, who mistreats his dog, going nuts when the dog disappears; the violence committed by a man in Meursault's apartment building against his partner. These scenes are typical of the society Meursault inhabits. What brings down its wrath on Meursault is his refusal to accept the logic dictating that it is better to be in a relationship -- even a tortured relationship -- than to be an outsider without ties to anything or anyone.

Beyond the philosophical implications here, there would seem (at least with hindsight) to be a layer of meaning concerning France's position in the world, especially when you consider the novel's appearance at the dusk of French colonialism. The French in Algeria did not want their ties to the land and its people to be severed, and such a development is precisely what Meursault's actions suggest. He contributes to an eventuality that has everyone terrified, the breakdown of social relations into their elementary particles, to borrow the title of a novel by a contemporary writer, Michel Houllebecq, whom Camus has clearly influenced.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Merci beaucoup. Certainly the balance tips in Meursault's favor, in terms of who the Stranger is. On the other hand, whenever I describe the plot, I keep saying, "Meursault shoots a stranger." On the other other hand, Camus would probably have used the word inconnu, instead of étranger, in that context. So ... what was I saying?

You're absolutely right about the political dimension: the uneasy status of the pieds noirs dangles like a sword over every page of the book, and I don't think there's any chance that the reader will treat Meursault as an isolated case, rather than representative of many/most French in Algeria. And of course it's significant that French law ultimately fails him: one doesn't leave the book with a high opinion of French prosecutors and magistrates, does one? From there, it's a short step to understanding the book as a picture of society as a whole, and not merely French-Algerian society.

Interesting, too, that Marie really, really wants to move to Paris, while Meursault would rather stay put.

As a guy whose own status in French society is less than completely secure, I left the book eager to stay out of trouble by being as little like Meursault as possible. And to do that, I am following Ronald Reagan's advice: "Stay out of the sun."