Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Albert Camus, don't be a stranger

I finally finished The Stranger by Albert Camus last night, a mere 30 years after I started it. At a tidy 154 pages, that works out to an average of just over 5 pages a year. I wasn't working all that hard at it for most of that time.

I was in high school when I started it, though technically I was reading L'Etranger back then. Or was supposed to be. It was part of my independent study in French, which I signed up for because I needed an easy elective. Not that French came easy to me. Just that the class was, with the teacher a notable pushover. By that point I had taken two years of high school French (on top of two in junior high), and had dropped it twice. I kept coming back to it, because it was only marginally tougher than a free period as we upper classmen were left alone to do our work (or not) in the back of the class while M. Langley taught the freshmen and sophomores.

At some point I struck upon the genius idea of checking the English version of The Stranger out of the library and "helping" myself through the French with the translation. Which worked fine until M. Langley snuck up on me one day while I had the wrong version open during class. I don't think he bought my explanation that I was just trying to confirm I'd understood what I'd read in the French text. He may have been a pushover, but he hadn't been lobotomized.

Shortly after that I gave up on reading Camus, in French or English. Gauging by how little I recalled of the story when I read it this time around, I'll estimate I made it as far as Chapter 2 the first time around.

But I always meant to finish. Or at least I'd thought about it at some point before now. And thanks to the receipt I found in the paperback copy that was on my bookshelf, I thought about it enough on Nov. 12, 2005, to plunk down 75 cents in a used book store. It was one of seven books I added to my collection that day. I can only guess what the other six were, though odds are pretty good they are all still on my shelf as well. Back in the day I would often spend a half hour or more scanning the shelves of second-hand book shops, looking for titles to stash away for whenever I might need something to read. Twelve years later, I finally got around to Camus.

I'm not sure it was worth the wait, to be honest. It was a quick read, once I got going in earnest, but it's not a book where one identifies much with the main character, which is sort of by design. He's not meant to be very likable, and he's not. It's not that he didn't cry at his mother's funeral or that he doesn't really love his girlfriend and tells her as much or that he lacks the decency to tell his friend Raymond not to treat his own girlfriend like a ragdoll--it's all of these things together. He has no emotional core. Which comes back to bite him in the ass when he's on trial for his life. It's like Seinfeld and friends getting done for lacking the moral fiber to help anyone for all those years. Only not funny. And no one was going to guillotine Jerry when the last episode faded away.

So, while it's good to be done after 30 years and counting, it may well be at least another 30 years before I'm tempted to pick it up again.

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