by Albert Camus. Translated by Matthew Ward. Originally published, 1946. Many editions available. New York: Vintage, 1946, 1988. 123pp. Paper. $10.95. ISBN: 9780679720201.
Reviewed by David S. Mann, Department of Political Science, College of Charleston. Email: MannD [at]cofc.edu.
The deadline is looming. I don’t remember exactly when. While it was good to make reference in lecture to the classics of literature and music, I am not thinking of that. I am thinking about the first time I read the book. Struggling with a late-blooming collegiate adolescence in the late 1960s, there were lots of questions but not many answers. “Ten Thousand whispering but nobody listening,” and sometimes they weren’t whispering. Lots of shouting but not much listening. Politics was my major, and though I knew I was destined for law school, that was a distant goal. The present was overwhelming. That is when I started to smoke.
Existentialism was intriguing. Everyone at the bookstore, where I worked part-time, was reading Sylvia Plath, Sartre, and Camus. There was even a for-credit course. It wasn’t that intriguing. I enrolled in a Twentieth Century Novels course at Cal-State Long Beach, taught by Charles Stetler. It was a break from Presidency and Comparative Politics. The English majors hated my guts in the Novels course. They were trying to figure out short-cuts on the reading list, as they had two or three Lit courses. I was there to read the books. No problem. Professor Stetler got me to get inside the characters and settings and explore the meaninglessness of it all. “Take Mersault to the amusement parks in Southern California and describe his reaction.” I remember that one.
Now I have to take Mersault to the Law and Politics Book Review. It is impossible to recapture the absurdity of reading Camus and the morning paper in 1968. Vietnam seemed absurd. President Johnson seemed absurd. The assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy told me that it couldn’t get any worse. But it did. The Democratic Convention was so absurd songs were written about it. And I was taking Mersault to Disneyland. And almost 40 years later I volunteer to review Mersault again. Not for a grade this time.
I looked for my old copy of the slim tome. Not there. Didn’t even try to see if there were old Novel lecture notes. I shrugged if off and dropped a dime or more on a new copy. But, wait a minute. Does translation matter? Should I know something about the translator? More: should I go back and read book reviews, old and new? Should I do a reference search on scholars who have written about Camus in general or the novel in particular? Or does it matter what other people think? For that matter, will the reader care what I think? Giving myself a high five at this point, I close my notebook and decide to smoke a cigar. [*307]
There is something slowly eating away at the review: does Existentialism matter any more? Is it important for liberal arts undergraduates and engineering majors to read this book? Asking that question, of course, requires me to shed the existentialist façade and get back to real life.
For those who haven’t ever read the book, the narrator/protagonist Mersault and others, thinking that they are about to be assaulted by a group of arabs (Camus’ choice not to capitalize the “a”), prepare themselves. Mersault is handed a gun. Seeing an arab wield a knife in the hot sun, Mersault fires, the arab falls, Mersault fires four more times. He is arrested; there is a trial. Hence the law and politics theme for this review.
Mersault, the protagonist and narrator, describes a sequence of rather mundane events: Maman’s (his mother’s) death and funeral (mundane, I argue, because he has no outward or inner expression of feeling or emotion), rapport with Marie (the only part of this tome where Mersault seems to get along with the flow or the tide), his friend Raymond, his neighbor Salamano with his mangy dog.
So Mersault and friends, who are out for a day at the beach, perhaps feeling as if they were being stalked by some “arabs,” prepare themselves. What is the first thing you would do, I might ask my class. Get a gun, of course. At this point I offer an aside to those whose second fields might be international or comparative: recall that Camus was a French Algerian, a colonial at least and at worst perhaps an imperialist [that might be a totally unfair characterization of Camus himself], and the characters are certainly people Camus has seen himself. This wonderful novel also is interdisciplinary. But I digress.
As I tell my students, not much good happens with a gun. And have you ever heard of a drive-by stabbing? Ironically, in the heat of the afternoon with the translator’s page blistering with words like “throbbing,” “burning,” “dazzling,” “scorching,” and “stinging,” the arab holds up a knife. Mersault fires the gun, the arab falls, and Mersault fires four more rounds. “And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness” (p.59).
He is now in prison, after awaiting the charge, then meeting his attorney. Criminologists might want to compare [compare to?] Camus’ terse existential explanation of prison life: “I waited for the daily walk, which I took in the courtyard, or for a visit from my lawyer. The rest of the time I managed pretty well. . . .one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything” (p.77) .
The trial process described from the eyes of Mersault may draw attention to several academic concepts. The press is there, even from Paris. A slow summer for news, explains one reporter, so we built up your story and the story of the patricide trial which comes after yours. Shall we address free press-fair trial issues? Or the observation that all the lawyers before the trials start seem to be joking and telling stories to one another. Just like they do at a diner in any number of towns and cities: the courtroom workgroup model is fed even more when Mersault describes himself as an outsider. He describes the jury as [*308] people who you might see when you board the bus or streetcar (remember, this is French Algeria).
We teach our students that trials consist of narratives by the prosecutor and defense, each of whom tries to “sell” the jury their story. As described by Mersault, the prosecutor’s narrative begins with casting aspersions on Mersault’s character: his inability to express feelings over his mother’s death, his rather nonplussed attitude about his friends and even Marie’s liaison, which began at the beach the day after Maman’s funeral. How could such a man do this? At times Mersault’s narrative of the prosecutor’s narrative expresses frustration. No one asked why he shot the arab. He would have answered,”the sun.” In our parlance, the aggravating and mitigating circumstances process occurred before the testimony about the murder itself. There was no victim impact statement per se at the trial, but that topic also might merit classroom discussion.
Mersaut also describes the trial scene using heat-related words. After all, it is the summer in Algeria. Sweat was glistening, big fans in court, jurors holding fans moving in unison. I remembered the scenes from “Inherit the Wind.” More images from the eyes of the accused included the attire of some of the principals. “. . . I think he must not have been able to get his collar on, because he only had a brass stud keeping his shirt fastened” (p.92). Though we are more or less fully air conditioned and our attire is unlikely to include a brass stud, on what images would the accused focus during a trial? And even in the standard 68 degrees Fahrenheit, there is a lot of heat in court. Perhaps only with impeachment are the stakes as high as a death penalty case.
Though the assigned defense attorney (another note for the criminal justice readers of this review) has a sound alternative narrative and thinks by summation that he has done a good job and it looks good and if not we can appeal, it is clear that the community wants a guilty verdict. What about discussing the death penalty in terms of community vengeance? There is little mercy here, no Sister Helen Prejean. There are no arguments about deterrence or incapacitation. The sentence is decapitation in the village square. As I write this, the Nebraska Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional execution by the electric chair. The U.S. Supreme Court as of this writing has not issued an opinion in the lethal injection case.
In Mersault’s final thirty or so pages we read the narrative of a condemned man. Perhaps even the existentialist remembers from Thomas Hobbes that the condemned may resist the executioner. “For the third time I’ve refused to see the chaplain. I don’t have anything to say to him; I don’t feel like talking. . . . All I care about right now is escaping the machinery of justice, seeing if there’s any way out of the inevitable” (p.108). There is no contrition. Much of the rest is an existential rant against religion’s appeal to an afterlife. This is a wonderful topic; however I find that most students are rather reluctant to express many views about religion and politics, religion and justice, and even faith-based initiatives for prisoner rehabilitation. For Mersault there is only one exit. He contemplates whether there will be a scaffold, like the guillotines of France, what the crowd would be like. [*309] Instead of religion, Mersault grasps all he has left of life. “. . .I was sure about me, about everything, surer than he could ever be, sure of my life and sure of the death I had waiting for me” (p.120). As we see and hear from many death row scenarios, he thinks about Maman, his mother. “Nobody, nobody had the right to cry over her. . . . I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. . . For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate” (p.123).
The novel ends here, but we don’t. Why don’t we have public executions? The opponents might with firm resolve argue that it would be horrible to televise an execution. On the other hand, if people saw how brutal the process was, they would oppose the death penalty. On a third hand, both supporters and opponents would say that showing many executions is like televising all the space shuttle launches—the process would become as mundane as some of Mersault’s own observations.
So, with no film version and with only two translations (the translation matters, according to a young literature scholar at a college nearby, and, further, the one I read is better than the one I read 35 years ago), does this tiny yet majestic novel “work” in law and politics themes? Absolutely. Now as in 1968, Existentialism matters.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, David S. Mann.