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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Shortly before his seventeenth birthday, the author of The Stranger suffered a severe attack of tuberculosis. (Though it's rare today, tuberculosis was a common disease in the early part of the twentieth century.) Up until that time Albert Camus's greatest pleasures were wandering the streets of the working- class district of Algiers (the capital of Algeria, then a French dependency) where he lived with his mother, swimming at the beaches outside the city, and playing goalkeeper for a soccer team. The severe illness forced him to remain in bed for a long time, and he had to repeat a year in school. Most of all, the experience of being sick deepened his awareness of death, and of the possibility that death could occur at any time. The inevitability of death became a major concern of Camus and permeated his later writing.
Albert Camus often said that all his work came from a few intense images that were deeply embedded in his imagination in early childhood. In contrast to images of death, the warmth of the sun, the pleasures of swimming, and the cool Mediterranean evenings represented positive reasons for existence. The more you know about his life, the more you can see how these responses to physical sensations directly influenced his portrait of Meursault in this book.
Camus was born in 1913 in the Algerian village of Mondovi. When he was a year old, his father was called to fight for France in World War I and died in 1914 at the first battle of the Marne. Obviously, Camus had hardly any direct memories of his father, but his mother told him that his father had once attended the public execution of a murderer. When the father returned home, he threw himself on the bed and began to weep. Camus's father never told anyone why he was so upset at witnessing this event, but the story stayed with Camus and it appears in Chapter 5 of Part II, as a memory of Meursault's while he awaits his own execution.
After the father's death, Camus's mother took the family (Camus was the younger of two sons) to the Algerian suburb of Belcourt, where they shared an apartment with her own mother and brothers. It was an industrial district, with crowded apartment buildings and small factories. The apartment was on one of the main thoroughfares of the district, a crowded street where groups of teenagers would stroll in the evening on their way to one of the movie theaters. Both the neighborhood and the street strongly resemble the neighborhood and street that Meursault describes from his balcony in The Stranger.
The population of Belcourt contained a mixture of French, Greeks, Spanish, Italians, and Arabs. As a young boy, Camus spent much of his time roaming the streets. He was an independent child, who knew most of the shopkeepers. Neither Camus's mother nor his grandmother could read or write. His mother was deaf and rarely spoke. (When he was older, Camus interpreted his mother's silence as a sign of dignity and honor.) There were no books in the house, not even a magazine or a newspaper. His impoverished homelife didn't prevent Camus from taking pleasure in his physical surroundings, however, and he spent as much time as possible swimming at the local beaches and lying in the sun. "In Africa," he once said, "the sea and the sun cost nothing."
Under the guidance of a dedicated elementary school teacher, young Camus became a model student and received a scholarship to a high school in Algiers. While he was in high school, in 1930, he underwent the bout with tuberculosis that was to alter his perspective on life. After recovering, and after completing high school, he enrolled at the University of Algiers and continued to study philosophy while supporting himself with odd jobs, His goal was to become a teacher at the university.
One of Camus's jobs was with the civil service in the French Algerian government. He worked in the section that issued driver permits and auto registrations but was eventually fired because he wouldn't stick to the administrative writing style that was required. This job also gave him his first taste of what a routine workweek was like, and its monotony, day after day, week after week, made a lasting impression on him.
Camus never received his philosophy degree, because he couldn't pass the medical exam necessary to qualify. This was another result of his history of tuberculosis. Prospects for earning a living seemed dim. He had formed a theater group and worked in all areas, including directing and acting.
In 1937, Camus's first book, L'Envers et l'endroit ("The wrong side and the right side") was published. It included recollections of his childhood in Belcourt. He continued work on a first novel he called La Mort Heureuse ("A happy death"), which some consider a first version of The Stranger. (The main character is named Patrice Meursault.) Camus kept a journal and at this time his first notes appear for The Stranger, a book about "a man who sought life where it is usually found (marriage, job, etc.) and who describes all at once how much he had been a stranger to his life...." As you read The Stranger, see how well this early summary describes what Camus ended up writing.
In the same year, Camus began work on a second book of essays, Noces ("Weddings"), and took a job at the Institute of Meteorology and Physics of the University of Algiers. His job was to make an inventory of data recorded at some 355 weather stations over a period of 25 years. In his journal during this time there are frequent references to the weather. This increasing attention to the natural world had an important influence on his later writing. In The Stranger, you'll note several instances where Meursault observes the passage of the clouds and the intensity of the light.
Camus longed to be free of the necessity of working at a dull job. He eventually found a position on a new paper, Alger-Republicain, which believed in Arab equality with Europeans and was against French rule in Algeria. Camus began writing articles about the economic condition of the Arabs. The articles were controversial, and Camus became known as someone who refused to go along with the general anti- Arab sentiment of the majority of Europeans in the country.
Camus was a pied-noir (literally, "black foot"), the term for a Frenchman or European born in Algeria. (Algeria had been ruled by France since 1830.) In the early part of the twentieth century, the population of Algeria had grown considerably, and the world-wide economic depression of the 1930s had resulted in increased Arab poverty. At the time that Camus was beginning work on The Stranger, the Arabs of Algeria were seeking to establish their own political and social identity in a country where they were treated like second-class citizens. The presence of so many Arabs and Europeans, living side by side, created an air of tension throughout the country. In The Stranger, Meursault's outbreak of violence is against an Arab, and the sequence of events on the beach leading to the murder are set against a backdrop of Arab-European hostility.
In 1938, Camus met Pierre Galindo, a partner in a grain export company in the Algerian city of Oran. Camus was intrigued by this tough-looking, silent character (there were rumors that Galindo once had a violent encounter with some Arabs on a beach) and used him as a model for two characters in The Stranger, Raymond and Meursault.
As Camus continued to write, he began to develop more fully the notion of life as "absurd," which mainly centered on the idea that our awareness of the certainty and finality of death makes life meaningless. In his journal he wrote: "There is only one case in which despair is true. It is that of a man sentenced to die...." In addition to The Stranger, Camus was hard at work on a book of essays, The Myth of Sisyphus. The title essay- one of his most influential works- describes a Greek mythological figure, Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to spend eternity pushing a rock to the top of a hill, watching it roll down, and then pushing it up again. How can people condemned to such a meaningless existence find meaning in life? Camus did not believe that religion offered an answer. Nor did he think of suicide as the inevitable solution. One version of his answer to the question of life's meaning is found in Meursault's response to his death sentence at the end of The Stranger. Part of the challenge of understanding this book is understanding what this response means.
The publication of The Stranger in 1942 put Camus in touch with many of the leading French writers of the day, among them Andre Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. After the war, he took a job as a reader of manuscripts for the Gallimard publishing company and began work on a second novel, The Plague (1947), based on his experience in the fight against Fascism. During World War II he joined an anti-Nazi Resistance organization in France and became editor of Combat, the movement's newspaper.
Camus's days of poverty were over; he was not only internationally famous, but wealthy as well. In his diaries, though, he shows that during this time he was continually haunted by thoughts of dying. Despite his fame, he often thought of himself as a failure. Camus's later work and thought moved beyond the relatively simple moral ideas and created a rift between him and fellow French thinkers, especially when he repudiated the Communist Party and Marxism and refused to become an activist for Algerian independence. Unlike Meursault in The Stranger, however, Camus was incapable of feeling indifferent toward other people's criticism.
Shortly after the publication of his third novel, The Fall (1957), Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Nevertheless, he became increasingly tormented by the thought that he'd never be able to write another book. His sudden death, in an automobile accident in 1960, was a startling confirmation of his earlier thoughts on death. He was always aware that death could strike at any time.
Camus's awareness of death gave his life and work personal meaning. It also gave, and continues to give, his readers an important and controversial legacy. His books bridge the gap between philosophy and literature and continue to address our concerns about life's meaning in the modern, anxiety-ridden world.
[The Stranger Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]