by Albert Camus
It’s bleak and depressing, but also brilliant. Whereas The Stranger and The Plague are quite serious and dramatic, this one wallows in its own sarcastic smarm, attacking everyone and everything. I loved the narrative device that Camus used with the protagonist telling his story directly to his audience, indeed conversing with us. It reminded me of the hilarious Christopher Walken sketch from SNL in which he’s trying to woo the woman in his apartment. The narrative here is quite different, of course, as our “hero” is just telling us what a bastard he is. Impressively, it doesn’t get old.
The narrative does get a little muddled toward the end, especially when the narrator comes down with a fever (although this was probably intentional), but the very end brings it around nicely. The entire affair lacks a certain amount of heft, which is pretty unavoidable given the narrative choice that Camus took. But still, the book abounds in sly commentary and beautiful prose. I used up two whole post-it notes (torn into little strips) marking all of the memorable passages. It is a quick read too, and for those of you who only know Camus by “The Stranger,” this book offers a great juxtaposition (although you really should read “The Plague” too!).
And here, if you care to get a taste of the book, are some of my favorite examples of Camus’ alternately hilarious and beautiful prose:
I sometimes think of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted. (6-7)
Have you noticed that death alone awakens our feelings? How we love the friends who have just left us? . . . Then the expression of admiration springs forth naturally, that admiration they were perhaps expecting from us all their lives. But do you know why we are always more just and more generous toward the dead? The reason is simple. With them there is no obligation. They leave us free and we can take our time, fit the testimonial in between a cocktail party and a nice little mistress, in our spare time, in short. (32-33)
It was not a matter, mind you, of the certainty I had of being more intelligent than everyone else. Besides, such certainty is of no consequence because so many imbeciles share it. (29)
. . . I don’t know how to name the odd feeling that comes over me. Isn’t it shame, perhaps? Tell me, mon cher compatriote, doesn’t shame sting a little? It does? Well, it’s probably shame, then, or one of those silly emotions that have to do with honor. (68)
As I told you, it’s a matter of dodging judgment. Since it is hard to dodge it, tricky to get one’s nature simultaneously admired and excused, they all strive to be rich. Why? Did you ever ask yourself? For power, of course. But especially because wealth shields from immediate judgment, takes you out of the subway crowd to enclose you in a chromium-plated automobile, isolates you in huge protected lawns, Pullmans, first-class cabins. Wealth, cher ami, is not quite acquittal, but reprieve, and that’s always worth taking. (82)
. . . after prolonged research on myself, I brought out the fundamental duplicity of the human being. Then I realized, as a result of delving in my memory, that modesty helped me to shine, humility to conquer, and virtue to oppress. (84)
I have never been really able to believe that human affairs were serious matters. I had no idea where the serious might lie, except that it was not in all this I saw around me — which seemed to me merely an amusing game, or tiresome. There are really efforts and convictions I have never been able to understand. I always looked with amazement, and a certain suspicion, on those strange creatures who died for money, fell into despair over the loss of a “position,” or sacrificed themselves with a high and mighty manner for the prosperity of their family. I could better understand that friend who had made up his mind to stop smoking and through sheer will power had succeeded. One morning he opened the paper, read that the first H-bomb had been exploded, learned about its wonderful effects, and hastened to a tobacco shop. (86-7)
Sometimes it is easier to see clearly into the liar than the man who tells the truth. Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object. (119-20)