The Stranger by Albert Camus, translated by Matthew Ward

This is the third or fourth time I started reading The Stranger and the first time I finished it. I’m glad I made it through Part 1 because Part 2 is actually interesting.

In his introduction, the translator says Camus adopted an “American” style in Part 1: “the short, precise sentences; the depiction of a character ostensibly without consciousness; and, in places, the ‘tough guy’ tone”. In Part 2, however, “Camus gives freer rein to a lyricism which is his alone”. 

I found most of Part 1 to be oppressive. Meursault, the “stranger”, narrates the story as if he’s an alien or a robot. He hardly reacts to anything except the heat and the sunshine. In Part 2, he expresses some emotions in addition to annoyance and becomes almost sympathetic, even though I was never convinced by his repeated claims that life is absurd and nothing matters.

There are absurdities in life, but death doesn’t make life absurd. It only makes it finite. And some things do matter if only because they matter to us.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

I didn’t like the movie (with Debra Winger and John Malkovich). But neither did Paul Bowles. After reading an article about the novel in the NY Review of Books, it sounded interesting. It was. I just had to keep in mind that the American couple who travel to North Africa in the late 1940s both lean toward the self-destructive, that the woman in particular is rather insane, and that the Sahara can do strange things to people’s minds. 

This was the author’s first novel. It’s beautifully written. Especially good are the descriptions of the characters’ unspoken thoughts, in particular, what runs through one character’s mind when he is delirious with fever.  (2/12/12)

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

This is a novel about a white, middle-aged professor in South Africa who has an affair with a student and loses his job. He goes to live temporarily with his daughter on her small farm. They are robbed and assaulted by three black men. The political or sociological aspects of the story — gender relations in an academic setting, racial relations in modern South Africa — didn’t interest me very much. I did, however, identify with the professor. He’s a difficult character with an uncertain future. He doesn’t regret the affair, isn’t sure what to do with himself, doesn’t get along very well with his daughter. He seems very real.  (1/12/11)

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I read this in college and was disappointed because the horrible events deep in the jungle weren’t revealed in much detail. Then there was Apocalypse Now, a version of Heart of Darkness that had its own strangeness and now colors any reading of the older work. Reading this again after 40 years, I’m again disappointed. Much is said about Kurtz, but not enough is revealed. It’s the problem with any work that purports to be about an extraordinary figure. The author can keep saying how extraordinary some character is, over and over again, but it is much more difficult to show that character being extraordinary.

You can argue that leaving the details to the imagination creates a more powerful experience for the reader (people say that radio dramas were scarier than the ones on TV), but in this case more details would have helped.  (12/18/10)