All Stories Are Traps

(This is the first of two posts on Camus and Daoud. The second is here.)

I just read Camus’ L’Étranger (The Stranger) for the first time. I am long past high school, when most people seem to encounter this book. But I chose a good moment to read it: Algerian writer Kamel Daoud’s response to L’Étranger (a novel called Meursault, contre-enquête or, in English, The Meursault Investigation) has revived discussion of Camus’ uncomfortable fable. I will devote two posts to these books- this one to Camus, the next to Daoud.

I read both in French. The starkness of L’Étranger would come across in any language, but the French enhances certain things- “Maman,” which should really be “Mama” in English; the use of the passé composé, which makes the prose even more childishly staccato. French also sharpens the colonial edge in both stories: Meursault as a Frenchman murdering an Arab, on trial by fellow Frenchmen; Daoud writing in what was the language of the colonizer and is now, paradoxically, a language representing a kind of freedom for him.

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The French edition of L’Étranger I read has an extensive commentary at the back, which is aimed, I assume, at high school or university students. This commentary is all about the relationship between Camus and Sartre, the meaning of existentialism, the kind of hero (or antihero) Meursault is, and what kind of freedom he represents. You could come away from the commentary with barely any idea that Algeria had ever been a French colony. Meursault’s trial is discussed a good deal, but the murder itself not at all. This is no more than what the book itself pushes us to do, or tricks us into doing (on which more below) but nevertheless it is startling. Evidently France does not want to discuss the Algerian war, or colonization, any more than it ever did. This is especially notable given France’s present troubles integrating its Muslim and immigrant population. An Arab-French student reading this copy of L’Étranger would come away, I think, with the feeling of being erased twice over- first in the murder itself; second in the blithely navel-gazing commentary, with its focus on internal French philosophy.

The colonial thread IS in the story, however, and is not especially subtle. As many have pointed out (or so a cursory Google search of “Camus colonialism The Stranger” suggested to me), Arabs in the story are nameless. The casual violence of the murder itself, and the fact that Meursault is effectively not tried for murder but for his behavior at his mother’s funeral, show the underpinnings of pied-noir life: a life built on force and on the narrative of a certain kind of Frenchness. By failing this Frenchness test, Meursault becomes “other,” truly a stranger or foreigner, and according to David Caroll, effectively Arab- or Jewish. L’Étranger becomes a story about the fictions of colonial life and, considering its context of publication (two years into France’s occupation by the Nazis), the fictions of occupied life.

I like this reading, but it is really only a partial reading. And it is a neat reading somewhat divorced from the power of the prose itself and what the prose is doing.

That prose is extraordinary. It is opaque and, as mentioned above, staccato. It insists on linear progression and on physicality. It is very hard to get a sense of Meursault’s past, because he is not interested in the past (or the future). Crucial moments in the story- his mother’s funeral, the murder itself- are obscured by the heat and the sun, so that Meursault seems to tell no more than the literal truth when he says that he commits the murder because of the sun. In fact, the landscape, the buildings, and the light are all far more palpable presences than most of the people, whose motivations are obscure, histories unsaid, and bodies fragile (death does not seem very far away from anyone). It is hard to weigh and judge events, because Meursault narrates them all on the same level. He is, of course, famously unmoved by his mother’s death (at least on the surface), but as the story goes on we learn this indifference extends to many other things. He has no reaction to his neighbor Salamano’s beating of his (Salamano’s) dog, and even less to his friend Raymond’s beating of his (Raymond’s) Arab girlfriend (which ultimately leads to the murder…sort of), and he is indifferent to his own girlfriend Marie’s declaration of love. After his arrest, we as readers are encouraged to see the hypocrisy and ridiculousness of the proceedings, especially the fact that Meursault is not really on trial for the murder itself. It is from this second half of the book that it becomes easier to construct various interpretations, both the colonialist one (Meursault being made “other”) and the French high school one (Meursault as existentialist antihero).

But both of these interpretations require forgetting much of the first half of the book. Because in the first half, we don’t only attend Meursault’s mother’s funeral (which is largely the focus of the second half). We are led step by step through every possible human relationship- family, romantic love, friendship, pity and mercy, meaningful work- and Meursault’s indifference to all of them. The genius of this method is that the murder itself, when it finally happens, does seem trivial. Such is the claustrophobic power of Meursault’s mind. Of course, all this is heightened by the fact that the victim is not named, and by the colonial situation, but you get the feeling Meursault could have easily “accidentally” killed pretty much anyone, not just an Arab.

And yet, by the end of the book, it is equally hard not to have assented to his special brand of heroism. The trial is a farce. No one else’s motives (including the priest’s) seem pure or powerful, and Meursault gives several passionate defenses of physical life, in the end both expressing a kind of love for his mother and embracing his own separation from the people executing him. As readers, we don’t want to be on the side of the ridiculous lawyers, the hypocritical judges and priests, the empty platitudes. We want to be on Meursault’s side, which by now has become the side of life, and especially the lack of hypocrisy. We almost forget that Meursault’s side is also the side of murder (or of indifferent killing, since murder is thought to have a motive). The trial has created his heroism. The false narrative creates the powerful counter-narrative. Meursault does not really become “other.” He becomes the perfect French hero, the marginal figure who makes an art out of exile. He is Baudelaire, Sade, Sartre.

But because it is only the trial that creates this kind of heroism, the first half of the novel undermines it. The heroism narrative is shown to be false. Camus, in fact, was no Sartre.

L’Étranger is sometimes thought to be about the kind of morality that results without God (especially the Judeo-Christian one). If so, it seems a bit dated today. Most contemporary atheists would be quite impatient with the idea that morality disappears with God, that physical amoralism and indifferent murder are all that remains. In fact, I think Camus’ point is much bigger. “God”- the Catholic God- is only one of many narratives he is creating and undermining in the book. As the colonial critique points out, this God is part of the French colonial narrative. But there are other narratives too. Family bonds. Work. Marriage. Relationships with friends or animals. Heroes and antiheroes.

Meursault, in the first half of the book, is trying to live without any narrative; hence he has no past and no future. But the inevitable result is that he is constantly assenting to other peoples’ narratives. True, he does not claim to have emotions he does not have, and maybe this is a kind of refusal to play games. But having no narrative of his own means he continually acts according to the dictates of others. (He goes to the funeral, he agrees to marry Marie, and most fatally, he assents to Raymond’s plan to beat his girlfriend and participates in the violent cat-and-mouse game with her brother that follows, ultimately resulting in the murder). Meursault’s focus on physical presence makes him not so much free as infinitely suggestible. The trial is more of the same, yet also different- he no longer assents to the narrative created for him, but his own counter-heroic narrative would not be possible without the trial.

Camus shows that we cannot live without a narrative. Not without becoming someone else’s pawn. Yet the creation of our own narrative- truly our own- is impossible. The only antihero Meursault can become is a quintessentially French one. He certainly does not become “Arab.” The Arabs have completely dropped from view. Perhaps that- dropping from view, erasure- is the reality of colonialism (and of people truly without narratives), and so Meursault triumphs by becoming very un-Arab indeed.

However, I suspect that Camus would be skeptical of a response that included creating narratives for these unnamed characters. Haven’t I just shown, he might say, that all narratives are traps?

The Moral Universe of Donna Tartt

At the end of The Goldfinch, the recent novel by Donna Tartt, the narrator, Theo, poses the question, “What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted?”

Many reviewers have called The Goldfinch Dickensian, and in several ways it is. Theo is orphaned early on, when his mother dies in the explosion of a terrorist’s bomb at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He then lives with a series of characters who are all considerably more vivid in personality than he:  the Barbours, rich and unhappy; an elderly antiques dealer named Hobie; and finally, Theo’s own gambling, alcoholic father, in a sand-blasted Las Vegas suburb with more than a hint of apocalypse. As in a Dickens novel, many of these characters do not wish Theo well. As in a Dickens novel, children are used, abused, and left adrift. And as in a Dickens novel, people burn both brightly and tragically: Theo makes friends with Boris, a doomed, dramatic Russian, an alcoholic even as a teenager, the Steerforth to Theo’s David Copperfield, the two tied together in ways that become clear only years later.

I suspect all this is very deliberate on Donna Tartt’s part. I suspect the eventual contrast with Dickens is also very deliberate. The heart is a saving grace in Dickens- David Copperfield unites with Agnes at last, and Pip, even in the bleaker, original ending of Great Expectations, says of Estella: in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be. In Dickens, the heart is the source of love, and love is redemptive.

But Theo’s heart can’t be trusted.  We get hints that this is true even before tragedy strikes: Theo is in trouble at school, and is less sorry about anything he has done (from smoking to theft) than about his mother finding out. What might have been a minor flaw in him, however, is compounded when he and his mother, on the way to school, take a detour into the museum, where his mother dies. Theo blames himself, and the hairline crack through his character spreads. We see throughout Theo’s life the wreckage of his inability to love well- friends abandoned, indifferent lovers, drug addiction. At the antique shop, Theo forges and sells furniture, at first to get the business out from debt but gradually on an enormous scale, simply because he can. Hobie stands to lose the most from this fraud, but Theo, although agonized by the idea that Hobie will think badly of him, continues.

We also see the suggestion that Theo never had a chance of loving well, because he is his father’s son and learns from example (his father’s alcoholism, abuse, and abandonment). This causation is murky, however. There is the example of his mother’s love. There are Pippa and Hobie, as pure of heart as any Dickens characters.  We are left wondering where the crack started, where the flaw lies, how to trace it or name it.

This, the rot at the root of the soul, is Donna Tartt’s preoccupation.  The problem with this rot is that it is pervasive and untraceable.  What part of Theo is not Theo?  Where did Theo begin?  Theo is unreliable, as a narrator.  His visions of goodness- his mother, Pippa- are extravagant, dramatic, distant.  We don’t know if these people are as he describes them.  We grow claustrophobic and weary from the closed spaces in his head, from the sickness and paralysis he so often feels.

But of course the linchpin of the story is that Theo’s great love is not a person at all- but a painting. This is the Goldfinch of the title, a small, priceless picture of a bird, held captive by a golden chain around its ankle, which Theo takes from the museum after the explosion, hides and keeps for years, loses without knowing it, and then finds again through his old friend Boris, under dangerous and extraordinary circumstances. Theo commits murder to get the painting back, and then once again loses it. He is guilty, horrified, sick, disgusted by the murder- but mostly, you think, he is terrified of having actually been active in the world. In the end, however, the painting is saved, and Theo offers the reader a justification of himself in terms of a love of art, a love of beauty- “the first glimpse of pure otherness, in whom you bloom out and out and out.”

Does this love of beauty make him trustworthy? Not at all.  But for Theo, for whom “life is catastrophe,” it’s enough.

There is something sacramental in this attitude.  In finishing The Goldfinch, I was reminded not of Dickens but of Graham Greene’s Catholicism, of The Power and the Glory, and the alcoholic priest wandering Mexico, unable to be faithful or pure, yet on a desperate, absurdist quest to keep performing the Eucharist even though Catholicism has been outlawed.  The goldfinch painting and the sacraments are both eternal and unsullied by the imperfect people who preserve them. But both stories also have a profound despair.  Theo’s redemption by the painting, and the priest’s by the sacrament, are left ambiguous at best.  Is beauty worth preserving if it doesn’t create love? Is God in the sacraments if they don’t bring peace?  Neither Theo nor the priest could answer, probably.  But they make their choices, whistling in the dark.