As a writer trying to improve their craft, it’s worthwhile selecting books that enhance and challenge personal skills. It’s not that you can’t read for fun or that you have to hide all your “shameful” copies of Twilight (like I once did). I only suggest you select a book that challenges your views on writing—and perhaps, highlights possibilities.
This week, I’ve decided to review the much loved 1942 novel L’Etranger by Albert Camus, translated by Sandra Smith. The story follows a French Algerian named Meursault, whose morality is questioned by others after he attends his mother’s funeral and goes on to kill a man days later.
Although it’s tempting to get into the philosophical aspects of this book—I want to explore Camus’s engaging protagonist, Meursault, whose emotional reactions are refreshing and not in anyway overbearing.
What do I mean by “overbearing”? Well, it’s common for writers to fall into the trap where they exaggerate their characters reactions to certain problems—“He dropped the glass, I slapped him and screamed”. We’re worried our readers won’t understand the emotional impact unless we go out guns blazing.
Camus shows us that’s not necessary. Great impact and tension can be done through subtle gestures and mannerisms. Meursault is not a very expressive character, some even think he’s amoral—but I think Camus created him with complex feelings. He just doesn’t make it glaringly obvious.
Here’s an example:
“The burning sun struck my cheeks and I could feel drops of sweat gathering above my eyebrows. It was the same sun as the day I’d buried Mama, and like then it was my forehead that hurt the most and I could feel every vein throbbing beneath my skin. I was being burned alive; I couldn’t stand it any more.”
This is right before he shoots another man on the beach, and you can see how Camus avoids the obvious. His character doesn’t cry or yell out in frustration. Instead, it’s the sun, the throbbing head, and the build up of impatience; which makes it strangely appealing.
I’m not against characters having outbursts, I just think it requires great skill to make it believable. You’ve probably read a book where the main character cries and you feel nothing—not because you’re a heartless bastard—but because you’re not conditioned to react to tears alone.
Camus’s character garners more sympathy because he’s just trying to keep it together (which we can all relate to). His mother dies and he doesn’t want to obsess over it. What’s clever though, is that he gets his supporting characters to react instead.
This was his firm belief, and if he ever had cause to doubt it, his life would no longer have any meaning. ‘Do you want my life to have no meaning?’ he shouted. In my opinion, that was none of my business and I told him so. But from across the table, he was already thrusting the Christ figure in my face and screaming like a mad man…
This is a judge who is disturbed by Meursault’s lack of remorse after killing a man. He starts off quite composed, then goes into a raging rant once he realises that Meursault won’t repent. Why is this effective? Because Camus gives us plenty of action while keeping his main character still. We’re not emotionally invested in the judge, his reactions don’t matter to us. Meursault’s does. And he’s the considerate one in this scene. We instantly side with him over the raving lunatic.
So if Camus can get us to like a character who killed a man—imagine what you can do with yours.