The Infuriating Frenchman

Until this week, I loved everything I had ever read by Albert Camus.

His essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, fundamentally changed the course of my life and how I think about the world.

I remember reading it in the big bay window in my apartment in Sydney, the harbour’s northern waters lapping the park across the road. It was a warm afternoon and I startled someone walking by on the street below by laughing at the moment his premise became clear.

His point in that essay is that life is absurd and meaningless, and instead of finding it morose or nihilistic, I found it thrilling and utterly liberating.

Because if there is no meaning, we are each free to making meaning as we choose.

We’re free to become who we please and create a legacy of what truly matters to us individually.

The Plague, instead of being morbid reading during this pandemic-stricken year, was uplifting. It was a reminder that because everyone dies, every moment is precious.

Every moment of kindness and dignity we can give to each other lends purpose to otherwise empty days.

I was floored by The Fall, a novel about anxiety and morality. It’s one of the most technically brilliant books I’ve read, told entirely as a one-sided monologue by a single character, with elisions where another character’s responses would usually be.

Wonderful reading, all of it.

But over the weekend I started reading one of his last novels left to me, The Stranger.

The book, again, is technically fantastic. It’s one of the tightest, most lush visual novels I’ve read in a long time.

But the main character makes me so mad that I hate it.

The main character, Meursault, a Frenchman in Algiers, refuses to engage actively with his life; he is resolutely indifferent to every opportunity he is offered. In the end, this abdication is held against him more forcefully than any consequence he would have faced from making an active decision.

The novel is ostensibly about the way society slaps an identity on you without much thought and with big consequences, and that this, too, is absurd. (Camus was really committed to this life-is-absurd theme.)

Spoiler alert…

The Stranger makes me so mad because Meursault had so many chances to make a choice, any choice, that would have changed his fate.

He refused to make any effort towards making his life count for something, and it cost him everything.

I can’t stand it. Maybe that’s the point of the book — to provoke the reader to such frustration with Meursault that they are snapped out of their own comfortable haze.

And if that’s the case, then BRAVO CAMUS, YOU OLD DOG. I refuse to go down like your boy Mersault, and when lockdown is over and I can touch people again I’m going to shake people in the street and say, “Wake up, be in your life! Every moment is yours to choose!”

Until then, I’ll say it in emails, and anywhere people will listen: please, please — make the hard decision. Pull the interesting thread. Ask the burning questions. Be in your life.