Albert Camus (1913—1960) was one of the most distinguished writers of the twentieth century. Almost everything he wrote is worth reading, but two works stand out for me: The Stranger and “The Adulterous Woman”. Both are masterfully written; plus, they resemble one another in ways I find intriguing.
The Stranger (1942) concerns a young Frenchman who lives in Algiers. The novel opens with the brief, arresting lines:
‘Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.’
The hero, Meursault, was obviously not close to his mother and is not sad over her death. But he is willing to go along with the conventions that relate to death, like keeping vigil and attending the funeral. Though generally compliant, he is also an oddly detached person. Later, his apparent lack of feeling plays a role in the sentence he receives for murdering an Arab man. It would seem that Meursault is to be executed for the crime itself; but the prosecution makes much of the fact that he didn’t grieve at his mother’s funeral. This is the novel’s central “absurdity”, and the events culminate in an exultant rejection of religious faith. There is nothing for Meursault in the end but ‘the benign indifference of the universe’ and the deranged hope of being jeered at by the crowds that attend his execution.
“The Adulterous Woman” is a short story in the collection titled, Exile and the Kingdom (1957). Though not as bleak as The Stranger, it too culminates in an experience of negative mysticism; but it goes about it by a very different route.
The heroine, Janine, is with her husband on a business trip in the desert regions of northern Africa. Her childless marriage to Marcel leaves much to be desired. They have been together for a long time and an attachment of sorts exists between them, but there is little love. One gathers that Janine is chronically bored, and feels within herself an unfulfilled need. In short, she is ripe for an affair; and, as the title of the story indicates, an affair does occur, but not in the usual way. Janine’s “adultery” does not involve a human lover, nor does it involve God. Instead, she has a late-night rendezvous with the vast reaches of desert and sky, to which she opens herself completely:
‘Then, with unbearable gentleness, the water of night began to fill Janine, drowned the cold, rose gradually from the hidden core of her being and overflowed in wave after wave, rising up even to her mouth full of moans.’
Later, when Janine is reunited with her husband in the hotel room, he observes that she is weeping. She says, “It’s nothing, dear, it’s nothing.” But her words are more than a mere evasion; they are a confession of what she has actually experienced: nothingness.
Both of these pieces of fiction, and Camus’ work generally, constitute a bracing challenge to those of us who believe in God—not insurmountable but a challenge nevertheless.