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Review: The Stranger/ L’Étranger (1942)

Albert Camus is hands-down one of my favourite writers. He tells stories that subvert your expectations as you’re reading them and, even approx. eighty years since its publication, The Stranger still feels fresh and surprising.
The book tells the story of the coolly detached Meursault, who acts as the voice of Camus’ key philosophy – absurdism. Though often called an existentialist by others, Camus never described himself as such.
Absurdism’s central axis is that existence is weird and that there’s nothing essentially rational or meaningful about the things we do. The absurdist view is that any attempt to find meaning in our lives is ultimately futile and we’d be better off just embracing the world for what it is. It’s a view that resonated with me when I was younger and I still have a lot of time for it.
In The Stranger we see the consequences of an absurdist character living in a society that seeks to rationalise each and every action of Meursault, most of which (as we see from the character’s internal musings) are completely off the mark; Meursault just does what he does, with no particular rhyme or reason.

The book is famous for its opening two lines – “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” From the outset, we find ourselves in the head of an emotionally distant character who isn’t moved by his mother’s passing, and one thing to watch out for when reading the book is just how this attitude affects people’s opinions of Meursault, especially as the plot progresses in unexpected and exciting directions.

I imagine a certain number of people reading this will feel like these ideas are familiar for one reason in particular – Bojack Horseman. The (incredible) Netflix cartoon draws much of its philosophical slant from Camus’ Absurdism – all of the characters are attempting to fill the gap left in a world without meaning in some way or another. Sarah-Lynn and Bojack abuse just about anything they can get their hands on, and this quote from Mr Peanut Butter perfectly surmises the absurdist perspective: “The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually you’ll be dead.”

Whether or not you’re a Bojack fan, or a budding philosopher, there’s something for everyone in this classic tale. If you’ve never read philosophical literature, it’s not as dull as it sounds, especially in the case of this book. The language is as unpretentious as the man who wrote it and it’s around a hundred pages. It’s a book that’s still rarely surpassed in both originality and execution.

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