Guys, Viggo Mortensen has gray hair now. While I’m still under the distinct impression that all celebrities drink youth-retaining elixir, I have witnessed with my own eyes the aging of Viggo since LOTR. Why was I checking out Viggo’s silver fox locks and how is this remotely relevant to my blog? This past Monday, Viggo kicked off a month long event in NYC—Camus: A Stranger in the City. On that exact day seventy years ago, Camus made his first and only trip to America, lecturing and promoting the English translation of his French novel, The Stranger. Vigo gave a *dramatic reading* of Camus’ speech in the Miller Theatre at Columbia University. The lecture was wonderful and considering the theatre was on the shabby side, not much has changed between 3/28/1946 and now. I just learned about the business term “vig” (lol), so to cement my understanding of the word, I’ll use it in a sentence: I would have paid several Vig-go Mortensens to see Camus deliver the speech himself. Also,
In honor of the event, I decided to read one of Camus’ last works—Exile and the Kingdom*-- a collection of six short stories that epitomize Camus’ own sense of exile at the time. It was published in 1957, right in the middle of the Algerian War that ultimately granted Algeria independence from France. Camus, born in French Algeria, was deeply affected by the war, evidenced in his correspondence with Jean-Paul Sartre. He felt conflicted between his fellow Frenchmen and the natives of the land he was born and raised in. This struggle, compounded by his grappling with absurdist philosophy, left him confusedly searching for meaning and identity in a meaningless world. Note: you can learn more about Camus’ absurdism here.
The characters in his short stories are also attempting to find their place in a world that is so indifferent to their sufferings.
- “The Adulterous Woman” portrays a woman frustrated with the banality of her life who seeks to expand her existence beyond that of “wife to her husband”. I love how Camus respects women as thinking entities. I mean, no duh, but this was the 50’s after all.
- “The Renegade” focuses on a missionary who has lost hope in the ability for good to triumph over evil. He learns this in such a brutal way that as a reader, I’m forced to question the reign of goodness myself. Absurdism is considered “amoral”, so it leaves plenty of room for discussion as to the role of non-mainstream moralities (i.e. rejecting moral absolutism). The perspective was a tad disorienting, and I think that it takes a few reads to fully appreciate this one.
- "The Silent Man” reiterates that the world is full of inequalities—there is a vast spectrum of economical, social, and cultural experiences. And we all end up in the same place: the ground. What better way to spend your day than read about how your life is largely outside of your control and you try to make the most of it but then you die #amirite?
- “The Guest” depicts a choice that humans have: we can find freedom in imprisonment by recognizing our absurd fate and trudging onward nevertheless.
- “The Artist at Work” gives us a kind man who grows weary under the pressures of his community. Creating art gives meaning to his life, but is his focus on art mutually exclusive with his obligations to his friends and family? This is my favorite of the bunch, as the main character, Jonas, is quite likeable and relatable.
- “The Growing Stone” reminds me of Heart of Darkness in its unflinching portrayal of alleged savagery. An educated man is exposed to poverty in Africa, which leads him to rethink Christian traditions as the standard for worship.
Taken overall, each story describes characters who feel like outsiders. They are coming to terms with truths that abandon them in a world (both physical and metaphysical) that is different from what they’re accustomed to. They remain in their struggles rather than rise above them—and that’s a difficult pill to swallow. They must find meaning and identity on an individual basis. They are “among the most acute representations of a world without God, of the nature of human condition without transcendental meaning” (Camus, xv). This is what they’re stuck with, now how are they going to deal with it?
I’m a sucker for philosophical fiction and a big fan of Camus himself, but I don’t think it’s his very, very best, so I award the collection 4 out of 5 camel humps. In my opinion, Camus’ prose is never gratuitous, but I didn’t appreciate the parallels he made through description of landscape as much as I would have liked. Be forewarned that you definitely have to understand Camus’ philosophy and his historical experiences to really get something from this book. It’s excellent for book club discussions because there’s always another hidden layer and a deeper meaning—and I’m still just scratching at the surface.
*Camus, Albert. Exile and the Kingdom. Trans. Carol Cosman. New York: Vintage Books, 2007. Print.