Reading Lessons

Albert Camus’ The Stranger

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The mysterious nature of literary influence

By Craig Nova

May 4, 2015


 

I can say without the least hesitation that the writer who has influenced me the most is Albert Camus. This is the easy part, the naming of a name. The two more difficult aspects of admitting to an influence are to explain how and, of course, the real killer, why.

As to how, I’d like to invoke another hero, William Maxwell, who said this in a Paris Review “Art of Fiction” interview: “What I wrote when I was very young had some of the characteristic qualities of every writer I had any feeling for. It takes a while before that admiration sinks back and becomes unconscious. The writers stay with you for the rest of your life. But at least they don’t intrude and become visible to the reader.”

The how of one’s influence isn’t limited to a literary impact, but it comes into play in “real life.” Until I was 14 or so I was desperate to become a surgeon, and I borrowed medical school textbooks from our family doctor, a friend of my father’s. I pored through them, ordered anatomy charts from medical supply houses and studied, with a friend, the chemistry of electron flow in nerves. One day I picked up a copy of The Stranger. Gobsmacked doesn’t quite sum it up, but it comes close. I gave up my medical books, forgot the electron flow, and started reading.

Now comes the really hard part, the why. First, Camus possessed a moral certainty, a clarity I didn’t admire so much as recognize. He was able to explain that the absurd is merely the difference between what we want and what we get, that all we have is the fact that we don’t like the condition we are in, and that revolt against it is the answer. By revolt, he meant you can be one of the executioners or one of the condemned. You have to choose. This, of course, is only part of it, since while such notions seem almost sternly Calvinist, Camus’ work has a sensual quality and an instinct for natural beauty. For instance, in his notebooks, he wrote this. “A morning spent with bare bodies and light …”

Finally, Camus is a perfect expression of my theory that many substantial writers are suspended between two cultures or social classes. Camus was Algerian, and I am not certain he felt completely at ease in France. He longed for home, which was out of reach. This longing I often feel when I read Camus, for I know the same, keen sense of loss. In my case, my mother came from New England, my father from Poland, and the two influences have left me with an odd sense of suspension. And while I have had all the advantages of an excellent education, Ivy League included, I still have the sense of not fitting in any place. This, I am sure, is something Camus understood perfectly.


Craig Nova is the author of 14 novels and an autobiography. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, and elsewhere. He is the Class of 1949 Distinguished Professor of Humanities at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.


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