Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Only Angels Have Wings

Last Monday, the death of Dean Potter was announced in the international press. Best  known as a rock climber and an "extreme sports" participant and advocate, Potter died with a partner, Graham Hunt, while engaged in a "BASE-jump" in Yosemite National Park. They were wearing wing suits that enables experienced users to virtually fly as they break their fall with a suit resembling the skin flaps of a flying squirrel. They were also equipped with parachutes (in French "para" [stop] "chute" [fall]) but they were never deployed. It must've been an astonishing ride, all the way down - until, of course, the very last terrifying moment.

The "BASE" in BASE-jumping stands for the structures from which a jump might be attempted: Building Antenna Span Earth (i.e., cliff).

According to the Los Angeles Times, the two men jumped at nightfall on Saturday from Taft Point and were trying to clear a "notch" on a mountain between their jump site and Yosemite Valley. Their bodies were found Sunday on the rock face. According to a Yosemite spokesman, Potter had already jumped twenty times from the same point. Because of its particular hazards, however, BASE-jumping has been banned in Yosemite Park.

Potter had pursued rock climbing, slack lining (walking across chasms on a length of nylon rope [see above]), and BASE-jumping as "a form of art." On his blog, he wrote of BASE-jumping: "Though my body is warm inside the nylon suit I start to shiver and wonder if what we're doing is right. Wingsuit BASE-jumping feels safe to me but 25 wingsuit-fliers have lost their lives, this year alone. There must be some flaw in our system, a lethal secret beyond my comprehension."

Potter sometimes took his dog, Whisper, along with him on his jumps until he admitted that "It wasn't until I started having to think through the likelihood of something happening to Whisper that I finally got it. This is really serious stuff that we do." Whisper wasn't with Potter on Saturday.

These so-called sports are nothing but death-defying, daredevil stunts. Exactly why people engage in such activities would require a closer psychological approach that brings into question the value of individual lives and the thrill of ever-approaching death. I first broached this subject in my review of the film Touching the Void, which dramatizes (fantastically) the near-death experiences of two British mountain climbers in the Andes. Mountain-climbing is also commonly mistaken for a sport. While it requires great skill and knowledge - and expensive equipment - it is, at best, a questionable sport. For one thing: in what way is it competitive? I suppose that the winners are the men and women who manage to survive the climb? Or, perhaps more revealingly, the winners are the ones who die trying.

What is it about these pursuits that attracts increasing numbers of people to take part? To call it simply a death wish is insufficient. When I leave my house and take a drive into town, probably the last thing on my mind is the idea that I might die on the way. People do sometimes die in their driveways or within a mile or so of their homes - many more than one might think. But I don't walk out my front door with the thought of possibly dying in the back of my mind. The chances of dying while simply living a normal life are extremely slim - while the chances of dying while BASE-jumping or mountain climbing are considerably greater. So, why is the vast majority of people perfectly happy, theoretically at least, living their normal lives when some people aren't happy unless they are pushing the envelope - deliberately risking their own necks jumping off a cliff in a wing suit?

I think there is a physiological explanation that either isn't yet known or isn't being publicized.  I think there must be a chemical deficiency in the brains of extreme sport practitioners that prevents them from finding fulfillment in simple daily activities. In order to feel alive - as alive as I feel at home sitting in my underwear watching television -they have to feel the proximity of death, to bring themselves as physically close to death as they can get, short of simply jumping off a tall building (without a wing suit) or throwing themselves in front of a bus. Isn't it possible to "live life to the fullest" - the very words that friends of Dean Potter used to describe him - while not practically trying to kill oneself? How many more people will be attracted to BASE-jumping by of the deaths of Potter and Graham?

I remember a creative writing class I took in college in which a fellow student submitted a clever story about a man who is obsessed with a recurring nightmare. He consults a psychologist who tells him to describe the dream. In the dream the man is standing still on a country road at night when a pair of approaching headlights appears in the distance. The man stands somehow rooted to the spot as the car gets closer and closer until he is hit by the car and he awakes in terror. The doctor decides to re-enact the dream and takes the man to a secluded road after dark. He drops him off and tells him to stand in the middle of the road and not to move, no matter what. The doctor then drives his car down the road out of sight, turns around and heads back toward his patient. The man sees the approaching headlights and, just like in the dream, he finds that he can't move. Just as the doctor is about to hit his patient with his car, he turns the wheel to avoid hitting him and slams on the brakes. The doctor jumps out of the car and yells to his patient, "Well?" The man tells him, "That's not how it happened. "

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Voyage In

As children, when we read of voyages, we always prefer the voyage out to the voyage back again. If we're lucky, we introduce ourselves to Homer's heroes, and the thousand ships that carried the Greeks to Troy, as well as the return voyage of Odysseus. But it's no accident that The Iliad is the poem preferred by young readers, especially in the many highly readable (if flatfooted) translations into English prose available in paperback. The Trojan War lasted ten years, and Odysseus's voyage homeward lasted another ten. There are other tales of "return" telling of how the victors of the war fared upon arriving at home. Agamemnon's return to his cheating queen Clytemnestra became the centerpiece of Aeschylus's tragedy. There were probably many more such stories that have since been lost. Odysseus's story is the more famous, whether or not it was composed by Homer, by some bardic predecessor of his, or, as Samuel Butler claimed, by a woman whose name has been lost to history.

It's quite amazing that this man and this woman, Odysseus and Penelope, one married couple from an Iron Age tale whose names have come down to us across millennia, could have inspired so many poets to relive events that took place some time around the thirteenth century BCE. Scholars and adventurers have speculated about the course of Odysseus's voyage home, knowing only two points for certain: the exact locations of Troy in what is now Western Turkey and of Ithaka in the Western Aegean Sea. Because of the disfavor of one god or another (Poseidon is always angry), the voyage, which is a distance that a sailing ship could cover in a few days, took Odysseus ten years. 

But why is it that some famous readers and at least one translator (T.E. Lawrence) of The Odyssey cared so little for the conclusion of the poem, with Odysseus and Penelope at last reunited on Ithaka? In his poem, "Ithaka," Constantine Cavafy (whom E.M. Forster described as "a man in a straw hat standing at a slight angle to the universe") wished for Odysseus many more adventures, drawing out the moment of his eventual return almost indefinitely:    

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you're seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
and may you vsiit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor,Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experiences,
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.(1)

This is all very lovely, but it's pure fancy. Odysseus didn't set out for Ithaka wanting to see any sights, other than the welcome sight of his island kingdom. He wasn't seeking experiences or wisdom, and would've gladly traded all the ones he hazarded upon for a non-stop ticket home. Why do so many readers always short change the beauty of Penelope and Odysseus's love for her? Cavafy wants us to believe it was Ithaka - not Penelope - to which Odysseus was striving. I won't speculate on Cavafy's (or T.E. Lawrence's) distaste for the heterosexual happy ending that Odysseus finally wins and so richly deserves. And let us not forget Odysseus's shipmates, every one of whom perished on their way home. Would they have wished for further perils to divert bored readers? When Odysseus is given a glimpse of Hades and he meets his dead shipmates there, they didn't sound very keen on another chance at life if it meant more endless struggle toward an unreachable goal.

Another Greek, but a much lesser poet, Nikos Kazantzakis, even wrote a "sequel" to The Odyssey, spiriting the hero away from home in a series of utterly spurious adventures. Kazantzakis must've known Tennyson's poem, "Ulysses," in which the old man sits on the shore of his island and proudly (if a little ridiculously) boasts of voyages to come:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments.
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;                        

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough         
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades                   
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is topause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

    There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me -
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads - you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
                    Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the Western stars, until I die.(2)

For an old man, how long-winded Tennyson's Ulysses is! And how unlike him. It is one thing to be proud of one's name and one's accomplishments, but to mistake them for frolics is nothing but the bored musings of a man who has led a life in idleness. And when Tennyson's Ulysses calls on his "friends," it's clear that he's lost it.

How far Tennyson was from Lermontov, who lived the life of romanticism (he died in a duel), and who, through Pechorin, confesses his affliction in this diary extract from A Hero of Our Time:

I am like a sailor born and bred on the deck of a pirate brig: his soul has grown accustomed to storms and battles; but, once let him be cast upon the shore, and he chafes, he pines away, however invitingly the shady groves allure, however brightly shines the peaceful sun. The livelong day he paces the sandy shore, hearkens to the monotonous murmur of the onrushing waves, and gazes into the misty distance: lo! yonder, upon the pale line dividing the blue deep from the grey clouds, is there not glancing the longed-for sail, at first like the wing of a seagull, but little by little severing itself from the foam of the billows and, with even course, drawing nigh to the desert harbour?

Tiresias, the Seer of Thebes, tells Odysseus in Book XI of his final voyage:

'But once you have killed those suitors in your home - by stealth or in open fight with slashing bronze - go forth once more, you must ... carry your well-planed oar until you come to a race of people who know nothing of the sea, whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars, wings that make ships fly. And here is your sign - unmistakable, clear, so clear you cannot miss it: When another traveler falls in with you and calls that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grain, then plant your bladed, balanced oar in the earth and sacrifice fine beasts to the lord god of the sea, Poseidon - a ram, a bull and a ramping wild boar - then journey home and render noble offerings up to the deathless gods who rule the vaulting skies, to all the gods in order.   And at last your own death will steal upon you ... a painless death, far from the sea it comes   to take you down, borne down with the years in ripe old age with all your people there in blessed peace around you. All that I have told you will come true.'


Clearly, the happy ending of The Odyssey is something of a disappointment for some readers who thrill to near-lethal encounters with gods and monsters. But to deny Odysseus the glory (and relief) of his homecoming is to misread The Odyssey. It would be just as unedifying to spare Agamemnon his homecoming to Clytemnestra. If one feels - implacably - that Agamemnon had it coming, then hadn't Odysseus, too?

Robert Fitzgerald, who wrote one of the finest translations of Homer into English verse, proclaimed in his introduction that "The Odyssey is the story of a man who loved his wife and wished to return to her." The proof of this can be found in Odysseus's long sojourn on the goddess Calypso's island, when she offers him immortality if he will stay with her forever:

"Ah great goddess, don't be angry with me,
please. All that you say is true, how well I know.
Look at my wise Penelope. She falls far short of you,
your beauty, stature. She is mortal after all
and you, you never age or die . . .
Nevertheless I long - I pine, all my days -
to travel home and see the dawn of my return.
(Fagles translation)

A man who refuses an offer of godlike immortality because he wants nothing but to return to his mortal wife is something few people today are able to comprehend. The reunion of Odysseus and Penelope is an overwhelmingly heartening and justifiable conclusion to the tale, and not at all the anticlimax that some readers have called it. What some readers object to, I think, is that there should be a conclusion of any kind to Odysseus's marvelous adventures.

Only Wallace Stevens, of all people, felt sorry enough for Penelope to imagine how twenty years of waiting for her husband's return must have affected her:

The World as Meditation

Is it Ulysses that approaches from the east,
The interminable adventurer? . . . Someone is moving

On the horizon and lifting himself up above it.
A form of fire approaches the cretonnes of Penelope,
Whose mere savage presence awakens the world in which she dwells.

She has composed, so long, a self with which to welcome him,
Companion to his self for her, which she imagined,
Two in a deep-founded sheltering, friend and dear friend.

She wanted nothing he could not bring her by coming alone.
She wanted no fetchings. His arms would be her necklace
And her belt, the final fortune of their desire.

But was it Ulysses? Or was it only the warmth of the sun
On her pillow? The thought kept beating in her like her heart.
The two kept beating together. It was only day.

It was Ulysses and it was not. Yet they had met,
Friend and dear friend and a planet's encouragement.
The barbarous strength within her would never fail.

She would talk a little to herself as she combed her hair,
Repeating his name with its patient syllables,
Never forgetting him that kept coming constantly so near.

Today is my birthday, the eighth that I've spent here on my island of exile. I know too well what Odysseus must have felt on Calypso's island. I, too, am beguiled here by a goddess, who wishes me to remain with her here for the rest of my life - a lot shorter than eternity, but just as interminable. When choice is taken away, even a paradise can seem more like a hell. I live here against my will, too poor to escape. And, like Odysseus, all I can think about is home, the contours of a certain familiar landscape and the faces of my brother and sister and my friends. Like most Americans, they are spread out across the country, but being home would make such distances as that between Alaska (where I am from) and Maine (where two dear friends miss me) seem familiar and manageable. I've crossed the country by car so many times, its distances - though great - are known to me, whereas the great gulf - an ocean and a continent - that separates me from home seems unbridgable, impassable.

When Odysseus found himself shipwrecked in a stormy sea, he cried out, "Rag of man that I am, is this the end of me?" But the gods, who had ordained his homecoming, spared him once again. Foundering on the shore of Nausicaa's island, having been roused to consciousness, Odysseus appeals to the princess, "Now some power has tossed me here,/doubtless to suffer still more torments on your shores./I can't believe they'll stop. Long before that/the gods will give me more, still more."  

No more, gods. Let me go home.

(1) Keeley/Sherrard translation. The full poem can be found here.
(2) Tennyson continues at some length. The full poem can be found here.

Friday, May 8, 2015

In Those Days

World War II in Europe ended seventy years ago today. In a country shattered by Allied armies from the east and west, Germans had nothing left but to pick up the pieces and slowly rebuild - with considerable help from the very people who just weeks before had knocked everything down. In films of the period, we were shown the extent of the devastation, but given only glimpses of its effects on ordinary Germans. Roberto Rossellini's film Germany, Year Zero used images of a German city (Berlin) reduced to rubble as a backdrop for a melodrama that ended with the suicide of a young boy who - quite unbelievably - threw himself off a ruined building after having wandered through the seemingly inescapable destruction. In A Foreign Affair, Billy Wilder, who escaped Germany before the war and established a successful career in Hollywood, used location footage shot in Berlin as literal - rear-projection - backdrops for a black comedy of American-German relations among the ruins.

Two years before Year Zero, Rossellini made what is easily the most famous film of the immediate post-war period, Open City (1945). It was filmed with no money in the streets with black market cameras and film stock that was sometimes put together from 35mm rolls of still camera film. Every country that took part in the war had their own stories of what they had endured to tell. 

German film production wasn't restarted until 1946. Authorities of the American Office of War Information Overseas (OWI) Motion Picture Bureau imposed its anti-Nazification agenda, which included the collection and confiscation of all Third Reich propaganda films and the screening of newsreels depicting the horrors of the concentration camps to remind Germans of their culpability. But aside from these attempts to reeducate the German people, there was a far more crucial takeover of the German film market, which included its international market, by Hollywood. Within three years of the war's end, about seventy per cent of German cinemas were showing American films. The West German film industry wouldn't recover until the 1970s.

In the years immediately following the war the whole of Germany, like Berlin, was partitioned among American, British, French, and Russian sectors. Anyone who has seen The Third Man, which was filmed in a partitioned Vienna in 1948, will have a good idea of what a bureaucratic nightmare daily life must have been like for ordinary Germans. Since the German film industry was centered in Berlin, a partitioned city well within the Soviet sector, the first postwar German film, Wolfgang Staudte's The Murderers Are Among Us (1946), was made in what soon became known as East Germany. Filmmaking in West Germany was complicated by actors and technicians from Berlin having to acquire transit visas between sectors that, as the Cold War kicked in, grew increasingly impossible to get. 

Despite the eagerness of many Germans for sheer escapism in films, and to see American films, like Gone With the Wind, that had been banned by the Nazis, there was a need for German-language films that mirrored (and validated) the experience of ordinary German people coping with everyday life. One of the first of what became known as Rubble Films licensed by the OWI, Helmut Kautner's In Jenen Tagen (In Those Days), is what the British called an omnibus film of seven separate stories about Germans, tied together by an automobile that two scavenging German ex-soldiers - Karl (Erich Schellow) and Willi (Gert Schaefer) find in a bombed-out building and begin to dismantle for its scrap metal and glass. As they methodically take it apart, the car begins to speak (the voice of the car is Kautner himself) and takes us all the way back to 1933, when it was first manufactured. (A kind of unofficial subtitle of the film is Geschichten eines Autos - "History of a car.")  

Helmut Kautner (1908-1980), who made films for the Third Reich that managed to avoid blatant propaganda, and that earned him a reputation with Nazi censors as "pro-English," (1) tried to establish a film company in Hamburg. Casting local actors, using equipment acquired on the black market, he managed to shoot In Jenen Tagen during the bitterly cold winter of 1946-47 on outdoor locations. The result is a deceptively comprehensive portrait of the experience of Germans through twelve years under Nazism. Some of the seven episodes are obviously more effective and more powerfully revelatory than others. But this has more to do with our expectations rather than those of the German people, for whom the film was made in the first place.  

In the film's first flashback, we are shown the "birth" of the narrating automobile in a bustling factory. It's first owner is Sybille (Winnie Markus), given to her as an engagement gift by Peter (Karl John). Sybille's and her friend, Steffen (Werner Hinz), drive to a secluded spot under the trees where he tells her that he can no longer stay in Germany now that the Nazis have taken power. Later, when Sybille and Peter drive through the city, they are stopped by a crowd watching a Nazi procession. Pete takes off Sybille's diamond engagement ring and scratches the date "30133," 30 January 1933 on the inside of the windscreen - the very day that Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. 

As they continue to strip the car, Karl hands Willi a woman's comb that was once worn by the car's next owner, Elisabeth (Alice Treff), a woman pianist. Her daughter, Angela (Gisela Tantau) discovers that Elisabeth is having an affair with a composer named Wolfgang (Hans Nielsen) when she finds her mother's comb in his car. Angela broods over this discovery, clutching her mother's comb obsessively in her hand. There is a beautiful, idyllic scene by a lake at which Elisabeth learns from her husband that Wolfgang's compositions have been banned as "subversive." In tears, Angela stuffs her mother's comb in the car's glove box.

An older couple, art dealers (Willy Maertens and Isa Ehre), reaffirm their love for each other just before Kristallnacht. They have kept her identity as a Jew a secret. But when her husband watches as the other Jewish businesses on his block have their windows smashed by Brownshirts and others in a crowd, who leave the windows of his shop unmolested (because he is Aryan), he picks up a piece of pavement in disgust and throws it through his own window. The couple are found dead from apparent suicide in the morning.  

Peter from episode one shows up again in episode four. By now he is a common soldier, and he recognizes the car, now being driven by Dorothea (Erica Balque) whose husband is in the hands of the Gestapo. Peter begins to tell her the story of how he scratched the date on the windshield, but she drives the car away when, calling from a phone booth on the Swiss border, she learns that her husband is dead.

In what I think is the best sequence of the film, the car, now painted in camouflage, is somewhere on the Eastern Front. A Young German lieutenant (Fritz Wagner) needs a driver (Hermann Speelmans) to take him by night through snowbound partisan territory. On the way, with only the car's headlights to define the frozen landscape around them, the driver and lieutenant take turns at the wheel. In their conversations, the driver speaks his mind about the war and about the partisans' cause, which he bravely declares to be just. But when a flare suddenly illuminates the road, a sniper's bullet kills the driver. His arms around the dead driver, the lieutenant steers the car forward through the boundless dark.  

Late in the war, amid air raid sirens in a wrecked city, Erna, a machinist (Isa Vermehren), learns that an old woman she knows (Margarete Haagen) is the mother of one of the conspirators in the Stauffenburg plot to assassinate Hitler. She piles her into the car, now riddled with bullet holes, and attempts to drive her to safety - wherever that might be. On the way, the car breaks down, and Erna leaves the old woman with the car while she goes to fetch some fuel. A policeman approaches the car and asks the old woman for her papers. Her name sounds familiar to him, so he begins to go down his list of wanted conspirators. Just then, Erna returns with a gas can. He asks for a lift and climbs into the back seat. Before Erna can even start the car, the old woman tells the policeman who she is. She takes Erna's hand in a show of gratitude and support.

The final episode Is about Josef, a deserting soldier (Carl Raddatz) and a woman (Bettina Moissi) and child he encounters in a country barn. Attracted to each other, they form a relationship. As they lie together on a bed of straw, they can hear bomber planes winging overhead to Berlin. The soldier takes the woman and child as far as he can safely go into what's left of Hamburg. He leaves her there and speeds away, but is stopped by military policemen. When they ask him questions and aren't satisfied with his answers, they order him out of the car. Walking away in the twilight, he suddenly laughs and runs away from the policeman down a riverbank and the scene fades.    

Unlike some recent films that seemed to suffer from a kind of retroactive amnesia (The Book Thief is probably the worst offender), In Those Days doesn't offer excuses for the war or try to change history. The film accepts the fact that what happened happened. The Germans in Kautner's film saw it coming and could do little to get out of its way. If there is a false note, its the pervasive gloom that soon takes over, as each of the automobile's owners meets his and her end. The film passes over the elation with which Germans greeted the Wehrmacht Army's first astonishing victories in Poland and France. Even if the conquest of the whole of Europe was militarily impossible, Hitler came awfully close to doing it. It would help to explain the stoicism of Germans when the bombs began to fall on them in '42 and didn't let up until everything was destroyed. 

Due to the total absence of sound stages in the British Sector of West Germany, the film was shot mostly on outdoor locations (by Igor Oberberg). The images are sharp and well framed, using direct lighting (apparently in the early mornings or late afternoons). The rawness that gave Open City much of its power is surprisingly lacking. There is instead a polished appearance to the images which somewhat belies reports of the film's haphazard shooting schedule.

There are some minor technical problems in the film. When Sybille and Peter are prevented by a large crowd from driving the car across a broad avenue down which a Nazi procession is passing, it is all too obvious that the marching Nazis are being projected onto a none too carefully erected rear-screen. There is also an occasional shadow cast by the camera in a few shots. But given the difficulties of its making, In Those Days is often quite beautiful to look at, even if it tries to capture episodes from the worst period of human history.

(1) One such film directed by Kautner in 1944, Unter den Brucken (Under the Bridges), was considered devoid of propaganda and was released in 1946. Seeing it now, and remembering how hellish life must have been like for German civilians in 1944, reveals how extraordinarily film can be used to disguise reality.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Other Stranger

Of all the conceivable angles from which a response to Albert Camus's novel L'Etranger could've been written, probably the most surprising concerns itself with the nameless Arab whom Meursault murders on the beach. Kamel Daoud, author of The Meursault Investigation, who gave the name "Moussa" to Meursault's victim, is an Algerian journalist living in Oran, the city that Camus hated and which he used as the setting of his second novel, The Plague. Significantly, Daoud wrote the novel in French. He did so, he said, to enable him to "take one by one the stones of the old homes of the colonists and make of them a home of my own, a language to myself." His novel, published in Algeria in 2013 and in France last year (an English translation is due to be published in June) gives me a perfect excuse to return to the scene of the crime, to Camus's brilliant first novel.

The cause of all of Meursault's problems, even if, later on, he refused to see it that way, was his friendship with the petty criminal, Raymond. It was Raymond who pimped for an Arab girl and then beat her when she tried to cheat him. When the police showed up, the girl filed a complaint against Raymond. Later, Raymond asked Meursault to give a statement in his defense. It was this besmirchment of the girl's honor (so to speak) that compelled the girls's brother to follow Raymond and Meursault to the beach and confront them there. Because of a strange coincidence of timing and the weather, Meursault murdered the Arab.

The scene at the beach where this act of violence unfolds is impressively written, and Camus's language certainly makes it seem as if Meursault's frame of mind, so extremely affected by the sun and the heat, made his crime possible. After they had already confronted the Arabs, whom Meursault, as narrator, made no effort to particularize, he accompanied Raymond back to Masson's bungalow.

"When we reached the bungalow Raymond promptly went up the wooden steps, but I halted on the bottom one. The light seemed thudding in my head and I couldn't face the effort needed to go up the steps and make myself amiable to the women. But the heat was so great that it was just as bad staying where I was, under the flood of blinding light falling from the sky. To stay, or to make a move - it came to much the same. After a moment I returned to the beach, and started walking.

"There was the same red glare as far as the eye could reach, and small waves were lapping the hot sand in little, flurried gasps. As I slowly walked toward the boulder at the end of the beach I could feel my temples swelling under the impact of the light. It pressed itself on me, trying to check my progress. And each time I felt a hot blast strike my forehead, I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trouser pockets and keyed up every nerve to fend off the sun and the dark befuddlement it was pouring into me."

But when he walked toward a rock from which an inviting stream of cool water was flowing, Meursault came face to face with "Raymond's Arab." That time, however, Meursault had Raymond's revolver in his pocket. The two men - although the Arab seemed hardly human - barely moved, as the sun and heat went on pressing down on Meursault. Then the Arab pulled a knife from his pocket: "A shaft of light shot upward from the steel, and I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead. At the same moment all the sweat that had accumulated in my eyebrows splashed down on my eyelids, covering them with a warm film of moisture. Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs." 

Then Meursault found the revolver in his pocket: "Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The triggergave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. And so, with that crisp, whipcrack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging well of light. I knew I'd shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing." ("Et c'etait comme quatre coups brefs que je frappais sur la porte du malheur.")

As I said before, it's quite impressively written. But, honestly, Camus doesn't convince me that, as Meursault says towards the end of his trial, that the murder was "because of the sun." The shooting of the Arab is not even convincing as simple manslaughter. Incredibly, once the Arab is dead, he is never mentioned again. Meursault's trial is about whether or not he loved his mother, and not about his murder of the Arab. 

Really, as existentially "cool" as Meursault seemed to me the first time I read L'Etranger when I was 19, he strikes me now as something of an oddball. I am now unconvinced that he was so unmoved during his trial that he couldn't say something to save himself, that he could've been so indifferent to his own fate. While he loves his life and gets as much pleasure out of it as he can, Meursault's relationship with the world around him is provisional to the extent to which he never feels at home there. Things are expected of him that he doesn't understand and cannot supply. He is unable to find in himself the emotions expected of him on various occasions. Because he is like that, he often strikes people as strange. He is a stranger among people, with no understanding of the correct reactions, the right words, the amour propre that lubricates society. And because, as Camus said later, he refuses to lie, he is condemned.

Kamel Daoud spoke of his reasons for writing The Meursault Investigation: "My basic idea was to start with Albert Camus's The Stranger, to question the work, but to move on from there - to question my own presence in the world, my present and today's reality. It was also a matter of analyzingCamus's work, of 'rereading' it, of having it reread by an Algerian and by contemporary readers. Camus still provokes polemics in Algeria.I wanted to pay tribute to his work and his thinking, but also to provide another version of the story. The Stranger is Camus's character, but also a symbol of the philosophical and human condition. It was valid in 1942, the year the novel was published,and it's still valid today. I wanted to take another look at that strangeness. I'm not responding to Camus - I'm finding my own oath through Camus."

The plot of Daoud's novel concerns the life of Haroun, a man in his late seventies who was just seven when Moussa, his elder brother, was murdered by Meursault. Daoud cleverly interweaves the identity of Camus himself and the novel L'Etranger into Haroun's narrative. It is Haroun's deep resentment over the way that Moussa and his family were ignored by Camus, and the French colonial court throughout Meursault's trial. Haroun squandered his life in a futile quest for vengeance on Camus, whom he confuses with Meursault. But the novel is also critical of Algeria's corrupt post-independence government and of the power of Muslim religious leaders.

In her New Yorker interview with Daoud, Deborah Treisman points out that "In response to the novel - or perhaps to your journalism - an imam with a group called the Islamist Awakening Front issued a fatwa against you. Is it a threat you take seriously? Do you believe that the novel is or could be offensive to Muslims?"

"Offensive to Muslims? No. Offensive to Islamists? Yes. They are offended by our life, by difference, by women, by desire, by laughter. They are lovers of death, not of life. The threat is serious, but it is serious for everyone: you, me, the tourist, the cartoonist, the dancer, the woman, the Nigerian schoolgirl."