Never-ending Sentences

When most of us think of a sentence, we think of it as a simple subject and a predicate. However, in Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, some sentences take on a life of their own, meandering for whole paragraphs at times. In some books, this could lead to the reader being confused and feeling removed from the story. However, for Hamid, they are instead an opportunity to convey complex emotions and situations, making the reader feel even more present in the narrative.

One example of a diffusive but effective sentence occurs on page 163 when tension between migrants and nativists is rising and then falling as Saeed and Nadia are in London. Of the two full paragraphs on the page, the first describes the rumors of violence against migrants and the many different versions of events swirling around as the soldiers advance. That paragraph is actually only one sentence, though it doesn’t feel that to the reader. It’s not meant to actually convey any events that happened as not even the characters in the story have reliable information, it is simply there to convey the sense of uncertainty and fear present in the house of migrants.

Alternatively, the next paragraph on that page contains a multitude of different sentence lengths, some short and basic, some long, as the tension lessens. This paragraph isn’t about wild rumors of murdered children circling through the migrants, but the actual business of survival. The varied sentence structure gives the reader a feeling of normalcy after the panic of the last paragraph while still maintaining the sense of conflict generated previously. While children are no longer being murdered, the migrants are still running out of food.

These sentences together form a small but powerful segment of the story and bring the reader closer to the narrative rather than confusing them and Hamid uses this strategy throughout the novel. The long sentences serve to represent nerve-wracking moments or difficult decisions or the many possibilities that characters consider and they all help establish tone for the novel.

Is Mersault a Stranger or an Outsider?

We know Albert Camus’ book, L’Etranger, by its American translation, The Stranger, but when the book was published in the UK, it was published as The Outsider instead. The word “etranger” in French can be translated into both the outsider and the stranger as well as the foreigner, all of which fit Mersault’s position in the book to varying degrees and for different reasons.

Being a “stranger” is a good way to describe Mersault as not only is he a stranger to many of the most consequential characters in the book, but he is also a stranger to his friends. While he has friends and intimate relationships over the course of the novel, none of the people he is with ever truly understand his seemingly detached nature. Some, like Marie or Raymond accept it or choose to ignore it, but the majority of the people that Mersault meets over the course of the book consider him strange enough to be threatening or simply guilty. In addition, Mersault is a stranger to himself until the last pages of the book. He spends the rest of the story being apathetic and confused, simply reacting the world around him without truly making his own decisions until his confrontation with the priest pushes him toward understanding. In the last paragraphs of the book, he finds the meaning he has been searching for in life, but before that, he is a stranger to himself as well.

Mersault is also an “outsider” in the sense that he is outside of the emotions and constructs that rule the minds of the other characters in the story. From religion to marriage, Mersault does not seem to understand where others derive meaning in these things, to the point that he views them with derision. Not only is he an outsider who is misunderstood by the people around him, but he is where he wants to be. He believes that things like religion and marriage that characters like the priest and Marie care so much for are at best pointless and at worst actively hiding the prospect of a truly meaningful life from them.

While I think the titles are very similar and both very suited for the content of the book, The Outsider is my favorite because I think that it gives a better representation of Mersault’s role in his world and is also the title that he would pick if he could. He is proud of his place outside of the societal constructs that he deems worthless and detrimental and I think that he would rather be though of as a man who willingly pushed himself outside of those things than one who was simply a stranger.

The Man Behind the Curtain

Whenever I read an intriguing (and perhaps sometimes perplexing) book such as The Stranger, I often like to learn about the person behind the story I am experiencing. In this case, that person is Albert Camus. According to the bit of research I’ve done, this is his story:

One of France’s most famous authors was in fact not born in France, but in Algeria, the same location that The Stranger opens in. His father died not long after his birth at the First Battle of the Marne. The five remaining members of his family moved to a two-room apartment in Algiers that Camus would leave fifteen years later after the first of many severe bouts of tuberculosis. He decided to live on his own, supporting himself by doing odd jobs and eventually finding a career as a reporter for the Algiers-Republicain and eventually as the editor of a daily newspaper in Paris, where he would remain until 1947.

As he matured, Camus studied philosophy, wrote and produced plays, read classical French literature, and even reviewed some of Jean-Paul Sartre’s early works for the newspaper. After the war, he became a literary figure with an international reputation through works such as The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. A little over a decade later, he won the Nobel Prize for literature at the young age of 44 and died less than three years later in a car accident.

In my opinion, both the straightforward writing style he learned as a journalist and the musings of a philosopher are mingled in his book. In order to explore a new philosophy, he writes about a character that does not experience a strong desire to changer or arguably even to live his own life through his own agency. For example, when proposed to by Marie, he agrees to get married if it would maker her happy. When asked if he loves her, he says that, “it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so,” (35).