The Stranger

Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know.

Ever since I read this opening line in an online article about best literature opening lines, I have wanted to read The Stranger. The line is so simple and captivating; in just a few words the author caught my attention and held it. I finally found the book on Kindle and started reading.

The Stranger (Original title L’Etranger) is a book published in 1942 by French-Algerian author Albert Camus. The book follows the protagonist, a French-Algerian man called Meursault as he goes about doing nothing. The story opens with his mother’s funeral, and his seemingly nonchalant attitude about it. He goes through the motions, observing the people around him and the weather, but not displaying any of the usual markers of grief. As the book goes on we realise that this is just who he is; a loner living a routine life that is so dull and uninteresting that it becomes interesting. It is thus surprising that such a person is able to find himself in the circumstances that he did. In the days after his mother’s funeral, he gets a girlfriend, and befriends a local pimp (or rather does not resist when the pimp drags him into his life). This leads to a series of events that ends in him shooting a man and eventually being sentenced to death. Yes, I did not see that coming either.

Another thing I did not see coming was the end of the book; by this I don’t mean the end was a twist or shocking but that the book was short. I literally turned the page and found that I had finished the book. That was when I decided to look at the book details and it is only about 100 pages.

The book is divided into two parts; part one is everything before he shoots the man and the language there is easy breezy. Part two is after the incident and details his thoughts about his stay in prison and the court proceedings. The language in the latter part is more introspective and existential, and you would be more introspective if you were facing a death sentence.

I liked Meursault, and found that I could relate to him sometimes. In part one of the book I found him somewhat similar to Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye which is a book I thoroughly enjoyed. Meursault just exists. It seems that he doesn’t feel much and just makes his way through life without absorbing anything. His answer to everything is “sure”. This is often how I feel.

If I had to summarise Meursault’s personality in one quote, it would be this one:

Marie came that evening and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn’t mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married. Then she
asked me again if I loved her. I replied, much as before, that her question meant nothing or next to nothing–but I supposed I didn’t.

There is also a scene in the book when his boss offers him the chance to move to a new office in Paris, obviously expecting him to be excited about the opportunity, and he didn’t care either way. His boss was so disgusted which made me laugh.

“I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all.”

I am currently experiencing intense dissatisfaction at work (Ion wanna do this anymore y’all!) and in life really, but also not willing to do anything to change it because meh, a job is a job, things could always be worse. So you can see how much I relate to him.

It was interesting to see how a person’s personality and traits influences people’s perception of them. Meursault has been going through his mundane life, not realising that people were watching him and judging him, and all of this spilled out in his court trial. He was criticised for sending his mother to a retirement home, for drinking coffee with milk at his mother’s funeral, for getting a girlfriend and going to see a comedy just days after his mother’s death and so on. Meursault had done these things without thinking, and they became the very things that people used to hang him.

The author himself stated:

I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.” I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.

Life is a performance, there are so many things that we just have to do because they are things that are to be done. Behaving in a certain way at one’s mother’s funeral is one of them. Those who choose to sit out the performance are judged harshly. Would his story have ended differently is Meursault was not the way he was? If he had thrown himself to the floor at his mother’s funeral would that have made him more sympathetic to the judge? If he had wept silently throughout the trial would he have received a lesser sentence?

All in all, the book was alright. I was a bit disappointed when it ended as I didn’t feel that enough had been written. Perhaps my expectations were too high. I also felt it was unfair that Meursault’s life be cut short in such a manner, and was a little impressed that the author went ahead with it.

I will end it with a poignant quote by Meursault, as he dwells on his time in prison:

After a while you could get used to anything.

A blessing and a curse.

Woman in Black//Who Killed Alfred Oliver?

Outside is open and I’m off to the theatre!

Needless to say, I have not seen a play since at least March 2020 (last play was probably in 2019). A friend recently came into town and I took the opportunity to take her out to lunch and a play. She had absolutely no thoughts on what she wanted to see, frankly I do not think she cared about the theatre. I chose a drama because they are typically cheaper, and because it occurred to me that I usually only see musicals and should probably try something else. I did not have anything in mind so I just googled London theatre tickets and that is how I came to see Woman in Black.

Woman in Black

The play follows the story of Arthur Kipps, a troubled elderly man who has written a memoir of sorts and has come to a young thespian to help him tell his story and free him from the demons of his past. We are transported to back in the day when Kipps was a young lawyer who had to travel to a remote area to tend the affairs of a deceased client. The client is Mrs Alice Drablow, a recluse who lived alone in a creepy house which obviously holds secrets that nobody in the village wishes to speak about. Alone at the house, Kipps encounters the Woman in Black and eventually discovers the tragedy that happened at the house.

Before buying the tickets, I had never heard of Woman in Black. It was only on the ticket website that I discovered that the story is based on a book-one which is on the British curriculum nonetheless, hence the warnings about the possibility of schoolchildren going to see the play. Not only is it based on a book, there are several film adaptations; one of them featuring Harry Potter Star Daniel Radcliffe. The fact that the book is included in the school curriculum bothered me a bit, as that is usually a sign of a good but stuffy story. In the first thirty minutes of the play, I thought my fears had been confirmed.

When one is accustomed to watching musicals, a drama will always seem slow and dull at first. To make it worse, there are only two actors playing all the characters in the whole play. I did not like this and it was sometimes confusing who was who. I am happy to say it got better. The two actors played the roles well and I was impressed, as I often am by stage actors. They are simply so good. The show really came alive in the second act; it was amazing how scary they were able to make a two-actor play, and how much they were able to achieve with sound, light effects- I jumped out of my skin a few times. The story is horror/mystery/thriller and I will say they delivered on this. I am now interesting in reading the book and watching the film adaptation.

Who Killed Alfred Oliver

I was shopping at the mall when I came across an advert for an upcoming play. The title was catchy enough, and I was happy to see a local production and not have to travel. I managed to snag a preview ticket for the very first night and I was pleased about that as it only cost me a fiver. There was the option to pay more but I didn’t know if I would like it so I decided to pay the £5 and if it’s good I could go again and maybe take a friend.

Who Killed Alfred Oliver is about the mystery of a tobacconist who was murdered in his shop. At the time, there was a stage production titled The Monster, whose lead, American movie star Philip Yale Drew, was immediately tagged as the main suspect. Philip was an alcoholic who had debts with Alfred Oliver and he was seen around his store. The whole play explores a variety of suspects, from his wife to Philip to every one in the damn village. It wasn’t until intermission when I went to get an overpriced bar of chocolate and saw a wall with newspaper clippings that I realised that the play is based on the real life unsolved murder of Reading resident Alfred Oliver, who was bludgeoned to death in his store back in 1929. The story then became much more interesting to me as I love true crime, but the play also lost value in some way as I know the case is unsolved in real life so the play would have to assume an ending.

It was a nice enough play and the acting was good. As with Woman in Black, it started a little slow, and there was a cast of 4 people playing over twenty characters. Another interesting thing about this production is that the whole room was used as a stage rather than the usual format of the acting being confined to the stage. This meant sometimes the actors were in a different spot and the audience often had to turn around in our seats to see the action happening elsewhere. It was not that bad. Acting is so weird though, simultaneously amazing and awkward; I couldn’t lose myself that much to prance about a room full of people. Sadly I saw that the play was cancelled as two of the key cast tested positive for Covid-19 (Damn you Covid!). I’m glad I got to see it but it’s sad for the theatre company.

In real life, the murder of Alfred Oliver was never solved and most likely will never be solved. Philip Yale Drew was tried and acquitted in the court of public opinion and never acted again.

That’s enough drama for me. Next time I go to the theatre it will be to see a musical.