Essay | Kafka & Camus by Jeffrey Meyers

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Jeffrey Meyers


Kafka & Camus


It is odd that the two book-length studies of Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1942), by English Showalter and Alice Kaplan, do not discuss the profound influence of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925). Other critics have emphasized, denied or deplored this influence. Herbert Lottman notes that while writing his novel Camus ‘had read and reread Kafka, whose work seemed to him prophetic, one of the most significant of our time.’ The critic Jean Paulhan – thinking of Hemingway’s simple sentences, effective repetition and barely restrained violence – told Jean-Paul Sartre that ‘Camus was “like Kafka written by Hemingway,” but Sartre did not see any Kafka in Camus’ work.’ Conor Cruise O’Brien shrewdly observed that The Stranger ‘is like Kafka—whom Camus was reading at this time – but Kafka with major differences. It is the Mediterranean and colonial Kafka.’

Camus was well aware of Kafka’s looming presence in his novel. His respected lycée and university teacher Jean Grenier told him, ‘L’Etranger is very successful, especially the second part, despite the troubling influence of Kafka’ – though he did not specify why he thought it was troubling. He probably felt the influence was too strong and that Camus’ novel might seem derivative. Answering Grenier on May 5, 1940, before the novel was published, Camus analyzed the theme of guilt in both novels; stressed his own originality and emphasized the personal element in his work:

I asked myself if I was right to take up this theme of The Trial. It was distant from Kafka in my mind, but not in appearance. However, it was about an experience I knew well, that I had felt intensely (you know that I followed many trials in criminal court, including some great ones). I could not abandon it for the sake of just any concept in which my experience would play less of a role. So I decided to risk the same theme. But in as much as one can judge one’s own influences, the characters and episodes of The Stranger are too individualized, too everyday, to risk being associated with Kafka’s symbols.

Camus acknowledged but defended the influence of Kafka, arguing that Kafka’s novel was symbolic and allegorical while his own book was realistic and based on personal experience.

These two brilliant and influential twentieth-century novels focus on characters caught up by the process of an unjust law. I shall show precisely how Kafka’s austere style, gallows humour and bleak despair influenced Camus, and that his portrayal of crime and punishment in The Stranger is inconceivable without Kafka’s inspiration. Both authors had legal experience: Kafka was a lawyer for a Prague insurance company, Camus was a journalist who reported on many sensational murder trials in Algiers.  Both men had tuberculosis and died in their mid-forties: Kafka succumbed to the disease, Camus was killed in a car crash. Kafka’s characters and setting are elusive and opaque; Camus’ are concrete and suggestive. But both novels describe an irrational and absurd judicial procedure. Both characters are examined by a magistrate before their trial. Both Joseph K. in The Trial and Meursault in The Stranger are outcasts, oppressed by the law. K. tries, Meursault refuses, to conform to the expectations of society. 

The whole of The Trial is K.’s trial; The Stranger leads up to the dramatic climax of Meursault’s trial. K. feels guilty, but never learns what crime he has committed; Meursault is found guilty of murder. He kills an Arab, yet is indifferent to the consequences; he’s committed a crime but feels no guilt. The tormented K., overwhelmed by guilt, lives on his nerves; the hedonistic Meursault indulges his senses. K., despite his quest for redemptive truth, is executed for no discernible reason. Meursault’s conviction is based on his apparent lack of human feeling and conventional respect after his mother’s death. Kafka describes the execution; Camus (who opposed capital punishment) does not.

The first, startling, life-transforming sentence of The Trial, with its ironic ‘fine morning’: ‘Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning,’ echoes the even more startling matitudinal first sentence of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’ In both works, the sudden change in the life of the main character is never explained but leads inexorably to his cruel death.

This dramatic opening upsets Joseph K.’s hierarchical, orderly routine in his bourgeois boarding-house.  He’s hungry but is not served his usual breakfast, and a neighbouring old woman rudely stares at him through an uncurtained window. Instead of the servant bringing in the food, two warders suddenly appear in his room and arrest him while he’s in bed: passive, helpless and undressed. The intrusive and ill-mannered warders, one wearing an elaborate but pointless tourist outfit, laugh at his request for breakfast – the first of an endless series of refusals in the novel. These ostensible law-enforcers break the law themselves, invading his privacy, stealing his meal and messing up the neat room of his neighbour, Fräulein Bürstner. K. is worried because he doesn’t have time to take his morning bath and afraid he will be late for work at the Bank. Though formally arrested, he is not taken into custody nor even confined to his house. He is allowed to leave the premises and try to lead a normal life – a guilt-ridden existence somewhere between constraint and freedom. Since the law is both lax and oppressive, ridiculous and dangerous, K. acts as if this unfortunate misunderstanding can quickly be cleared up.

The nominal arrest verges on comic absurdity – Kafka and his friends laughed out loud when he read the first chapter to them – but K. is forced to take it seriously. He insists on correct behaviour and struggles to maintain the dignity that is suddenly stripped away from him. In desperation, K. asks a great many crucial questions, but all of them remain unanswered and continue to puzzle readers as well as the protagonist. (Meursault’s judge repeatedly questions him about why he shot the Arab, but also gets no answers.) The first and most important question is who traduced the apparently innocent K., and made the false accusation that led to his unfortunate arrest.  He also asks: Who are the officials? What are they doing here? What authority do they represent? Who dared to seize him in his own room? Why did they arrest him in this ridiculous fashion? Though K., standing on official Hapsburg procedure and his supposed rights, demands a response, the warders brusquely reply: ‘We don’t answer such questions. . . . We are not authorized to tell you that.’ K. assumes that the law can be read and understood and will protect him, but it is actually obscure, capricious and hostile. 

Kafka reverses the plot-line of the traditional mystery novel. In The Trial, K. sets out to find the crime, not the criminal, and (reversing Dostoyevsky’s title) the punishment comes before the crime. The Court has real power, but exists in perilous places and operates in shady circumstances. The accusations and proceedings are kept secret from K., who is never able to defend himself nor deliver his plea in person. His lawyers are as impotent as their client, and he is judged by the elusive Court, the Bank who may fire him and his unhelpful Uncle Karl who is mainly worried about the reputation of their family.

We never learn if K. is innocent or guilty, but either way, the punishment is the same. He’s tormented by guilt but cannot prove his innocence and, contrary to well-established judicial practice, the Court does not have to prove that he is guilty. There’s a powerful attraction between the merciless Law and the predestined guilt. Though it’s quite impossible to win his case, he is compelled to resist. K. is advised to forget the idea of guilt and, at the same time, must confess that he is guilty. In addition to his unspecified crime, he is also guilty of challenging the absolute authority of the Court by trying to prove that he is innocent. As Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, ‘Sentence first—verdict afterwards.’

Though Kafka himself felt guilty about many things – hatred of his father, failure to observe his Jewish religion, dislike of his insurance work, inability to achieve artistic perfection, ill-treatment of women (especially to Felice Bauer who was twice engaged but never married him), and lack of children to carry on the family name – he also felt guilty about his contagious and fatal tuberculosis. He thought his disease was the ‘crime’ that isolated him and set him apart from normal, healthy men. As he wrote in his Diaries, his illness made him ‘Incapable of living with people, of speaking. Complete immersion in myself, thinking of myself. Apathetic, witless, fearful.’ In the novel, K. shares Kafka’s symptoms when, with weak lungs, he is forced to gasp for breath. In the legal office, situated right under the hot roof, the air is ‘stuffy and heavy … hardly breathable.’ In Titorelli’s studio the ‘stuffy, oppressive atmosphere . . . made him so uncomfortable; ‘… He was prepared to gulp down even mouthfuls of fog if he could only get air.’

K.’s damaged lungs and inability to breathe make him notice and sympathize with other deformed outcasts who resemble the victims of the industrial accidents Kafka had professionally investigated. Fräulein Montag and the verger in the cathedral both have a limp. The Examining Magistrate is almost a dwarf. A hunchbacked adolescent girl nudges him toward Titorelli’s studio. He’s perversely excited by Leni’s physical defect, which gives her digits an amphibian appearance: ‘She held up her right hand and stretched out the two middle fingers, between which the connecting web of skin reached almost to the top joint, short as the fingers were.’ He exclaims, ‘What a pretty little paw!… What a freak of nature!’, and after playing with her fascinating fingers he kisses them before letting go.

There are dozens of references throughout the novel to the weak hands of isolated and ineffectual people who reach out to others for sympathy and comfort, but fail to make meaningful human contact. K. has emotional encounters with four women: Fräulein Bürstner, her frustrating go-between Fräulein Montag, Leni, who’s involved with several other men but offers herself to K., and the frolicsome nurse who squeezes herself against him. But everyone who attempts to provide sexual, emotional, familial or legal help fails. The ever-frustrated K. also gets no assistance from four pillars of society: the Law, the Bank, Titorelli’s Art and the priest’s God.

Four crucial scenes illuminate the unfinished, episodic and murky Trial: in the Bank, in Titorelli’s studio, ‘Before the Law’ and the execution. In the Bank, K. tears open the door of a storage room and sees a powerful, half-naked figure wearing an executioner’s dark leather garment. The two warders who have arrested K., Willem and the autobiographically named Franz, tell him, ‘We’re to be flogged because you complained about us to the Examining Magistrate’ for eating your food and stealing your clothes. K., who identifies with the victims and tries to secure their release, cannot stop the fierce punishment, which foreshadows his own fate. The warders plead for mercy but must be flogged. As the Whipper declares, ‘the punishment is as just as it is inevitable … I am here to whip people, and whip them I shall’. When the Whipper first cuts into flesh, a ‘shriek rose from Franz’s throat, single and irrevocable, it did not seem to come from a human being, but from some martyred instrument, the whole corridor rang with it, the whole building must hear it. ‘Don’t,’ cried K.; he was beside himself’ and fled from the room. K. thinks of substituting himself, ‘If a sacrifice had been needed, it would almost have been simpler to take off his own clothes and offer himself to the Whipper,’ but he soon thinks better of it.  As with K.’s arrest, there is a comic element in the tragic scene when the Whipper admits that Willem ‘stuffs himself with the breakfasts of all the people he arrests.’ (There’s also a grimly comic scene in The Stranger when Meursault tells his Arab cellmates that he’s just killed an Arab.) As in K.’s case, the warders’ crime is minor, their punishment unjust and severe.

The artist Titorelli (whose name compounds  Tintoretto, a Venetian painter of distinguished officials, and the composer Corelli) is another self-proclaimed expert on the Court who offers faint hope that is quickly dashed. In a pronouncement that makes nonsense of ‘definite’ and ‘acquittal,’ he informs K. that there are three possibilities: ‘definite acquittal, ostensible acquittal, and indefinite postponement.’ When K. points out the contradictions in the argument, Titorelli explains, ‘We must distinguish between two things: what is written in the Law, and what I have discovered through personal experience.’ K., who never sees the written Law and is trapped by the Court, is tortured by his own frustration and impotence. Though still maintaining his innocence and defying the Court, K. cannot choose the most desirable but impossible ‘definite acquittal.’ The other two options are also problematic. Titorelli depressingly declares, ‘it is just as possible for the acquitted man to go straight home from the Court and find officers already waiting to arrest him again The second acquittal is followed by the third arrest, the third acquittal by the fourth arrest, and so on.’ To cut through the legal jargon: K.’s case is hopeless and his punishment is definite but unclear.

The parable ‘Before the Law, told to K. by the priest in the cathedral, is the most famous and puzzling episode in The Trial. A man from the country begs for admittance to the Law. The implacable doorkeeper (another forbidding official) says he might be allowed to enter later on a form of indefinite postponement, of prolonged and intolerable deceit. K. had torn the door open when the warders were being whipped in the Bank. Though this door stands open, the paralyzed and powerless beseecher doesn’t seize the chance to enter.  The doorkeeper gives the man a stool and he sits patiently waiting for weeks and months and years.  In The Stranger, the Kafkaesque doorkeeper in the old folks’ Home ‘had a certain standing and some authority over the rest of them.’ When the man’s bribes are accepted but fail to get him through the door, he finally asks, ‘how does it come about, then, that in all these years no one has come seeking admittance but me?’  And he’s told, with devastating authority, ‘no one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended for you.  I am now going to shut it.’

The doorkeeper, determined to keep out the suppliant, deliberately deceives the man about the possibility of entering the door that was intended for him. The man, who’s willing to wait forever to exonerate himself, cannot exercise free will and has no chance of salvation. The cryptic parable reveals that K., who naturally identifies with the man, is not meant to penetrate the mysteries of the Law nor be released by the officials whom Titorelli paints. Kafka suggests that the Court thinks K. is worthless and expendable by echoing Psalm 121:8 – ‘The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in’ – but reversing the meaning of its comforting and protective message: ‘It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go.’ The German sharply states, ‘Es nimmt dich auf, wenn du kommst, und es entlässt dich, wenn du gehst.’ The Court is both a cruel God who does not protect him and an indifferent power that destroys him.

At the end of The Trial Kafka reveals the futility of K.’s resistance to his inevitable punishment by echoing King Lear, ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport’ and by comparing K. to ‘flies struggling away from the flypaper till their little legs were torn off.’ K.’s execution, which recalls Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22:1-l9, takes place in a stone quarry outside the town. Like the Whipper with the warders, the executioners remove K.’s clothes; and like the man Before the Law, K. does not try to exercise free will, seize the double-edged butcher’s knife from the executioner’s hand and take responsibility for his own death by killing himself. Completely defeated, K. is left, as in the first chapter, with a series of unanswered questions about the Judge, the Court and the possibility of salvation: ‘Where was the Judge whom he had never seen? Where was the High Court, to which he had never penetrated?’ Two of these questions are linked to the recurrent motif of hands, in both the metaphorical and literal sense, and with Leni’s webbed fingers: ‘Was help at hand? . . . He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers.’ K.’s trial takes place throughout the novel and is never conducted in Court. Though he has not committed a crime, he is brutally executed outside the Law, stabbed in the heart (not in the throat) ‘Like a dog!’ or like an animal slaughtered by a kosher butcher – his grandfather’s profession.

***

The Stranger, published seventeen years after The Trial, also has a startling opening: ‘Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.’ Though the telegram from his mother’s old folks’ home is ambiguous about the exact date of her death, Meursault’s uncertainty is used against him at his trial.  When he gets to the Home in Marengo – a town named after a Napoleonic victory in northern Italy and located two hours west of Algiers – Meursault refuses to behave conventionally and follow the respectful rituals about death, mourning and funerals. He does not recall fond memories, listen to expressions of sympathy, respect the dead or cry to show his grief in order to please the mourners.

Meursault doesn’t know his mother’s age, doesn’t want to see her corpse in the open coffin and doesn’t refuse a tempting cup of café au lait. He smokes cigarettes at the home and craves them in his prison cell, but refuses when a policeman (his official enemy) offers one. Meursault’s unwillingness to weep contrasts to the steady sobbing of his mother’s best friend and to the fainting fit of her suitor Pérez at the funeral. The taciturn and self-centred Meursault is surprisingly unconcerned about important aspects of his own life.  He is indifferent to his mother’s death, the love of his girlfriend Marie, her proposal of marriage, his friendship with the pimp Raymond and his promising job offer in Paris. He describes the capital as ‘A dingy sort of town … Masses of pigeons and dark courtyards.  And the people have washed-out, white faces,’ unlike the dark Arabs and the suntanned French of Algiers. He remains resolutely indifferent, even when he must decide at crucial moments whether or not to shoot the Arab on the beach, to retain a lawyer or try to influence his own fate. 

Violence suddenly explodes in Meursault’s world. Meursault has dubious relations with the tough and short-tempered Raymond who lives in his apartment building.  Raymond beats up a man who challenges him to a fight and hits his unfaithful girlfriend (one of his prostitutes), which provokes the hostile encounters with her Arab brother and his pals. Another near neighbour, the pathetic and brutal Salamano, beats his beloved scabby dog, which runs away and is lost. (Camus may have known Thomas Mann’s early story Tobias Mindernickel, 1898, which also portrays a wretched old man who beats and kills his disobedient dog.) Though the meaning of Salamano’s name is unclear, it suggests mains sales, dirty hands (the title of Sartre’s play in 1948). Raymond beating his girlfriend and Salamano beating his dog are cruel reflections of Meursault’s indifference to his mother.

Camus’ own widowed mother, Catherine Sintès, was deaf, speech impaired and illiterate. Franz Kafka called his characters Franz and K.; Camus perversely gave the maiden name of his beloved mother to a pimp, Raymond Sintès. Meursault has sent his mother to the Home for practical, not cruel, reasons. He could no longer afford to support her in his flat, they rarely spoke to one another and she moped around the place with no one to talk to. The Home was more congenial and when there she found two close friends. The young prisoner who sits silently with his mother during visiting hours in prison mirrors Meursault’s inability to communicate with his mute mother.

Camus points out the soothing and punishing sun (mentioned twenty times) and its harsh effects: heat (sixteen times) and glare (eight times). Meursault and Raymond have three sunbaked encounters on the beach with vengeful Arabs. First, one of the Arabs gashes the unarmed Raymond’s arm and mouth, then retreats. After his wounds are bandaged by a doctor, Raymond brings a revolver and confronts them for the second time. But he chivalrously says, ‘It would be a low-down trick to shoot him like that, in cold blood,’ and the Arabs suddenly vanish.

The third time, when Meursault is challenged, he takes Raymond’s revolver, faces the Arab alone and shows no restraint or compunction. The blast-furnace heat and blinding glare of the sun, rather than a clear motive, drive him to commit the gratuitous murder. With brilliant insight, André Malraux advised Camus to improve the crucial murder scene by linking the sun and the Arab’s knife. The flashing sun on the knife strikes Meursault’s eyes, makes him dizzy and becomes another weapon used against him. Camus describes the murder as a series of sensations: nerves, touch, sound, sweat, sight and light:

Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver.  The trigger gave, 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 veil 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. 

As his nerves tense and the smooth belly of the gun presses sensually into the soft palm of Meursault’s hand, his grip closes on the responsive trigger. The Magistrate repeatedly asks him why he fired five shots into the prostrate man, but never gets an answer. Meursault did not own the gun nor quarrel with the man, who doesn’t bleed despite the gunshot wounds. Maddened by the fiery heat of the sun, he fires five times to show that he was free to act and was in control. He behaved deliberately, meant to kill the Arab and intentionally destroyed his own happiness.

Meursault’s disgraceful behaviour at his mother’s funeral is unscrupulously reexamined by the Magistrate and again by the prosecutor during his trial. He is accused of great callousness by not expressing his grief. He shocks his court-appointed lawyer, who warns him not to repeat his incriminating belief in court, by stating, ‘All normal people . . . had more or less desired the death of those they loved.’ He merely means that people cannot bear to see the decay, disease and suffering of their loved ones, want to end the burden of caring for them and (often enough) are eager to get their long-awaited inheritance. Meursault tells the Magistrate and the priest that he (like his mother) does not believe in God and does not regret the murder except for the vexation it has caused. It’s significant that Meursault refused to cry for his mother but wants to burst into tears at the trial. After the restaurateur Céleste appears as a sympathetic character witness and calls the murder merely an accident, pure chance and pure coincidence, Meursault wants to kiss him, though he had refused to kiss his mother. In prison, he rejects the offer of the unctuous priest who wants to kiss him.

Camus describes how, under French colonialism, Algerians seem like ‘blocks of stone or dead trees’ – insignificant nonentities, even (like K. in The Trial) expendable. Even so, Meursault cannot go around shooting them for no reason at all. Since killing an Arab in this colonial society doesn’t really matter, the court has to find other reasons to convict him, and uses his vile character to explain his outrageous behaviour. Meursault’s lawyer reasonably asks, ‘Is my client on trial for having buried his mother, or for killing a man?’. But the judge sees a vital link between the funeral and the murder, which hang together psychologically. In a Kafkaesque twist that condemns him before he commits the crime, the judge ‘accuses the prisoner of behaving at his mother’s funeral in a way that showed he was already a criminal at heart.’

Meursault delights in sensual pleasures: ‘warm smells of summer, favourite streets, the sky at evening, Marie’s dresses and her laugh.’ But he is called an ‘inhuman monster wholly without a moral sense’ and is found guilty for the wrong reasons: not for killing the Arab, but for failing to weep at his mother’s funeral, and for going swimming, sleeping with Marie and seeing a comic movie the very next day.  (In an apparent contradiction, he invites Marie to see a Fernandel movie in the evening but takes her to a matinee, 24, 125). After the death sentence is proclaimed, Meursault receives the same respectful sympathy that he got when his mother died.

Meursault’s trial, sentence and impending decapitation illustrate Camus’ Existential belief that human life is absurd. Meursault nihilistically exclaims, as if everyone agrees with him, ‘It’s common knowledge that life isn’t worth living … Nothing, nothing had the least importance.’ In the powerful concluding paragraph, he connects his mother’s death to his own and, paradoxically, feels baptized, happy and free: ‘I felt ready to start life all over again.  It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.’ This passage seems more rapturous in French: ‘Comme si cette grande colère m’avait purgé du mal, vidé d’espoir, devant cette nuit chargée de signes et d’étoiles, je m’ouvrais pour la première fois à la tendre indifférence du monde.’ He’s comforted by the starry sky, and the universe, if not exactly benign, is at least not hostile. Meursault says he hopes the huge crowd of spectators at his public execution will ‘greet me with howls of execration.’ Though he wanted to cry at the trial when he realized that everyone in the courtroom loathed him, he now welcomes their curses and hatred. He wants to show his indifference to their judgment, to accept his punishment and perhaps be granted absolution for his crime. Paradoxically, the threat of death gives him a more positive approach to life.

***

The crucial difference between Kafka and Camus is that Joseph K. tries hard to believe that that life—including God, Justice and the Law—has meaning.  Since Meursault believes that life is meaningless, that there is no God and no “correct” way to live, he doesn’t bother to behave conventionally and observe rituals.

Both authors employ a lucid, precise yet highly evocative style to portray characters. Kafka, for example, notes that the landlady’s ‘apron string made such an unreasonably deep cut in her massive body.’ Camus similarly writes of the old women at the funeral, ‘the strings drawn tight round their waists made their big stomachs bulge still more.’ Kafka even offers a comic version of Camus’ favourite myth of Sisyphus: ‘One lawyer after another was sent rushing upstairs to offer the greatest possible show of passive resistance and let himself be thrown down again into the arms of his colleagues.’

The main characters of the novels are different. K. is a rather ridiculous petty clerk who never learns what is happening to him. Meursault determines his own destiny, narrates his story and understands his trial. Yet the mood and themes of both novels are similar. Joseph K.’s crime is secret, Meursault’s murder is public.  K. resists the law, Meursault submits to it. K., terrified and miserable in a hostile Central European city, rushes frantically through dark streets and constricted corridors. Meursault, sensual and insouciant, feels content and at ease in the bright sea and brilliant light of the Mediterranean coast – until the sun becomes fierce and hostile. K. is cerebral and talkative, Meursault instinctive and laconic. K. tries to conform to society’s expectations, Meursault refuses to do so. K.’s enemy is the elusive Court, Meursault’s enemy is the hostile Arab. K. has frustrating relations with several women, Meursault gets sexual pleasure from the attractive and obliging Marie. K. roams freely and his punishment is mental. Meursault is imprisoned and his punishment is physical when he’s finally locked in a cell with no fellow prisoners or cigarettes. K.’s courtroom trial never begins, Meursault’s ends quickly. In the end, K. is degraded, Meursault feels less lonely and even happy. The indifference of the universe matches his own mood. He’s gained new insight, feels personally liberated and intellectually free, and accepts his fate with all its absurdity.

Despite these differences, there are important parallels between The Trial and The Stranger, and Camus drew on many characteristics and ideas of K. when creating Meursault. As in The Trial, Meursault’s case is complex, and he must have a lawyer who understands the arcane and bewildering Code. But the lawyers in both novels are hopelessly ineffectual. The court makes no attempt to elicit the true facts, no one understands the testimony of the favourable witnesses and Meursault is accused of being a criminal at heart. The Magistrate focuses more on the obscure motives of the criminal than on the crime and declares, ‘What really interests me is—you!’ But Meursault, like K., does not see himself as a criminal and continues to think like a free man. When he naively tells the magistrate that ‘Mother’s death had no connection with the charge against me, he merely replied that this remark showed I’d never had any dealings with the law.’ Like K., Meursault has three specific but unhelpful judicial possibilities: ‘Murder of malice aforethought . . . Provocation . . . Extenuating circumstances.’  Most importantly, the fate of both characters is predestined: they have no chance of acquittal. The supremely indifferent Meursault does not even claim, especially after Raymond has been stabbed, that he felt threatened and acted in self-defence. So he is also irrevocably caught in a rat trap and cannot escape ‘from the implacable machinery of justice.’

Camus’ essay ‘Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka’ was written in 1942 and suppressed during the Nazi occupation of France when works about Jewish writers were forbidden. It was added to the American edition of The Myth of Sisyphus and confirms Kafka’s powerful influence on The Stranger.  Kafka calls the warder der Fremde, ‘the stranger’; Camus calls K. in The  Castle ‘that stranger.’ In his essay, Camus states that K.’s throat is slit when, in fact, his heart is cut. But Camus offers telling Kafkaesque aphorisms: ‘The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as fate only what crushes it’ as well as his own sensual lyricism: ‘those evening anticipations which make up our reason for living.’ Camus brings Kafka’s characters to life with startling phrases. To him they are inspired automata, phantoms of regret, supernaturally anxious and burdened with lucid despair. He observes, as if speaking about The Stranger, that Kafka achieves his effects by ‘perpetual oscillations between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical, that are found throughout his work and give it both its resonance and its meaning.’ His description of The Trial refashions the tragic element and makes it seem more like the end of his own novel: ‘this tragic work … after all future hope is exiled, describes the life of a happy man.’


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                               Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has had thirty-three books translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets, and published on six continents.  He’s published Robert Lowell in Love and The Mystery of the Real: Correspondence with Alex Colville in 2016,  Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy in 2018.


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