Upon close observation, claims in postclassical narratology to contextualize narrative form do not seem to be that recent of a phenomenon anymore. Under multiple variations and specifications, “feminist narratology” (Lanser 1992; Warhol 1999), “ideological approaches” (Fludernik and Richardson 2000), “postcolonial narratology” (Prince 2005; Fludernik 2007; Sommer 2007), “econarratology” (James 2015; Donly 2017), “contextualist narratology and cultural narratologies” (A. Nünning 2004, 2009; Sommer 2012; Shen 2017), and “the politics of form” (Olson and Copland 2016) might all be considered part of one general claim which proposes that the methods of formal narrative analysis should be informed by the historical and cultural turn in literary studies. This trend was born in postructuralist critical perspectives and affects both national and comparative approaches to literature and narrative, as several surveys on postclassical narratologies have demonstrated (Fludernik and Richardson 2000; Shen 2005; Sommer 2012; A. Nünning 2009). Most contextualist critics agree that the opposition between formalist and historical approaches to narrative is a scholar-made one, a practical yet constraining convention. Instead, these critics assume, narratives integrate historical context and form in a manner that is part of both what defines and what substantiates them. This assumption might develop in the near future through new attempts to establish that “the text-context dichotomy may finally be overcome by thinking in terms of different kinds of contexts and varying degrees of context-orientation” (Sommer 2012: 154). The need for contextualist narratology is already well-established, but practical approaches through which we might develop contextualist methods of analysis and conduct such studies are still incipient and unclear. “The Politics of Form,” a special issue of the European Journal of English Studies edited by Greta Olson and Sarah Copland and published in 2016, is a remarkable contribution that considers various ways in which politics might be examined in narrative forms and reflects on the politics of the narrative concepts that we deploy as theorists. As Olson and Copland propose in their Introduction and the individual contributors demonstrate, “the politics of form” should help us examine both the ways in which politics condition narrative form and the ways in which narrative forms, in turn, further agendas and participate in their political contexts.1
Once the need for narratology to adopt the “politics of form” as a critical approach has been solidly argued for and conclusively established, the focus shifts to the next logical question. We know that we need to pay attention to how form relates to politics, but how, and in which of their aspects, are political context and discourse relevant to the study of narrative form? This essay proposes a practical starting point by examining unreliable narration, a category that Greta Olson (2018) and Ansgar Nünning (2004) have suggested is especially fruitful for the analysis of ideology in narrative. In particular, among the varied concepts at hand related to the analysis of unreliable narration, this article argues that the modulations of narrative reliability known as “estranging/bonding unreliability” (Phelan 2007) and “discordant narration” (Cohn 2002) are especially dependent on the political discourses that make them possible. This will be demonstrated through the analysis of Albert Camus’ L’étranger (1942), which will be used as a test case for the politics of form and a source of methodological suggestions for how to observe politics in form and form in politics. Borrowing many of its ideological arguments and rhetoric from contemporaneous colonial discourses in French Algeria, L’étranger employs an “estranging” and “discordant” form of narration that is deeply dependent on the ideological assumptions it draws upon. As evaluative forms that interrogate narrative reliability, both “estranging” and “discordant” narration demonstrate the importance of disclosing the embedded political arguments used to produce the ambivalent narrative voice of Camus’ acclaimed yet controversial novel.
1 On the politics of form
In his article “Where Historiographic Metafiction and Narratology Meet: Towards an Applied Cultural Narratology,” Ansgar Nünning explained the goals and potential of what he then called “an applied cultural narratology”:
By applied cultural narratology I mean an integrated approach that puts the analytical tools provided by narratology to the service of a cultural analysis of narrative fictions. Focusing on “the study of narrative forms in their relationship to the culture which generates them” (Onega and Landa 12), cultural narratology explores “cultural experiences translated into, and meanings produced by, particular formal narrative practices” (Helms 14). Drawing upon the categories of narrative theory and new insights and research strategies developed in cultural history, such an approach can arguably shed light on both the semantic potential of narrative forms and the changing functions that narrative strategies have fulfilled. It is the task of such a project to contextualize literary fictions by situating them within the broader spectrum of discourses that constitute a given culture. It is time for narratology to catch up with the cultural turn in literary criticism and theory, but cultural studies and cultural history can also profit from drawing upon the analytical tools provided by narratology. (A. Nünning 2004: 356)
In the endeavor to expand narratology’s vision to include other critical discourses and avoid limiting it to a self-referential bibliography, cultural approaches to narrative might be fruitful. This is the point of departure that Olson and Copland take for their “politics of form” approach, which they define in the Introduction to the special issue “The Politics of Form.” Drawing on Marxist, New Formalist, and political philosophers, they make a valuable effort to locate narrative theory in a complex map of critical approaches to literature. Such efforts are not common in contributions to narratology. By referring to current politically-drawn perspectives, the critics are able to establish connections outside the limited field of core narratological work and reach out to other perspectives and tenets that are needed to effectively contribute to narratology with the approach of “the politics of form.” They define their endeavor as follows:
[T]his special issue seeks to unite the formalist analysis of texts with readings that aim to uncover how structures of social power are expressed in and by, as well as challenged by, aesthetic forms. More broadly, the politics of form begins to address the need for the development of a political analysis of aesthetic and narrative forms, to articulate specific models and methods for performing such analysis and to reflect on the politics of the work that is thereby undertaken. Specifically, our desire is to politicise narratological and formal analysis while retaining the form specificity that has been a feature of narratology. (Olson and Copland 2016: 207)
The politics of form refers to the politics enforced, expressed by, and contextually intrinsic to aesthetic forms, as well as to the politics involved in the use of narrative concepts. Olson and Copland call for a more precise deployment of narratological categories that, after the structuralist legacy, have so far been perceived as universal. These categories, they argue, need to be politically contextualized, and concepts that sustain other approaches to narrative – such as those coined in postcolonial theory, feminist theory, or critical race theory – should be used in a more selective and nuanced way to test how the categories work or do not work in a specific text.
Most notably, the politics of form approach tries to avoid leading “to a contamination that infects ‘pure’ and ‘neutral’ description with the taint of ideology and relativism,” which Nünning warns constitutes part of the resistance to these strands of narrative theory (A. Nünning 2004: 352). By raising awareness about the location of the critic’s voice as well as by distancing their approach from ideological activism, Olson and Copland state in their goals that the politics of form should “avoid moralistic judgments of aesthetic texts.” “The present editors,” they write, “witness in their own and in colleagues’ cultural studies work a tendency to pathologize texts, that is, to diagnose their formal qualities with an eye to rendering them in terms of their intrinsic if sometimes also contradictory or ambivalent support of the dominant” (Olson and Copland 2016: 215). The analysis of political and cultural ideologies that have established the dynamics of power relations in particular historical contexts has been crucial to the understanding of colonial, neocolonial and neoliberal discourses and their practical consequences and effects. These discourses have received extraordinary attention in the last fifty years, and they form the core of New Historicist, postcolonial, cultural and global approaches to literature. As Olson and Copland rightly point out, the study of political ideologies and contexts does not necessarily mean engaging in political activism or pathologizing texts.2 This is a major challenge that political approaches to literature have had to face and have struggled to address. Thus far, neglect of political context has made narratology oblivious to this disciplinary challenge, although the field’s structuralist, universalist legacy has not made it less subject to political contexts and ideologies.
In an effort to resist moralizing the analysis, I propose to delve into historical analysis rather than leaning too much on convenient yet decontextualized theoretical categories – such as those used in postcolonial theory – that may ultimately be, as Shen (2017) argues, ungrounded in historical context and more prone to moralization and activism. Historical studies form a key component of political ideologies, of course, but they also address the historical problems and circumstances that are often assumed and used during the elaboration of narrative form, on the one hand, and the challenges of moralization and activism, on the other.
2 The politics of estranging/bonding and discordant narrative reliability
As a first response to the question “How and in what aspects are political contexts and discourses relevant for the study of narrative form?” I propose that we treat the concepts of “discordant narration” (Cohn 2000) and “estranging/bonding unreliability” (Phelan 2007) as especially effective for adopting the perspective of the politics of form. In this particular article, I will only address how the operativeness of these two categories depends on the ideological assumptions that underlie their functioning.3
A review of the concepts will be necessary here. In her article “Discordant Narration,” Dorrit Cohn delved into the distinction between “two different kinds of unreliable fictional narration: a factual kind of unreliability that is attributed to a mis- or disinformed narrator, unwilling or unable to tell what ‘actually’ happened [...]; and an ideological kind that is attributed to a narrator who is biased or confused, inducing one to look, behind the story he or she tells, for a different meaning from the one he himself provides” (Cohn 2000: 307). Cohn labels the latter “discordant narration”, a narration that
intends to signify the possibility for the reader to experience a teller as normatively inappropriate for the story he or she tells. It suggests the reader’s sense that the author intends his or her work to be understood differently from the way the narrator understands it: in a way that can only be discovered by reading the work against the grain of the narrator’s discourse, providing it with a meaning that, though not explicitly spelled out, is silently signaled to the reader behind the narrator’s back. (Cohn 2000: 307)
In other words, “discordant narration” is a mode of narration that interrogates narrative reliability on the basis of ideological judgment, rather than factual report.
“Discordant narration” bears a marked similarity to the forms of unreliability that Phelan and Martin defined as “underregarding” and “misregarding” (1999: 94), which sit along the axis of ethics/evaluation. Phelan pursued the problem further in his article “Estranging Unreliability, Bonding Unreliability, and the Ethics of Lolita,” coining the concepts of “estranging unreliability” and “bonding unreliability” to account for the different, dynamic kinds of ethical distance and trust that the reader establishes with a text. To Phelan, “bonding unreliability” occurs when “the discrepancies between the narrator’s reports, interpretations, or evaluations and the inferences of the authorial audience have the paradoxical result of reducing the interpretative, affective, or ethical distance between the narrator and the authorial audience. In other words, although the authorial audience recognizes the narrator’s unreliability, that unreliability includes some communication that the implied author – and thus the authorial audience – endorses” (Phelan 2007: 225).4 “Estranging unreliability,” in turn, occurs when “the discrepancies between the narrator’s reports, interpretations, or evaluations and the inferences about those things made by the authorial audience leave these two participants in the communicative exchange distant from one another – in a word, estranged.” (Phelan 2007: 225).
Before suggesting how these concepts relate to ideology, I would like to propose a significant modification of the definition of “estranging/bonding unreliability”. In the course of this article, I will refer either to “estranging/bonding narration” or “estranging/bonding reliability.” In a conceptual move, I suggest that we understand narrative reliability not as opposed to unreliability but as a principle in the construction of narrative that measures the narrative authority or credibility of a discourse in any form or modulation. Narrative reliability is the way in which discourse builds trust in its narrative, which does not need to refer to any truth in the factual world. In other words, narrative reliability is the way in which the narrative relates to the degree of credibility of what is being told, it is the way in which narrative addresses the problem of trust in all its forms. In that sense all narratives address reliability in one way or another. Narrative reliability can be modulated in several ways, and it can be posed as the central problem in a narrative, as occurs in many novels. Often, this rigorous interrogation of narrative authority is elaborated as narrative unreliability. From this angle, the dychotomy between current approaches to unreliability which oppose reliability to unreliability would not make sense, since narrative reliability is taken here as a narrative principle that can be modulated in all forms, ranging from full narrative trust to unreliability, and often handling it in neither of these but somewhere in the middle of them. Here, therefore, I want to suggest that “discordant narration” and “estranging/bonding narration” do not only appear in narrations that we are able to classify definitively as “unreliable”; instead these are forms that address the problem of reliability in narrative. Many novels do interrogate narrative reliability without choosing clear unreliability as their way of presenting the problem. The cases of Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which Cohn has analyzed, are excellent examples of such novels. Camus’ L’étranger would also fall into that middle zone of the spectrum, which makes the interrogation of narrative reliability and the uses of discordant and estranging narration much more challenging.
Cohn and Phelan partially acknowledge the problem of attaching “discordant narration” and “estranging/bonding unreliability” to “unreliability.” Phelan notes that “focus on these issues in our respective laboratories of narrative theory has prevented us from paying sufficient attention to the diversity of unreliable narration existing in the wild, that is, in the almost countless number of character narrations in the history of narrative (and indeed, in some noncharacter narrations)” (2007: 225). Cohn goes further with her observation that, after conducting traditional readings of a novel in terms of its reliable or unreliable narrators, we might reach a third phase: a “self-conscious reading that understands the choices involved, a reading aware of the fact that there are choices involved” (2000: 312) in the decisions readers make about the extent to which they should trust narratives. In that sense, Cohn’s formulation of discordant narration has the advantage of leaving more room to narrative and ideological ambiguity. However, Cohn and Phelan and Martin still locate the debate within the confines of unreliability. As in most criticism on the debate on reliability/unreliability the problem of analyzing ambivalent texts remains, since these neither allow for nor claim a clear dychotomic decision between reliability or unreliability. In this sense, I attempt to expand the concept of narrative reliability along the lines exposed above so as to include a range of texts that address the problem of narrative reliability in many other ways. Accordingly, I will mostly refer to “narrative reliability” in this essay, meaning the construction of narrative trust.
To return to the question of how these concepts relate to the politics of form, “discordant narration” and “estranging/bonding reliability” are categories whose functioning is grounded in the ideological distance between readers and texts. Cohn’s concept is particularly useful because it makes explicit reference to the fact that the basis for discordance is ideological, and therefore mostly political. As she notes, in these modes, the narrator’s “ideology clashes with his or her tale” (2000: 307), a statement the critic demonstrates it occurs in novels such as Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Phelan’s concept of “estranging/bonding unreliability” is more complex and nuanced in the distinctions it makes, and it differs in its approach in that it considers the ethical relation between reader (by this, Phelan means authorial audience) and text in the audience’s varied and dynamic assessment of different kinds of unreliability; in particular, he refers to the six types of unreliability he and Martin established along the axes of facts, knowledge, and evaluation (Phelan and Martin 1999). These concepts lead us to think that the ways in which a text handles trust (in all its modes, including full distrust) often call for an ethical evaluation that is implicit in the presentation of values in a narrative, which measures the distance between text and reader. Phelan and Martin’s types, however, in some ways do not admit the kind of ambiguity that Cohn acknowledges is part of the narrative technique. “Discordant” and “estranging/bonding unreliability” tackle the ideological and the ethical dimensions of narrative unreliability correspondingly, but in putting them together their combination suggests a richer perspective of their functioning with regards to cultural context. At this juncture, I want to suggest that, while they are formulated differently and do not fully correspond to each other, the concepts of “discordant narration” and “estranging/bonding unreliability” share the idea that distrust of the narrative arises from differing judgments about the relation between the narrative and the story being told, and that this disagreement is mostly guided by the text itself. In narratology, ethical and political analyses do not seem to have gone hand in hand – which is one reason why Cohn and Phelan and Martin’s concepts illuminate each other. Nevertheless, it is not hard to see that the kinds of evaluations that Cohn and Phelan point to might be measured through ideological judgment. In other words, the ethical codes that a narrative activates are most frequently part of ideological discourses that may or may not be familiar to the reader, which a narrative might interrogate, for example, through unreliability. The emphasis and support of certain values which have been gathered into an ethical code often constitutes the core of political ideologies, and political arguments draw on ethical justifications. This is not to say that appeals to ethics in narrative are necessarily problematized or part of a political discussion. Nevertheless, narratives frequently invoke ethical codes, deploying them in their historical contexts and within particular ideological discourses in order to discuss political conflicts. In such cases, techniques such as estrangement/bonding reliability explicitly depend on and participate in ideological discourses. To a significant extent, therefore, “discordant narration” and “estranging/bonding reliability” rely on the activation of shared and operative ideologies, regardless of whether and to what extent the reader agrees or disagrees with those ideologies. While these techniques may have varied effects over time (Cohn 2000; V. Nünning 2004), the text’s guided and suggested interrogation of narrative trustworthiness is often much more effective when the reader recognizes certain codes that have social and political implications and are subject to debates, practices, and events that are contemporaneous to the narrative. As we will see with the case of Camus’ L’étranger, familiarity with the discourse of the Méditerranée unveils the rhetorical strategies that create the text’s well-known effect of strangeness, which still puzzles many readers and critics.
Since the production of “estranging/bonding” and “discordant” narrations is dependent on ethical codes and broader ideological discourses, it follows that the ideological assumptions in a narrative must be activated in order actually produce these textual effects. In other words, if the text calls for the reader to disagree with the narrative voice about a political or ethical judgment, the reader must be familiar with the values or arguments being presented, or the disagreement will not register. This is especially important when the ideological discourses a narrative draws on are part of contemporaneous ideological conflicts, which are in general ultimately political, social, and economic. To use Cohn’s example, it is particularly hard to distrust Marlow in Heart of Darkness if one is not aware of the British discussions about indirect imperial rule in Africa that were contemporaneous with the Boer Wars. To return to our initial question, what is of specific interest to narrative theorists is not a general explanation of the thematic representation of a political conflict, but an explanation of the ways in which a narrative uses political context in order to build specific forms that are in fact dependent on cultural discourses, which represents one way to consider the politics of form. In turn, this will help us understand the effects that a certain representation of political context and discourse has on society, and the role of narratives in the construction of political ideologies. From this perspective, it is clear that critical neglect of historical context and ideological discourses cuts short – and at times even cuts off – the possibility of actually examining the effects of techniques such as discordant narration and estranging/bonding reliability. If we are to analyze the way narratives use ideological discourses to determine how they manage the aforementioned effects in the reader, we simply cannot avoid contextualizing the narratives and ultimately comprehending their politics of form. Contextualization necessarily means reaching beyond our narratological approach to consider findings from other historical and cultural approaches to literature and relevant disciplines, such as history, politics, law, economics, sociology, or anthropology.
3 Albert Camus’ L’étranger and the narrative uses of French colonial discourses in Algeria
These theoretical reflections bring us to our case study, which aims to demonstrate the relevance of ideological discourses to the effects of discordant narration and estranging/bonding reliability. I propose to look at Albert Camus’s novel L’étranger (1942, The Stranger) in order to illustrate the possibilities of the politics of form for the construction of narrative reliability, since Camus’s novel depends on the use of French colonial discourses in Algeria.
The narrative voice in L’étranger has been widely acknowledged as ambivalent, but the ideological ways in which it is ambivalent still require further analysis. In his Nouveau discours du récit, Genette famously resolved:
Déclinons donc toute interprétation, et laissons ce récit à son indécision, dont la formule serait plutôt: ‘Meursault raconte ce qu’il fait et décrit ce qu’il perçoit, mais il ne dit pas [...] s’il en pense quelque chose.’ Cette ‘situation,’ ou plutôt cette attitude narrative, c’est pour l’instant ce qui ressemble le mieux, ou le moins mal, à une narration homodiégetique ‘neutre’, ou à focalisation externe. (Genette 1983: 85)
[Let us renounce all interpretation, and leave this story to its indecision, whose formula appears to be: ‘Meursault tells what he does, and describes what he perceives, but he does not say [...] what he may think about it all’. This ‘situation,’ or rather this narrative attitude, seems for the moment to most closely resemble a ‘neutral’ homodiegetic narration, or external focalization]
Unable to decide how to analyze Meursault’s ambivalent first-person narration, Genette leaves the narrative voice in L’étranger to its own uncertainty. The problem has been widely acknowledged as a frustration of the expectations of the affective engagement of a first-person homodiegetic narrator in relation to his own story (Adam and Noël 1995: 74; Conkinska 2001: 287). The very beginning of the narrative famously exemplifies the narrator’s tone during the story of his mother’s death: “Ajourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile: ‘Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués.’ Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier” (Camus 2013 b: 9) [‘Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.’ That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday (Camus 1989 : 3)]. While the novel’s condensed interrogation of narrative reliability deserves a much longer analysis, I will focus here on the trial as a key device in the production of the effects of estranging/bonding reliability and discordant narration. In the first part of L’étranger, Meursault tells his own version of the days in which his mother died and he killed an Arab on an Algerian beach; in the second part, he narrates his detention, trial, and sentencing to death.
The trial accomplishes at least two functions in the construction of the novel’s problematic narrative reliability. First, the trial and the inquiries before it help elucidate Meursault’s “estranging narration” by offering a deeply different rereading of the events that he has previously narrated in light of Meursault’s new ambivalent responses. Secondly, the trial produces a discordant narration through the underreporting of the colonial situation in Algeria, which diverts attention from the murder of an Arab, for which the trial is being held. This discordant narration, in turn, reveals the presence of a similar rhetoric in Meursault’s earlier narrative, which borrows from the colonial discourse of the Méditerranée.
Camus’s critics have overlooked the possibility that the trial might be considered a rereading of the first part of the novel, and that one of its key functions is to act as an internal narratee who is able to evaluate Meursault’s narrative. The trial, during which lawyers and the judge interrogate and evaluate Meursault’s crime, therefore functions as a useful narrative device. Their review of and response to Meursault’s narrative confirms the effect of strangeness that his narrative has produced. Indeed, one of the first clear statements of this strangeness occurs when the examining magistrate who prepares his cause responds to Meursault’s indifference by showing him a crucifix and admitting that “Je n’ai jamais vu d’âme aussi endurcie que la vôtre” (Camus 2013 b: 107) [I have never seen a soul as hardened as yours (Camus 1989 : 69)]. As Genette pointed out, this moment explicitly exposes the problem with Meursault’s narrative attitude.
The novel employs the form of a legal interrogation – and the narrative authority of the law – to guide the reader towards distrusting Meursault. The examining magistrate and lawyers’ insistent questioning of Meursault’s emotional behavior after his mother’s death leads to a revision of his story through multiple character’s testimonies, which corroborate that the reader’s distancing from Meursault’s first-person voice is due to the lack of emotion in his narration. For instance, Meursault reports how the first witness, the director of the asylum, declared that “il avait été surpris de mon calme le jour de l’enterrament” [he had been surprised by my calm the day of the funeral] and that “je [Meursault] n’avais pas voulu voir maman, je n’avais pas pleuré une seule fois et j’étais parti aussitôt après l’enterrement sans me recueillir sur sa tombe” [I hadn’t wanted to see Maman, that I hadn’t cried once, and that I had left right after the funeral without paying my last respects at her grave]. He adds that “une chose encore l’avait surpris: un employé des pompes funèbres lui avait dit que je ne savais pas l’âge de maman” (Camus 2013 b: 135) [one thing had surprised him: one of the men who worked for the undertaker had told him I didn’t know how old Maman was (Camus 1989 : 89)]. Assertions of this kind are also mentioned in the accusations that the prosecutor levels. When he appeals to the jury, he says that “le lendemain de la mort de sa mère, cet homme prenait des bains, commençait une liaison irrégulière, et allait rire devant un film comique” (Camus 2013 b: 142) [the day after his mother’s death, this man was out swimming, starting up a dubious liaison, and going to the movies, a comedy, for laughs (Camus 1989 : 94)]. This section illustrates the narrative’s use of communal voices and the development of the process of reinterpreting the facts Meursault has narrated. In this sense, the polyphony in the trial provides the formal grounds for readers to question Meursault’s narrative reliability, and for the broader critical idea that what is unstable in Meursault’s voice is not his failure to report what happened but the fact that his narration is “estranging”; it creates an ethical distance between the narrator’s account and his readers. The second aspect of Meursault’s case that the trial highlights is the reason why Meursault killed the Arab. When asked why he returned alone to the beach where the Arab was, Meursault responds that “c’etait le hasard” (Camus 2013 b: 134) [it just happened that way (Camus 1989 : 88)], and that the reason he shot the man was “à cause du soleil” [because of the sun. (Camus 1989 : 103)], which provokes laughing in the audience (Camus 2013 b: 156). After these statements and Meursault’s additional admission that while he did not intend to kill the Arab, he does not regret anything (Camus 2013 b: 152) [(Camus 1989 : 100)], the scene is set for the prosecutor to rewrite Meursault’s story by highlighting the immorality of his behavior and, therefore, his guilt. Meursault reports the prosecutor’s account:
Il a résumé les faits à partir de la mort de maman. Il a rappelé mon insensibilité, l’ignorance où j’étais de l’âge de maman, mon bain du lendemain, avec un femme, le cinéma, Fernandel et enfin la rentrée avec Marie. J’ai mis du temps à le comprendre, à ce moment, parce qu’il disait “la maîtresse” et pour moi, elle était Marie. Ensuite, il en est venu à l’histoire de Raymond. J’ai trouvé que sa façon de voir les événements ne manquait pas de clarté. Ce qu’il disait était plausible. J’avais écrit la lettre d’accord avec Raymond pour attirer sa maîtresse et la livrer aux mauvais traitements d’un homme “de moralité douteuse”. J’avais provoqué sur la plage les adversaires de Raymond. Celui-ci avait été blessé. Je lui avais demandé son revolver. J’étais revenu seul pour m’en servir. J’avais attendu. Et “pour être sûr que la besogne était bien faite,” j’avais tiré encore quatre balles, posément, à coup sûr, d’un façon réfléchie en quelque sorte.
Et voilà, messieurs, a dit l’avocat général. J’ai retracé devant vous le fil d’événements qui a conduit cet homme à tuer en pleine connaissance de cause. (Camus 2013 b: 150)
[He has briefed the events since Maman’s death. He reminded the court of my insensitivity; of my ignorance when asked Maman’s age; of my swim the next day – with a woman; of the Fernandel movie; and finally of my taking Marie home with me. It took me a few minutes to understand the last part because he kept saying ‘his mistress’ and to me she was Marie. Then he came to the business with Raymond. I thought his way of viewing the events had a certain consistency. What he was saying was plausible. I had agreed with Raymond to write the letter in order to lure his mistress and submit her to mistreatment by a man ‘of doubtful morality.’ I had provoked Raymond’s adversaries at the beach. Raymond had been wounded. I had asked him to give me his gun. I had gone back alone intending to use it. I had shot the Arab as I planned. I had waited. And to make sure I had done the job right, I fired four more shots, calmly, point-blank – thoughtfully, as it were.
‘And there you have it, gentleman,’ said the prosecutor. ‘I have retraced for you the course of events which led this man to kill with full knowledge of his actions.] (Camus 1989 : 99)
As these few examples demonstrate, the trial functions to review Meursault’s narrative from an evaluative ethical standpoint. The character-narrator is deemed socially unacceptable and socially unreliable because of his immorality, which is revealed through the narrative of his own story.
Nonetheless, the trial works in another direction as well, producing a counter-effect of bonding in relation to Meursault’s narrative while simultaneously revealing a discordant narration that affects the whole narrative in L’étranger, including that of the trial. These effects can only be grasped by considering the French colonial discourses alluded to in the narration. In addition to developing the narrative authority, as explained above, the trial ultimately reveals a new perspective on Meursault’s narration that invites a discordant reading. The trial’s revision of Meursault’s previous narrative directs blatant attention to the death of Meursault’s French Algerian mother at the expense of disregarding the killing of an Algerian Arab. This undermining bias discredits the French Algerian judicial system and its capacity to judge a colonial crime. By presenting the prosecutor’s new account of the facts (“le fil des évenements”) and rhetorically diverting attention towards the scenes with the mother, the trial omits the colonial foundations of the crime. As it develops, the trial insists so much on Meursault’s inadequate emotional behavior that it reaches the point of absurdity, and the defense lawyer responds by leveling the question, “Enfin, est-il accusé d’avoir enterré sa mère ou d’avoir tué un homme?” (Camus 2013 b: 145) [Come now, is my client on trial for burying his mother or for killing a man? (Camus 1989 : 96)]. Indeed, the prosecutor later accuses Meursault “d’avoir enterré une mère avec un coeur de criminel” (Camus 2013 b: 146) [of burying his mother with crime in his heart (Camus 1989 : 96)]. Regarding this point, after Camus’s own suggestion that Meursault social misfit nature comes through in an unfair trial (Camus 1968: 336), critics such as Chaulet-Achour (1998: 27) and Carroll (2007: 27) have remarked that Meursault is a reliable narrator, because while he is not complying with the moral attitude expected before a crime, he can be trusted because he tells the truth. The trial would actually restore Meursault’s innocence because it becomes evident that the French colonial legal system sentences him by attributing absurd weight to his moral behavior towards his mother. Formally, his condition as the victim of an injustice partially redeems him from his guilt, which creates a certain narrative bond with the readers and makes them hesitate to read this as an example of estranging narration.
Nonetheless, the effects of this distortion, which grounds the narrative discordance just highlighted, can only be assessed through the narrative appeals to read it at a national and political level, which appear in the judge’s death sentence: Meursault will have “la tête tranchée sur une place publique au nom du peuple français” (Camus 2013 b: 162) [[his] head cut off in a public square in the name of the French people (Camus 1989 : 107)]. His case is taken as a national case. At a political level, the fact that both accounts of the facts in L’étranger subscribe to French Algerian colonial ideologies renders the narrative’s reliability problematic. As a representative institution of the “peuple français,” the trial acts as a larger staging of national interests. As O’Brien observes, “[t]he court is presented as if it were a court in a European town dealing with an incident involving members of a homogeneous population. [...] But the presentation in this way of a court in Algeria trying a crime of this kind involves the novelist in the presentation of a myth: the myth of French Algeria” (1970: 23). While I do not want to follow the notion that this scene presents a myth, O’Brien implies that L’étranger constructs a hypothetical trial that imagines French Algeria as it was defined by French colonial discourse. This point can be further supported through the historical implications that are being called into the novel and that contribute to present both Meursault’s narrative and the trial’s narrative as discordant. Ultimately, the discordant narration is based not only on Meursault’s amoral behavior towards his mother but, most importantly, on French ideological discrimination towards the Arabs in colonial Algeria, which the trial’s narrative itself reproduces. Camus invokes the colonial discourses about French Algeria to restate the rhetorical discrimination directed towards the Arabs.
A quick look at these ideological discourses should demonstrate a few key points that will elucidate how they are being used in L’étranger. In contrast to other colonies overseas and in Southern Africa, from the beginning of its occupation in the 1830 s Algeria was intended as a settlement colony, that is, a territory where France sent many Europeans (not only French) in order to keep its control, where French citizenship was defined in terms of European origin and non-political religiosity, and where efforts were made to buttress a justification that denied Arabs their condition as native people. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, citizenship was offered several times to select groups of Arab Algerians, under the condition that they renounce their legal status as Muslims. This legal limitation was wholeheartedly supported by an ethnographic discourse that elaborated on the Muslim religion and the sexuality of Arabs in Algeria, and these stereotypes constituted the root of the French-Algerian colonial discourse, which grew even strengthened in the 1910 s as fears about Pan-Islamism increased (Trumbull 2009; Lorcin 1995). The extent of France’s discrediting of the native population of Algeria later led to Mitterrand’s famous declaration, in 1954, that “L’Algerie, c’est la France.” The need to construct Algeria as a settlement colony produced a racialized discourse that conceptualized the Arab population not as natives of the territory but rather, as Chetouani argues, as invaders or “étrangère,” foreign to Algeria (1992: 41).
Critics such as Carroll (2007), O’Brien (1970), Said (1993), El Houssi (1992), and Chetouani (1992) have thoroughly demonstrated how the Arab is being omitted or dismissed in the trial by judges who focus openly on Meursault’s behavior towards his mother as exemplary of his immorality. By ignoring the very victim of the murder that is the subject of the trial – by neglecting to call the other Arab witnesses or the victim’s sister to declare, for example, and by not delving into the nameless victim’s life – the narrative does borrow the contextual exclusion of Arabs that informed French colonial discourse in Algeria. These elisions of details that the reader would logically expect to be at the center of the discussion can be read as examples of underreporting. The expected narrative focus is decentered in the trial’s revised narrative, which concentrates on the mother’s death and Meursault’s behavior before the crime at the expense of a more extensive report of the killing of the Arab and the victim’s circumstances. This emphatic decentering and evident underreporting produces a question that is at the basis of the possibility of a narrative discordance: Is the killing of an Arab as an Arab in the context of early-20th-century colonial Algeria relevant to the narrative? If the answer to this question is yes, this strongly suggests an interpretation of the novel that would consider the trial’s narrative as discordant. This decision, however, can only be made on the basis of historical context and the fulfillment of the ideological discourses that the narrative alludes or refers to.
The underreporting about the Arab at the trial, which is signaled by the defense lawyer’s question about whether the trial is judging Meursault for his alleged insensitivity upon his mother’s death or the killing of an Arab, has a retrospective effect on the revision process that the trial exerts on Meursault’s narrative: it highlights a similar rhetorical underreporting in Meursault’s narrative in the first part of the novel. The exclusion and dismissal of the Arab in Meursault’s own narrative adds another layer to the question of his reliability. While the moral account of the facts in Meursault’s narrative and the trial’s reinterpretation of it are contraposed in parts one and two of L’étranger, both narratives display the rhetorical strategy of erasing the Arab and completely ignore the actual colonial resistance that was active in 1942, which was being silenced by French ideological discourses – an aspect that Kamel Daoud’s addresses in his rewriting of the novel in his Meursault, contre-enquête. In particular, Meursault’s narrative in the first part develops along the tenets of the discourse of the Méditerranée, which – although much more progressive and not directly anti-Arab – largely preserved the legacy of the colonial ethnographic discourses that developed in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Borrowing from the discourse of the Méditerranée sheds light on the rhetorical strategies of underreporting that undermine the relevance of the question: Is the killing of an Arab as an Arab in the context of early-20th-century colonial Algeria relevant to the narrative?
The discourse of the Méditerranée was promoted during the 1930 s by the École d’Alger, of which Camus was a major proponent. It has roots in the ideological discourses that justified the exclusion of Arabs and French Algeria as a settlement colony. The burst of ethnographic studies produced since the 1870 s reached a turning point at the end of the nineteenth century, when Louis Bertrand formulated the Latin, Christian, Mediterranean origins of Algeria, thereby justifying the French presence in what he called Latin Africa. Bertrand argued that the French were merely recovering a province lost to Latinity, that French Africa was “a continuation of the Latin tradition” (Lorcin 1995: 198), that the “colon” had a noble lineage which the native Berber population in Algeria had lost after its conversion to Islam, and that Latin Africa was a “school of energy from which French civilization, weary and enfeebled, could draw fresh vitality” (Lorcin 1995: 198). Bertrand formulated a theory of “rebarbarization,” which held that the French Algerians – meaning only those of European origin – had gained vitality and energy and evolved into an athletic, vigorous, and hot-blooded race through the challenge of living side-by-side with the “enemi,” – the Arabs, who had brought “poverty, endemic warfare and barbarity” to the Berbers and led them astray from their noble Latin origins (Lorcin 1995: 202). Lorcin argues that the greatest impact of Bertrand’s theory was that he “brushed aside, as he put it, the Islamic, pseudo-Arab décor which so fascinated superficial onlookers and exposed, from under this shallow display, a living Africa which hardly differed from the other Latin countries of the Mediterranean. Bertrand’s marginalization of Islam and hence the indigenous population, his Sens de L’Ennemi as he was to put it, was the ideological expression of primal racial animosity among the settlers” (Lorcin 1995: 198).
Later on, this discourse was developed in different ways by the Algerianists in the 1920 s and the so-called École d’Alger in the 1930 s and 1940 s (Dunwoodie 1998; Temime 2002; Gosnell 2002; Khelouz 2011). More progressive and culturally broad in its orientation, the École d’Alger dissociated Mediterranean culture and identity from Christianity and rejected the idea that the Arabs were enemies, as they had been portrayed in Bertrand and the Algerianists. Their discourse of the Mediterranean man claimed his Greek roots instead of his Latin ones and was “grounded in the sea (ports, islands, fishermen...), the sun, happiness (boating, swimming, games...), joie de vivre, physical beauty, and pleasure” (Dunwoodie 1998: 177). In fact, the founding texts of the École d’Alger, by Gabriel Audisio, are suitably titled Hommes au soleil (1923), Héliotrophe (1928), and La jeunesse de la Méditerranée (1935). In February 1937, Camus delivered the inaugural lecture at the “Maison de culture” d’Algiers. This lecture, “La culture indigène. La nouvelle culture méditerranéenne” [The indigenous culture. The new Mediterranean culture], was considered a sort of manifesto for the École d’Alger. Camus articulated the task, adopted by the École, of taking the Mediterranean culture out of the hands of the Algerianists and returning it to its real values. For him, “La Méditerranée qui nos entoure est au contraire un pays vivant, plein de jeux et de sourires” (Camus 1965 : 1321) [[o]ur Mediterranean is something else: a vibrant region, a realm of joy and smiles (Camus 2013 a : 188)]. He describes “ce goût triomphant de la vie, ce sens de l’écrasement et de l’ennui, les places désertes à midi en Espagne, la sieste, voilà a vraie Méditerranée et c’est de l’Orient qu’elle se rapproche” (Camus 1965 : 1325) [[t]he triumphant zest for life, the sense of oppression and boredom, the deserted squares of Spain at noontime, the siesta – that is the true Mediterranean, and it is closer to the East than to the Latin West (Camus 2013 a : 192)]. He also emphasizes the vital presentism of a culture that one feels is shared by the peoples of the Mediterranean, surrounded “de sourires, de soleil et de mer” (Camus 1965 : 1326) [by laughter, sun, and the sea] and grounded in the senses: “La Méditerranée, c’est cela, cette odeur ou ce parfum qu’il est inutile d’exprimer: nous le sentons tous avec notre peau.” (Camus 1965 : 1326) [The Mediterranean is a certain smell, a fragrance that can’t be put into words. We feel it in our skin (Camus 2013 a : 189)].
This enthusiasm for the Mediterranean clearly informs Meursault’ overwhelmingly sensorial narrative, as we see in the scene when he swims in the sea with Marie:
Pendant que je me rasais, je me suis demandé ce que j’aillais faire et j’ai décidé d’aller me baigner. J’ai pris le tram pour aller à l’établissement de bains du port. Là, j’ai plongé dans la passe. Il y avait beaucoup de jeunes gens. J’ai retrouvé dans l’eau Marie Cardona [...]. Je l’ai aidée à amonter sur une bouée et, dans ce mouvement, j’ai effleuré ses seins. J’étais encore dans l’eau quand elle était déjà à plat ventre sur la bouée. Elle s’est retournée vers moi. Elle avait les cheveux dans les yeux et elle riait. (Camus 2013 b : 32)
[While I was shaving, I wondered what I was going to do and I decided to go for a swim. I caught the streetcar to go to the public beach down at the harbor. Once there, I drove into the channel. There were lots of young people. In the water I ran into Marie Cardona. [...] I helped her onto a float and as I did, I brushed against her breasts. I was still in the water when she was already lying flat on her stomach on the float. She turned toward me. Her hair was in her eyes and she was laughing.] (Camus 1989 : 19)
Meursault’s hedonistic presentism, reinforced by the use of the passé composé narrative in the first part, fits with the perspective on the Mediterranean man that is so heartily condemned during the trial. The discourse of the Méditerranée infuses Meursault’s extremely sensorial narrative, which is rich in passages in which sensory impressions related to vigor, youth, pleasure, seduction, and laughter are placed at the foreground. Meursault lingers and rejoices in contemplation:
[l]a journée a tourné encore un peu. Audessus des toits, le ciel est devenu reougeâtre et, avec le soir naissant, les rues se sont animées. [...] Les jeunes filles du quartier, en cheveux, se tenaient par le bras. Les jeunes gens s’étaient arrangés pour les croiser et ils lançaient des plaisanteries dont elles riaient en détournant la tête. Plusieurs d’entre elles, que je connaissais, m’on fait des signes. (Camus 2013 b : 38)
[The sky changed again. Above the rooftops the sky had taken on a reddish glow, and with evening coming on the streets came to life. [...] The local girls, bareheaded, were walking arm in arm. The young men had made sure they would have to bump right into them and then they would make cracks. The girls giggled and turned their heads away. Several of the girls, whom I knew, waved to me.] (Camus 1989 : 23)
Furthermore, the sensorial narrative is the key device used to decenter readers’ attention away from the narration of the main events for which Meursault will be judged. The sun, which is mostly understood as a source of energy in the Mediterranean discourse, takes over Meursault’s narration during the crucial moments of his mother’s funeral and of the murder of the Arab:5
La brûlure du soleil gagnait mes joues et j’ai senti des gouttes de sueur s’amasser dans mes sourcils. C’était le même soleil que le jour òu j’avais enterré maman et, comme alors, le front surtout me faisait mal et toutes ses veines battaient ensemble sous la peau. À cause de cette brûlure que je ne pouvais pas supporter, j’ai fait un mouvement en avant. Je savait que c’était stupide, que je ne me débarrasserais pas du soleil en me déplaçant d’un pas. Mais j’ai fait un pas, un seul pas en avant. Et cette fois, sans se soulever, l’Arabe a tiré son couteau qu’il m’a présenté dans le soleil. La lumière a giclé sur l’acier et c’était comme une longue lame étincelante qui m’atteignait au front. Au même instant, la sueur amassé dans mes sourcils a coulé d’un coup sur les paupières et les a recouvertes d’un voile tiède et épais. Mes yeux étaient aveuglés derrière ce rideau de larmes et de sel. Je ne sentais plus que les cymbales du soleil sur mon front et, indistinctement, le glaive éclatant jailli du couteau toujours en face de moi. Cette épée brûlante rongeait mes cils et fouillait mes yeux douloureux. C’est alors que tout a vacillé. (Camus 2013 b : 92)
[The sun was starting to burn my cheeks, and I could feel drops of sweat gathering in my eyebrows. The sun was the same as it had been the day I’d buried Maman, and like then, my forehead especially was hurting me, all the veins in it throbbing under the skin. It was this burning, which I couldn’t stand anymore, that made me move forward. I knew that it was stupid, that I wouldn’t get the sun off me by stepping forward. But I took a step, one step, forward. And this time, without getting up, the Arab drew his knife and held it up to me in the sun. The light shot off the steel and it was like a long flashing blade cutting at my forehead. At the same instant the sweat in my eyebrows dripped down over my eyelids all at once and covered them with a warm, thick film. My eyes were blinded behind a curtain of tears and salt. All I could feel were the cymbals of sunlight crashing on my forehead and, indistinctly, the dazzling spear flying up from the knife in front of me. The scorching blade slashed at my eyelashes and stabbed at my stinging eyes. That’s when everything began to reel.] (Camus 1989 : 58)
The force of the sensorial and the sun on Meursault’s sensitivity produces a form of narration that clearly underreports the figure of the Arabs, and in particular the Arab that he actually kills, by “overreporting” (if I may say so) the sensorial experience and values conceived of by the Mediterranean discourse. Furthermore, this underreporting brings not only the ethical and cultural values of the discourse of the Méditerranée but the very rhetorical strategies that this ideology entrenches into the narrative. In Writing French Algeria, Dunwoodie has argued that while the discourse of the Méditarrenée did not define the Arabs as enemies, in emphasizing Mediterranean values’ provenance from a broader Greek European culture and refusing to address the Arabs as a native population and the French as colonialists, it approved and perpetuated the historical exclusion of Arabs in a colony where French aspirations of assimilation had failed. Therefore, the trial stages not only the divergence of the ethical values of the more conservative and colonialist Algerianist discourse from the Méditerranée values on display in Meursault’s narrative, but also the common rhetorical strategies that render them merely variations on the French Algerian colonial discourse of the 1930 s and 1940 s.
This brief look at the historical discourses that are woven into L’étranger gives us grounds to rethink the interrogation of narrative reliability that is being conducted in the novel. By condemning the Mediterranean joie de vivre and the hedonism that the École d’Alger claims is an invigorating force, the trial itself exposes the absurdity of the ideals of the “peuple français.” At the same time, this emphatic distortion of the narrative reenacts the rhetorical erasure of the social presence and belonging of Arabs in colonial Algeria. The trial’s neglect of the fact that Meursault has killed an Algerian Arab in favor of the absurdity that what is being judged is Meursault’s behavior around his mother’s death is as clamorous as the indifference with which Meursault portrays the anonymous Arabs in his account of the facts. While the moral weight is shifted during the trial to disclose a hesitant estranging narration in the novel’s first part, the trial also signals an ideological bias through the construction of an account that clearly restates the underreporting of colonial violence as crucial to the interrogation of the narrative reliability not only of Meursault’s individual voice, but of the voice of an Algerian colonial discourse that, though it has been reframed and rewritten, still leaves the Berbers and especially the Arab population out of narratives and out of their own territory.
L’étranger calls the ideological discourses of French colonial Algeria into its narrative in order to question narrative reliability and suggest that the narrative might be read as estranging and discordant from a political angle. Neither Meursault as a character-narrator nor the novel as a whole takes a clear stance with regards to the ideological strategies by which the Arabs are rhetorically and factually being left aside. The estranging narration is produced by the active use of a sensorial narrative that borrows heavily from the ethical values established in the discourse of the Méditerranée, while the discordant narration is born from the colonial exclusion of the Arab in an underreporting that affects the whole narration. While the problem of narrative reliability in L’étranger is nurtured by questionable colonial ideologies and left unsolved, it is clear that this narrative ambivalence is only fully graspable in light of the politics of form that gives it sense and shape. The politics of form, therefore, provides an opportunity for delving into and revising the concepts of estranging and discordant narration, which constitutes a good starting point for narratologists in their efforts to elucidate both the uses of historical discourse in narrative poetics and the uses of narrative poetics in the shaping of political ideology.
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This special issue has been republished as The politics of form (Copland and Olson 2018), and it presents an approach to the political dimension of narratives in several different media. Especially interesting for my argument is Lanser and Rimmon-Kennan’s essay, which comparison of Israeli and Palestinian narratives highlights dissonances in texts that read the same events from different ideological and political standpoints.
This challenge is particularly difficult to address with regards to documentary film, as Stefan Iversen and Henrik Skov Nielsen (2016) show in their analysis of The act of killing and The Ambassador.
I cannot devote attention here to the political standpoint that the very concepts employed in my case study might entail, but I hope to pursue the distinction that these two narrative forms produce ambivalence rather than universal discordance or strangeness. For a reflection on alternative uses of unreliability marked by Western assumptions, see Olson 2018.
The concept of implied author that Phelan takes from Booth has been much discussed. I will not use it here, because in my view it is unnecessary, as it is to Cohn as well. I will refer to the extra-textual historical conditions and see how the text as a whole functions rather than refer to an implied author that communicates with an authorial audience, even if I am reading the context and the effects of the text as a whole from the context of production rather than from any other historical contexts of interpretation. Therefore, though I mostly adopt a rhetorical perspective that focuses on the effects that the text produced based on its deployment of ideological assumptions, I do not want to draw on the maladjustments between implied author and reader but rather on the textual dynamics. This does not mean that this essay would draw on the author’s political intentions or stance either, but rather on the ways in which the narrative uses ideology.
See Temime, in particular, for a detailed historical description of the Mediterranean discourses, and especially the discourse of the Méditerranée in the 1930s–1940s. Temime comments on the uses that Audisio makes of the sun, which are very similar to those of Camus, describing the sun as that which “éclaire la ‘patrie’ méditerranéenne, qui projecte une lumière crue et brutale sur les reliefs. [...] On ne sépare pas les hommes de la nature, la violence des paysages de la violence des passions” (2002: 119)
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Published Online: 2018-11-23
Published in Print: 2018-11-22