posted by Simon Kemp
Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.
It’s one of the most famous opening lines in modern literature. And it sounds like it answers our question right away. If Meursault says his mother died today, then, clearly, that’s when he’s telling us his story: on the day that he gets the telegram from the old people’s home informing him of her death.
Except that can’t be right, because everything in the story happens after that moment, and he can’t tell his story before it happens. We follow Meursault through the funeral, through work and leisure back home in Algers, through the shooting on the beach, imprisonment, trial and verdict, and by the time we reach the end of the story, a year has passed and summer has come around again. The last sentence of the book is narrated in the past tense (‘il me restait à souhaiter…’) from a point some time after Meursault has thrown the chaplain out of his prison cell and (we presume) before he gets his head chopped off by the guillotine. So the Meursault telling the story on the last page of the novel is at least a year older than the one who started it on page one.
Most stories that are told in the past tense by a first-person narrator, as L’Étranger is, pick a moment some time after the whole tale is finished and make that their time of narrating (the ‘now’ of the storytelling voice). One of the unusual things about L’Étranger is that Meursault seems to tell his story from several different points during and after the events he’s telling us about. To use the precise terms, it’s narrated intermittently (from time to time through the course of the story) rather than, as is usually the case, retrospectively (looking back from after it’s all over).
You do see first-person narrators in other novels who, like Meursault, tell their stories intermittently. Greg Heffley is one. Bridget Jones is another. Antoine Roquentin is a third. All these stories, though, draw attention to their intermittent narration by using the diary form. Greg, Bridget and Antoine let their reader know clearly when the time of narrating changes by marking a new entry in the diary. (As well as diary entries, a similar effect can be used by telling a story through letters, probably the most famous example of which in French literature is Les Liaisons dangereuses.)
Meursault, though, slips between different times of narrating without always making it clear when he’s doing it… or why.
Here’s the first time it happens, in the very first lines of the story:
Aujourd’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.
L’asile de vieillards est à Marengo, à quatre-vingts kilomètres d’Alger. Je prendrai l’autobus à deux heures et j’arriverai dans l’après-midi. Ainsi, je pourrai veiller et je rentrerai demain soir. J’ai demandé deux jours de congé à mon patron et il ne pouvait pas me les refuser avec une excuse pareille. […] Pour le moment, c’est un peu comme si maman n’était pas morte. Après l’enterrement, au contraire, ce sera une affaire classée et tout aura revêtu une allure plus officielle.
J’ai pris l’autobus à deux heures. Il faisait très chaud.
Take a look at the tenses of the verbs in this extract, and see if you can unravel how the events fit together in time, and how the time of narrating changes. Next week, we’ll pick it apart in detail together, and think about why Meursault, and Camus, might choose to tell their story this way.