Albert Camus published a single collection of short stories entitled Exile and the Kingdom near the end of his life. Its six stories are an important encapsulation of Camus’s humanistic philosophy enveloped in his quasirealistic style and dramatized by exotic backgrounds. According to Camus’s recondite views, the universe is meaningless; however, the human beings in it may become significant (even happy) if they can acquire and maintain a clear awareness of its ultimate absurdity. Each story in Exile and the Kingdom unfolds a situation which brings the protagonist to an intimation of the lack of lawfulness and coherence in his or her life and depicts the protagonist’s response to this traumatic realization. Some of the stories go no further than this; others move away from understatement and describe wrong-headed or perverse reactions; and the last story offers a solution which seems to step beyond mere awareness of absurdity.
Readers of Camus’s novels and plays will recognize the cavalcade of alienated heroes, the metaphysical paradoxes, and Camus’s own preoccupation with criminals and their police counterparts—all tendered in lucid, tight prose which differentiates him from the strained cerebralisms of more philosophically rigorous existentialists such as Sartre. This collection of short stories also avoids the imperious eloquence and plain sententiousness which often mar Camus’s longer works.
“The Adulterous Woman”
“The Adulterous Woman,” first published in English in Redbook magazine, portrays the mounting depression of a housewife (Janine) traveling with a husband (Marcel) who is almost wholly absorbed in selling wools and silks to disdainful, according to Marcel, Arabs who are reluctantly emerging from the wintry Algerian landscape.
Janine is pictured as tall and “thick,” yet possessing a languid sensuality which attracts the desultory glances of bus passengers, pedestrians, and hotel guests. She often returns a look, and in spite of the characteristic prejudices of her class against Arabs she can spontaneously admire one of that race who is striking in his slender virility. She frequently counters the ennui of the endless bus rides by basking in the adoration of her husband. He can speak of little else but the volume of dry goods he can move, how much profit he will reckon by dispensing with the middleman, and how much he loathes his customers. He has made Janine his refuge from the sordidness and triviality of his life, however, and becomes instantly solicitous when prodded.
Thus, after another day of selling in yet another ordinary town, Janine rebels at the thought of retiring to their icy room for the customary nap before supper. She proposes to follow the hotel manager’s suggestion to “climb up to the terrace around the fort to see the desert,” and Marcel automatically assents. A marvelous description of the twilight desertscape is counterposed against Marcel’s impatient complaint that he is cold and there is nothing to see anyway.
That night, however, Janine slips out of bed to return to the fort. There, alone under the chilly and vast firmament, she suffers a moment of awareness—an epiphany. She feels the sensual presence of her body, and she encompasses the sky full of stars stretched out over her as she lies against the cold parapet. This encounter with the night sky is her act of “adultery,” which she does not share with Marcel, who is oblivious of her absence and only awakes to reach for a bottle of mineral water.
In all this, however, there is a note of disconcerting ambivalence. The distant tone of the narration raises the possibility that the reader has been “taken”: Is this story actually only revelatory of Janine’s disconsolate banality? More important, has Camus played a joke on readers by forcing them to choose between two diversely wretched characters?
These questions also arise in “The Guest,” the best story in Exile and the Kingdom, also set in North Africa—specifically in the snows of the Atlas Mountains in Algeria. Daru, an Algerian schoolteacher of French extraction, has fully provisioned himself to weather an expected blizzard which has emptied his one-room schoolhouse of its Arab pupils. He is comfortably awaiting its onset when he observes two figures, one on horseback, toiling up the steep slope leading toward the school building. The man on horseback is Balducci, a gendarme dragging behind him a trussed and cowering shepherd who killed his cousin with a billhook during a squabble over a share of grain.
Balducci asks the astonished Daru to safeguard the prisoner for the night and deliver him the next morning to police headquarters at Tinguit, twenty kilometers away. He explains that the...
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