Recently, I bought Alice Kaplan’s Looking For the Stranger, which is a “biography” of Camus’ 1942 novel L’Étranger. For those who don’t know, L’Étranger has two translated titles: in the USA it’s published as The Stranger and in the UK it’s published as The Outsider. This time around, I read Sandra Smith’s 2012 translation, published by Penguin UK.

Anyway, when I started to read Kaplan’s book, I realised that I needed to re-read The Outsider first, because it had been a while since the last time, and then I thought that I may as well re-read James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, which Camus credited as being an influence on his writing of The Outsider. Published in 1934, The Postman is a gripping quintessential roman noir novel It was controversial in its day, because two of the characters were considered to be amoral, and although the narrative is tame by today’s standards, back then it was thought to be sizzling hot.

The Postman and The Outsider both employ a similar narration style and tone, and I think it’s fair to say that having read The Postman, Camus found the “voice” he had been trying to find to narrate his story. I don’t want to give away the plot of either novel, just in case anyone reading this hasn’t read the books. Cain writes beautifully and manages to convey a great deal with few words. I like his style of pared-back writing, and admire the way he is able to maintain the tempo and keep the reader turning the pages to see what happens next. The frisson of eroticism that bubbles away beneath the surface is pure genius, and I can imagine that quite a few ladies in the 1930s blushed when they read about Frank and Cora’s ripping good time (pun intended). Cain’s characters are fairly straightforward: a young drifter whose lack of morals and ethics allows him to take whatever it is he wants, and a small-town beauty queen whose dreams of being of a movie star have fallen to earth with a thud. When these two meet, a race to the bottom ensues and you just know that it is not going to end well.

Camus’ protagonist, Meursault, on the other hand, is a rather wonderful enigma who defies summation. I wrote pages and pages of notes as I read, and as I see it, The Outsider is not a novel about a crime, but a philosophical treatise on the arbitrariness and absurdity of life. Through his narrative, Camus shows that we have no control over what happens to us, because the myriad factors that determine our lives are completely outside our influence. For me, The Outsider is a powerful statement about accepting the absurdity of life, accepting fate, accepting what is. We live in the natural world and are subject to the natural world’s laws, so if we consume a good deal of alcohol and walk up and down a beach in the broiling sun with a gun in our pocket, nature will take its course and we’ll find ourselves dehydrated and dazzled by the bright light, and perhaps we’ll act impulsively when someone threatens us with a knife.  Perhaps. There has been so much written about The Outsider, and so many attempts to “explain” the novel, but I think that each reader creates it anew with each reading, and the fact that the book means so many different things to so many people is partly the reason for its ongoing appeal.

Clearly, I enjoyed re-reading both books and launched myself, possibly with expectations that were too high, into Searching For the Stranger. Kaplan is a professor of French and chair of the French department at Yale, so she really knows her French literature. Because of this, I think I was expecting her book to be more academic in tone, but it seems to me that it is pitched more at the general reader who already knows a bit about Camus. The book is a comprehensive look at the circumstances surrounding the writing, publication, and afterlife of  L’Étranger, and although it is scrupulously referenced and there are many pages of interesting end notes to peruse, I’m not sure that this “biography” of  L’Étranger actually works. It is neither a biography of Camus, nor literary criticism, history, nor travel writing. I think it attempts to be a hybrid of all of these genres, and the writing style owes a lot to reportage, all of which doesn’t necessarily result in a smooth reading process. Nevertheless, I think Camus fans will find it interesting, as I did. I enjoyed reading about the intricacies inherent in L’Étranger being published during the Nazi occupation of France, and learning more about how it was received and reviewed. The book has had an  enduring afterlife, because as Kaplan notes:

The allure of Camus’s novel means that you can read it again and again and see something different in it each time. The critics have done just that, calling it a colonial allegory, an existential prayer book, and indictment of conventional morality, a study in alienation, or a “Hemingway rewrite of Kafka”. …Anyone who loves to read knows that books have a life. They come to life as you read them, and they stay alive long after you’re turned the last page (p. 2).

I enjoyed Sandra Smith’s translation of L’Étranger. She seems to me to have gotten it about right, with no jarring or glaringly out-of-place words leaping off the page at me. In the preface to the novel, she writes about how she listened to a radio recording of Camus reading his book aloud, and attempted to keep the cadence of his voice and the sentence structure of the original in her translated text. I think it works wonderfully well, and her version is definitely worth reading.

Feeling Despondent About the Internet



I’ve been feeling rather despondent about the state of the internet in general for a while now. It seems to me that the internet could have been a wonderful force for good, but instead it has become another capitalist marketing platform that reinforces just how banal, moronic, and vicious humankind can be.

However, leaving aside the vicissitudes of the internet as a whole, I have been feeling particularly despondent about the state of the bookish part of the web. Often, I don’t know which blog posts are genuine reviews and which are exercises in marketing and PR. I don’t know how many bloggers are influenced to write ‘positive’ reviews by their symbiotic relationship with publishers and authors. I do know that some book review sites only publish ‘positive’ reviews, because I was asked to write for one of those sites and a stated requirement for reviews was that they had to be ‘positive’. I declined to be involved with such chicanery, because I think that a review site should reflect honest opinions and not just flattering ones. So many book related websites seem to be nothing more than fronts for publishers, and I find this lack of transparency to be dishonest. I’m not sure how far this dishonesty extends to book bloggers, but I suspect that some of them can’t possibly have the time to read the number of books they claim, and that in order to continue to receive free books from publishers they are not averse to gilding the lily in their reviews.

Another thing that bothers me is that sometimes I have a hard time discerning who on the internet is genuine and who is fake. In the real world it’s easy to spot a fake person, but on the internet it’s easy to hide behind a fake identity. It’s disconcerting to see people with whom you have had email conversations regurgitate your ideas and words on the web and claim ownership of them. It’s disappointing to see people whom you know are not particularly knowledgeable about certain things claim to know a lot more than they actually do. Building a body of knowledge takes years of concerted effort and a lot of reading, and to have your brain picked by someone pretending to be your friend and then see them make false claims about their ‘intellectual capital’ on the internet, well, that is truly disappointing. I know our internet persona only represents one small part of our total being, but blatant misrepresentation to the point of outright lying in order to take advantage of others is always unacceptable. Besides this covert stealing of intellectual property, some bloggers engage in blatant plagiarism, copying and pasting sentences from Wikipedia and other third-rate websites. As an experiment, I submitted a few blog posts to a plagiarism checker website and was totally unsurprised to find the degree to which some bloggers pass off other people’s words and ideas as their own. I’m not into naming and shaming; I just wish they’d find their ethical backbone and stop being pretentious fakes.

Also, I find the closed mindset of some internet cliques and groups to be quite disconcerting. Maybe it’s just me and my propensity to speak my mind, but I find the insular and hostile attitude of some of the cliques I’ve encountered to be rather disappointing. Unless you’re willing to defer and flatter, you are pretty much superfluous to requirements and given the cold shoulder. In this regard, the internet feels a lot like high school, with the Mean Girls holding sway over their sycophants. As I said, the internet could have been a wonderful force for good, but it’s really just a reflection of society in the real world, and casual cruelty abounds.

And then there is booktube, which seems to be taking over book ‘reviewing’ on the web. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the written word is losing out to video in our image-saturated world. Reading a 1,000 word post is more time-consuming and requires more effort and commitment than watching a 5 minute video. It’s rather ironic, though, that people should prefer to watch videos about books than read posts about them. I’m not sure that the skills required to make videos have anything to do with books and reading, or with the experience of reading and writing. When we write, we distil our ideas and think things through, and edit and rewrite, and hone and polish. I guess that in the era of the selfie it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many people want to film themselves talking to a camera, but it seems to me that it’s just another manifestation of the epidemic of rampant and vacuous narcissism that is drowning out intelligent discourse these days.

I suppose my disappearing and reappearing in this space is a reflection of my increasing distaste for certain aspects of my online experience. I do feel a bit sad that the sense of community which used to exist amongst book bloggers years ago has mostly disappeared. Maybe booktube and what comes next is just a natural progression. Maybe I’m nostalgic for the ‘old days’ of the internet, when it felt like a safe and friendly social space, where not everything we posted was data mined by various capitalist enterprises and government agencies, where people were still people and not just statistics, avatars, and talking heads.

These are just some random thoughts I’ve been having over the past year or so, which have contributed to my general sense of internet malaise. This domain name is due for renewal in 30 days and I have to decide if I want to hold on to it, or let it go. When I chose, I was emerging from a long sojourn down the dark abyss and I was thinking that as bad as things seemed in the real world, I still had a life with books. Books have been the one constant in my life, for my entire life, and when I die I hope I am still surrounded by piles of half-read books with scribbled notes in the margins and pages dotted with exclamation points and question marks. But, do I want to blog about books or anything else any more? That is the question.

I feel rather hesitant about hitting the publish button on this post, because I know that I sound as though I’m just having a whinge about first-world problems. And yet, I think that too often we allow our fear of being socially shamed to silence us about things that matter to us. I think that maybe by telling the internet how I feel about the fake friends, the users, the pretentious wannabes, and the questionable ethics of some bloggers, maybe it will help someone else in a similar position to feel less alone. I know I’m supposed to just suck it up and ignore how I feel, or shut up and go away if I really don’t like it, but that would just enable the fakers and false people, and serve to embolden them if they think they’re getting away with it. If I talk about how I feel, and say how isolating it can feel to be ostracised by a clique, and how painful it feels to see my ideas and words claimed by someone I thought was my friend, and how tired I am of pretending not to see through the pretentious wannabes, then maybe it’s not whining about nothing but speaking out about something that matters to me.

Nothing Special


Oh dear. That didn’t go so well, did it? As ever, I had great enthusiasm for my (ahem!) TBR Reading Project, but once I got the site sorted out I grew bored with the whole thing and lost interest. Story. Of. My. Life.

I seem to be cursed with a low boredom threshold. I just have an incurable case of existential ennui, I guess. *sigh*

The upside of being bored easily is that I tend to start lots of projects and get interested in new things and ideas for a short while, so my experience of life isn’t just “more of the same”. That’s probably a good thing.

Anyhow. I’ve been reading a bit lately, mostly philosophy, and I’m about to embark on a re-read of Camus’ main works. I thought I might post some reading notes here, or whatever. I don’t want to doom the thing by making it a big deal, but I’m a bit excited to be reading Camus again. There was a time when I was totally in love with his mind.

In recent weeks, I’ve been re-reading Sartre. I’m attracted to existentialism, for obvious reasons, but Camus’ absurdism really hits the spot for me. However, with regard to philosophy in general, the God-bothering aspects tend to bore me to tears. I quite like reading the Ancients and from Schopenhauer onwards (he does look rather grim and scary in his portraits!), but all that stuff about God in the middle? Pass. It seems totally obvious to me that God is a cultural construct, a myth along the lines of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, designed to keep people scared and obedient to the church, with threats of hell and promises of heaven. I have a vague memory from when I was about six. My father was burying a pet lamb that had died and I asked him what happened to people when they died, and he said that we either get put in a hole in the ground and rot, or are burnt and turned into ash, and that was that. People were no different to animals and when we die that’s the end of us. In retrospect, I think he was probably a bit harsh and didn’t try to spare my feelings, but he never did lie to me about anything – not about Santa or the Tooth Fairy, or that I was special in any way.

Here’s a wiki list of atheist philosophers. Note the absence of women. This absence is the reason I ditched studying philosophy at university. It bothered me SO MUCH that as far as the academy was concerned, “philosophy = the pontification of white (mostly dead) Western men”. Even the lecturers and tutors were all men, as were most of the students. And such a conceited lot they were, as well: “I’m SO clever because I’m doing PHILOSOPHY”, and, “Listen to me regurgitate someone else’s thoughts.” Pft! My experience of doing history hasn’t proved to be much better. Because I got advanced standing, the units I wanted to do, on the Cold War, 1960s London, and the Russian Revolution, were not available to me due to bad timing, and I had to do things I wasn’t interested in, such as Australian colonial history, AGAIN. Yeah well, essays written, exams done, but I didn’t like it and I don’t want to spend another year doing more (to me) boring stuff, so I’m thinking about ditching university yet again.* I mean, how many RWNJ-inspired books can one person read on Australian history and not have her eyeballs fall right out of her head due to boredom? I wonder if it’s just me, or has the university experience really changed so VERY much? The lack of academic rigour, the quality of the courses, the spoon-feeding of students, the “group projects” thing, where some students do all the work and others do none, but everyone still manages to pass? Don’t even get me started on plagiarism, and the quality of the essays that students submit? There’s just so much waffle and woolly thinking and laziness. *very sad face*

Anyway, because I don’t like what others want to “teach” me about philosophy, I’m making up my own piecemeal philosophy reading programme. I’m picking out the parts that appeal to me and glancing over the rest. I studied Descartes and Kant as an undergraduate, and I’ve “done” some of those who crossed over into literary studies, such as Kristeva, Baudrillard, Foucault, and Derrida. I “tried” to read Lacan, but he is so, so difficult, however, I intend having another crack at him. I want to find out about the women philosophers who were written out of history and am waiting for a book on the subject to be delivered so I can peruse the bibliography for some further reading ideas.

But, I don’t want to turn this into a “PROJECT”. I want to just sit over here in the corner and talk very quietly to myself and not alert the Boredom Gods who will surely hurl a few bolts of ennui at me if they discover what I’m up to.

So, that’s the state of play at the moment. I’m reading and thinking, and bumbling along. I’m completely full of disquiet about ALL the things going on in my country, to do with RWNJ politics (the nationalism, racism, sexism, and general idiocy), and I’m looking askance at the USA’s presidential election, and the Brexit ugliness, and war and terrorism and famine and the general ghastliness of so many members of the human race.

Here’s a little prayer I repeat to myself. I choose to think these thoughts, rather than be overcome with despair.


*Edited to add that I got over my hissy fit and don’t plan on bailing out just yet.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons



Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, Sam Steiner, Nick Hern Books, 2015.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is a two-hander play written by Sam Steiner, which premiered at the Warwick Arts Centre (UK) in January 2015. The production was also staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2015, and at the National Student Drama Festival in March, where it won three awards.

The basic premise of the play is that a ‘hush law’, which restricts people to using only 140 words a day, is about to be/has been enacted. Ostensibly, the reason underpinning the introduction of the law is noise reduction, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that the real reason is government censorship and oppression.

I’m not sure how the play was staged, because there are minimal stage directions. Additionally, the action doesn’t follow a linear narrative arc but jumps around from present, to past, to future, and it wasn’t until I’d finished reading that I was able to put all the segments together and understand what it was really about.

On the one hand, the play can be construed as a romantic comedy, with the two characters, Oliver and Bernadette, sparring and spatting their way through a seemingly rocky relationship. Bernadette is of working class origin and has always wanted to be a lawyer. She has worked hard and graduated, and at various points in the play she is doing her pupillage, running her first case, and specialising in divorce law. Oliver is probably from a more privileged class, and is dabbling in music. He has rather romantic notions about the working class and isn’t very pleased that Bernadette has become a divorce lawyer. (He would probably rather she was a penniless human rights lawyer, fighting for a noble cause.) Anyway, they argue a lot, and apart from the sections of the play that occur before the word restriction law is enacted, their arguments are necessarily terse, which leads to some funny exchanges between them.

The other strand of the play, the oppression and censorship part, was very interesting to me. Obviously, the 140 word restriction parallels Twitter’s 140 characters, and the terseness of the characters’ exchanges reflects the abrupt and rancorously argumentative tone of much of what passes for communication on Twitter. A lot of what the characters say to one another is just as banal and pointless as many tweets are – hence the lemons lemons lemons lemons lemons of the play’s title: Bernadette gets ticked off with Oliver, who has run out of words for the day, but she has some left and just randomly spouts whatever words she can think of.

Importantly, the play also highlights the issue of class division and shows how, when resources are rationed, the privileged in society end up with more and suffer a lot less than the poor and disadvantaged. I thought this aspect of the play seeks to shine a light on the austerity measures imposed by the Tory government in the UK, which have devastated many communities and left them trailing behind due to the social and financial changes brought about by the expanding globalised economy.

Another interesting aspect of the play is the way in which it deals with the act of communication itself: Bernadette and Oliver don’t really have much to say to one another and tend to ‘waste’ their words in accusatory bickering and defensiveness. I think that most people would recognise themselves in some of the exchanges between the two characters, who are attempting to negotiate their way through relationship difficulties and often only succeed in making matters worse.

I really enjoyed reading Lemons. It’s funny and clever, and it also raises interesting and timely issues. It’s good to see that new plays by new playwrights are being published. I have a few others also published by Nick Hern Books that I plan to read in the coming months.

Rabbit Hole Reading: Jack Kerouac


I have read most of the books I earmarked for August. The majority of them were rather slim and didn’t take long to get through. However, something made me swerve and sent me down the Jack Kerouac rabbit hole and I seem to be reading/re-reading these books at the moment:

Gerald Nicosia’s Memory Babe (critical biography);
Doctor Sax (Kerouac);
The Windblown World (Kerouac’s Journals: 1947-1954);
The Haunted Life and Other Writings (Kerouac).

I think I was just idly flipping through The Windblown World and came upon this passage and had the “WOW, I LOVE KEROUAC’S WRITING” feelings all over again:

‘In Denver last summer all I did was stare at the plains for three months, for reasons, reasons.

There’s a noise in the void I hear: there’s a vision of the void; there’s a complaint in the abysss – there’s a cry in the bleak air: the realm is haunted. Man haunts the earth. Man is on a ledge noising his life. The pit of night receiveth. God hovers over in his shrouds. Look out!

More than a rock in my belly, I have a waterfall in my brain; a rose in my eye, a beautiful eye; and what’s in my heart but a mountainside, and what’s in my skull: a light. And in my throat a bird. And I have in my soul, in my arm, in my mind, in my blood, in my bean a grindstone of plaints which grinds rock into water, and the water is warmed by fires, and sweetened by elixirs, and becomes the pool of contemplation of the dearness of life. In my mind I cry. In my heart I think. In my eye I love. In my breast I see. In my soul I become. In my shroud I will die. In my grave I will change.

But enough poetry. Art is secondary.
Plaintiveness is all.’


I’ve never really fathomed why I, an avowed atheist, am so drawn to writers of Faith. And, it seems to me that far from being a hip, cool cat and King of the Beats, Kerouac was a lost soul, a hard-working and driven writer who longed to be rich and famous and taken seriously, but who was never rich and didn’t know how to handle the fame that ended up trampling him like a herd of charging elephants.

But, the man sure could write. And he read a lot, too. I think that’s the part of him that I admire the most, how he read and analysed all the great DWM writers, but especially Dostoevsky, and he really dove into the books, boots and all.

Jack Kerouac has never been one of my imaginary literary friends. I doubt I would have liked him very  much in person, really. He seems to me to have been withdrawn and self-interested: an observer, watching, thinking, remembering, and always, always writing in his notebooks. He was drawn to mysticism, and he loved his mother more than anyone else in the world. His being in the world was encompassed by his Catholicism and circumscribed by the deaths of people he loved, and a gnawing longing for something more.

I think that if Jack had stuck with Buddhism and practised really hard and made an effort to stay off the booze and instead flowed with the waterfall in his brain and smiled on the world with the rose in his eye, well, then I think he would have had a different, more fulfilled life. But, he chose his path and he walked it in his own way.