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The many sides of 'The Stranger'

When Karyn and I first met, I was amazed at the manner in which she would read favorite books again and again. And not only favorite books, but whole series -- even the greater part of the run of a writer's work. Chomp: In a weekend another soldier would go down. Chomp: the third volume of a trilogy. She'd sack out on the couch with tea and barely move till a book was done, consuming in a few hours what had taken writers not unlike myself months to create. Opus-Devourer, as I began to think of her.

Not that I don't reread books. I'm sure all serious readers do, and for a variety of reasons: the pleasure of recognition, to see how the book has changed over the years (for they do, you know: they grow new limbs up there on the shelf), revisiting an oasis (sometimes it turns out to be a mirage) of order, because it's near our chair and we're too lazy to get up and fetch another. Books can be like comfort food, the meat loaf and mashed potatoes that, without directly recalling childhood, somehow bring contentment. Books can lift you out of ''dailyness," cleansing the palate of the taste of current affairs and the cascade of what Baudelaire called the quotidian frenzy. Books can confirm or challenge your opinions. Books can terrify you.

So, while I do not reread with anything approaching my wife's devotion or fervor, there are a number of books to which I return periodically, often mumbling half to myself, half in jest, and half afraid, ''Remember how we used to have so much fun together?" or even ''Do you still love me?" Some of these -- George R. Stewart's ''Earth Abides," Donald Harington's novels, the work of Theodore Sturgeon, Walter Tevis's ''The Man Who Fell to Earth," the Israel-set novels of Marek Hlasko -- I've written about in earlier columns here.

And now I want to talk about Albert Camus's ''The Stranger" (Vintage, paperback, $9.95).

I first read those opening lines (''Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday") at age 13 or 14. Like many another, it was a book my brother brought home from college on a break. And I was, from my first glimpse of this oddly affectless world, entranced. I've no idea how many times I may have read it since. I do know it was the first novel I read in French when I taught myself the language. Not coincidentally it's also a favorite of my autodidact protagonist in the six novels composing the Lew Griffin cycle.

And now I am reading ''The Stranger" yet again, propelled this time not by nostalgia, high-mindedness, or other such motives (see above), but by the simple fact that I'm teaching it.

As with frequent visits to physicians' offices and a long procession of lost proper nouns, I've come to teaching late in life, and so arrive ashore with enthusiasms still intact, enthusiasms I'm eager to pull from my sailor's bag and share. Nor, for reasons too complex to enter here, am I an admirer of the typical writing workshop. We don't spend a lot of time, in my three-semester novel-writing class, sitting around a table volleying opinions back and forth over a low net. We talk a lot about literature: why we read, what literature can do, whether there are limits to fiction's malleability, the history of the novel, the development of American genre fiction. And together we read, each semester, a novel.

It really is true that Camus's is a different novel each time I read it. I've little doubt that it was the novel's essential rebelliousness to which, reading it as a teenager, I first responded, and now I ask my students: Do you see a parallel between the manner in which Meursault holds emotion at bay, never seems able to do what is expected of him, and fails again and again to fit in, and the behavior of alienated adolescents as they begin to form themselves as personalities, to give a good imitation of being human?

Yes, we talk about the novel's philosophical background. I sketch existentialism's history, its literature, the disaccord between Sartre and Camus. But literature, I warn them (contrast Sartre and Camus here), is about people, not ideas, and the novel at hand is just that, a novel, an attempt to let us inside one man's head, and by no means a primer in existentialism. Flannery O'Connor once remarked that theme and meaning in a story are folded deeply into the heart of the thing, that they're not like the string on a sack of feed, where you just have to pick it out, then you can rip the story open and feed the chickens.

And since this is first and foremost a writer's class, yes, we talk a lot about writerly things. ''The Stranger" is in first person, I say, stepping nimbly between rows of chairs. How far can we trust the narrator? Is it possible, I say (pause dramatically here), that we are being offered not the truth but a persona, a construct erected by Meursault expressly to represent himself as something other -- perhaps even to serve as a shield against those emotions he claims not to feel?

So as I speak of antiheros, of Camus's debt to the language and form of the American detective novel and of this recent translation by Matthew Ward that I'm encountering for the first time, the multiple interpretations offered by my students echo the many faces this novel has had for me over the years, reaffirming what I say again and again: that only the finest writing can suspend and support at once so many ''meanings." There is no string. There's just one complex knot after another. And that (class dismissed) is the art of it.

James Sallis's most recent novel is ''Cypress Grove," the sequel to which, ''Cripple Creek," will appear next spring from Walker/Bloomsbury. He teaches at Phoenix College, in Arizona, and at Otis College, in Los Angeles.

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