Exile and the Kingdom
If you think you've got it bad, try being a character in Exile and the Kingdom, the short-story collection by the absurdist and existential figurehead Albert Camus. Disillusionment, moral ambiguity, and emotional exhaustion are everyday realities for the artists, unhappy wives, civil engineers, teachers, and missionaries at the center of these six stories. While we fret and fuss over late credit-card bills and unfolded laundry, Camus' characters have more heady business to attend to: namely, the search for meaning in their fractured lives.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Exile; thus, Vintage offers a handsome new translation by Carol Cosman and a new preface by Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk. Of course, publishers can always retranslate, re-preface, and reintroduce classic works--the overriding question here is whether this collection holds up after all this time. The answer: yes.
Originally published in 1957, Exile lacks the visceral suckerpunch of Camus' most well-known works, The Stranger (required reading in almost all college English courses) and The Plague. While these two novels, with their respective seaside murders and lethal pestilences, couched their existential themes within riveting plots, the stories in this collection operate on a more subtle level. Matters of life and death are less important than matters of the heart and soul.
Janine, the title character of "The Adulterous Wife," spends a listless night in the Algerian desert questioning her arid marriage. In "Jonas or the Artist at Work," we follow the progression of a painter from a simple artist to a creative figurehead surrounded by a pack of disciples and critics who threaten to--what else?--exile him from the true meaning of his work. "I'm not certain I exist," the artist notes. "But one day I will, I'm sure of that."
While Jonas' story ends on a brighter note than, say, the tongueless and quite insane Christian missionary in "The Renegade or a Confused Mind" or the schoolteacher whose good deed goes punished at the end of "The Guest," all six stories feel like dead weights on your chest when you finish them. Then again, should you expect anything else from existential fiction? You may not close Exile and the Kingdom feeling particularly good about yourself, but you will feel you've spent time with a masterfully subtle writer and the meaningful things he says about meaninglessness.