Journal of Modern Literature 25.2 (2001-2002) 141-145
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Musical Counterpoint in Albert Camus' L'étranger
University of New Mexico
It is, of course, a matter of frequent occurrence for two or more persons to talk at the same time, and at a party where there are several conversations going on at once it is perfectly possible to station oneself between two groups and follow two conversations simultaneously. 1
Albert Camus' novel L'étranger has been critiqued for over half a century, but very little research has been done on this text from a musico-literary perspective. One might ask if Camus had a strong enough foundation, consciously or unconsciously, to incorporate musical vocabulary, metaphors, and/or structures in L'étranger. We may question the extent to which he was interested in music and whether there were any particular musical influences in his life in general, and more specifically, at the time he conceived and wrote the novel. Several texts reveal that Camus was exposed to music as a young boy, that he wrote some essays on music, and that he listened to music as an adult. 2 He was attracted to traditional, tonal music, and admired such composers as J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Mahler. 3 Furthermore, his second wife, Francine Faure, was a pianist who specialized in the music of Bach; and he married her prior to the publication of L'étranger. [End Page 141]
Camus' interest in traditional music and composers is significant because many of the musical structures found in L'étranger are connected to tonal music. 4 Although the novel is not consistently musical throughout, there are two unique passages that exhibit contrapuntal qualities. These excerpts demonstrate that Camus was able to create complex structures of multiple voices occurring simultaneously. The first scene occurs in Part I of the novel and deals with the playing of the flute as the climax of the scene is building. The second scene occurs in Part II when Marie visits Meursault in prison. The counterpoint found in both passages can be related to Baroque music and its particularly dense textures.
Very generally, counterpoint in music can be defined as two or more melodic lines that occur concurrently. A composer can write melodies for multiple voices that are to be heard at the same time, and the written score can show how the various parts are intertwined. Yet an author faces particular challenges, without the same capacity to create musical counterpoint in a text. Some writers, rather than visually showing the counterpoint, verbally describe it. Camus, for example, does not attempt to stack the voices the way they would be seen in a musical score, but instead tells how they are layered one upon another. 5
The passage at the end of Part I of the novel which involves the flute player is highly contrapuntal. There are some key words or phrases that help the reader tune in to the musical polyphony. One of the Arabs ". . . soufflait dans un petit roseau et répétait sans cesse . . . les trois notes qu'il obtenait de son instrument" (p. 89) [was blowing through a little reed over and over again . . . repeating the only three notes he could get out of his instrument] (p. 55). 6 Here the words "repeating" and "three notes" are significant. It is not clear whether or not the notes are repeated forming a specific pattern, or whether the notes were played randomly, thus not forming a pattern. If there is either a melodic or a rhythmic pattern, or both, an ostinato would be created. If the notes are executed melodically or rhythmically at random, or both—the variety possible with only three notes—this would allow at least a sense of a quasi-ostinato. According to the Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music, an ostinato is ". . . the repetition of a musical pattern many times in succession." 7
The scene in Part I can be related to the music of the eighteenth century because of the other contrapuntal voices that interact simultaneously with the ostinato. 8...