Published by Penguin on October 31st 2013
'My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.'
In The Outsider (1942), his classic existentialist novel, Camus explores the alienation of an individual who refuses to conform to social norms. Meursault, his anti-hero, will not lie. When his mother dies, he refuses to show his emotions simply to satisfy the expectations of others. And when he commits a random act of violence on a sun-drenched beach near Algiers, his lack of remorse compounds his guilt in the eyes of society and the law. Yet he is as much a victim as a criminal.
Albert Camus' portrayal of a man confronting the absurd, and revolting against the injustice of society, depicts the paradox of man's joy in life when faced with the 'tender indifference' of the world.
Sandra Smith's translation, based on close listening to a recording of Camus reading his work aloud on French radio in 1954, sensitively renders the subtleties and dream-like atmosphere of L'Étranger.
The Outsider is a very intellectually engaging text, it is also highly readable.
Meursault, the main character, goes through life detached from the world around him. His reactions to things can come across as emotionless. For example, when his girlfriend discusses marriage he agrees to it. She then asks him if he loves her and he admits that he doesn’t really love her. He desires her often, but it doesn’t matter to him if he is married to her or not. If she wants to get married he’ll do so. She writes it off as just being Meursault’s way. But his general behaviour, while somewhat acceptable to his friends who know he is not fundamentally bad, is unacceptable to the state.
Meursault comes to the attention of the state when he commits murder. Camus never builds up the character of Meursault’s victim. His text instead investigates the perspective of the criminal. Richard Posner describes the murder as a narrative necessity to get Meursault in court. Meursault’s trial proceedings actually give very little attention to the murder. Meursault’s criminality., in the eyes of the court, is rooted in his deviance from the norm in terms of his detached manner. Meursault is prosecuted more for not crying at his mother’s funeral than anything else. Meursault doesn’t fit with society’s behavioural expectations, and that is just too troubling to the state.
The court makes Meursault out to be inhuman in his detachment from life but I don’t particularly agree with them. Meursault is a raw example of humanness. He feels raw needs like lust, but he has very little time for the complex and artificial feelings society decrees we must feel. His manager at work, for example, is frustrated when Meursault is not excited about a potential promotion that would allow him to live in Paris. Meursault doesn’t care whether he goes to Paris or stays where he is. It just does not matter to him. In truth, as I was reading I could see logic in this thinking. Such things are of little consequence and it is somewhat irrational to think otherwise. Behaviours you take for granted as normal and reasonable are recast into a realm of absurdity in this text. I would definitely recommend reading this book if you are after a text that gives you philosophical material to get your teeth into, material you can pull apart in your mind for days, months and years. Perhaps, for instance, some of the emotions Meursault is accused of not having are culturally constructed and not necessarily essential attributes of humanness? Camus’s text is great for opening up wider discussions about humanity and society, law and the subjects of law.
At 125 pages this is a quick read, but it is one that makes a big impact.