Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Outsider - Albert Camus

Somehow, through some sort of mental osmosis, I find that most avid readers know the broad outline of classics long before they've read them.  I certainly found this with Rebecca, To Kill A Mockingbird, Jane Eyre etc.  The simple explanation, of course, is that conversations, articles, blog posts and films have, over the years, given us this foreknowledge.  So it is something of a rare joy to read a classic without any prior understanding of the contents.  That was the experience I had with Albert Camus's The Outsider (1942), translated by Joseph Laredo.  (Laredo, apparently, opted to translate L'Etranger as The Outsider rather than The Stranger, under which title the first English translation appeared.)  My striking copy was kindly given to me by the Folio Society.


My experience with French literature - always in translation - has been mixed.  I have found some of it rather too philosophical for my liking, and there is always the spectre of ghastly French theorists I have tried, and failed, to understand.  The title didn't encourage me - I thought it might be very existentialist or, worse, in the whiney and disaffected Holden Caulfield school of writing.  It was thus rather a delight to find The Outsider more in the mould of the detached, straightforward English novelists I love - Spark, Comyns - but perhaps most of all like my beloved Scandinavian writer Tove Jansson.  A lot of that style is due to the protagonist - Meursault - and the first-person presentation of his life.  Meursault sees the world through a haze of emotionless indifference.  He is not cruel or unkind, he is simply emotionless.  Actually, that's not quite true.  He feels things to a moderate amount - the novel opens with his mother's death, and the most he can muster up is that  he would rather it hadn't happened.  His honesty is unintentionally brutal...
That evening, Marie came round for me and asked me if I wanted to marry her.  I said I didn't mind and we could do it if she wanted to.  She then wanted to know if I loved her.  I replied as I had done once already, that it didn't mean anything but that I probably didn't.  "Why marry me then?" she said.  I explained to her that it really didn't matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married.  Anyway, she was the one who was asking me and I was simply saying yes.  She then remarked that marriage was a serious matter.  I said, "No."  She didn't say anything for a moment and looked at me in silence.  Then she spoke.  She just wanted to know if I'd have accepted the same proposal if it had come from another woman, with whom I had a similar friendship.  I said, "Naturally."
When I thought that The Outsider would be simply a very well-written character portrait - an unusual and unsettling pair of eyes through which to view the world - things become more complicated.  In case others of you have the same lack of foreknowledge I had, I won't give away the details - but the second half of the novel (novella? It's only 100pp.) concerns a court case...

Albert Camus writes in his Afterword that the defining characteristic of Meursault (which is obvious early in the story) is that 'he refuses to lie.  Lying is not only saying what isn't true.  It is also, in fact especially, saying more than is true and, in the case of the human heart, saying more than one feels.'  Meursault cannot lie; he cannot exaggerate the emotions he feels - and he feels them to a lesser degree than most.  The fallout from this honesty is slightly surreal, but at the same time entirely possible within the narrative.  It's a brilliant piece of writing, and a brilliant outworking of an idea.  So, perhaps, like many of the French novels I couldn't quite enjoy, Camus's is concerned with ideas and philosophies - but he prioritises the execution of a believable, complex, and consistent character, and that is the triumph of this exceptional book.

23 comments:

  1. Camus is an author I have always wanted to approach but fills me with trepidation. Probably from my husband's descriptions when he studied him in Univ. Many years have since passed so I really should be braver. This sounds like a really interesting read and I can stand anything in a hundred pages. Your review has made it readable. So fingers crossed....might dive in and will place him on the TBR pile.

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    1. Do! I was pleasantly surprised to find him so accessible. I think if we treat classics just other books, then they're much less daunting! And, as you say, how bad can 100 pages be? ;)

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  2. I've always been scared of those big French authors too. At 100pp this sounds ideal to overcome those barriers.

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    1. Indeed! I have approached Russians in similarly small doses...

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  3. I once read The Plague and didn't get along with it all, and have been very wary of him ever since. But since you recommend this, and since you compare it to Spark and Comyns (both of whom I love) maybe I'll give it a go - as Pam has just said, I really should be braver.

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    1. My comparisons may be a little esoteric, but if you're a fan of the style of Spark and Comyns, I think you might well enjoy the sparsity and strangeness of Camus. Good luck!

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  4. Yay! So happy you liked the Camus - he's a favourite of mine, and naturally I would recommend you try The Fall and The Plague too at some point. I have never, ever thought of Tove Jansson as a possible comparison before, but okay, whatever works for you works for me. :-)

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    1. Haha! Ah, but have you read The True Deceiver? Katri is the female Meursault, I think.

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  5. I first read this years because it's my father's favourite book and he always keeps going on about it. But I'm not sure whether I truly understood it. I kind of miss my French literature phase and may have to read it again. Love the Folio edition!

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    1. A French literature phase, gosh! I have never quite had one of them (and, even given my success with The Outsider, don't think I'm likely to have one) but how nice to hear that it's your father's favourite book.

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  6. Your review makes it sound much better than I remember it. I particularly like that passage about lying that you have quoted from the Afterword. I doubt I'll be re-reading it anytime soon, but if I do I would be well-advised to re-read this blog post by way of introduction.

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    1. The afterword really is wonderful, and very lucid - and, unusually, is actually a sensible and helpful reflection on the text!

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  7. So glad you enjoyed this. I was terrified of reading the clever French writers until my early 20s when my friends at Uni told me not to be so silly and get on with it. I *loved* Camus - I think "The Outsider" was the first I read and I thought it was fantastic. I would highly recommend "The Plague" - I read it all in a day and was so knocked out by it I wrote to all my friends demanding they read it instantly (this was in pre-Internet days)!

    I would say don't be intimidated by the French authors. Sartre is fine but De Beauvoir is better and I think gets across the idea of existentialism perfectly in "The Blood of Others" as well as telling a really good tale. I only got round to reading her "The Mandarins" recently and I think it's wonderful - a really good, involving story and I found it unputdownable. It's also based on her life and that of the French intellectuals during the war and one of the characters is Camus!

    Then of course there are Cocteau and Colette both of whom are delightful in very different ways. As you might guess, I have a great love of French authors and I would say, don't be scared - just jump in and enjoy!

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    1. I definitely want to read Colette, and have one or two waiting for me - somehow she doesn't intimidate me at all, so I should get on and read some before the feeling fades!

      Thank you for recommending The Plague - I will definitely keep an eye out for it now.

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    2. You won't find a better writer than Colette! But chose which book you start with carefully - which are on your shelf?

      Le chat noir

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    3. Hmm, I thought I had a few, but according to LibraryThing I only have The Other One. That's definitely the only one I have in Oxford.

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  8. Stunning book! I read "The Plague" in high school and it has stuck with me all these years. I recommend that one!

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    1. Two recommendations for The Plague next to each other = I'll definitely have to look for it!

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  9. Camus is one of those authors who I've always felt I "should" read, but have never really wanted to. Your review may change my mind. My interest is piqued!

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    1. I definitely found Camus enjoyable and worthwhile, rather than (as with some classics) feeling I *ought* to be finding it enjoyable and worthwhile.

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  10. Have read neither The Stranger nor The Outsider (although Hinton's The Outsiders was one of my favorites as a kid!), but! You make an interesting observation in your intro there, about how we often know through that mental osmosis something about a well-known book before we read it. This happens with the latest "it" thing (if you choose to read those), too, right? It's definitely true - so much so that I'm always excited when I find that I've managed to keep my mind clear. When I read Rebecca just last year I knew nothing about it, other than having heard raves. Nothing! And that made the reading so much better. (My review.) But it can be a challenge to maintain ignorance. :) Often when I come across a blog post on a book I know I want to read I will skip it, like I did with Savidge's ravings about The Song of Achilles, so I could come to it fresh - and I did love it (review posted yesterday).

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  11. I have been eyeing this one up (yeah I 'eye' books up) on the folio society website for bloody ages now. I had no idea it was only 100 pages so this might be a purchase at the next folio sale perhaps. I havent seen any other blog reviews so thanks for this one

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  12. Coming very late to the party, but have just come across your list of A Century of Books and was curious as to whether my favourite book ever would appear on it.

    And here it is. Marvellous stuff. I have bought it in French to read, but not quite managed that yet.

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