The Outsider

Albert Camus, The Outsider (1942), trans. Sandra Smith

What it’s about: Algiers, the 1940s. Meursault, a French citizen living in French-occupied Algeria, attends his mother’s funeral in the desert but does not show any signs of grief or distress. He returns to his life in Algiers and his job as a shipping clerk, and starts a casual affair with workmate Marie, observing that “when all was said and done, nothing had really changed“, and returns to his job as a shipping clerk. Meursault comes to the aid of his neighbour Raymond, a small-time pimp who has assaulted his Arabic mistress, writing a threatening letter to the woman on his behalf and lying to the police when Raymond is charged with assault. Meursault is offered a job in Paris and is proposed to by Marie. He accepts both offers but comments that he doesn’t care one way or the other. Meursault and Marie go to the beach with Raymond and his friends, where Raymond is stabbed by two Arab men, the brothers of his mistress, in retaliation for his assault on her. After finding a doctor, Raymond and Meursault return to the beach to find his attackers. Blinded by the intense sun, Meursault takes Raymond’s gun and shoots one of the Arabs, firing four more bullets into his dead body. Meursault is arrested and interviewed by the judge, who is baffled by his apparent lack of remorse. He adjusts easily to life in prison, and the following summer he is put on trial for murder, where his friends and neighbours give testimony against him. He then returns to his prison cell, enjoying the familiar sounds of the city outside his window. The prosecutor calls Meursault “Monsieur Antichrist” and declares that he has “no place in a society whose most essential principles [are] disregarded“. He is found guilty and sentenced to death by guillotine. Returned to prison, he becomes obsessed with the possibility of his sentence being appealed. Concluding “life isn’t really worth living” and that as everyone will die, “it didn’t actually matter how or when“, he abandons the possibility of a pardon and feels a “fiery rush of blood through my body that burned my eyes with unimaginable joy“. The prison attempts to make attempts to make Meursault express remorse, to which he says “I was sure of myself, sure of everything, sure of my life, sure of my impending death” and that “nothing, nothing matters“. The priest leaves in disgust, and Meursault is left alone, happily “open[ing] myself for the first time to the tender indifference of the world” and hoping that the many spectators at his execution will greet him with cries of hatred.

Why it’s a classic: You can’t swing a dick in classic literature without slapping up against Camus’ L’Etranger (translated in my Penguin Classics edition as The Outsider but referred to elsewhere as The Stranger or The Foreigner), a novella that packs a half-century’s worth of turbulent angst and into 110 economically-told pages. Europe was still in the grip of the Second World War, though the full horrors of the Nazi concentration camps had still to be revealed. As an Algerian resident, Camus was also aware of the growing independence movement, and the killing of an unnamed Arab by a Frenchman can be read as his critique of the French occupation of Algeria. Depending on how you read the title, “the outsider” or “the stranger” could arguably be the murdered Arab man, rather than Meursault, though Camus doesn’t spend enough time on him for this to be convincing.

The novel was praised on its release by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who published an influential essay outlining Meursault as an existentialist hero, living outside society’s norms and confronting the meaninglessness of existence. Camus disputed this reading, preferring to call it an “absurdist” novel, in which society’s attempts to impose meaning on a meaningless existence are held up to ridicule. Unlike the Existentialists, Camus was more of a good-time guy, whose nihilist philosophy allowed and encouraged enjoyment of life’s sensory pleasures. Meursault describes himself as being led by his senses rather than his emotions, alive to the pleasures of swimming, sex and food, and even from the courtroom or his prison cell, he is overwhelmed by memories of a life that I could no longer claim as mine, a life which had offered me the most subtle but most persistent of joys: the scent of summer, the neighbourhood that I loved, a certain type of sky at night, Marie’s laughter and her dresses.”

Categorisation aside, The Outsider presents a radical provocation: a confession that isn’t really a confession by an intelligent man who commits murder, apparently without motive or remorse, and embraces his status as a reviled outcast. Even before the murder, we are aware of how deeply disengaged Meursault is from any kind of moral engagement: supporting his brutal neighbour and lying to defend him from arrest, expressing disinterest in his mother’s death, a promotion and return to Paris or his girlfriend’s marriage proposal, and drifting through the world without being affected by it. Camus continually frustrates the intimacy of Meursault’s first-person address, by having him demur from explaining his motivations. “But when all was said and done, there wasn’t much point so I didn’t bother because it just seemed like too much trouble”, he comments during his trial, one of several maddening displays of vagueness that frustrate our empathy with him. Despite this, Camus insisted that Meursault was a hero: “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death…. [T]he hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.” As the drama builds, and Meursault’s fate looks more and more hopeless, his moral position becomes more clearly defined: he is honest about his own lack of regrets and confronts both the inevitability of his own death without complaint. Meursault’s apparent comfort in being alienated from his society (“The newspapers often talk about a debt that is owed to society. And that debt has to be paid, they say. But that doesn’t really fire the imagination“) is a radical position for any novel to advance, but especially during a time where battle lines between good and evil were being defined amid terrible destruction. 

Unsurprisingly, The Outsider became massively influential on 20th century literature and philosophy. Camus’ DNA can be seen in Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, another portrait of nihilistic self-destruction set against an unforgiving desert landscape; and the dry affectless narrative voice and languid beach setting of Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. Its popularity has lasted well beyond its original generation. In 2006, the Men’s Milestones Project interviewed 500 men about the novels that had changed their lives, the majority of whom chose The Outsider.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet made of desert sand. When I was at university, The Outsider was the novel most likely to be read by a male philosophy undergraduate in a smoky cafe, or quoted at length at parties as evidence of one’s chic nihilist credentials. In some ways I wish I had read it at 19, when stories of alienation and rebellion against society would’ve fit snugly around my own sense of myself as an outsider. That said, encountering Camus for the first time in middle age was a strangely exhilarating experience. His prose (at least in translation) is wonderfully lucid and precise, and he’s able to sketch in characters and landscape with a deft economical touch. His description of Meursalt’s sun stroke before the murder (“All I could feel was the sun crashing like cymbals against my forehead…. The sky seemed to split apart from end to end and pour its fire down upon me“) is as breathtakingly beautiful as it is disturbing. There’s a rueful humour, too, lurking around the edges of the narrative that I was grateful for, given the grimness of the finale. Meursault’s cellblock defence of his own beliefs in the face of society’s condemnation is described so clearly eloquently that I could almost buy it as a coherent philosophy, or at least admire Camus for following through his theory to the bitter end. But that’s the point where I stop, bow respectfully to Camus’ photograph and return him to his place on the bookshelf. Camus’ brand of absurdism is fascinating to consider as an idea, but seems now too far removed from my understanding of life as a tangled web of relationships and a push-pull between personal gratification and what Meursault calls “the debt owed to society”. For a post-feminist readership, Meursault’s nihilism seems more a fashionable idea enjoyed by a wealthy white male from a colonial power whose life is simply too comfortable. The proposition that life is meaningless may well be true, but it’s not a privilege afforded to much of the world, who, rightly or wrongly, are passionately involved with the search for meaning and who fight for the kind of life that Meursault relinquishes so effortlessly. I can admire Camus for looking into the void and proposing a version of humanity that exists starkly alone. That said, I’m happy to be one of the un-hip non-Camus-quoting kids at the party who care passionately about how and where and why we derive meaning and pleasure.

Quotable Quote: “I may look as if I had nothing but I was sure of myself, sure of everything, sure of my life, sure of my impending death. Yes, that was all I had. But at least I had a hold on that truth as much as it had a hold on me. I’d been right, I was still right, I had always been right. I had lived my life a certain way when I could have lived it another way. I had done one thing when I might have done something else. What difference did it make? I felt as if I had been waiting all this time for this very moment and this early dawn when I would be vindicated. Nothing, nothing mattered.”

 

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