This is my review of “L’Étranger”, translated as The Outsider (Penguin Modern Classics) by Albert Camus.
Meursault is a young Algerian `pied-noir’ given to observing the world with a clinical detachment. He enjoys a largely physical relationship with his girlfriend Marie who shares his love of swimming and, since Meursault does not judge others, he has an easy, tolerant acceptance of people, including his unsavoury neighbours the aged Salamano, dependent on the pathetic dog which he continually abuses, and the sadistic pimp Raymond.
From the outset there are somewhat chilling indicators of Meursault’s unusual and amoral attitude to life. He renews his relationship with Marie and goes to see a comedy film with her the day after attending his mother’s funeral. Then, on an afternoon of intense heat, in an almost hallucinatory state of mind, he commits a serious crime for which he appears to feel no remorse.
In the second part of the book largely given over to his very artificial, theatrical trial, we see how Meursault, the outsider, is incriminated as much for how he has behaved in the past – not weeping at his mother’s funeral – as for his offence. As he begins to reflect on his situation, we see him in a more sympathetic light.
This famous novel which has attracted a huge amount of attention, may be read on different levels. It could just be the tale, written in clear, minimalist prose, of a man whose lack of ‘normal’ emotions and values, combined with extreme honesty, seal his fate. On another plane, it illustrates Camus’s preoccupation with the absurdity of man’s desire for reasons and ‘rational behaviour’ in a world without meaning. Meursault’s accusers have set up arbitrary conventions and rules by which to judge him, but Meursault himself, although for a while afraid of death, is able to come to terms with the essential unimportance of everyone’s life, regardless of the value accorded to it by others.
It is also interesting to compare the simplicity of this first novel with the complexity and more self-conscious philosophical digressions of one of Camus’s last works, `La Chute’. Both culminate in very powerful final sections, and both need to be read more than once to appreciate them. Camus is a little too bleak for me, but definitely worth reading.