(Warning – this review does contain some spoilers!)

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In my early twenties, I had a major reading binge of French novels – Sartre, de Beauvoir, Cocteau et al. Albert Camus was of course one of the names to read, and so I read amongst others L’Etranger (translated in Penguin as The Outsider). As part of my month of (some) re-reading, I decided to reintroduce myself to Camus as I remember enjoying his work greatly.

The book is sometimes translated as The Stranger, but The Outsider gives a better sense in English of what the book is about. Wikipedia says:

The Outsider (L’Étranger) is a novel by Albert Camus published in 1942. Its theme and outlook are often cited as exemplars of existentialism, though Camus did not consider himself an existentialist; in fact, its content explores various philosophical schools of thought, including (most prominently and specifically) absurdism, as well as determinism, nihilism, naturalism, and stoicism.

 The title character is Meursault, an Algerian (“a citizen of France domiciled in North Africa, a man of the Mediterranean, an homme du midi yet one who hardly partakes of the traditional Mediterranean culture”) who seemingly irrationally kills an Arab man whom he recognises in French Algiers. The story is divided into two parts: Meursault’s first-person narrative view before and after the murder, respectively.

Wow! That’s something of a statement and a lot of -isms to deal with in one go. But this shouldn’t put anyone off approaching what is in fact a very readable book.

It’s clear from the very start that Meursault is not in what one would call a normal frame of mind. His detachment is shown in his reaction to his mother’s death, which he reports very flatly in the first paragraph and as the narrative progresses it is obvious that Meursault is in an advanced state of indifference to most things around him. He interacts with his girlfriend, acquaintances, fellow lodgers and work-mates but there is no emotion in his dealings with the world. He seems to be suffering from an extreme case of apathy and when his girlfriend suggests they marry he responds that he doesn’t mind either way. Although we see things from Meursault’s point of view, we can observe the effect his behaviour is having on those around him from their reactions – the old man Salamana mentions in passing that people have criticised Meursault for putting his mother in a home, his boss is surprised at his indifference to some promotional prospects. All in all, Meursault is very detached from regular emotions and so the violent events that take place are in some way not surprising.

However, what should not be overlooked in this story is the fact that Camus is an Algerian novelist. The environment in which the action takes place is crucial to the book. Camus, through Meursault, makes regular reference to the heat and the brightness of Algiers – the dazzling, blinding light, reflecting from the white buildings and the effect which the heat is having on him. There is a feeling of physical alienation from reality, a dislocation which is exacerbated by the climate and surroundings. One of the pivotal statements Meursault tries to make in Court, when he asked to speak, is stated: “I tried to explain that it was because of the sun” – this comment is mocked by the Court but actually Meursault is speaking the truth about the loss of sense he experienced when committing murder.

The Algerian setting also highlights the suspicion that exists between the different cultures living there side by side. There is mutual antipathy and fear between the French Algerians and the Arabs, which contributes to Meursault’s actions and the general sense of uneasiness which pervades the narrative.

See page for author [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Camus’ portrayal of Meursault is masterly – in a very economic style he paints a picture of a man who has a lack of control over his life and events around him. A sentence such as “The two policemen led me into a small room that smelt of darkness” tells you much in a few words. The writing is spare and excellent and very evocative, painting images of a hot, dazzling Southern land with a strangeness that affects the psyche.

Meursault is an intriguing personality, and although apathetic in many ways, he still has desires and needs – although in many ways he submerges them and learns to control them, presenting an impassive exterior much of the time. People think he is interested in them, but often he is just bored and has nothing better to do so spends time listening to them talk. He displays a kind of puzzlement concerning what happens and states “Imagination has never been one of my strong points”. This may be one of the roots of his personality defects, with the lack of imagination leading to a lack of empathy. Meursault is an outsider from what is called normal humanity because of his inability to respond appropriately (“…he was executed because he didn’t weep at his mother’s funeral…”). He is also in many ways outside himself and watching detachedly what happens as if to another person. Even at the end, when considering if he is sorry for what has happened or if he has regrets, he states, “I have never been able really to regret anything in all my life. I’ve always been far too much absorbed in the present moment, or the immediate future, to think back.”

There is no real back story given for Meursault’s life – passing mention is made of a father he never knew, and when talking about his mother he simply says they were used to each other. It may be that the lack of much emotional input when he was young contributed to his cut-off emotional state – we will never know.

Did I enjoy this book? That’s the wrong word really – it isn’t a light read but it’s a thought provoking book. The vivid descriptions really bring to life the settings and there is plenty of suspense reading through the book. It sets you thinking about life, death and all the bigger things and so ‘enjoyment’ in the lighter sense is not the point. Meursault is not an appealing character but in the end is something of a victim of circumstances and environment. In the end I did enjoy returning to the book and recommend it if you want a stimulating read.