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Recent Reads – The Sea Close By by Albert Camus

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The book clearing continues apace, and as I was moving piles of printed matter around I stumbled across this – a little Penguin pamphlet (for want of a better word), containing two essays by Albert Camus and released to coincide with his centenary last year (which is when I picked it up). Camus was, of course, one of my great discoveries in the 1980s, when I was reading every French existentialist I could get my hands on. He stands up to re-reading though, as I found when I revisited “The Outsider” – but these two essays were pieces I hadn’t read.

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They’re titled “The Sea Close By” and “Summer in Algiers” and the first piece is just that – a piece about being aboard ship, sailing on the seas, and the meditations that occur while you’re afloat and travelling. We’ve lost so much of the sense of travel nowadays: speeding everywhere in cars, jet planes and even express trains, we can’t imagine the slow, hypnotic quality of a voyage to another country. The sky and the stars float by; life becomes suspended and dreamy as the days pass and land is still not in sight. Camus captures in beautiful, poetic prose that gradual sense of movement, of changing location, which is often lost today – it’s a wonderful piece of writing.

“Summer in Algiers” is an earlier piece; Camus was of course French-Algerian and here he revisits the area in which he grew up, the Belcourt area of Algiers. Here, the rhythm of life is different; priorities are not the same under the hot sun, and the people are not motivated by the same things as those in big cities and cooler climes. The pace of life is slow; people bloom and blossom early, decay quickly and are existentialist in the sense that they live simply to live, not for any other reason. Pleasure is the motivation, the morals and rule of the street are those which apply, and there is an intensity in living this way. Again, Camus’ prose is evocative and beautiful, conjuring up the glare of the Mediterranean sun on white walls, the still at noon, the slight cool of the evenings.

“Those brief moments when day topples into night must be peopled with secret signs and summonses for my Algiers to be so closely linked with them. When I spend some time far from that town, I imagine its twilights as promises of happiness. On the hills above the city there are paths among the mastics and olive-trees. And towards them my heart turns at such moments. I see flights of black birds rise against the green horizon. In the sky suddenly divested of its sun something relaxes. A whole little nation of red clouds stretches out until it is absorbed in the air. Almost immediately afterwards appears the first star that had been seen taking shape and consistency in the depth of the sky. And then suddenly, all consuming, night.”

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As an object, this little pamphlet is quite lovely – I have similar ones of Orwell essays and they’re just as nice. Certainly, Penguin and other publishers should bring out more of these bite size booklets so we can just pick up our favourite others and indulge a little when the mood takes us. Camus fitted my mood just at this moment and maybe it’s time to revisit my favourite book of his, “The Plague”!

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July Re-reads: #4 – The Outsider by Albert Camus

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(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.

July Reads and Re-reads – The Plan So Far…

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‘Planning’ is not a word I often use in conjunction with my reading, as up till now I’ve tended to read whatever my mood indicated or my fancy dictated. Obviously if I was reading through a series in order (complete works of Virginia Woolf/Martin Beck crime novels series etc) then my reading would be a little more defined. However, since I started dropping in on the blogging world, joining up with a variety of reading challenges, I have had to structure things a little more!

So this is the plan so far for July!

Firstly, Ali at HeavenAli and Liz at Adventures in full-time self-employment have come up with A Month of Re-reading in July, a wonderful idea to allow us to re-read much loved volumes without feeling guilty about the tottering tbr pile! There are lots of books I would love to go back to but am also a little scared about revisiting – especially if I felt strongly about them in the past but am unsure about how I’ll feel about them all these years on. However, these are the books I have chosen:

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To give a little run-down:

Josephine Tey – The Franchise Affair

I have a great love of classic, Golden Age crime novels (Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Crispin etc) and read all the Josephine Teys many years ago. They got lost in various moves so I was delighted to pick up a lovely set via The Book People. The Franchise Affair is, I think, considered by many her best and I figured you can’t go wrong with a good mystery!

Albert Camus – The Outsider

Camus is another writer I first read in my twenties and needs very little introduction. I’ve read The Outsider a couple of times and each time have gained different impressions from it – so it will be interesting to find out what this reading brings.

Colette – Ripening Seed

I had a major re-read of Colette’s non-fiction earlier this year, plus read new biographies and non-fiction volumes which I hadn’t been able to get hold of in the past – but I didn’t get round to any of her fictions. This is a lovely little Penguin which has been calling to me for a while and so I think it’s time for a re-visit. I might be able to get away with fitting in with Bookbath’s Paris in July read-along too – although it’s not set in that fair city, Colette was a very Parisian writer!

Rosamond Lehmann – Dusty Answer

The lovely Miss Darcy is hosting a Rosamond Lehmann Reading Week during 23rd-29th July which I’m looking forward to joining in with – particularly as several RL books have been sitting in my tbr for 20 years (yes, really!) The only one of her volumes I have actually read is Dusty Answer so I shall re-read as part of the challenge.

Italo Calvino – If On a winter’s night a traveller

Where to start with Calvino? The late, great Italian writer, feted in his own country and the rest of Europe and who was one of my major reading obsessions in the eighties. It’s a long long time since I’ve read any of his work and I’m a little scared to approach this novel, because it was the first of his I read. It’s regarded as his masterpiece and I loved it at the time, and I’m just a little worried that it won’t have the same effect on me now. But I think I will take my courage in my hands and re-read!

I think I am going to be balancing my re-reading with some new volumes as well, which will allow for the fact that I often read according to whim or mood. The planned new reads for July are:

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Elizabeth Taylor – Angel

Goes without saying, really, as part of the Cententary read-along. I’m rather looking forward to this one as it’s supposed to be unlike her others.

Elizabeth Taylor – In a Summer Season

This is the August ET book but as I am guest hosting I think I need to get a handle on it in advance so that I can say something sensible in my posts!

Virginia Woolf – The Platform of Time

I started this a little while ago but have had several literary distractions so I’m determined to finish this during July. It’s a lovely Hesperus volume of memoirs by VW which should be good reading.

I’m not quite sure which of these I shall tackle first – it will rather depend on where the mood takes me!

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