“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I don’t know”, starts Albert Camus’s The Outsider, as translated by Joseph Laredo. You know that. It’s one of the most famous first lines in books. When I first read it, I thought it was supposed to show the apathy of the narrator, Meursault. However, the next few lines make it clear that it is merely a lack of information; he has got a telegram telling him only that his mother’s funeral is the next day. The next hundred or so pages make it clear that Camus put that line in to show that Meursault does not bother himself with such trifling details and probably didn’t realize that it could be explained in as simple a way as lack of information. Or, maybe he did, and didn’t care. This, in a nutshell, is exactly what’s wrong with this novel.
Meursault has no idea of his mother’s age, but he can tell you most of the advice his mother gave him as a child. This is what makes him an outsider. He has ‘nothing more to say to mother’- presumably having learnt everything she has to teach him -, so he sends her to an old age home; an act frowned upon by his neighbours. At the old age home she spends a presumably happy three years, having struck up a relationship with a man the inmates – that is how they are referred to in the book – call her fiancé. He goes to her funeral, and isn’t particularly sad. He comes back home and realises that “after all, nothing had changed.”
The next day, he strikes up a relationship of his own with a woman whom he knows from long before. We also meet two of his next-door neighbours – these aren’t the ones who frowned upon his sending his mother away – the shady Raymond and the old Salamano with his dog. Salamano loses his dog, Raymond has all sorts of trouble. . . Meursault just keeps on helping simply because he is a genial chap and sees no reason not to. He goes with Raymond to a beach where there’s a face-off at a spring between a pair of Arabs and Meursault, Raymond and their host. Meursault and Raymond go back and there’s the palpable lack of a (physical) face-off in which Meursault ends up with a gun. When they are about to go back to the host’s chateau, Meursault figures that the effort it’s going to take to climb up the stairs in the glaring sun is not any more than going back to the spring, or something like that. In other words, he’s probably got a minor stroke.
So, Part I of the book ends with him killing one of the Arabs, after he, pretty clearly, sees the other draw his knife, firing one shot and then four more, “like giving four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness.” This whole part, he seems to have written each chapter just before going to bed that day (in the case of the first chapter, the next day, because he doesn’t actually go to bed the first day of the narrative), which gives us an idea of his state of mind after having done it.
The second part is his life in prison and his trial. As far as I can tell, this part is narrated from after the trial, just before the execution (spoiler alert?).
He starts off saying that he used to not like to talk about it, but he doesn’t see the point anymore. First, he finds it hard because he keeps on thinking like a free man. Soon, however, he comes to the conclusion that
even if I’d been made to live in a hollow tree trunk, with nothing to do but look at the sky overhead, I’d gradually have got used to it. I’d have looked forward to seeing birds fly past or clouds run together just as here I looked forward to my lawyer’s curious ties and just as, in another world, I used to wait for Sundays to embrace Marie’s body.
The Dalai Lama has said, years after this was written, that no matter what happens to you, in the end you return to an average level of happiness. Meursault is someone he might refer to as the truly happy man.
Then, there’s an extended courtroom set of scenes, which is the whole problem with the novel. He’s being persecuted for not crying at his mother’s funeral as much as for the murder: he is a criminal who felt no sadness at his mother’s death and no regret for his crime. Around thirty years before this novel is set, Freud’s ideas had come into acceptance; bottled-up emotion, among many others. For the whole part, I was wondering how out of league with the times Camus was, or whether he didn’t care enough to make a better, more plausible, case – in a set of scenes which take up nearly a fifth of the book. The second problem is that of the Arab’s knife; in the killing scene Meursault clearly recorded ‘the knife in front of me’, but it never appears again in the book. If he had just told them about the knife, it would have been a case of self-defence, but Camus obviously doesn’t want that. So why was the knife there in the first place? To justify, in the moment, the killing to the reader.
After this seriously idiotic bit comes the good chapter, where we get under the skin of Meursault. I refuse to spoil this part, except to say that Meursault is shown to be good in every way Ayn Rand’s characters are, but without any of the irritatingly extreme hate for the rest of the human race. Just this chapter would make a great short story, and without all the ‘philosophy’ which is supposed to be there in the book.
Camus’s reputation is the thing that baffled me most about the book. The Outsider was nothing like Nausea – the other ‘existentialist’ book that I’ve read -, except that in the courtroom scene, Meursault imagines the room to be a train and Nausea’s hero has his seminal ‘realisation’ in a train. It compares more closely to Ayn Rand, and only in terms of characters. Point 2: this didn’t seem a statement of philosophy like Ayn Rand’s books or Nausea are. It seems to be mainly a critique of society.
A critique of a society that persecutes, for having come to terms with the ideas of life and mortality, one of the best of men. A man who understands that it is okay to die if you die at the right time, a man who understands that it doesn’t matter who you marry as long as you like her enough, a man who is virtually guaranteed to never divorce after marrying on that principle because he’s so amiable in the face of trouble, a man who is so at peace with his own death, and lust for life, that he doesn’t need religion to provide him with it, a man who – for both himself and his voice – is the only reason I like this book.