Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

Posts Tagged ‘classic’

“What a novel illustration of the tender laws of England!”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on April 7, 2010

The last novel I read was set in a future after a nuclear holocaust where there was no source of food, and right now I think that the most draining stretch of fiction I’ve ever read is the first fifty pages of Oliver Twist. Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn’t quite live up to those standards.

The story, as you probably know, tells of a boy called Oliver Twist whose mother comes to a workhouse, gives birth to him, and dies. Oliver Twist grows up under the parochial hand, and runs away to London one day after he is treated especially badly. There he falls into the company of Fagin, a jew who manages a little team of petty criminals. He is rescued by Mr. Brownlow, then re-kidnapped by Fagin, then rescued by Rose Maylie, and then the book gets boring.

The best part of the book is before he runs away to London. Here, Dickens narrates with such anger that I was surprised that the man who wrote these pages never started a revolution.

‘What’s your name, boy?’ said the gentleman in the high chair.

Oliver was frightened at the sight of so many gentlemen, which made him tremble: and the beadle gave him another tap behind, which made him cry. These two causes made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice; whereupon a gentleman in a white waistcoat said he was a fool. Which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease.

‘Boy,’ said the gentleman in the high chair, ‘listen to me. You know you’re an orphan, I suppose?’

‘What’s that, sir?’ inquired poor Oliver.

‘The boy is a fool—I thought he was,’ said the gentleman in the white waistcoat.

‘Hush!’ said the gentleman who had spoken first. ‘You know you’ve got no father or mother, and that you were brought up by the parish, don’t you?’

‘Yes, sir,’ replied Oliver, weeping bitterly.

‘What are you crying for?’ inquired the gentleman in the white waistcoat. And to be sure it was very extraordinary. What could the boy be crying for?

‘I hope you say your prayers every night,’ said another gentleman in a gruff voice; ‘and pray for the people who feed you, and take care of you—like a Christian.’

‘Yes, sir,’ stammered the boy. The gentleman who spoke last was unconsciously right. It would have been very like a Christian, and a marvellously good Christian too, if Oliver had prayed for the people who fed and took care of him. But he hadn’t, because nobody had taught him.

‘Well! You have come here to be educated, and taught a useful trade,’ said the red-faced gentleman in the high chair.

‘So you’ll begin to pick oakum to-morrow morning at six o’clock,’ added the surly one in the white waistcoat.

For the combination of both these blessings in the one simple process of picking oakum, Oliver bowed low by the direction of the beadle, and was then hurried away to a large ward; where, on a rough, hard bed, he sobbed himself to sleep. What a novel illustration of the tender laws of England! They let the paupers go to sleep!

Yes, what is happening to poor Oliver is a Bad thing, but what makes it truly horrific is the uppity gallows humour and biting sarcasm Dickens narrates it with, not to mention the — even more important — wee doses of poignancy interwoven into it.

Certainly, these are a great fifty pages, and after reading this, I was seriously wondering whether I had the courage to continue. Well, it turns out I did, but after that Dickens relaxed his tone, when Oliver runs away from the town to London.

The problem with these fifty pages is the legacy they bequeathe to the rest of the book: after this, nothing seems particularly horrible anymore, except two of the last few chapters. Not Fagin — though he is effectively creepy –, not Bill Sikes the universally gruff ruffian, and certainly not the ‘hideous’ Monks.

Dickens’ writing, however, is consistently brilliant. Well, till the part where I said it gets boring, because then it suddenly becomes full of highfalutin melodrama. It is, however, probably at its most beautiful when he cuts away from the rich-good to the poor-bad, where the richness of his description is really something to savour, not to mention the rest of the writing.

Adept as she was, in all the arts of cunning and dissimulation, the girl Nancy could not wholly conceal the effect which the knowledge of the step she had taken, wrought upon her mind. She remembered that both the crafty Jew and the brutal Sikes had confided to her schemes, which had been hidden from all others: in the full confidence that she was trustworthy and beyond the reach of their suspicion. Vile as those schemes were, desperate as were their originators, and bitter as were her feelings towards Fagin, who had led her, step by step, deeper and deeper down into an abyss of crime and misery, whence was no escape; still, there were times when, even towards him, she felt some relenting, lest her disclosure should bring him within the iron grasp he had so long eluded, and he should fall at last—richly as he merited such a fate—by her hand.

But, these were the mere wanderings of a mind unable wholly to detach itself from old companions and associations, though enabled to fix itself steadily on one object, and resolved not to be turned aside by any consideration. Her fears for Sikes would have been more powerful inducements to recoil while there was yet time; but she had stipulated that her secret should be rigidly kept, she had dropped no clue which could lead to his discovery, she had refused, even for his sake, a refuge from all the guilt and wretchedness that encompasses her—and what more could she do! She was resolved.

Though all her mental struggles terminated in this conclusion, they forced themselves upon her, again and again, and left their traces too. She grew pale and thin, even within a few days. At times, she took no heed of what was passing before her, or no part in conversations where once, she would have been the loudest. At other times, she laughed without merriment, and was noisy without a moment afterwards—she sat silent and dejected, brooding with her head upon her hands, while the very effort by which she roused herself, told, more forcibly than even these indications, that she was ill at ease, and that her thoughts were occupied with matters very different and distant from those in the course of discussion by her companions.

Except Nancy, who features in the above quote, every character — especially Oliver himself — is a type, a grotesque. They are divided (as I’ve already alluded to) into the rich-good, the poor-bad and the parochial officiaries. Oliver himelf is the least memorable of these grotesques; he’s just a device to get into the spotlight the poor-bad and the government officiaries, and the rich-good abound merely to counterbalance the other two types.

All this, in the final reckoning, is fine with me. What is not is that Dickens seems to be majorly confused about his morality. Consistently, English society (as represented by the government officiaries and much later a massive crowd ) seems to be the real villain. We read the first fifty pages, devoted wholly to thrashing the English laws. We see that Oliver, the very epitome of innocence, is consistently taken for one of Fagin’s, strongly implicating society. Then, in the end, it’s a ‘happy’ ending, but the only people harmed are the poor-bad. The villain changes!

And yet, we are supposed to be lifted by the ending. Yes, maybe Dickens means it to be a mixed bag, but I prefer to get indications from more than a trust that he knows what he’s doing; from the text itself. Maybe a final, or penultimate, chapter pointing out that nothing’s really been solved.

But Dickens doesn’t do that, and this — along with the overabundance of  melodramatic dialogue that define the word ‘overwrought’ in the last hundred pages — ensures that what all I’ll treasure in this book are the first fifty pages.

A beautiful passage by G. K. Chesterton’s about Charles Dickens.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Dickens, Charles | Tagged: , , , | 11 Comments »

“The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was cerainly English.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 25, 2010

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
and
Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There,
by Lewis Carroll

I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I was really small, and forgot  everything about it, almost. I remembered the story of a rat prosecuting a cat written in the shape of a rat’s tail, Alice picking up a bottle on her way down the rabbit-hole, and the Mad Tea-Party. I also remember that I didn’t read the second book because I’d got bored. Having just read both books today, I can say with confidence that my child-self had much the same tastes I do; those three things are the exact things that stay with me from the first book. One mistake little Ronak made, however, was to stop reading, a mistake even this big Ronak almost made, for the second book is a truly beautiful one.

The two books, as you undoubtedly know, is a series of encounters with anthropomorphised animals — not exclusively animals, though, we even get cards and chess pieces and, believe it or not, ideas — that happen when a) Alice follows a rabbit nervous about the time down a rabbithole into Wonderland and b) Alice walks through a mirror into Looking-Glass land. Also, we learn that of the Cheshire Cat, who is a cat who always grins.

I loved the first half of the first book. The driving force behind everything seemed to be to challenge Alice’s preconceived notions of reality in every possible way, and it worked,  reaching its peak in a tea-party with a Mad Hatter, a March Hare, and a Dormouse.

‘Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. ‘I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.
‘There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.
‘Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.
‘It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.
‘I didn’t know it was YOUR table,’ said Alice; ‘it’s laid for a great many more than three.’
‘Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.
‘You should learn not to make personal remarks,’ Alice said with some severity; ‘it’s very rude.’
The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he SAID was, ‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’
‘Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. ‘I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. — I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud. ‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.
‘Exactly so,’ said Alice.
‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.
‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.’
‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’
‘You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, ‘that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’
‘You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, ‘that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’
‘It IS the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn’t much.

Sorry for the length of the excerpt, but it’s hard to both convey the charm and not cut off abruptly at the same time.

Well, as I’ve already said, from here it goes downhill; there’s the entrance of the Queen of Hearts, who’s just annoying. While every other character makes complex existential statements, her oddness is limited to ordering executions. And there’s a gryphon and a mock turtle — the latter learnt in school, among other similar things, “the different branches of Arithmetic–Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision” –, the vignette involving whom is unfortunately marred by substandard poetry. And, finally, there’s a courtroom sequence which acts as a pathetic stand-in (think, as a description of the problem, the Queen of Hearts) for a climax and end.

The second book is much of the same thing, except the momentum carries through to the end; Carroll is obviously much surer of his structure and form here. Everything is better integrated, and the queens (red and white) who take centre-stage for rather long actually have worthy dialogues, making this a beautiful book.

Incidentally, the Cheshire Cat can appear and disappear, and it doesn’t even need to pop, or fade, in and out of view; it can disappear from one end to the other.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Carroll, Lewis | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

In no other Kurosawa movie would Mifune have chosen to fight with the spear instead

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 14, 2010

Originally Published at PassionforCinema.

Kakushi-toride no san-anukin (The Hidden Fortress), 1958, 150 min

Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Music by Masaru Sato

Cinematography by Ichio Yamazeki

Story (taken from IMDb): Lured by gold, two greedy peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) escort a man and woman across enemy lines. However, they do not realize that their companions are actually a princess (Misa Uehara) and her general (Toshiro Mifune).


Spear-fights, unlike ones with swords, are fought at long distance, which makes them less adrenaline-inducing than swordfights. I think it is a testament to Kurosawa’s mastery as an editor and director that he makes the spear-fight from The Hidden Fortress I refer to in the title more intense, though possibly not as exciting, than any of the battles in his Shichinin no Samurai or Yojimbo. But this has nothing to do with the central question, which is: why did Kurosawa make Mifune’s character choose the spear?

People say that the first two parts of Sergio Leone’s ‘The Man with No Name’ were heavily influenced by Kurosaw’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The third part, however, was even more influenced by The Hidden Fortress. The first two merely borrowed plots, while the third borrowed an idea.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is popularly considered to be a ‘meta-western’, a western about the way a western worked. When the camera is jumping from hand to hand in the climax scene, what he is really doing is asking us how far he can go, before the tension levels off and leaves us bored. Similarly, in The Hidden Fortress, when people are dying when a sword touches their armour, when every scene changes with a swipe, when the whole story is seen from the point of view of two jokers, when the music is constantly telling us how to feel, when Mifune’s Rokurota Makabe starts fighting his greatest rival – and ‘truest friend’ – with a spear instead of a sword, and the Princess sings a song to bring about a change of heart in aforementioned greatest rival/truest friend, Kurosawa too is asking us how far he can go.

And the answer is… well, we don’t know the answer, but it certainly is at least as far as this.

So, how does he take it as far as he does? Certainly, there’s the virtuoso editing and camerawork. Then, there’s Ichio Yamazeki’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography, which converts anything and everything into a treat for the eyes.

But, most importantly, there’s Toshiro Mifune’s attitude. In all of Kurosawa’s other action movies, Mifune is a hyper-active – eh, you know the bandit in <I>Rashomon</I> who laughed when asked whether he killed the girl? Well, in this movie, he is not that. Rokurota Makabe is closer in spirit to Washizu from Throne of Blood than Yojimbo, lending – along with Misa Uehara’s tomboy princess – a much-needed air of seriousness otherwise absent from this magnificent experiment, an air of seriousness which is the major thing making this movie work.

But the funniest thing about this movie is not the ridiculous fighting or the in-your-face music or the comedy (which works); the funniest thing about this movie is that Hollywood action-movie-makers have chosen, out of all of Kurosawa’s action movies (called Jidai-geki in Japanese; read the first half of that word again, and if you still haven’t got it read it out aloud), Hollywood has chosen to borrow methodology – from the over-expressive form of the music to the melodramatic resolution and even ‘modern’ inventions like the shaky-cam – most heavily from this one; in other words, Hollywood considers serious what Kurosawa considers an experiment.

The essays of others:

James Berardinelli’s review

Armond White’s Criterion Collection essay

David Ehrenstein’s Criterion Collection essay

Posted in Kurosawa, Akira, Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

“set down / This set down / This”: a complete misreading of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground

Posted by Ronak M Soni on February 11, 2010

My Edition: Translator Mirra Ginsburg, Publisher Bantam Classics

He is a sickened man … he is a spited man. An unattractive man. He thinks he is a “sick man … I am a spiteful man. An unattractive man.”

In truth, he is neither sick nor spiteful.

Well, one Thursday, unable to endure my solitude any longer and knowing that Anton Antonych’s doors were shut on Thursdays, I thought of Simonov. As I climbed to his fourth-floor apartment, I was thining that this gentleman found my presence irksome and that I should not be going there. But since such thoughts would always in the end goad me still more irresistibly, as though in spite, into dubious situations, I went in.

That’s only how he acts. He is endowed with the intellect of an intelligent man who has never been able to relate to people.

He is not unattractive because he is ugly. He is, in fact, unattractive because he is unattracted.

No, in truth, he is not unattracted. He is merely scared of being attracted, of being attracted and finally rejected, scared merely because he can’t possibly see it coming.

I have in my own life merely carried to the extreme that which you have never ventured to carry even halfway

That is true, for isn’t he but the modern version of a character from a Greek morality play, a tragic character not because of what happens to him but because of who – what – he is?

Isn’t it, after all, true that the only way to explain this man, in all of his contradictory facets, is to name the character that he is?

… This little runt of an essay is, I believe, the centrepiece of my method of understanding this book (revealing the understanding itself, in my opinion, would be spoiling the goods).

I began planning to portray this beautiful and poignant novella, how it went from an extended whine to parody during its course, how I love Eliot (quoted at title) because he sounds good but Dostoevsky because he goes so deep into what life is, but soon found that my writing skills weren’t up to the job (it’s certainly a pity that writing has become, for me, the major channel for catharsis). To be honest, even Dostoevsky’s weren’t; didn’t this book, after all, begin as a negative review, a negative review supposedly of a book but actually of a genre, a genre that was basically a mindset? If Dostoevsky needs a hundred pages, how can I be expected to do it in a few hundred words?

Final note: My compliments to translator Ginsburg’s endnotes, which were both endlessly illuminating as well as view-of-the-book shaping.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

“My name is A. B. C. D. Douglas; Father’s name: E. F. G. H. Douglas”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 5, 2009

Cover of Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third

Cover painting by Jatin Das

Fakir Mohan Senapati(1843-1918) has a really interesting name, because Mohan Senapati is a Hindu name whereas Fakir is a Muslim name. So, I thought I might as well explain it, my source being the introduction to this edition by Satya p Mohanty. He was born Braja Mohan Senapati. In his childhood he fell gravely ill. After his grandmother had prayed to all the Hindu Gods she turned to two Muslim saints. In exchange for curing him, she promised to give him up to their religious order as a Fakir. When he recovered, she reneged, but agreed to give him up symbolically by changing his name to Fakir.
Six Acres and a Third(Oenguin Modern Classics edition, Rs. 250) is his first novel. He is also said to have pioneered the genre of the short story in Oriya, though his pioneering story has since been lost.

Ramachandra Mangaraj was a zamindar – a rural landlord – and a prominent moneylender as well, though his transactions in grain far exceeded those in cash. For an area of four kos around, no one else’s business had much influence. He was a very pious man indeed: there are twenty-four ekadasis in a year. If there had been forty such holy days, he would have observed every single one. This is indisputable. Every ekadasi he fasted, taking nothing but water and a few leaves of the sacred basil plant for the entire day. Just the other afternoon, though, Mangaraj’s barber, Jaga, let it slip that on the evenings of ekadasis a large pot of milk, some bananas, and a small quantity of khai and nabata are placed in the master’s bedroom. Very early the next morning, Jaga removes the empty pot and washes it. Hearing this, some people exchanged knowing looks and chuckled. One blurted out, “Not even the father of Lord Mahadeva can catch a clever fellow stealing a drink when he dips under the water.” We’re not absolutely sure what was meant by this, but our guess is that these men were slandering Mangaraj. Ignoring their intentions for the moment, we would like to plead his case as follows: Let the eyewitness who has seen Mangaraj emptying the pot come forward, for like judges in a court of law we are absolutely unwilling to accept hearsay and conjecture as evidence. All the more since science textbooks state unequivocally: “Liquids evaporate.” Is milk not a liquid? Why should milk in a zamindar’s household defy the laws of science? Besides, there were moles, rats and bugs in his bedroom. And in whose house can mosquitoes and flies not be found? Like all base creatures of appetite, these are always on the lookout for food; such creatures are not spiritually minded like Mangaraj, who had the benefit of listening to the holy scriptures. It would be a great sin, then, to doubt Mangaraj’s piety or unwavering devotion.

Jonathan Swift – about whom I speak solely from reputation and hearsay – felt the need to create believable characters and put them in situations strangely reminiscent of reality to perform his satire. Fakir Mohan Senapati, in his Six Acres and a Third (translated by a veritable army consisting of Satya P. Mohanty, Rabi Shankar Mishra, Jatindra K. Nayak and Paul St-Pierre),feels no such need. His characters are all caricatures, his Orissa a land that exists only inasmuch as it helps him make his point, but I believed in them nevertheless.

When I finished this book, I thought this was a ‘great’ book in the same way that Citizen Kane is the greatest movie ever made, because of its importance. It is widely touted, to the extent that it is touted at all, as being the apex of nineteenth century realism in Indian literature, as showing the ‘view from below’ before most of India had heard of anything along the lines of Marxism, as … well, quite a few more things, as described in Satya P. Mohanty’s (rather averagely written, even if makes good points) introduction. But, now, five days after having finished it, I realise that there may be more to the greatness this book than just importance. Not that I ever thought it wasn’t a very good book, but it just didn’t strike me as a candidate for greatness merely on basis of quality. Now, as I was typing up that quote, I realized that not only had Senapati got me to believe in the caricatures while I was reading it, I still believe in Ramachandra Mangaraj and co.

All he does is make no pretensions at depth, or naturalism. His narrator is nothing more than a ‘dispassionate’ (I’ll come back to these quotation marks) observer, who tells us merely what he sees, what he ‘concludes’, and the results of his ‘research’. This, you would think, isn’t very hard to do. Take, for counter-example, Albert Camus’s The Outsider, a review of which was my first post on this blog. My primary complaint with it was that it felt as if Camus wasn’t trying hard enough to convince us, because everything from the plot to the characters apart from the protagonist struck me as very poorly thought-out. Max Cairnduff commented saying that it wasn’t intended as a naturalistic piece in the first place. Which is a fair reason for disagreement; the primary reason we disagree about quality of art is that some things are more important to some people than they are to others. My point in bringing this up was that I felt no such irritation while reading Six Acres and a Third, which I feel even works as a naturalistic piece. This is so because Senapati makes so little pretence, makes everything he says sound so provisional, that I can take it as the version of truth as offered by someone not completely disinvolved.

And, therein lies the crux of the narration; the book is narrated by a person, or persons – even common people from Orissa and Bihar tend to use the royal pronoun, and the narrator could well be an investigator for the English, so I can’t be sure though I lean towards it being just one person –, who’s not involved but is making a thinly-veiled pretence at being one of the people whose life depends on these people whose dealings he talks of. I can say this because of the way it is said: looking at the quote, you can see three levels of narration, so to say. First, we have the fact that he is using Western courtroom logic to defend Ramachandra Mangaraj. Then, we have the fact that he is revealing facts that can only incriminate the man. Then, he is using the worst logic available to save him nevertheless, inasmuch as he will then be safe in a (caricaturised) court of law. He’s attacking Mangaraj, and thinly veiling it as a defence. The whole book – which, compliments to the author, is very short, less than two hundred very loosely packed pages – passes in such a flurry of multiple but obvious levels of deceit, most of the time more thinly-veiled than the rest of it. Sometimes, we even see trickery in the narrator’s mention of his target audience.

There is a plot, but it only comes in the second half of the book. Senapati packs most of it with a set of vignettes showcasing corruption at various levels – and the various branches of each level – of society, going as high as is relevant from the villagers’ point of view. Brahmins, peasants, zamindars, policemen, lawyers – especially lawyers, since it is their language which is used as the medium of satire –, they all come under scrutiny. There are six acres and a third, not to mention a cow, that are seized, and which go to court etc. Interestingly, even the victims of the seizing aren’t completely honest. Most interestingly, the only good people in the book barely talk; there are two, and one of them gets one scene with three, maybe four, barely functional dialogues. The other one? He only gets a few actions to perform.

It sounds so complex (here, I’m talking about morally complex, all the little implications; my ‘levels of writing’ are actually fairly obvious, even necessary for a book claiming to be a satire). But, when I read it, I thought the book was written in a simple, lucid style with few depths I was surprised to have plumbed. It is nothing more than the highest compliment to Senapati that all of his meaning came across so clearly. After I finished the book, I read Mohanty’s introduction, and there’s very little of this write-up that uses things I’ve learnt from Mohanty. Not because I found the points unworthy but because I already knew them. It was valuable only as a history lesson on this book. It is this simplicity, supported strongly by the cultural – it was the apex of nineteenth century realism in Indian literature – as well as historical – as a burning critique of the British administration – importance that makes this a great book. And I never even mentioned the anger simmering beneath the narrative, with about as much obvious force as this sentence.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Senapati, Fakir Mohan | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Outsider by Albert Camus

Posted by Ronak M Soni on September 27, 2009

“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.

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