Originally published in its native French in 1942, The Outsider (L’Étranger) by Algerian-born French writer Albert Camus is a study in absurdism and despair. Meursault’s mother died today, or maybe yesterday, he can’t be sure. This is how we open, and the uncertainty of his mother’s date of death is not to do with a desperate non-connectedness to the real world, but a rational exactitude: the telegram from the nursing home was ambiguous, leaving the matter doubtful. Meursault is a young man working as a clerk in Algiers, living a usual manner of a French-Algerian middle class bachelor. Underneath the apparent normality is that he seems to lack the basic emotions and reactions, including hypocrisy, that society requires of him.
And so we find ourselves in this neatly written but disturbing book. He cooks his evening meal for one in his small flat, sleeping with his girl at the weekends, bathing, going to the pictures. He also travelled to the nursing home his mother lived: attends her funeral, comes home. But he becomes involved in a personal tragedy, an unfathomably unjust trial and it is here that his outsider observations are put into particularly harsh perspective.
I did not find this tale shocking on a personal level: when a story is narrated by a character at such distance to his own life, it keeps the reader even further away. I did not respond with the same upset or discomfort of others, perhaps because I see and feel the world in such a profoundly different way to Meursault. In a way, it was like I had trained his own eye onto his story: there was no emotional involvement, only a rational observation.
I found the observations of classic French-Algiers life interesting, if not sometimes jarring (the Arab that deserves to die; the Moorish girl who deserves the beating: it is a contemporaneously problematic product of its time), and sometimes Meursault feels the heat of the summer so deeply it radiates off the page. It is not a comfortable place to be, but feels so well represented:
“There was the same red glare as far as the eye could reach, and small waves were lapping the hot sand in little, flurried gasps. As I slowly walked towards the boulders at the end of the beach I could feel my temples swelling under the impact of the light. It pressed itself upon me, trying to check my progress…Whenever a blade of vivid light shot upwards from a bit of shell or broken glass lying on the sand, my jaws set hard I wasn’t going to be beaten, and I walked steadily on.”
There is also something Kafkaesque about Mersault’s life and trial but this comes not from the absurdism of perfect bureaucracy but his own inability or disinclination to emotionally engage. It’s like a study in Asperger’s. I wonder if this book were to be published today if this is how it would be promoted. He is so rational it is dangerous to his life. Meursault is so cooly detached in his observations of life, death and sex, viewed from the outside.
At moments I found this charming: his curiosity about the ‘Robot Woman’ who sat at his table one lunchtime, observing her odd movements and habits, keeping his eye on her as they separately walked down the street afterwards. I like noticing these small details about people and the world around me, and I like that Meursault does too. But this was a rare moment. I found Meursalt’s calmness a demonstration that he does not feel empathy, cannot understand why others would feel it nor why anyone would expect him to perform it.
I didn’t find it particularly pleasant or engaging to spend time with a character such as Meursault. But he and his experience is intellectually interesting, curious at times, and it is apparent how the book remains so culturally significant and influential. As a reader I was an outsider myself, leaving space for my own inner Meursault to observe.