Selasa, 15 Mei 2012

The Outsider - Albert Camus

Somehow, through some sort of mental osmosis, I find that most avid readers know the broad outline of classics long before they've read them.  I certainly found this with Rebecca, To Kill A Mockingbird, Jane Eyre etc.  The simple explanation, of course, is that conversations, articles, blog posts and films have, over the years, given us this foreknowledge.  So it is something of a rare joy to read a classic without any prior understanding of the contents.  That was the experience I had with Albert Camus's The Outsider (1942), translated by Joseph Laredo.  (Laredo, apparently, opted to translate L'Etranger as The Outsider rather than The Stranger, under which title the first English translation appeared.)  My striking copy was kindly given to me by the Folio Society.

My experience with French literature - always in translation - has been mixed.  I have found some of it rather too philosophical for my liking, and there is always the spectre of ghastly French theorists I have tried, and failed, to understand.  The title didn't encourage me - I thought it might be very existentialist or, worse, in the whiney and disaffected Holden Caulfield school of writing.  It was thus rather a delight to find The Outsider more in the mould of the detached, straightforward English novelists I love - Spark, Comyns - but perhaps most of all like my beloved Scandinavian writer Tove Jansson.  A lot of that style is due to the protagonist - Meursault - and the first-person presentation of his life.  Meursault sees the world through a haze of emotionless indifference.  He is not cruel or unkind, he is simply emotionless.  Actually, that's not quite true.  He feels things to a moderate amount - the novel opens with his mother's death, and the most he can muster up is that  he would rather it hadn't happened.  His honesty is unintentionally brutal...
That evening, Marie came round for me and asked me if I wanted to marry her.  I said I didn't mind and we could do it if she wanted to.  She then wanted to know if I loved her.  I replied as I had done once already, that it didn't mean anything but that I probably didn't.  "Why marry me then?" she said.  I explained to her that it really didn't matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married.  Anyway, she was the one who was asking me and I was simply saying yes.  She then remarked that marriage was a serious matter.  I said, "No."  She didn't say anything for a moment and looked at me in silence.  Then she spoke.  She just wanted to know if I'd have accepted the same proposal if it had come from another woman, with whom I had a similar friendship.  I said, "Naturally."
When I thought that The Outsider would be simply a very well-written character portrait - an unusual and unsettling pair of eyes through which to view the world - things become more complicated.  In case others of you have the same lack of foreknowledge I had, I won't give away the details - but the second half of the novel (novella? It's only 100pp.) concerns a court case...

Albert Camus writes in his Afterword that the defining characteristic of Meursault (which is obvious early in the story) is that 'he refuses to lie.  Lying is not only saying what isn't true.  It is also, in fact especially, saying more than is true and, in the case of the human heart, saying more than one feels.'  Meursault cannot lie; he cannot exaggerate the emotions he feels - and he feels them to a lesser degree than most.  The fallout from this honesty is slightly surreal, but at the same time entirely possible within the narrative.  It's a brilliant piece of writing, and a brilliant outworking of an idea.  So, perhaps, like many of the French novels I couldn't quite enjoy, Camus's is concerned with ideas and philosophies - but he prioritises the execution of a believable, complex, and consistent character, and that is the triumph of this exceptional book.

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