(L’Étranger) The Outsider by Albert Camus – a review
The famous opening lines in the Joseph Laredo translation, go like this:
Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.
First published in 1942, The Outsider traces a few days in the life of a man known as Meursault. The reader has access to Meursault’s inner thoughts and experiences and watches him at his mother’s funeral and, during the following days, we follow him as he meets a girl and becomes involved with his neighbours and acquaintances. The setting is Algiers and Meursault appears to be, like Camus, a Frenchman born and raised in the city.
The first part of the novel concludes when Meursault shoots and kills an Arab after being out in the sun for most of the day.
Part II of this short novel is concerned with Meursault’s trial, imprisonment, and encroaching execution. But throughout Camus is less interested in plot and more in using character and the sequence of events to elaborate his own theory of existentialism and the absurdity of man’s position in relation to a universe of indifference.
Meursault never tells a lie. At all times he adheres to his own version of the truth. He even refuses to fabricate the ‘white’ social lies with which all societies maintain their existence. And because of this disparity, the nuance between his own version of the truth and the collective truth to which we are expected to conform, he is condemned.
In the preface to the American University Edition of The Outsider, published in 1955, Camus said:
‘A long time ago I summed up The Outsider in a sentence which I realize is extremely paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death.’ I simply meant that the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn’t play the game.’
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‘So one wouldn’t be far wrong in seeing The Outsider as the story of a man who, without any heroic pretensions, agrees to die for the truth.’
It is many years since I first read this novel, and I can say that it has never really left me. To revisit it now has been to confirm its place in my imagination and altogether in our time.
This post also concerns the writer, Albert Camus