the outsider

Last week I finished reading The Outsider by Albert Camus. It’s quite a short novel (technically a novella?) but it took me a while to finish because I was reading it only occasionally when taking a break from War and Peace, or when I needed to take a book with me somewhere, and obviously W&P is too big to lug around (and I never got around to getting an e-book version of it).

I don’t often go for short books like this one — possibly because when I was a kid and progressed to longer chapter books, I formed in my mind the notion of the “ideal” size of a book, and constantly wanted to flex my reading muscles by tackling longer and longer novels. Possibly also I’ve had some bad experiences with novellas that left me feeling like it was a bit pointless. Contrary to popular opinion, I didn’t enjoy Catcher in the Rye at all, and I only have a vague memory of reading other novellas because I guess they just weren’t all that memorable.

But I’ve had The Outsider recommended to me a few times before, so I had to give it a go. Having finished it, I completely understand why people think this is the kind of story that I would like — it’s very thought-provoking, and is written in a very unique way, unlike anything else I’d read before.

Well, that’s not entirely true — the way it’s written is very much like The Plague, which I tried to read for book club last year. I had downloaded a free e-book version, so I think the translation wasn’t that great, and that’s what I’m blaming for my inability to finish it. But I did get most of the way through, and it wasn’t so much that I abandoned the book, but it sort of just fell by the wayside.

There was a fair gap between reading The Plague and The Outsider, so I actually forgot the name of the author of The Plague. As such, it wasn’t until I was maybe halfway through The Outsider that I realised that they’re both by the same author. (Being such a short book, halfway isn’t that far in anyway.) But the writing styles are so similar between the two books that I had one of those “oh, that makes sense” moments when I found out.

The protagonist of The Outsider, a man named Meursault, comes across as someone who is rather pragmatic, detached and lacking emotional depth. He comes across as someone who never smiles — maybe just a weak smile in the corners of the mouth, but not one that beams from the eyes too. On paper, it sounds like that would make for a rather dull story, but Camus somehow makes it work.

I suppose the benefit of the story being written in first person is that we can really get inside the mind of Meursault, and really understand his thinking. And his thoughts do actually seem reasonable and understandable. For example, there are several scenes in The Outsider where Camus writes about the blazing heat of the sun, and how this makes Meursault incredibly tired, or impairs his senses and his thoughts, or distracts him from what is happening. As someone who hates the heat of summer, I find this quite reasonable. 

(I’m also really glad I read most of this during autumn/winter so that the searing heat reflected from the beach sand, or the stifling heat of the courtroom was not intensified by my own environmental conditions.)

At the end of the book, Meursault reflected on his imminent death, and his thoughts about how it wouldn’t matter if he died tomorrow or in twenty years sounded very much like something Marcus Aurelius would say

I think another recurring trait was that if Meursault didn’t have anything to say, he just didn’t say anything. To “regular” people this might come across as suspiciously taciturn or reserved — which it was to certain other characters in the story — but, knowing his rationale, it seems perfectly reasonable. What would the world be like if more people thought this was perfectly acceptable and agreeable?

On that note, I don’t really have much else to add right now, except that I would be interested in reading other works by Albert Camus one day. He seems like the sort of author that would be very interesting to study.

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