Book Review: The Outsider (Albert Camus)

Camus’ The Outsider is, on first impressions, a miserable affair of nihilistic detachment. With staccato regularity of dirge-like prose, he begins attempted enmeshment of the reader into the life and worldview of his first person protagonist, Meursault, by way of notification of the death of his narrator’s elderly mother at an old people’s home near Algiers. Meursault receives the message by curt telegram and is, all things considered, unperturbed. Such is his focus of attention and priority to aspects of the physical realm, rather than in the redundancy of the emotional, that this state of being, his stance in life, is ultimately to be his undoing. What we might therefore read, as the prose slowly shifts into a more flowing exposition, is a philosophical undercurrent to Camus’ intentions.

The Outsider (published by Penguin Classics, 2013, translated from the original French by Sandra Smith; originally published by Librairie Gallimard, 1942, as L’Étranger), is a short read, tightly executed. It becomes apparent, in the gradual unfolding, that Camus has deliberately planted seeds early on, and the seeds are specifically referred back to in later scenes. That said, the tightness of the writing in the crucial scene towards the end of part one of the book (about which the entire story revolves) becomes mechanical in Camus’ rendering of the exact ordering of events, the comings and goings of Meursault and his associates, Masson and Raymond, and Meursault’s girlfriend, Marie, on a beach where a terrible event unfolds. Part one concludes, some fifty or so short pages in, and part two, of similar length, is a detailing of consequences, rinsed through as they are with an almost autistic rationality.

Meursault, who we’re given no first name for, has a somewhat sociopathic detachment, devoid of any significant empathy for those around him. He takes a course of least resistance through his life. It is not until the very end of the book that Camus renders him with any degree of emotional content in association with his fellow humans. It is a reaction, in large part, to persuance by a chaplain in his attempts at bringing redemption upon Meursault by way of an acknowledgement of God for his sins. Meursault has none of it. For him, as he rationalises, life happens and it will end, some time or another, and God has nothing to do with it. That Meursault has committed murder on the beach in cold-mannered circumstances, according to his prosecutor, is the complication of the piece.

Very late on in the book, Meursault’s whole attitude can be summed up with the inclusion of a few short lines — Camus writes of his narrator’s ponderings on the cessation of contact by Marie whilst he, Meursault, is in prison:

‘It also occurred to me that she might be sick or dead. Such things happen: it was natural . . . nothing bound us to each other, nothing kept us alive to each other. Although, if I discovered that was the case, I would become indifferent to the memory of Marie. She would no longer interest me once she was dead. I found that idea normal, just as I completely understood why people would forget me after I died.’

We should read this in the context of the scenes on the beach at the end of part one of the book. Meursault has become friends, rather by default, with a neighbour, Raymond Sintès, an alleged pimp (though, in his own words, he ‘works in a warehouse’) who assaults a woman by reasoning of a lack of fidelity. Sintès embroils Meursault into a plan to exact some revenge on her and Meursault, devoid of empathy or any morality to the contrary, agrees. His is a coldly rational approach. What transpires is that offence taken by the woman’s brother, an Arab as he’s described, and his cohort, results in an altercation on the beach where Sintès, Meursault and Marie have gone to visit Sintès’ friend, Masson, and his wife for a day out. Meursault, ostensibly due to the unfortunate circumstances of finding himself in possession of Sintès’ gun and being overcome by sensory stimuli (the heat of the sun and a dazzling from the blade of the Arab’s knife), kills the latter. Meursault has walked out alone along the beach after the first altercation and chanced upon the man again, and this is viewed dimly as premeditation by the prosecutor. Meursault kills a man and there is no concern for the man, or regret, on Meursault’s part. It is, in his worldview, simply something that has happened.

The first part of the book builds a bleak character study, from Meursault’s mother’s wake and his detachment in attendance at this, to his subsequent days of interaction with Marie and his long, slow art-house-worthy observation of people passing down below his balcony and in the street, and on towards the incident at the beach. In his day-long observation of people, Meursault operates within the realms of a tiresome tirade of short dreary sentences: he smokes; he cooks eggs; he watches the trams go by; he eats a piece of chocolate; he leans against a wall; the sky changes; he watches the sky; he smokes more. The second part of the book is a study of the unfolding of Meursault’s trial. Camus writes him almost as if he, Meursault, is removed from the courtroom, studying his trial with a rational calculation, weighing things up and nodding agreement with things that appear fair enough, given the circumstances.

Meursault’s prosecutor is at pains to point out the minutiae that the reader is already aware of but which now they are also reminded of: Meursault’s actions and way of being at his mother’s wake and funeral and his quiet acceptance of the disreputable Sintès and his plans, for example, and the potential linking of these cold hard aspects to Meursault’s apparent calculated revenge out of loyalty to a friend who’s engaged in a dispute, albeit ‘petty’. His own lawyer, by contrast, attempts a mediation, of sorts, despite his admittance that Meursault did kill the man.

Meursault is not a likeable character, as such, but neither is he so dislikeable as to be repugnant: he is just what he is, despite his crime. He largely accepts his circumstances with a reasoned and analytical air. In this we might find him difficult to connect with. Perhaps Camus’ philosophical undercurrent has its affect here: for Meursault, the emotional connection to other humans is irrelevant and how might that play out in the reader? Only in aspects of the sensory affects of the natural world (the sun, the sea, the sand, for example) does Meursault seem to have any degree of internal/external association. Meursault, the outsider, is of the world, if not in the human one.

Ultimately, what Camus has left behind in the pages, if the reader can suffer the opening section beyond Meursault’s mother’s death, is a trace consideration of what it might mean to be human, in the book’s shadows of reason or emotion, detachment or connection. What, we might find ourselves pondering on, is life for?