“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure”. That is the laconic opening (as translated by Stuart Gilbert) of this short novel by Albert Camus. It illustrates the cool, detached, matter-of-fact style of writing, and the central character of the story.
In fact, the death of his mother, or, rather, the cool, apparently uncaring reaction of the son, becomes a key factor at the end of the book, when the narrator, Meursault, is on trial for murder. The prosecutor uses witnesses to the funeral of the mother to besmirch his character, instead of just the clear facts of the callous murder of a native Algerian on a beach. Meursault does not deny the murder and cannot explain his motives. It is an absurd, existential act.
Camus is feted as a central figure of the philosophy of ‘Existentialism’, and I personally find him miles ahead of that nauseous, selfish, puffed-up figure Sartre. Camus is best as a novelist. His more philosophical works, such as ‘The myth of Sisyphus’ are far less successful. I think he was adversely influenced by Sartre. ‘The outsider’ is 95% novel, and the 5% of philosophy is successfully embedded in the story in a non-didactic way. In fact the lack of didacticism or overt ‘message’ is one of the charms of the book.
The flow against conventional morality is startling, as exemplified by the last sentence of the novel: “For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained was to hope that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.”
The story and the location is drawn from the author’s person experience living in Algeria. There is an atmosphere of hedonism, relaxing in the sun. It also reveals the embedded prejudices and colonial mentality that prevailed amongst white people there at the time, before the 2nd World War. The lack of sympathy evoked by the murderer and the court for the Algerian victim is symptomatic of the prevailing racist frame of mind. I remember such attitudes in Africa, and of course have read about them in history books. The central character does not hate the non-white. He just does not care.
Meursault is so cool and detached that he almost exists in a void of nothingness. When offered a job in Paris by his boss, this is his reaction: “I told him I was quite prepared to go; but really I didn’t care much one way or the other.” When his girlfriend asks him to marry her, he responds: “I said I didn’t mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married.”
Camus has created an elegant portrait of an existentialist crisis where (in the words of Freddy Mercury) ‘nothing really matters’.