Book Review: The Outsider by Albert Camus

I forget when this book first came to my attention. I think it was some ago, but I couldn’t tell you if it was 2 or 4 years ago. While it sat on my wishlist for a good amount of time, I happened across it while I was buying some sweets in a WH Smith not long ago. I was surprised at how short it was, but it was also cheap, so I picked it up as an impulse buy along with some jelly babies and a bottle of milkshake.

It was in fact, just after I wrote about my misanthropic tendencies that I got around to reading it. It seemed like an appropriate follow-up as I would identify as a perennial outsider. Wherever I lived, it has always seemed to be on the wrong side of town. When the BBC released it’s new class calculator recently, it highlighted that I was the only person in my office who was “emergent service worker” (i.e. working class with a decent income). I digress.

[spoiler warning]

The book is told from the point of view of Mersault, the outsider of the title. The opening line gives the setting in that Mersault’s mother has just died. Yet his reaction to her death is not typical of a grieving son. He treats death in a very matter-of-fact manner, to the point of not seeming to care, which offends a lot of people. It certainly marks him out as different. The crux of the book, however, comes half way through the book with a second death; one that Mersault caused. The second half of the book then focuses on his trial. Yet the focus of the trial is less about whether he is guilty of a crime and more about whether he grieved over his mother’s death. What is at question is not whether he is guilty, but whether he is normal. Ultimately, the book gives us a third death to mull over, which leads to Camus’ bleak fatalism:

“…everybody knows that life isn’t worth living. And when it came down to it, I wasn’t unaware  of the fact that it doesn’t matter very much whether you die at thirty or at seventy since, in either case, other men and women will naturally go on living, for thousands of years even.”

[end spoiler warning]

I cannot say whether it was Camus’ writing or the way it was translated into English, but the inner monologue that narrates the story felt somewhat staccato, almost reminiscent of Mark Haddon’s autistic narrator of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time. Yet there was at the same time more than a whiff of Kafka which lurked on the pages. Camus implicitly asks a lot of the reader in this short volume. So it is not without good reason that I agree with a comment on the front cover which stated that it was “One of those books that marks a reader’s life indelibly.”

So who might I recommend this to? Well, anyone who enjoys Kafka (if enjoy is really the right word) will probably find this up their street. For its bleakness, I might also suggest it would appeal to those who were not put off by Kokoro.

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