A half-assed review of L’Étranger

Cup Day night, and I ended up flipping channels until I settled on some discussion show about books with Marieke Hardy (the thinking man’s prrrrr!) and random others. I like books, so why not. Halfway through the show they started talking about one called The Outsider (originally L’Étranger), by Albert Camus: a French guy in colonial Algiers who throughout the book is shown to be a different cat kills an Algerian on a beach for no particular reason and if anything the murder, while being central to the plot, is almost incidental. He did it half in self-defence but basically because he was a naturalistic dude, almost animalistic, and the sun was shining too brightly and temporarily fried his synapses.

It’s a short one; 100 pages. The book consists of two parts, and the panel discussion consisted exclusively of the murder and of the philosophy of the second part of the book when he rots away in prison, is put on trial and rejects society’s mores. The killing was a self-defence related crime and would not have been great shakes in context of 1950s French-Algerian society, but the character, Meursault, had buried his mother a few days earlier without demonstrating that he was sad, so was condemned not for the murder but for having ‘buried his mother with the heart of a criminal’.

It was curious that the book’s talking points – the murder, existentialist philosophy – are the bits that I don’t give a shit about. I had studied it in year 11 French, in French, ten years ago. So I missed the finer details of the writing at the expense of the overall story, which for the first half was him floating around working and shacking up with Marie Cardona and meeting characters in a Kramer from Seinfeld-esque way and generally doing what came into his head on a particular day, and nothing more. For some reason that’s the part of the book I like, the bit where he simply lives without thinking, as opposed to the thinking without living he does in the second half, where he becomes a talking figurehead for Camus’ philosophical wank.

Action says more than words, in our lives and in books. We can be eloquent and have a philosophy but it needs to be backed up by physical proof of what we believe, by happenings. But what usually happens is we all say a bunch of stuff that turns out to be meaningless, but don’t demonstrate anything.

The feminists won’t like Meursault. He’s almost neutral as a human being, with no evil but no particular goodness, and at one point he helps his friend write a letter to an ex-girlfriend so that the friend can have one last screw, slap her around one last time and say with satisfaction that he got even with her. Meursault gives no judgement to the consequence of his own action; he was asked to do it, so he simply did it. He spent the Saturday after his Mum’s funeral swimming, laughing and sexing with Marie without reflection but with simple enjoyment, and spent the Sunday simply perched at his window all day, watching people walk by.

But for some reason I like him. I like the simplicity of his mind, it resonates with me, and for some reason is something I would like to have, to an extent. I usually judge people on their kindness or lack of, and Meursault isn’t a particularly positive or negative person, but something about him touches me and he gets spared in my thinking.

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2 thoughts on “A half-assed review of L’Étranger

  1. I liked the beginning way better than the end also, maybe because he’s happy and he’s doing things his own way. I don’t really mind that he uses the woman or wants to get back at her because it works in the context of his character.

  2. I carried it around in my schoolbag for like the entire year, cause I had to go there on the train and what else was I going to do, homework? Lol. But like I said, I only kept reading the schlepping bits, not the funeral, the murder or the trial. It was my first foreign-language book and kind of fun for that.

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