Saturday 8 October 2022


When I came to read Sartre’s post-War Road To Freedom trilogy (starting here), I devoured it like a meal prepared specially for me. Then when I came to his pre-War ’Nausea’, I was constantly chewing, and sometimes re-chewing, without ever successfully digesting anything. And I seem to now be having a similar reactor to Camus’ ’The Outsider’. (Though it was written during the war, 1942 to be precise.)

In ’The Plague’, a game is played over who is writing the novel. Ostensibly, it’s one of the characters. But stylistically we’re aware that it can only have come from an accomplished writer. Here, like a character actor putting on an accent, Camus takes the tone of his first-person narrator, Meursault.

Which means that from the first, ’The Outsider’ is written in the most flat and direct prose. It’s more the tone of a police report than a novel. While at the same time his unreliability as a narrator is never forgotten; he often fails to hear things, or makes assumptions which he later concedes must have been mistaken. And there’s no more clear-cut way to get this over than starting the novel with the blunt announcement “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.”

And this implies the central paradox. We see Meursault only through his reactions to other characters and events, to which he has precious little reaction. This leads to the most famous passage of the novel, possibly of Camus’ writing:

“She asked me, a moment later, if I loved her. I answered that it didn’t mean anything, but that I probably didn’t love her. She seemed sad. But while preparing lunch, for no reason at all she suddenly laughed in such a way that I kissed her.”

Camus giving up his prose is like a talented artist reverting to stick figures. It seems such a sacrifice to make, there must surely be a very good reason for doing it. And so inevitably we set to work with what we have, and try to parse Meursault’s lack of reaction. So those limitations are inevitably passed onto the reader.

Though it’s clearly intended as a shocking twist, we’re now no more able to read this novel not knowing of the murder than we are watch ’Citizen Kane’ and wonder who Rosebud is. A friend has got into a feud with an Arab, leading to Meursault taking the guys’s gun from him. But then later, Meursault returns to the spot and shoots the Arab himself.

We saw how some were keen to find an anti-fascist message into ’The Plague’. Unsurprisingly they do the same here. Meursault’s non-explaining is to be associated with the occupation of France. At a time when more active resistance was impossible, silence became a form of non-collaboration. Which at times it did. But, even if we could take murdering an Arab as an anti-fascist gesture, it’s simply untrue to say that Meursault stays silent or is wilfully uncompliant. As we’ll see, he explains things as well as he’s able.

A character in ’The Plague’ rails against capital punishment, clearly ventriloquising Camus’ own view. Yet in this book where capital punishment plays so central a role there’s no innocent party under injustice, nor even (as they’d commonly be understood) any mitigating circumstances. Meursault is guilty. He shoots someone. He tells us so himself. The trial has a different purpose.

First, let’s note that the moment is literally pivotal. We jump straight from the shooting to preparations for the trial, a consequence made to seem inevitable. And at this point the narrative effectively flips over, from Meursault talking about others without making any real effort to understand them, to a trial in which the officials talk about him the same way.

Guilt being established, they jump straight to talking about whether the crime was premeditated. But, with no real means to establish this, they jump to an assessment of his character. And so they spend more time discussing his response to his Mother’s death than the shooting.

Small details, such as his accepting a cup of coffee while sitting up with the body, are seized on. Which is strangely extra-diegetic, like the second half of a book is handed over to critics of the first half. It’s decided that he displayed insufficient mourning at the funeral, so should be guillotined. Hence Camus’ oft-repeated gag "in our society any man who does not weep at his mother's funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death."

What are we to make of all this? In 1947, Sartre provided an Explication. (Which can be read here.) Camus himself wrote an afterword in 1955. Both suggesting the short novel was unfinished business.

Camus himself said “the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.” And, ostensibly at least, this is easy enough. He has simply failed to provide the outward signs of mourning which society requires. We are dealing with a free thinker, scorning such performative rituals, who follows his own maps, who loved his Mother in his own way and will mourn her similarly.

And certainly the alternate translation of the title, ’The Stranger’, works better. Meursault is shown to be living in a large town, holding down a regular job, eating in restaurants and going to the beach. He’s not outside of society, but estranged from it.

And this misreading is made more dangerous by being so neat and thereby so appealing. Let’s take the quote above in full. Asked straight out if he’d “felt any grief on that day” he replies “I’d rather got out of the habit of analysing myself and that I found it difficult to answer his question. I probably loved mother quite a lot, but that didn’t mean anything”. It isn’t always noticed that the first part is reversed from his comment about his mistress. But what’s salient is what stays the same, “that didn’t mean anything”.

It’s not the conventions around it but the human connection itself which is being questioned, seen as absurd. Ultimately it’s impossible to truly know whether he loved his Mother, for him as much as for us. We take on habits, perform rituals, diarise to send a card on Mother’s Day, with which we try to paper over this space. While Meursault lives with the space.

Unsurprisingly more fulsome, Sartre found significance in the writing style, pointing out how it differed from regular Camus. He saw it’s aim as: 

“…to insert a glass partition between the reader and his characters. Is there really anything sillier than a man behind a glass window? Glass seems to let everything through. It stops only one thing: the meaning of his gestures. The glass remains to be chosen. It will be the Stranger’s mind, which is really transparent, since we see everything it sees. However, it is so constructed as to be transparent to things and opaque to meanings.”

And he relates this to Camus’ predilection for reported speech:

”Camus irons out the dialogue, summarises it, renders it frequently as indirect discourse. He denies it any typographic privileges, so that a spoken phrase seems like any other happening.”

He uses the above-quoted famous passage as an example of this. We’re not told “my saying I didn’t love her made her sad”. We’re told “I answered that… I probably didn’t love her. She seemed sad” - this then that, as if the two events might have happened co-incidentally, with no causal link. Which he describes as “the discontinuity between the clipped phrases that imitate the discontinuity of time.” We use novels, perhaps texts in general, as tools to make things more explicable to us. This does the reverse.

In the Court both Prosecution and Defence create their own Meursaults. In opposition to one another but both explicable within their system. To do this they must exclude the real Meursault. Hence his comment that the process seems to have nothing to do with him. They combine to form what he describes as a mechanism, one from which he must escape but cannot.

With Rieux in ’The Plague’ we are guided to imagine he has ‘hidden depths’, there are things about him which we only glimpse as he focuses on recounting external events. The challenge is to find Rieux the man inside Rieux the narrator, stitching him out of hints and clues.

Meursault conversely, is the subject of his own story. And the challenge is to accept that these few bald statements are all there is of him, though they seem so inadequate. When asked whether he loved his Mother, for example, there is no more to him than the answer he gives.

And, as had Sartre’s own ’Age of Reason’, the novel ends on a point of realisation. He recognises his situation is absurd and accepts “the benign indifference of the universe.”

This is, insofar as I can tell, the intended reading. But there’s a problem with it. It does precisely what the Court did, jumps back to the funeral by leapfrogging over the murder. In a long essay Sartre uses ‘murder’ once and ‘kill’ twice. It comes to be treated as a merely precipitating event, we need a crime in order to get to the trial.

We don’t just look out. In a sense our minds detach from us and we look at ourselves as an outside thing, in order to make sense of ourselves to ourselves. Whereas Meursault seems as much a stranger to himself as anyone else is. In Sartre’s terminology, he is to himself a fact he perceives without being able to grasp its meaning. A situation he calmly accepts.

The Court questions whether it was premeditated or impulsive. Go back to the murder scene, and it’s one of the few passages which seems to have been written by Camus in his own voice. The main word for which would be ‘feverish’. When asked why he shot the Arab, he can only talk about the sun being hot. Which provokes laughter, but seems his best effort to explain it. (And the sun’s fever-inducing powers on the human mind also appears in his story story ’The Renegade’.)

Which is neither of the Court’s options. The nearest to them would be compulsive. Circumstances drove him to it, even if they were chance circumstances. He speaks of being “pushed” by the sun, (“the whole beach was reverberating against me and pushing against me from behind”) and wanting to seek shelter. But he can’t get to the rocks while the Arab, his antagonist, is there. One way of reading the scene would be that his craving was for solitude, the only way of achieving which was by removing other people.

Sartre comments “If there were a grace of absurdity, we would have to say that he has grace.” And there are times you can see what he means…

“He then asked me if I wasn’t interested in changing my life. I replied that you can never change your life, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t at all dissatisfied with mine here.”

And perhaps my ultimate inability to parse the book is this combination of murder with any form of grace. Meursault seems to me to be exhibiting less grace than a deficiency, or at most a passive acceptance of the problems existence throws at us.

Readers will need to ask themselves if they can manage this. My answer would be “it’s a meaningless question, but probably not”. To me, human relations are les external forces we encounter, like hills and valleys, but things we create between us, like roads and bridges. And there’s no reason to see the things we create as any less real, any less solid in our lives, than the things we encounter.

Further, the tale unavoidably rests on the notion that the victim is “only” an Arab, that the game hands Meursault cards to play that could spare him the guillotine, cards that would not be awarded were the roles reversed, in order for us to watch him indifferently decline to play those cards.

Two of Camus’ three novels and several of his short stories are set in Algeria, and its sense of place is often evoked. But out of his Arab characters this is quite possibly the main one, and soon after appearing he’s dispatched in order to precipitate the plot. The emphasis is all on that Meursault killed, the who deemed unimportant.

So, much like ’The Plague’ later, exploitation of the colonised Algerians isn’t shied away from. But it is simply assumed, taken as a fact of life. We’ve all heard a lot lately about there supposedly being no need to say Black Lives Matter. Here there is a need to say Arab Lives Matter, but at the same time there would be no point. The Arab character isn’t even granted a name.

From the little I could glean from ’Nausea’, it’s about a first-person narrator who comes to accept the essentially arbitrary nature of reality, where the only meanings are the ones we impose upon it. Perhaps Sartre was disposed to speak up for ’The Outsider’ because he sensed a similar intent. ’The Stranger’ gets closer to that, but is pretty much the definition of problematic.

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