Monday, 6 October 2008

The Outsider - Albert Camus

We all have books that, no matter how far we have travelled since we read them, linger in the memory and become seminal moments in our understanding of the world. They don’t have to be ‘literary’ works. For me, they often are (although a definition of 'literary' is a task for another day), and The Outsider is one of them.

In part this is due to the fact that I read closely a number of times in a short period (one of those the original French – with a dictionary). But mostly it was the startling clarity of the language and the simplicity of the story. These same qualities struck me again when I read the book this weekend.

Vivid scenes are burned in the memory as if by that Algerian sun. And again I felt that awful sense of confusion when Meursault walks along the beach and shoots his victim. Blinded by the sun, dazed by the heat.

I know many people find the novel to be emotionally cold. And it is interesting to ponder what fate would befall a character like Meursault these days. He would probably be diagnosed as being somewhere on the autistic spectrum, neatly sidestepping the argument Camus was trying to make.

If you haven’t read any Camus because of that ‘literary’ reputation, you must at least give this book a try. The power lies in the open, straightforward honesty of the work. Indeed, for me it is one of the treasures of modern western literature. Compact, beautifully written (it was one of the works that made we want to be a writer), simple. That last is its real strength, the thing that separates it from lesser work. Many writers would have been tempted to over think the idea. Camus lets the very language show us the story.