You know that feeling? That you have half a biscuit somewhere? Maybe you ate it while distracted but you are sure you didn’t and can not shake the feeling that it is lying around somewhere, neglected. Well I have a couple of questions like that, one of which has been annoying me for thirty four years.
I first read L’Etranger, (translated as The Outsider and written with a capital E here because for the life of me, I can not work out how to get an acute accent on it without going back into settings and adding another keyboard) by Albert Camus when I was 17 and studying French and it went in with a bullet to my top ten favourite books. I must have been pretty morose at the time, because I remember another one of my top tens was Catcher in The Rye, which actually I still love. Of course Pride and Prejudice was also in there so things can not have been that bad.
L’Etranger is narrated by the main character, a guy called Mersault and starts as follows:
Mother died today, or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother dead, funeral tomorrow, Faithfully yours”. That does not mean anything, perhaps it was yesterday.
It is pretty clear from the outset that we are not exactly in for a laugh a minute romp, but wait there’s more. He attends the funeral and returns home. He spends time with a girl, and does a favour for a neighbour, Raymond, who is arguing with his mistress and her brother, whom Mersault refers to as The Arab. He goes away to the beach with his girlfriend, Raymond, and Raymond’s mistress and it appears they are followed by the brother and his mates. During a long hot afternoon, after a confrontation with the Arab during which Raymond gets wounded with a knife, Mersault finds himself back on the beach with Raymond’s gun. The Arab pulls a knife, Mersault fires the gun once, then four more times, killing the Arab. He is arrested for murder and put on trial.
The outcome of the trial seems entirely to depend on Mersualt’s character. He refuses to lie and say he loved his girlfriend, even though he enjoyed her company and they were lovers. He openly admitted that he had spent time with her and gone to a comedy movie straight after his mother’s funeral when he should have been mourning. He did not judge Raymond for being a pimp and has spent time with him, helping him with a letter. For these actions and his lack of emotions and for his apparent lack of remorse, as much as for pulling the trigger and committing murder, he is found guilty and condemned to death by execution.
He is as unsentimental about his own fate as he is about others and loses it only once at the end with a chaplain who arrives to offer him comfort, which he rejects.
Thirty four years ago, I was attending an interview for university for a place I ended up not getting (but not over this question). Thirty four years ago, my interviewer asked me about an assessment someone (I think it may even have been Camus) had made of Mersault’s character, saying, ‘He was the Christ we all deserved.’ He asked me my thoughts on this statement, what I thought it meant. I had no bloody idea. I still have no bloody idea.
I rattled around a bit, and spoke of execution, of people not liking to hear truth, or of celebrating the truth and then not liking it when they heard something contrary to what they wanted, but I am not convinced I got to the heart of the question, let alone the answer.
Every now and then I type the question into a search engine, but then do not dig too deep. I think that I should be able to work the answer out for myself. It has been ages since I read the book, but I started rereading it this morning, hoping that my rusty French would allow me to navigate the prose. So far it has. I am not sure if I will get any closer to an answer than I did all those decades ago, but it is worth a try, I think if for no other reason than to revisit a text I have not read in years and see how my responses to it have changed, if at all.
If I work out an answer, I will let you know, and in the meantime I will keep scratching.