Revitalising fiction

FROM time to time too much travelling, minor illness and manuscripts read (literally!) on the fly catch up with you, and you are stale, grumpy and unwilling to read a word that is new. Traditional remedies include catching the bus, plane or train out of town (not recommended if it is travel that has squeezed you dry), drink in large quantities (definitely an unworkable option if it doesn't agree with you!) and so on and so forth. My own remedy is a fairly orthodox one - I head for a tried and tested book that I know will serve to yank me out of whatever state I find myself in. Which is how I came to The Outsider by Albert Camus (in the most recent translation by Joseph Laredo) for the umpteenth time.

If you think you are wrung out and pissed off with life in general, the state of mind of young Meursault is guaranteed to set you right in the jiffy. From the opening scene where the bored and nihilistic youth boards a bus to attend his mother's funeral (where he does not cry, thereby damning him in the eyes of everyone present) to the final paragraphs in the book, where he lies exhausted in his cell, trying to summon up images of his own execution, The Outsider continues to be one of the greatest psychological inquiries into the mind of a man unable to comprehend the demands life makes on him. Looked at another way, Meursault typifies the uncompromising individual determined to live life on his own terms - a man who in so doing upsets everyone around him as cold, heartless and unfit for decent human society.

About a decade after The Outsider was published, Camus was asked about Meursault who continued to puzzle and vex readers and critics. The writer had this to say in response: "A long time ago, I summed up The Outsider in a sentence which I realise is extremely paradoxical: 'In our society any man who doesn't cry at his mother's funeral is liable to be condemned to death'. I simply meant that the hero of the book is condemned because he does not play the game. In this sense, he is an outsider to the society in which he lives, wandering on the fringe, on the outskirts of life, solitary and sensual. And for that reason, some readers have been tempted to regard him as a reject".

"But to get a more accurate picture of his character, or rather one which conforms more closely to his author's intentions, you must ask yourself in what way Meursault doesn't play the game. The answer is simple: he refuses to lie. Lying is not only saying what isn't true. It is also, in fact especially, saying more than one feels. We all do it, every day, to make life simpler. But contrary to appearances, Meursault doesn't want to make life simpler. He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings and society immediately feels threatened. For example, he is asked to say that he regrets his crime, in time-honoured fashion. He replies that he feels more annoyance about it than true regret. And it is this nuance that condemns him".

In his passion to be true to himself, Meursault offends and wounds people both figuratively and literally, of course. But the author refuses to apologise for the character he has created. In his view, "Meursault is not a reject, but a poor and naked man, in love with a sun which leaves no shadows. Far from lacking all sensibility, he is driven by a tenacious and therefore profound passion, the passion for an absolute and for truth. This truth is as yet a negative one, a truth born of living and feeling, but without which no triumph over the self or over the world will ever be possible".

For nearly 60 years now, The Outsider has been the existentialist novel against which all others have been measured. It's tribute enough to its greatness that it has lasted so long, and to thousands of new readers everywhere is as fresh and as compelling as when it was first written. For me, time and time again, it has proved to be a great pick-me-up.After a few hours in Meursault's company one's own dispiritedness pales into utter insignificance.