Camus – L’Étranger/The Outsider (contains spoilers!)
“In our society any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death.”
“I tried to make my character represent the only Christ that we deserve.”
If you want to avoid spoilers, stop reading right now.
So, anyway, the book is brilliant and it’s not unlikely that I’ll read other stuff by Camus. The reading experience reminded me a bit of the one I experienced when reading Kafka – not all of it is at all pleasant to read, you get into this ominous and sinister universe the book deals with; but it’s brilliant stuff and you want to read on nevertheless – you can’t put it down. It’s a bit like looking at a traffic accident happening in slow motion, but you somehow don’t feel guilty about watching.
Some stuff from the book:
i. [From the very beginning of the first chapter:] “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.
The old people’s home is at Marengo, fifty miles from Algiers. I’ll catch the two o’clock bus and get there in the afternoon. Then I can keep the vigil and I’ll come back tomorrow night. I asked my boss for two days off and he couldn’t refuse under the circumstances. But he didn’t seem pleased. I even said, ‘It’s not my fault.’ He didn’t answer. Then I thought maybe I shouldn’t have said that. […]
[two days later:] When I woke up, I understood why my boss seemed unhappy when I asked him for my two days off: today’s a Saturday. I’d sort of forgotten, but as I was getting up, it occurred to me. My boss, quite naturally, thought that I’d be getting four days’ holiday including my Sunday and he couldn’t have been very pleased about that. But for one thing, it isn’t my fault if they buried mother yesterday instead of today and for another, I’d have had my Saturday and Sunday off in any case. Of course, I can still see my boss’s point of view.”
ii. “Near the coffin there was an Arab nurse in a white overall, with a brightly coloured scarf on her head. At that point the caretaker came in behind me. He must have been running. He stuttered a bit. ‘We covered her up. But I was to unscrew the coffin to let you see her.’ He was just going up to the coffin when I stopped him. He said, ‘Don’t you want to?’ I answered, ‘No.’ He didn’t say anything and I was embarassed because I felt I shouldn’t have said that. After a moment he looked at me and asked, ‘Why not?’ but not reproachfully, just as if he wanted to know. I said, ‘I don’t know.'”
iii. “I told Marie all about the old man and she laughed. She was wearing a pair of my pyjamas with the sleeves rolled up. When she laughed, I fancied her again. A minute later she asked me if I loved her. I told her that it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so. She looked sad. But as we were getting lunch ready, and for no apparent reason, she laughed again, so I kissed her. It was at that point that we heard a row break out in Raymond’s room.
First we heard a woman’s shrill voice and then Raymond saying, ‘You cheated on me, you cheated on me. I’ll teach you to cheat on me.’ Some dull thuds and the woman screamed, but it was such a terrifying scream that the landing immediately filled with people. Marie and I went out too. The woman went on yelling and Raymond went on hitting her. Marie said it was terrible and I didn’t say anything. She asked me to go and fetch a policeman, but I told her that I didn’t like policemen. Anyway, one came along with the plumber who lives on the second floor. He banged on the door and the noice stopped. He banged harder and after a moment the woman started crying and Raymond opened the door. He had a cigarette in his mouth and a sugary smile on his face. The girl rushed to the door and announced to the policeman that Raymond had hit her. […] The policeman told him to shut it and said that the girl was to go and he was to wait in his room until he was summoned to the police station. He added that Raymond ought to be ashamed of himself for being so drunk that he was shaking the way he was.”
[Later on:] “The day before, we’d been to the police station and I’d testified that the girl had ‘cheated’ on Raymond. He got off with a warning. They didn’t check my statement.”
iv. [the boss] intended to set up an office in Paris to handle that side of the business on the spot by dealing directly with the big companies and he wanted to know if I was prepared to go over there. I’d be able to live in Paris and travel around for part of the year as well. ‘You’re a young man, and I imagine that sort of life must appeal to you.’ I said yes but really I didn’t mind. He then asked me if I wasn’t interested in changing my life. I replied that you could 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. He looked upset and told me that I always evaded the question and that I had no ambition, which was disastrous in the business world. So I went back to work. I’d rather not have upset him, but I couldn’t see any reason for changing my life. Come to think of it, I wasn’t unhappy. When I was a student, I had plenty of that sort of ambition. But when I had to give up my studies, I very soon realized that none of it really mattered.
That evening Marie came around for me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said I didn’t mind and we could do if she wanted to. She then wanted to know if I loved her. I replied as I had done once already, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t. ‘Why marry me then?’ she said. I explained to her that it really didn’t matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married. Anyway, she was the one who was asking me and I was simply saying yes. She then remarked that marriage was a serious matter. I said, ‘No.’ She didn’t say anything for a moment and looked at me in silence. Then she spoke. She just wanted to know if I’d have accepted the same proposal from another woman, with whom I had a similar relationship. I said, ‘Naturally.’ She then said she wondered if she loved me and well, I had no idea about that. After another moment’s silence, she mumbled that I was peculiar, that that was probably why she loved me but that one day I might disgust her for the very same reason. I didn’t say anything, having nothing to add, so she smiled and took my arm and announced that she wanted to marry me. I replied that we’d do so whenever she liked.”
v. “Between my mattress and my bed-plank [in jail], I’d actually found an old scrap of newspaper which had gone all yellow and transparent and was almost stuck to the material. It was a small news story. The beginning was missing, but it must have taken place in Czechoslovakia. A man had left some Czech village to go and make his fortune. Twenty-five years later he’d come back rich, with a wife and child. His mother and his sister were running a hotel in his native village. In order to surprise them, he’d left his wife and child at another hotel and gone to see his mother who hadn’t recognized him when he’d walked in. Just for fun, he’d decided to book a room. He’d shown them his money. During the night his mother and sister had clubbed him to death with a hammer to steal his money, and then thrown his body into the river. The next morning, the wife had come along and without realizing revealed the traveller’s identity. The mother had hanged herself. The sister had thrown herself down a well. I must have read this story thousands of times. On the one hand, it was improbable. On the other, it was quite natural. Anyway, I decided that the traveller had deserved it really and that you should never play around.”
vi. “To another question he replied that he’d been surprised by my calmness on the day of the funeral. He was asked what he meant by calmness. The warden then looked down at his boots and said that I hadn’t wanted to see mother, I hadn’t cried once and I’d left straight after the funeral without paying my respects at her grave. And another thing had surprised him: one of the undertaker’s men had told him that I didn’t know how old mother was. […] for the first time in years, I stupidly felt like crying because I could tell how much all these people hated me.”
vii. “‘Has he even expressed any regrets? Never, gentlemen. Not once in front of the examining magistrate did he show any emotion with regard to his abominable crime.’ At that point he turned towards me, pointed his finger at me and went on showering me with accusations without me really understanding why. Of course, I couldn’t help admitting that he was right. I didn’t much regret what I’d done. But I was surprised that he was so furious about it. I’d have liked to have explained to him in a friendly way, almost affectionately, that I’d never really been able to regret anything. I was always preoccupied by what was about to happen, today or tomorrow.”
viii. “I looked round the room again. Everything was just as it had been on the first day. I met the eye of the journalist in the grey jacket and of the little robot-woman. That reminded me that I hadn’t looked for Marie once during the whole trial. I hadn’t forgotten her, only I’d been too busy. I saw her sitting between Céleste and Raymond. She gave me a little wave as if to say, ‘At last,’ and I saw a rather anxious smile on her face. But my heart felt locked and I couldn’t even smile back.”
ix. “All through the day there was my appeal. I think I made the most of that idea. I’d calculate my assets so as to get the best return on my thoughts. I’d always assume the worst: my appeal had been dismissed. ‘Well, then I’ll die.’ Sooner than other people, obviously. But everybody knows that life isn’t worth living. And when it came down to it, I wasn’t unaware of the fact that it doesn’t matter very much whether you die at thirty or at seventy since, in either case, other men and women will naturally go on living, for thousands of years even. Nothing was plainer, in fact. It was still only me who was dying, whether it was now or in twenty years’ time. At that point the thing that would rather upset my reasoning was that I’d feel my heart give this terrifying leap at the thought of having another twenty years to live. But I just had to stiffle it by imagining what I’d be thinking in twenty years’ time when I’d have to face the same situation anyway. Given that you’ve got to die, it obviously doesn’t matter exactly how or when. Therefore (and the difficult thing was not to lose track of all the reasoning which that ‘therefore’ implied), therefore, I had to accept that my appeal had been dismissed.”
x. “For the first time in ages I thought of Marie. She hadn’t written to me for days on end. That evening I thought it over and I told myself that she’d probably got tired of being a condemned man’s mistress. It also crossed my mind that she might have been ill or dead. It was in the natural order of things. And how would I have known when, now that we were physically separated, there was nothing left to keep us together or to remind us of each other. Anyway, from that point on, Marie’s memory would have meant nothing to me. I wasn’t interested in her any more if she was dead. I found that quite normal as I could quite well understand that people would forget about me once I was dead. They had nothing more to do with me. I couldn’t even say that this was hard to accept.”
xi. “The chaplain knew the game well too, I could tell immediately: his gaze never faltered. His voice didn’t falter either when he said, ‘Have you really no hope at all and do you live in the belief that you are to die outright?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. He then lowered his head and sat down again. He told me that he pitied me. He thought it was more than a man could bear. All I knew was that he was beginning to annoy me. […] He started talking to me about God again, but I went up to him and made one last attempt to explain to him that I didn’t have much time left. I didn’t want to waste it on God.”
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