It’s been one hundred years since the birth of Albert Camus in Algeria. This writer’s absolutely fascinating biography gives my life the excitement of a shoelace. Despite his family’s extreme poverty, Camus attended the University of Algiers, supporting his education by working a series of odd jobs. However, one of several severe attacks of tuberculosis forced him to drop out of school. Regardless of this poverty and tumultuous upbringing, Albert Camus grew up to be a Nobel Laureate and one of the most influential writers and philosophers of the 20th century. Camus also played as goalkeeper for Racing Universitaire d’Alger junior team from 1928–30, famously stating “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football”, however his football career was cut short by bouts of tuberculosis. This captivating and enigmatic figure produced works of literary brilliance; principally being The Outsider, The Plague, The Fall and The Rebel.
The Outsider is one of my favourite novels. I loved it so much I even challenged myself with reading it in French afterwards – with my level of French, trust me, it was no mean feat. So when I read a recent BBC article that reduced The Outsider to a mere teenage angst novel, referring to it as ‘one of a select set of works that generations of disaffected teenagers have turned to as a rite of passage’, I found it utterly reductive and an insult to the masterpiece that is The Outsider. Camus’s first novel is both a brilliantly crafted story and an illustration of Camus’s absurdist world view. It is a challenge to conventional morality delivered in a sharp, dispassionate style.
Indeed, the novel was the influence for The Cure’s first single ‘Killing an Arab’ and inspired a wider cult of The Outsider. Movie stars such as James Dean and Marlon Brando portrayed loners at the edge of society, not even sure what they were protesting about. Similarly, you can trace the lineage through pop music, with the likes of Morrissey, Joy Division and Kurt Cobain.
However, it is Camus’ outstanding portrayal of philosophy and morality, in this remarkably dense but short book, only totalling just over one hundred pages, that renders it so much more than a ‘cult’ or ‘teenage angst’ book. The 1942 novel, also known as The Stranger, is about Meursault, a French-Algerian; a man alienated from the society in which he lives; psychologically detached, amoral, and seemingly unfeeling. He does not grieve for his mother’s death, asserts that love ‘doesn’t mean anything’, murders an Arab, and is subsequently indifferent to his own execution. After committing murder, Meursault struggles against society’s attempts to manufacture and impose rational explanations for his attitudes and actions. This struggle is enacted in Meursault’s battle with the legal system that prosecutes him, and eventually condemns him to execution. In the novel, Meursault’s philosophy argues that the only certain thing in life is the inevitability of death, and, because all humans will eventually meet death, all lives are all equally meaningless.
Camus beautifully depicts this in his novel by broadening his protagonist’s thinking once he is sentenced to death. After an encounter with a chaplain, who desperately tries to turn him to God in the face of death, Meursault concludes that the universe is, like him, totally indifferent to human life. He decides that people’s lives have no grand meaning or importance, and that their actions, their comings and goings, have no effect on the world. This realisation is the culmination of all the events of the novel. When Meursault accepts “the gentle indifference of the world,” he finds peace with himself and with the society around him, and his development as a character is complete. The wonderful dichotomy between Meursault’s highly physical relation to the natural world, depicted in lengthy descriptions of elements such as the weather, and his belief in the definitive end in death, are starkly contrasted with the Chaplain’s theism and stoic belief in the afterlife. Camus sharply and skilfully embodies this central conflict of the novel in the recurrent motif of the crucifix, which the examining magistrate waves at Meursault. The definitive symbol of Christianity, it stands in opposition to Camus’s absurdist world view. It is easy to see why this novel has such a profound effect on its readers. It makes you question yourself, others, our actions, the consequences, and most importantly, the meaning of life. Certainly it prompted those questions from me, but even as a teenager I can recognise that these questions transcend an adolescent ‘rite of passage’. Rather, they are aimed to speak to the whole of humanity.
One might ask what prompted Camus to hold such dejected philosophical views. During World War II, Camus went to Paris and became a leading writer for the anti-German resistance movement. He was also the editor of Combat, an important underground newspaper. While in wartime Paris, Camus developed his philosophy of the absurd. The experience of World War II led many other intellectuals to similar conclusions. Faced with the horrors of Hitler’s Nazi regime and the unprecedented slaughter of the war, many could no longer accept that human existence had any purpose or discernible meaning. Existence seemed simply, to use Camus’s term, absurd. Therefore, Camus himself felt like an outsider; detached and alienated from society and humanity. However, in the midst of the widespread intellectual and moral bewilderment that followed World War II, Camus was not entirely pessimistic. In his resistance of German occupation and refusal to give into the Nazi regime, as the editor of Combat, Camus was a voice advocating the values of justice and human dignity; which is what elevates a work like The Outsider so far beyond the diminutive brand of a teenage angst novel.