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Does this book still pack the same ethical and philosophical punch it once did?
on 23 February 2009
One of the very few books that I have ended up reading twice, I first came across The Outsider long ago in 1962 when I was 17 and have just revisited it recently with my reading group, extremely curious to know whether the strong impression it originally made upon me would be rekindled.
In the main, it was not. Coming to this novel in adolescence as one of the first `serious' books I had encountered, and just before the social upheavals of the 1960s began, I found the story and fate of Mersault, who could not or would not lie or express the standard emotions that were expected of him, quite shattering of the world in which I had grown up. Over the intervening decades, I carried a memory of Mersault as a noble hero and of the type of society that I had grown up in as a hypocritical conspiracy against the expression of honesty of feeling. As much or more than Kerouac, Ginsberg and Dylan, it was this book that made me a small town, coffee bar existentialist.
On re-reading at a different age and in a different era, I was struck by a number of impressions. Mersault appears less heroic and emptier of human warmth. He tacitly supports his neighbour, a pimp, in his violence towards his girlfriend and the novel hints more at his racism in the motiveless murder of an Algerian on the beach, around which the novel revolves. His patterns of thinking seem now far less idealistic and almost autistic in character.
However, the sense of place and especially the evocation of the heat, sun, sea, the streets of the town, the courtroom and his prison cell remain convincing and beautifully expressed in clear, clean prose. Mersault's world view and his in-the-moment limited expectations still engaged me as a study of character, but less as an existential pioneer and martyr and more as an unreflective and mildly hedonistic individual.
I would still strongly recommend this book for its historical importance. Written during the second world war when Camus was fighting in the French Resistance, I first read it in early 1960s when publicly departing from the standard loyalties to school, church and state still felt like a dangerous undertaking. The book will now be judged by first-time readers against the mores of present times, times which have been fashioned by myriad forces including, as an early artistic tour de force, this novel.
My grading is an amalgam of my original and my current impressions - I hope this book continues to provoke and be appreciated.