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Sheds and Watersheds

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When Professor Lisa Jardine was conducting her search for the ‘essential male novel’ among 400 men from the worlds of academia, the arts, publishing and literary criticism she unaccountably didn’t get round to me. Not that my answer would have changed anything. The only surprising thing about the winner, The Outsider (L’Étranger) by Albert Camus, was that anybody was at all surprised.

Professor Jardine worried over the fact that her 400 men seemed curiously reluctant to admit to having what she called ‘a watershed moment’ where fiction was concerned, displaying ‘a certain angst about revealing that fiction has had any impact on their day-to-day lives’. I’m not surprised that they clammed up when asked which novel ‘played a part in making them the men they are today’; on the whole men, even literary critics, are happier in sheds than watersheds. (I myself am deeply puzzled by the fact that enough men thought that The Hobbit played a part in making them the men they are today to put it at joint fourth.)

The flat, unadorned narrative voice of The Outsider (the Americans called it The Stranger, but that seems all wrong) belongs to Meursault, a clerkly sort who lives and works in Oran, Algeria, in the late 1930s. As the novel opens he has just heard of the death of his mother. He travels to her funeral, though his main concern seems to be with how his boss will react to his taking extra time off. On his return he goes swimming, picks up a girl called Marie on the beach and goes to bed with her. A neighbourhood pimp, Raymond, asks his advice about an Arab girl who has been two-timing him and needs to be taught a lesson. Raymond eventually beats her up, which brings him (and therefore Meursault, who has allowed himself to be dragooned into friendship with Raymond) into conflict with the girl’s brother.

There is a confrontation on the beach, and knives are produced. Raymond is injured, and

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When Professor Lisa Jardine was conducting her search for the ‘essential male novel’ among 400 men from the worlds of academia, the arts, publishing and literary criticism she unaccountably didn’t get round to me. Not that my answer would have changed anything. The only surprising thing about the winner, The Outsider (L’Étranger) by Albert Camus, was that anybody was at all surprised.

Professor Jardine worried over the fact that her 400 men seemed curiously reluctant to admit to having what she called ‘a watershed moment’ where fiction was concerned, displaying ‘a certain angst about revealing that fiction has had any impact on their day-to-day lives’. I’m not surprised that they clammed up when asked which novel ‘played a part in making them the men they are today’; on the whole men, even literary critics, are happier in sheds than watersheds. (I myself am deeply puzzled by the fact that enough men thought that The Hobbit played a part in making them the men they are today to put it at joint fourth.) The flat, unadorned narrative voice of The Outsider (the Americans called it The Stranger, but that seems all wrong) belongs to Meursault, a clerkly sort who lives and works in Oran, Algeria, in the late 1930s. As the novel opens he has just heard of the death of his mother. He travels to her funeral, though his main concern seems to be with how his boss will react to his taking extra time off. On his return he goes swimming, picks up a girl called Marie on the beach and goes to bed with her. A neighbourhood pimp, Raymond, asks his advice about an Arab girl who has been two-timing him and needs to be taught a lesson. Raymond eventually beats her up, which brings him (and therefore Meursault, who has allowed himself to be dragooned into friendship with Raymond) into conflict with the girl’s brother. There is a confrontation on the beach, and knives are produced. Raymond is injured, and Meursault, dazed by the heat and the confusion, ends up shooting one of the Arabs in cold blood. At his trial much is made of his unemotional behaviour at his mother’s funeral, his lack of remorse at his crime, his refusal to take any of the proffered escape routes. We leave him contemplating his impending execution with what you might call a howl of contentment. I see from the inscription in my worn grey Penguin that I bought The Outsider in early 1963, between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP, conveniently enough. That was rather early for me, unlike Larkin, and I dimly perceived that the florid (not to say floral) dalliances of Connie and Mellors were not how it was actually going to be. Not least among the many things that struck me forcibly on first reading The Outsider was Meursault’s offhand bedding of Marie; the notion that you could Go All the Way with a girl without months of wheedling, merely by letting your hands stray over her breasts, was a novel and exciting one, if dangerously misleading. The hedonism that held sway in Oran in the late ’30s still hadn’t reached Southend-on-Sea by the early ’60s. But The Outsider wasn’t about sex, it was about telling the truth – or refusing to lie, a much more potent way of looking at it. The novel’s famously placid (and carefully punctuated) first line – ‘Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.’ – seemed to me a perfectly reasonable response to an ambiguous telegram. That you could end up in the condemned cell, not just for killing an Arab in a moment of inadvertence, but for failing to greet the death of your mother with the correct display of filial emotion, was terrifying but not surprising. The idea that you could save yourself by placing less value on the life of an Arab than on that of a white man seemed as dishonest to me as it would have done to Meursault. The discovery that such a subversive book was published in France under the noses of the occupying forces in 1942 was the icing on the cake; the German censor found nothing objectionable about it, apparently. Camus himself was just what a bookish 15-year-old was looking for in a literary hero. Amis, Braine, Wilson & Co all seemed terribly provincial and looked like schoolmasters. In spite of all the drugs and jazz and beards, the American lot were too much in thrall to the windy excesses of Walt Whitman, who didn’t seem to have much to do with the twentieth century. Camus had actually done something, not least edited a resistance newspaper during the occupation. A stubbly Frenchman with a Boyard dangling from the corner of his mouth fitted in perfectly with my notion of what a writer ought to be; he belonged with all those other stubbly Frenchmen – Belmondo, Gainsbourg, Sartre and so on – whose toad-like visages seemed not to get in the way of a busy love-life. While I waited to get stubbly enough I practised mumbling enigmatically with a No. 6 in the corner of my mouth, squinting through the smoke. (Eventually, of course, I cottoned on to the fact that they all, particularly Camus, wanted to look like Humphrey Bogart, and that his unadorned prose came straight from such hard-boiled luminaries as James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett.) The manner of Camus’s death in 1960 seemed all of a piece with his dangerous allure. To smash against a tree in a Facel Vega, the most glamorous of all French cars, his publisher at the wheel, was the apotheosis of the Absurd. Ah yes, the Absurd . . . If truth be told, I never quite got the hang of Existentialism. ‘Existence precedes Essence,’ I would say to myself solemnly, and then go off to the youth club to play table tennis. The Outsider appealed to me on a much more visceral level than mere philosophy; it seemed to be about me, and I wasn’t interested in constructing general principles around the unique being that was moi. Such ridiculous solipsism didn’t last long – the Beatles’ first LP was on the horizon, after all, and everything was about to be different. I quickly learned in any case that girls didn’t respond well to the proposition that if they really wanted to understand me they should read The Outsider. Meanwhile my mother bore the fact that I was trying out being stolid in the event of her death with her usual forbearance. Rereading the book recently (and how many of Professor Jardine’s 400 can say that, I wonder?), I was pleased to find that The Outsider still makes a spare and effective fable. Its unadorned prose carries no period baggage or local colour; you would never know that it was set in North Africa, in fact. True, there are Arabs; one gets murdered, after all. But a similar novel set in contemporary France might well feature Arabs in exactly the same way. The heat, the dust, the beaches, the piscines, the pompous might of the state, all seem more than adequately French. In his condemned cell Meursault rejoices in the benign indifference of the universe; at a time when the universe begins to seem less indifferent and certainly less benign, this might appear perverse. If we are killing the planet because we can’t be bothered not to, then The Outsider is a fitting text to accompany its demise. You can’t say that about The Hobbit.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © Mike Petty 2006


About the contributor

Mike Petty conducts his existence as Publishing Manager of the Eden Project in Cornwall, and tries to restrain his dealings with essence to the kitchen.

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