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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