The Postmodern Outsider

Garry Gillard, 1995

Lecture given 20 September 1995 for H237 Narrative Fiction 2 at Murdoch University


Camus's life
Genre of The Outsider
Reading The Outsider: realism
Reading The Outsider: ethics
A note on tense
Reading The Outsider: racism
UrOutsider and postmodern Outsider

Periodically, some trial, and not necessarily fictitious like the one in Camus's The Outsider, comes to remind you that the Law is always prepared to lend you a spare brain in order to condemn you without remorse, and that, like Corneille, it depicts you as you should be, and not as you are.1 Barthes, Mythologies

Camus's life

unknown date: Father watches public execution by guillotine (Cf. 1983: 1062)
7 November 1913 Albert Camus born
1914 11 October Father died at the Battle of the Marne
1930 December, aged 17, tuberculosis: told he was going to die. (Cf. 1983: 1153)
1934 … [first] marriage … lasted only two years … ended with Camus's discovery that his wife, a morphine addict, was sleeping with one of his friends in order to obtain money to buy drugs. (Thody 1989: 3)
1935 Sets up Théâtre du Travail in Algiers. His 'passion for the theatre never left him, and in January 1960, at the time of his death, his 1959 stage adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Possessed was on tour in northern France.'4
1936-38 A Happy Death His first completed novel, La mort heureuse (A Happy Death), written between 1936 and 1938 but not published until 1971, eleven years after his death, dwells in some detail on the advantages of being rich.5
1937 He was expelled from the Communist Party, because he maintained his opposition to French colonialist policies in Algeria (an agreement between Russia and France involved a moderation of this opposition in the French Communist Party).
1939-40 Camus's work on Alger Républicain on behalf of the nine million or so Arabs who lived side by side, but not on an equal basis, with the nine hundred thousand European settlers in Algeria … (Thody 1989: 7)
1940 It is true that his second marriage, in 1940, to Francine Faure, had not always been a happy one. His twin children, Catherine and Jean, were born in 1945, but Camus did not enjoy domestic life. He was something of a womaniser, and in 1955 went to live in a bachelor flat. In 1953, his wife had a nervous breakdown.6
1942 The Myth of Sisyphus In 1950, Camus said that he thought of himself as a writer whose works were so closely related to one another that none of them could be fully understood in isolation from the others.7 (Thody 1989: 5)
1942 Outsider8 His three major works of fiction … are all what the French call 'les romans de la condition humaine,' novels of man's fate. (Thody 1989: 3)
1947 Plague
1956 Fall
1954 Algerian War
1957 'I must also denounce a terrorism which is exercised blindly, in the streets of Algiers for example, and which some day could strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice, but I shall defend my mother above justice.'9
16 October 1957 Nobel Prize
1960 Killed in car accident 4 January, aged 46
1962 Algerian independence

Genre of The Outsider

The issues raised in L'Étranger are highly complex, but the story told is a direct and simple one. Meursault goes to his mother's funeral, takes Marie Cardona as his mistress, becomes involved in the affairs of his somewhat dishonest neighbour, Raymond Sintès, shoots an Arab, is tried for murder and sentenced to death. By 1989, L'Étranger had sold almost five million copies.

The Outsider is not, strictly speaking, a novel as such. L'Étranger, like La chute, is a 'récit,' a long short story or a novella. (Thody 1989: 14) Like L'Étranger and La chute, the Gidean récit concentrates on one issue and one group of characters. Camus called his third major work, The Plague, a 'chronicle.' Gide called only of his works a 'roman' or 'novel': Les Faux-Monnayeurs, The Counterfeiters. (I take the opportunity to mention The Counterfeiters, by the way, because it is the work in which Gide gave us the concept of the 'mise en abyme' to literary theory.) So: L'Étranger is a 'récit' or 'tale'—rather than anything so complex as a novel.

Camus evidently like the kind of concentration that came with this form, and even, it seems, saw it as characteristically French. 'In July 1943, he published in a review called Confluences an article entitled "L'intelligence et l'échafaud" ("Intelligence and the scaffold").10 In it, he argued that what characterised the French novel was first and foremost a constant attention to the matter in hand. … There is, maintains Camus, a kind of "passionate monotony" in the way that Madame de La Fayette, Benjamin Constant, Choderlos de Laclos, Stendhal and even Proust bring everything back to the single idea which dominates the novel they happen to be writing.'11

On the other hand, if you are going to write a novel, it must have a unity of style. 'In 1943, Camus made an entry in his Carnets … "What attracts many people to the novel," he wrote, "is that it is apparently a genre which has no style. In fact it demands the most difficult style, the one which subordinates itself completely to its subject."12 He then continued: "one can thus imagine an author writing each of his novels in a different style," and this is exactly what he did. The sharp, isolated, individual notations of immediate items of physical experience which characterise Meursault's perception of the world in L'Étranger …'13 are unique to that work: the others are different.

'In another of his early comments in the Carnets, Camus wrote that anyone who was going to set out to write novels ought to learn to think in images, and he repeated the idea in one of the first literary articles he published in Alger Républicain, a review on 20 October 1938 of Sartre's La Nausée. "A novel," he then wrote, "is never anything but a philosophy put into images. And, in a good novel, the whole of the philosophy has passed into the images.'14 It's interesting that it was in a review of Sartre's novel that he wrote this, as it was Sartre himself who made the 'famous remark that "the technique of a novelist always presupposes a metaphysic. The task of the critic is to bring out the latter before appreciating the former."'15 You might like to take this as one of your entry points into L'Étranger: if this is a basis for judgement, then what is your judgement of The Outsider on this basis: how successful is it in fact in passing the whole of the philosophy into the images?

Reading The Outsider: realism

'Like a natural object, L'Étranger seems to be inexhaustible in the different ways in which it can be analysed. For when it was first published, in June 1942, it was seen as a depressing example of a rather pessimistic type of realism. André Rousseaux, [a] well-known Catholic critic, went so far as to interpret it in Le Figaro Littéraire for 17 July 1942 as a study of the moral decadence of France which the new Vichy regime, with its 'Révolution Nationale' and slogan of 'Travail, Famille, Patrie,' was trying to remedy. The central character of L'Étranger, he wrote, was a man "without humanity, without human value, and even, in spite of the ambition to be realistic which provides the sole framework to the book, without any kind of human truth."

'The review in the influential Nouvelle Revue Française for October 1942 saw L'Étranger primarily as a novel of social revolt, aimed at denouncing a society which had prevented Meursault from looking after his mother properly and had thus virtually compelled him to place her in the nursing home where she died.'16

'In another approach which takes the book as realistic, it is possible to read 'some aspects of Meursault's attitude and behaviour which justify … following Aimé Patri's example, in L'Arche for 1944, of thinking of him as a schizophrenic.17 For what characterises Meursault throughout the first part of the novel is what is popularly seen as a characteristically schizophrenic tendency: he is obsessed with trivial minutiae while remaining totally indifferent to matters which most other people would regard as being of considerable importance.'18

Another way of viewing this as a novel of social protest is to see it as an attack on the death penalty or at least on 'the way in which criminal courts reach their verdicts.'19 Consider the way in which Meursault's 'sheer animal terror'20 is described in this passage.

The most difficult part was that in-between time when I knew they usually operated. Once it was past midnight, I'd be waiting, listening. Never before had my ears picked up so many noises or detected such tiny sounds. I must say though that in a way I was lucky throughout that period in that I never once heard footsteps. Mother often used to say that you're never altogether unhappy. And lying there in my prison when the sky turned red and a new day slid into my cell, I'd agree with her. Because I could just as easily have heard footsteps and my heart could have burst. For even though the faintest rustle would send me flying to the door and even though, with my ear pressed to the wood, I'd wait there frantically until I could hear my own breathing and be terrified to find it so hoarse, like a dog's death-rattle, my heart wouldn't burst after all and I'd have gained another twenty- four hours.21 1983: 108-109

So that's another kind of realism.

Reading The Outsider: ethics

It is however, more common to consider L'Étranger as a work with a philosophical kind of meaning, a 'philosophy put into images,' to take an ethical view of the book. Without a sense of a deeper meaning of some kind, one may come away with only a sense of 'irony and waste,' a puzzling 'impression of a man who discovers the immense importance and value of life on the very evening before he is about to lose it.'22 One way to solve this puzzle is take Camus's hint that 'none of [his works] could be fully understood in isolation from the others,' and read together with L'Étranger the other book that he was after all writing at exactly the same moment: The Myth of Sisyphus. This philosophical essay begins with the basic premise that life is absurd, and, rather in the manner of a Cartesian Meditation, proceeds to develop an ethic on this sceptical basis. Camus's conclusion, in a nutshell, is that although the absurd starting-point immediately poses the problem of suicide, that we should neither kill ourselves nor follow other thinkers who started from a similar premise into what Camus calls 'philosophical suicide': the leap into religious faith. We should on the contrary be like those 'absurd men' celebrated in The Myth of Sisyphus—the Don Juan, the actor, the conqueror and the artist. (By the way, leaving aside the conqueror, the other three are avatars of Albert Camus: he says himself he is an 'artist,'23 he had a passion for the theatre, and was apparently also something of a Don Juan—unfortunately for his second wife.)

You will have noticed that Camus's hero in The Outsider is a man who strenuously resists the invitation to accept the consolation of religious faith: a man whom Camus himself, in his 1955 Preface (which is printed as an Afterword in the 1983 Penguin edition) praises for his authenticity, for his eschewal of hypocrisy: 'he refuses to lie.'24 As Céleste, one of Camus's three favourite characters,25 says: 'he is a man.' (The Laredo translation gives this as 'man of the world.'26) That is, he is a man who respects the 'very well defined' 'code of morality' of the 'men' 'of Algeria'—and Camus sets it out like this, in one of his essays.

'You "don't let your mother down." You see to it that your wife is respected in the street. You show consideration to pregnant women. You don't attack an enemy two to one, because "that's dirty." If anyone fails to observe these elementary rules, "He's not a man" and that's all there is to it. This seems to me [writes Camus] just and strong.'27

This then is Camus's rather macho version of existentialist good faith. Camus clearly relies a lot on an Algerian way of life for the appeal of his tale, and I'm sure that many of you will have responded, as I did, to the evocation of life under the sun and near the sea, and to the descriptions of the simple pleasures of the body and of the senses. 'The men in Algeria,' [he once said] 'live like my hero, in an absolutely simple manner. Naturally you can understand Meursault, but an Algerian will understand him more easily and more deeply.'28 Sounds a bit like some of the Australian men we know, doesn't it? The 'delights and values to be found on the sundrenched beaches of the Mediterranean world'29 are not really all that different from those found on the sundrenched beaches of Perth, are they?

A note on tense

I'll return to the question of ethics in a moment, but I'd just like to mention in passing something about the form of The Outsider which makes it quite unusual and which you will not have been able to notice, reading it in translation: it was apparently 'the first French novel to be written without using the normal narrative tense, the passé simple.'30 This is, as its name implies, the past tense which consists simply of one word. When I first learnt about this tense I was told it was the passé historique, the tense in which one learnt about the 'facts' of history. The tense used mostly in The Outsider is the passé composé, the two-word past tense used in speaking about the past, as opposed to writing, and therefore having making a weaker claim to be stating the truth. This aspect apparently made quite a considerable impact in 1942.31 I find this interesting in the context of the distinction between what we've been calling modernism and its deconstruction—and I hope to return to this point later.

Reading The Outsider: racism

I return now to questions of ethics and to Camus's attitude to the Arabs.

'Look at the events from [an Arab] point of view … An Arab girl is brutally beaten up by a European. The European police refuse to do anything about it, relying on the unsupported evidence of another European that the girl had been guilty of so serious a misdemeanour that she somehow deserved this treatment. When the girl's brother tries to avenge her, he is shot dead by the same European who supplied the evidence which had earlier helped to justify the police in their connivance with the brutal treatment of his sister. The European legal authorities then try to do everything possible to avoid applying the full rigour of the law. They are nevertheless forced to do so by the pig-headed obstinacy of the European murderer in not agreeing to conform with a particular set of social customs. Throughout the trial, no mention is made of the Arab who was killed.'32

How do you find this view squares with the view of Camus's 'hero' who, he says in his 1955 Preface, 'agrees to die for the truth,' and who is 'the only Christ that we deserve'?33 There seems to be a suggestion here that this attitude to the 'truth' can be found both in Meursault and in Camus himself. Or is Camus simply drawing a portrait of a typical North African male who only becomes a hero by interpretation and after the fact? And that the racist attitudes are not those of Camus, but of his creature? 'It would [therefore] on this reading, be Meursault the typical North African male who does not mind arranging for an Arab woman to be beaten up. It would be Meursault, and not Camus, who describes the Arabs crouching on their heels as looking at the Europeans 'à leur manière' (in their own special way).34 It would be Meursault who feels no guilt at shooting an Arab, and who provides detailed descriptions of the European visitors to his prison while relegating all the Arabs, women and men alike, to an anonymous mass. It would be Meursault who gives names to all the Europeans but who never says what any of the Arabs are called; and it would be Meursault whose killing of the Arab would be interpreted as the outward and individual sign of the genocidal instincts which are said, by critics such as Henri Kréa, inhabit the breast of every colonising European.35

As it is, however, Camus's later presentation of Meursault as a truth-telling, Christ-like figure makes the distinction between narrator and author difficult one to sustain.'36 It is only when Camus asks us to admire Meursault for a consistency in his moral attitudes which he does not in fact possess that problems arise, and from this point of view the 1955 preface to L'Étranger is a perfect illustration of why the approach to literature which Wimsatt and Beardsley call 'the intentional fallacy' is indeed a fallacy.'37

As Conor Cruise O'Brien writes in his book on Camus, 'We may indeed accept the fact that Camus's work is a notable expression of the Western moral conscience. But we should not ignore the fact that it also registers the hesitations and limitations of that conscience and that one of the great limitations lies along the cultural frontier, in the colony.38 And another Albert, Albert Memmi, a Tunisian writer, called Camus 'le colonisateur de bonne volonté'39: the well-intentioned coloniser. (This was in 1957, at the time of the Nobel Prize.)

'Camus, you then find yourself thinking, wanted to write a book in which a harmless but unconventional young man was sentenced to death primarily for his failure to observe the social convention of crying at his mother's funeral. But he had to acknowledge that however imperfect the workings of the legal system may be, this kind of thing does not happen very often. So he sets up a plot in which something relatively unimportant happens: one in which an Arab gets shot in a brawl. He then wrote the story in such a way as to minimise the importance of such an event, and was able to do so primarily as a result of his own racialism. It would have been fairly unusual in such a situation, as Conor Cruise O'Brien observed, for a European to be sentenced to death for shooting a native. He would have to do something else, such as defying one of the more important of his own society's taboos.'40

The Outsider as postmodern

Finally, I want to read The Outsider against the concepts of Modernism and Postmodernism, as I promised I would do in the first lecture in this unit. In order to do this I shall present deliberately simplified versions of these concepts, because the point is not to present a correct version of the relevant intellectual history—of the history of ideas—but to highlight two contrasting aspects of Camus's novel, and I'll be using the notions of Modernism and Postmodernism to do that, and in so doing I'll be continuing an analysis which I began in the first lecture in this unit.

My argument is that this novel is usefully to be thought of as poised on the cusp between Modernism and Postmodernism, having some of the characteristics of both. For the present purpose Modernism is seen a mode of thought which employs what Lyotard calls grand narratives, or meta-narratives, and I've previously suggested examples such as those of Freud, Karl Marx, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Durkheim, Bergson, and so on. Also for the present purpose Postmodernism, on the other hand, is a mode of thought trying to come to terms with the loss of a sense of direction and a unified sense of identity and purpose.

In my first lecture I set up an opposition between modernism and postmodernism and I used Ihab Hassan's table (as did Daniel Narbett in his tutorial paper)41 as a preliminary organising device (not because it's in any sense 'true'). Here's a selection from the Hassan table—with my addition from Bakhtin.42

Table 1.1 Schematic differences between modernism and postmodernism43

modernism postmodernism
purpose play
design chance
hierarchy anarchy
mastery/logos exhaustion/silence
art object/finished work process/performance/happening
monoglossia heteroglossia
passé simple passé composé

The second-last pair of terms—monoglossia/heteroglossia—which I have added to Hassan's list—derive of course from Bakhtin.44 The last pair I've referred to earlier.

At the level of the énoncé, or the 'represented'—or the 'presented world,' in Horst Ruthrof's terms45—the place where these concepts are most starkly opposed is in the courtroom scenes, in a place which is often where ethical and related verbal disputes are engaged. Here the discourse of Meursault is opposed to that of the officials, and the prosecutor in particular, who at one point says, for example (in the Stuart Gilbert translation):

'For though in the course of my long career I have often had occasion to demand capital punishment, never before have I felt this onerous task so fully compensated and counter-balanced, not to say enlightened by a sense of urgent and sacred duty as well as by the horror which I feel at the sight of a man in whom I see nothing but a monster.' … I was so hot and so surprised that I felt dizzy.'46 (99)

The French text here is even more deliberately rhetorical.

'… jamais autant qu'aujourd'hui, je n'ai senti ce pénible devoir compensé, balancé, éclairé par la conscience d'un commandement impérieux et sacré et par l'horreur que je ressens devant un visage d'homme où je ne lis rien que de monstrueux.'47 1958: 120

The prosecutor's opinion of Meursault's ethical being, that he is 'nothing but a monster,' is based on a view of his behaviour, which is read like a text and then interpreted as having a certain meaning. The two strings of behavioural text, the one to do with the death of his mother, and the other with the death of the Arab, are related, and the one is seen as indicating the meaning of the other. In the terms of the official discourse—Monoglossic, Modernist, Magisterial—Meursault is seen as a profoundly evil person because he is also seen as a person who did not love his mother enough: therefore he must have intended to kill the Arab. Because he smoked and drank coffee in the presence of his mother's dead body, he can be said to be a criminal. As Camus has written: 'In our society any man who doesn't cry at his mother's funeral is liable to be condemned to death.'48 1983: 118.

When Meursault speaks, because of the first-person internal narrative situation, or what these days we might call 'Meursault-cam,' we are aware that he is always at least telling the truth—even though what he expresses appears to others to be unfeeling, and therefore deviant and transgressive.

Coming almost immediately after the prosecutor, Meursault's way of speaking contrasts strongly.

I stood up and since I felt like talking, I said, rather haphazardly in fact, that I hadn't intended to kill the Arab. The judge replied that this was a positive statement, that so far he hadn't quite grasped my system of defence, and that before hearing my lawyer he would be happy to have me specify the motives which had inspired my crime. Mixing up my words a bit and realizing that I sounded ridiculous, I said quickly that it was because of the sun. Some people laughed. 1983: 99.

Inserted into Meursault's speech we hear the judge's voice, again providing the contrast between the official mode and that of the outsider. The judge uses the vocabulary, lexicon, terminology of the courts and by so doing indicates to some extent his opinion of Meursault and also of his chances in the present trial. Once again, the original text gives the judge a rhetorically better-proportioned speech.

Le président a répondu que c'etait une affirmation, que jusqu'ici il saisissait mal mon système de défense et qu'il serait heureux, avant d'entendre mon avocat, de me faire préciser les motifs qui avaient inspiré mon acte.49

I believe we are intended to hear in his smooth way of speaking—even though it is in reported speech—an ironical pretence of a momentary interest in this miserable accused whom the judge is soon to have the pleasure of condemning to death. Meursault's account of his own inadequate speech, and the comments that accompany it, as well as the indications of the reception of what Meursault has to say, indicate that it is the general view that he has an inadequate and amoral explanation for the killing. It also appears that he is also incapable of expressing himself in the conventional rhetoric of the courtroom, and it is elsewhere indicated that the French he uses is not standard 'educated' French. He employs a stylistics and a lexicon which is apparently neither cosmopolitan nor bourgeois. He shares the gangster slang of Raymond, for example: 'Je le descends?' ('Shall I drop him?')50 ('Shall I let him have it?' 1983: 57.) That is, as far as we can tell from the few hints we are given. As he says himself, to the examining magistrate: 'C'est que je n'ai jamais grand-chose à dire. Alors je me tais.'51 ('It's just that I never have much to say. So I keep quiet.' 1983: 66.)

The monoglossic discourse of official culture requires that people behave in certain ways in certain circumstances, and particularly in what have been called 'boundary situations'—in this case, in relation to the death of one's mother, and in a courtroom. Meursault's awareness of his inability to conform in this regard is signalled by his overwhelming awareness of his physical being, and in each case by excessive heat and light. At the burial he narrates, among other things: 'But soon I lost interest in his [Perez's] movements; my temples were throbbing and I could hardly drag myself along.'52 (1961: 26) [1983: 22.] In the courtroom he tells us: 'I was feeling a bit dizzy too with all these people in this stuffy room. I looked at the public again and I couldn't pick out a single face.' (1983: 81.) And after the summing-up for the prosecution: 'Moi, j'étais etourdi de chaleur et d'étonnement.' (1958: 120) 'Personally I was quite overcome by the heat and my amazement at what I had been hearing.'53 (1961: 103) [1983: 99] However, the most significant moment of being overpowered is, of course, the moment at which Meursault pulls the trigger: 'Je ne sentais plus que les cymbales du soleil sur mon front et, indistinctement, le glaive éclatant jailli du couteau toujours en face de moi. Cette épée brûlante rongeait mes cils et fouillait mes yeux douloureux.' (1957: 90; 1958: 80) 'All I could feel were the cymbals the sun was clashing against my forehead and, indistinctly, the dazzling spear still leaping up off the knife in front of me. It was like a red-hot blade gnawing at my eyelashes and gouging out my stinging eyes.' 1983: 60.54

For me, as someone who has read and been impressed by Camus's non-fiction writing, and particularly The Myth of Sisyphus, the most striking thing about the evocation of Meursault's world is its physicality, the strong sense—as also found, perhaps, in Baywatch, Echo Point, etc.—of the body in relation to the elements, the sun and the sea, and in phases of tension and relaxation. And is it not the case that in many of Meursault's actions—running after the truck with Emmanuel, playing water spouts in the sea with Marie, helping Raymond in his dealings with his woman and his underworld colleagues, and, finally, killing the Arab—all these actions are characterised by the terms in the right-hand column of Hassan's schema?

With regard to 'purpose': we might recall the interview between Meursault and his boss, in which '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 a good as another and that I wasn't at all dissatisfied with mine here.' 1983: 44. And when Marie asks him to marry her: Meursault 'said I didn't mind; if she was keen on it, we'd get married.' (1961: 48)55 Which suggests to me 'chance' in the matter of planning one's affairs, rather than 'design.'

With regard to the pair 'hierarchy/anarchy,' I suggest one could consider the reversal of relationship between Salamano and his dog, between Meursault and his mother—his patronising attitude towards her 'boyfriend,' Pérez, for example.

'Exhaustion and silence' characterise the situations in which Meursault follows and kills the Arab, and in which he fails to deal very effectively with his defence in the courtroom—he is always being overwhelmed by the heat and light, and is rarely in a situation of 'mastery.'

The end of the novel is characterised by a certain openness, as Meursault anticipates a kind of 'performance,' or 'happening' on the day of his public execution, rather than the kind of closure in which the narrator might have summed up his life as a 'finished object' and taken his leave. In fact he is 'ready to live my life over again,' as though the novel could have another lease of life, were it not for the fact that the central character is about to lose his. (1983: 117) This kind of analysis, I freely admit, is a bit too mechanical, but it does provide a fresh context in which to read the novel, rather than, say, in the existentialist context of its own time, which is perhaps less relevant now than it was in 1942?

Last week, in her lecture on To the Lighthouse, Claire Colebrook introduced the notion of the line. I have since come to see this as the leitmotif of this unit—well, either the line or perhaps better—the slash! In the Lighthouse, the line was symbolically drawn by Lily Briscoe, and was also seen by Claire Colebrook as being the central episode which divides the two parts of the book. And Brian McHale has suggested that a line can be drawn through the middle of Ulysses. Well: where is the line to be drawn in The Outsider? Well, you might say it's drawn between him and everyone else—but I hope to surprise you when I suggest that the line on this occasion is drawn between The Outsider and the UrOutsider—'Ur' meaning 'original.'

This involves telling you about another narrative you probably hadn't heard of until today. La mort heureuse was published in French in 1971 and immediately translated and published in English as A Happy Death in 1972. The Penguin edition came out the next year.56 It was written by Camus in two complete drafts, but never published in his lifetime—mainly because it was superseded by The Outsider. The main character is called Patrice Mersault57; his mother has recently died, he runs after a truck with a clerk called Emmanuel, he eats at Céleste's restaurant, from his balcony he watches people going to the movies and coming back from a football match, he has a girlfriend called Marthe, and the central action in the novel is a deliberate murder. And although the results of the murders are quite different—in A Happy Death the main character has committed a perfect crime from which he benefits, while in the later work the clumsy murderer becomes the victim of his judges—the problem that is solved in both is the same: how to die happy. One of the manuscripts of The Outsider was subtitled 'A Happy Man.'

Stylistically, though—and philosophically—there is a marked difference between the two narratives, despite the fact that the earlier one was conceived and composed between 1936 and 1938, and Camus was working on The Outsider as early as January 1939. In the earlier novel there is a tendency to try to explain everything. Not only is there much more detail of a descriptive kind than in The Outsider, not only are many more of the feelings and perceptions of the central character indicated, but there is a more noticeable effort to provide interpretation also, to direct the attention to the kinds of meaning intended to emerge from the effect of the reading. Let me read you just this one passage, which may serve as an example of each of these characteristics. I think you will be able to notice not only each of them, but also the similarities and differences between this writing and that in The Outsider. If you think of the last paragraph of your text, the one with the idea of the 'benign indifference of the universe,' you will be able to see what I mean. The piece I shall read is also from almost the very end of A Happy Death.

The blanket slipped from Mersault's shoulders, and when Lucienne stood up to cover him, he shuddered at her touch. Since the day he had sneezed in the little square near Zagreus' villa to this moment, his body had served him faithfully, had opened him to the world. But at the same time, it lived a life of its own, detached from the man it represented. For these few years it had passed through a slow decomposition; now it had completed its trajectory, and was ready to leave Mersault, to restore him to the world. In that sudden shudder of which Mersault was conscious, his body indicated once more a complicity which had already won so many joys for them both. Solely for this reason, Mersault took pleasure in that shudder. Conscious, he must be conscious without deception, without cowardice—alone, face to face—at grips with his body—eyes open upon death. It was a man's business. Not love, not landscape, nothing but an infinite waste of solitude and happiness in which Mersault was playing his last cards. He felt his breathing weaken. He gasped for air, and in that movement his ruined lungs sneezed. His wrists were cold now, and there was no feeling in his hands at all. Day was breaking.58

I suggest that there is less sense in the last paragraph of The Outsider of a desire to comprehensively cover all the ground, and to account for everything. Indeed there is this surprising opening-up, I suggest, in the desire of the condemned man, in the last hours of his life, not only to feel 'ready to start life all over again,' but also hopeful of being greeted on the day of his execution with 'howls of execration.' This ending certainly surprised me the first several times I read it, though thirty years later the effect has softened somewhat. But even now I find as I read it again in French, and to make this point, try to work out my own fresh translation, I feel the crude directness of the paradoxical desire: 'For everything to be perfect, and so that I felt less alone, the only thing left to wish was that there be many spectators on the day of my execution, and that they welcome me with cries of hatred.'59 Camus wrote in one of his notebooks about The Outsider that 'the end [was] ; a drawing-together of different themes, a privileged place in which the very disjointed character whom I described finally took on some form of unity.'60 This may be true about his sense of the character 'Meursault,' but, I suggest is not of the effect of the narrative, which reaches a peak of energy as the novel breaks off, as if silenced before its natural end.

I use the term 'natural' advisedly because of the fact that 'Natural Death' is the title of the first part of A Happy Death, that part that describes the very unnatural murder which makes Patrice Mersault rich. In a consciously ironical twist the second part of the earlier novel is called 'Conscious Death' although it ends with the natural death—due to pleurisy—of the protagonist, he is conscious of it coming to him. As you have heard in the passage I read, he is ready and waiting for the death that ascends like a stone making its way from his stomach to his throat. The novel in fact ends, in a consummately Modernist way with a notion of 'the truth.' Here is the very ending—and with it the ending of this lecture!

"In a minute, in a second," he thought. The ascent stopped. And stone among the stones, he returned in the joy of his heart to the truth of the motionless worlds.61


1 Barthes, Roland 1972, 'Dominici, or The triumph of literature,' in Mythologies, Cape, London: 43-6; this quotation: 44.

2 Camus, Albert 1983 [1942], The Outsider, Penguin, tr. Joseph Laredo: 106.

3 Camus 1983 [1942]: 115.

4 Thody Philip 1989, Albert Camus, Macmillan, London: 4.

5 Thody 1989: 3.

6 Thody 1989: 11.

7 Interview in La Gazette des Lettres, 15 February 1952, repr. Jean-Claude Brisville, Camus, La Bibliothèque Idéale, Gallimard, Paris, 1952; and in volume 2 of the collected works: Pléiade Series, Gallimard, Paris, 1965: 1919-1924; as cited in Thody 1989: 5. The two volumes of the Pléiade collected works are henceforth cited as PI, PII.

8 Camus 1983 [1942].

9 Lottman 1979: 618; as cited in Thody 1989: 9.

10 PI: [pp.] 1887-1893 and Lyrical and Critical (LC), Hamish Hamilton, London, 1967: 153-157. See also Selected Essays and Notebooks (SEN), Penguin, 1971: 185-191.

11 Thody 1989: 16.

12 Carnets vol. I, 1935-42, 1962; vol. II, 1942-51, 1965, Gallimard, Paris. The Carnets are henceforth cited as CI, CII … This quotation: CII: 89.

13 Thody 1989: 17.

14 See PII: 1417; LC: 145 and SEN: 167. Cited in Thody 1989: 17-18.

15 Sartre, Jean-Paul, Situations I: 71; as cited in Thody 1989: 43.

16 Thody 1989: 18-19.

17 Patri, Aimé, 'Sur le sentiment d'étrangeté,' L'Arche, 5: 115-117.

18 Thody 1989: 19.

19 Thody 1989: 35.

20 Thody 1989: 35.

21 Camus 1983 [1942]: 108-109.

22 Thody 1989: 22.

23 Camus, Albert 1983 [1955], 'Afterword' [originally a 'Preface'] to The Outsider, Penguin: 119.

24 Camus 1983 [1955]: 118.

25 Brisville, Jean-Claude 1952, Camus, La Bibliothèque Idéale, Gallimard, Paris: 258.

26 Camus 1983 [1942]: 89.

27 P II: 72; LC: 67.

28 Albert Camus, in an interview with Gaëton Picon in Le Littéraire (subsequently Le Figaro Littéraire), 10 August 1946; as quoted in Thody 1989: 24.

29 Thody 1989: 25.

30 Thody 1989: 32.

31 Thody 1989: 32.

32 Thody 1989: 41-42.

33 Camus 1983 [1955]: 119.

34 Or, 'in that way they have.' (GMG)

35 Kréa, Henri 1961, 'Le malentendu algérien,' France-Observateur, 557, 5 January: 16.

36 Thody 1989: 39-40.

37 Thody 1989: 38, citing W. H. Wimsatt 1967 [1954], The Verbal Icon, University of Kentucky Press.

38 O'Brien, Conor Cruise 1970, Camus, Fontana/Collins, London: 27.

39 Memmi, Albert 1957, [article in] La Nef, November: 95; quoted in Thody 1989: 41.

40 Thody 1989: 41.

41 Narbett, Daniel, 'Apocalypse then and now,' unpublished tutorial paper, 2 August 1995, H237 Narrative Fiction II, Murdoch University.

42 Hassan, Ihab 1975, Paracriticisms: Seven Speculations of the Times, Illinois University Press, Urbana, Ill. Hassan, Ihab 1985, 'Schematic differences between modernism and postmodernism,' in 'The culture of postmodernism,' Theory, Culture and Society, 2, 3, 119-32.

43 Hassan 1985: 123-4.

44 Bakhtin, Mikhail M. 1981, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trs. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist (from Voprosy literatury i estetiki, Moscow, 1975), University of Texas Press, Austin and London: 262-3.

45 Ruthrof, Horst 1981, The Reader's Construction of Narrative, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

46 Camus, Albert 1983 [1942], The Outsider, Penguin, tr. Joseph Laredo: 99; an earlier translation in Penguin, from 1961 was by Stuart Gilbert. Further page numbers in the text are from the Laredo translation.

47 Camus, Albert 1958 [1942], L'Étranger, ed. Germaine Brée & Carlos Lynes, Methuen: 120.

48 Camus 1983 [1955]: 118.

49 Camus 1958 [1942]: 120.

50 Camus 1958 [1942]: 76; Camus, Albert 1957 [1942], L'Étranger, Gallimard (Livre de poche) edition of 1957: 85. 'Shall I plug him one?' —Stuart Gilbert translation, Penguin, 1961: 61. 'Shall I shoot him down?'—Editors of the Methuen edition, 1958: 76 n. 'Shall I drop him?' is my own literal suggestion. 'Shall I let him have it?' is from Joseph Laredo, 1983: 57.

51 Camus 1958: 87. 'It's just that I never have much to say. So I keep quiet.' 1983: 66. 'Well, I rarely have anything much to say. So naturally I keep my mouth shut.' Stuart Gilbert translation, Penguin: 70.

52 This is Stuart Gilbert's 'explanatory' translation; 1961: 26. Laredo gives us 'He cut across country once more and so it went on. All I could feel was the blood pounding in my temples.' 1983: 22.

53 I was so hot and so surprised that I felt dizzy. 1983: 99.

54 Stuart Gilbert's version: 'I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.' (1961: 64)

55 'I said I didn't mind and we could do if she wanted.' 1983: 44.

56 Camus, Albert 1973 [1971], A Happy Death, Penguin; trs. Richard Howard from La mort heureuse, Gallimard, Paris.

57 Note that it has been suggested that this character's name homophonically combines the sea and the sun: la mer, le soleil; whereas in the other name, Meursault, the first element suggests death, from 'je meurs' = 'I die,' and so the sun in the second syllable seems to have given place to the idea of a leap, for which 'sault' is a perfect, not a partial homophone. This is, however, perhaps, trivial conjecture - but I doubt it.

58 Camus1973 [1971]: 105.

59 'Pour que tout soit consommé, pour que je me sente moins seul, il me restait à souhaiter qu'il y ait beaucoup de spectateurs le jour de mon exécution et qu'ils m'accueillent avec des cris de haine.' 1957: 179; 1958: 138. The French 'consommé', which I have suggested by conveyed by 'perfect', also means 'consummated', 'accomplished' (Stuart Gilbert's choice), and has associations of having been 'consumed', 'used up.' A consummate performer, in both languages, has nothing left to do to improve his performance. The kind of soup called 'consommé' is a clear liquid, the meat and any other solid ingredients having been used up in the preparation.

60 Carnets IV, 1942.

61 Camus 1973 [1971]: 106.

Garry Gillard | New: 28 September, 2009 | Now: 23 November, 2015