I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull: The Outsider by Albert Camus

The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. And so, with that crisp, whip-crack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging veil of light. I knew I had shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I’d been happy.

And so the life of Meursault, narrator of The Outsider, is destroyed by his one senseless, sun-induced act on a beach in Algiers. Meursault kills a man, and he is arrested and tried for murder. His peculiar indifference to his fate—or his unwillingness to behave in the manner expected by his captors—renders him guilty in the eyes of the court, and the events of his otherwise innocuous life are retold until they form the profile of the criminal he is deemed to be.

outsider-coverThe novel, narrated by Meursault in the lucid, spare prose that is Camus’ hallmark, falls into two parts. In Part One, which opens with the announcement of the death and funeral of Meursault’s mother, Meursault is a regular young man who unthinkingly goes about his days, from his mother’s funeral to the beach to the movies with a girl who wants to marry him. And then explodes the one random act that crystallises his whole life into something new, an act perhaps brought on by the Mediterranean sun: ‘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.’ In Part Two, Meursault is imprisoned. His life, taken over by the rule of the court, is no longer his own to dispense with as he pleases: ‘Still, there was one thing in those early days that was really irksome: my habit of thinking like a free man.’

The Outsider was Camus’ first novel. Published in 1942 in Nazi-occupied Paris in a world at war, the novel captured the spirit of disillusion of its times and was an immediate success. The Outsider went on to become France’s best-selling novel of the 20th century and its brooding, handsome, 27-year-old author became a cult figure. When Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 aged 44, becoming the second youngest writer ever to do so, in his acceptance speech he characterised his generation as one born in a season of war and revolution, ‘Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies’. He spoke passionately about the role of artists in such an era, when the duty of his generation was like that of no generation before it—a duty not just to reform the world, but to prevent the world from destroying itself.

In this new, worn-out world, Meursault drifts with a disaffection that later marks him as ‘a criminal at heart’. He unthinkingly abandons himself to the whims of his flesh and to the flow of his life under the hot Algerian sun. The Outsider is filled with Camus’ fierce love for the land of his birth, Algeria. In an essay, ‘Summer in Algiers’, he wrote: ‘Men find here throughout all their youth a way of living commensurate with their beauty. After that, decay and oblivion. They’ve staked all on the body and they know that they must lose.’ This worship and indulgence of the body is everywhere apparent in Part One of The Outsider: ‘While I was helping her to climb on to a raft, I let my hand stray over her breasts … I had the sky full in my eyes, all blue and gold, and I could feel Marie’s stomach rising and falling gently under my head.’ Meursault lives in the present moment, unmoved by ambition or love. When Marie asks him if he loves her, ‘I said that sort of question had no meaning, really; but I supposed I didn’t.’ When his boss asks him if he’d like to move to a new branch in Paris, he says he doesn’t care: ‘As a student I’d had plenty of ambition of the kind he meant. But, when I had to drop my studies, I very soon realised all that was pretty futile.’

Albert Camus

Albert Camus

Albert Camus was born in 1913 in Mondori, a village in the interior of Algeria. His father’s ancestors had settled in Algeria following its conquest by the French Bourbon king Charles X in 1830; his mother was of Spanish descent. Before Camus turned one, his father was killed in the First World War, and his mother took her two sons, Albert and his elder brother Lucien, to Algiers to live with her mother. They lived a difficult, impoverished life in a small apartment. Camus was a talented student, reserved and focused, excelling in French and mathematics, and his primary-school teacher Louis Germain (to whom Camus dedicated his Nobel Prize speech) helped him to get a scholarship to Algiers High School in 1923.

At 15, Camus joined a soccer team and it was on the soccer field that he absorbed the basis of the strong moral sense for which he was later famous, the spirit of individual effort as part of a team: ‘solitaire et solidaire’ (alone and united). Soccer became a lifelong passion, although an almost fatal bout of tuberculosis forced him to stop playing in 1930. Two years later, he began to write.

Throughout his life Camus was vigorously engaged in left-wing politics. In Algeria he worked and wrote for the Theatre du Travail, which he founded in 1935 to bring quality theatre to working people. He admired Dostoyevsky, Malraux, Melville and Faulkner, and wrote stage adaptations of Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun and Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. As a journalist Camus reviewed Jean-Paul Sartre’s early work, as Sartre did Camus’, and the two writers met in Paris in 1943. In Paris, Camus joined the French Resistance and with Sartre edited the Parisian journal Combat, whose motto was: ‘In  war as in peace, the last word is said by those who never surrender.’ The friendship between Camus and Sartre was famously broken in 1952 following their disagreement over the Soviet Union, when Sartre became a Communist and Camus denounced Stalin.

Sartre (seated front left) next to Camus, with Picasso's dog, and artists and intellectuals including Picasso, de Beauvoir and Eluard, 1944.

Sartre (seated front left) next to Camus, with Picasso’s dog, and artists and intellectuals including Picasso, de Beauvoir and Eluard, 1944.

In 1960, aged 46, Camus was killed in a car accident with his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard. In the mud by the wrecked car the manuscript of his last, unfinished novel was found. The novel, The First Man, an autobiographical story about his fatherless childhood in Algeria, was published in English in 1995.

Although Camus never wanted The Outsider to be adapted for the screen, after Camus’ death Visconti brought it to the cinema in his 1967 film Lo Straniero, starring Marcello Mastroianni as Meursault and Anna Karina as Marie. The film was one of Visconti’s less successful screen adaptations but the novel that inspired it has remained in print since its first publication in 1942.

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