Saturday 28 March 2009

The Outsider by Albert Camus – the jury is in

I remember reading Camus’s Caligula a few years ago and being very impressed. I have now decided to try one of his celebrated short novels and see if it lived up to its reputation.

Did I like the book?
Yes, I think it’s a masterly work. It gets the reader straight into the story – great characterization, great scenes. Oddly funny at times.

What did I like most?
The unpretentiousness of the style, and the ease in which the existentialist themes are weaved into the storyline. The narrator’s voice, and consequently the story, is very believable.

What didn’t work for me?
The translation is generally good, but there are quite a few oddities – mostly concerning the choice of words. It’s a shame I don’t have the French text to hand, as I’d have liked to check the translation against the original. I think I spotted a handful of mistakes.

Would I publish it?
Without a doubt. If there’s a publisher in UK who could do a better job than Penguin, that would be – ahem – us: it would just fit nicely with the rest of our French classics list (Céline, Artaud, Ionesco, Duras, Robbe-Grillet etc.). I hope I can hang in there until it comes out of copyright on 1st January 2031. I’ll make a note on my diary.

What if it came as an unsolicited manuscript?
I would call an extraordinary publishing meeting and start getting printers’ quotes.

Did it sustain my interest throughout?
Yes, from beginning to end. Everything is in the balance to the very last paragraph.

The best bit in the book?
Probably towards the end, when the narrator is in his cell and as the priest is trying to make him turn to religious thoughts he says: “I went up to him and made one last attempt to explain to him that I didn’t have much time left. I didn’t want to waste it on God.” How can you beat that last sentence?

The best scene in the book?
There are many. The funeral, the killing, the process. But what I liked most is how Camus managed to bring alive the characters in the book – Raymond and old dog-beating neighbour – with a few light touches and bits of dialogue.

Comments on the package, editing, typesetting?
Ora veniamo alle dolenti note. This Penguin Modern Classics edition – which appears to have been acquired by the Kew Library towards the end of 2002 – is falling apart. It was taken out for the first time on 3rd December 2002 and the librarian scribbled the following note on the 22nd November 2008: “Spine noted”. From this I gather that a Penguin Modern Classics spine is made to last around six years or twenty-two reads (I counted the date stamps). Perhaps some sort of obsolescence is built in it, as in my watch strap. The paper seems to suffer from jaundice, and it’s full of strange yellow and brown stains. I think the paper’s dying. I haven’t spotted any typos, but there’s lots of in-house decisions that are questionable (for example: “he’d talked to me about mother” – surely it should be “Mother”?), and missing or misplaced commas, missing hyphens etc. What I would call a lazy editorial job, in short – especially for a book which is only around 100 pages long.

My final verdict?
A great read, a classic. Lucky Penguin for having it in their list. I want to read more Camus soon. But the next book on my desk is Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, so I’ll report on that one as and when.



  1. The Plague is a very different but equally if not more impressive read. I'd recommend that for your next foray into Camus.

  2. Yes, I'll try The Plague, and maybe I'll buy a new copy this time, so that I'll stop complaining about books falling apart. . .



  3. Better go straight to The Plague - or any other book by Camus, for that matter - skipping The Witches.


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