“Everyone is always a little guilty.” – Book Review on The Outsider by Albert Camus

My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I received a telegram from the old people’s home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Very sincerely yours’ That doesn’t mean anything. It might have been yesterday.” So begins the indifferent account of Mersault, the honest protagonist whom Camus called “a man who… agrees to die for the truth” and was characterised by the author as “the only Christ that we deserve“.

Shortly after his mother’s death, Mersault has a new girlfriend and goes to the beach for the weekend with his friends, one of whom is targeted for revenge and injured by a gang of Arabs. Later, Mersault returns with a revolver and shoots dead one of the Arabs under the scorching sun – “the sky seemed to split apart from end to end to pour its fire down upon me“. Pausing a short while after the first shot, Mersault fires four more times at the lifeless body – “… and it was as if I had rapped sharply, four times, on the fatal door of destiny.” At the end of the trial, based largely on his indifference towards his mother’s death, the jury pronounce death penalty for Mersault.

Indifference and honesty without compromise

Mersault’s lawyer, when preparing for the defence, raises the issue of not showing emotions during his mother’s recent funeral. Mersault replies, “I undoubtedly loved Mama very much, but that didn’t mean anything. Every normal person sometimes wishes the people they love would die.” His lawyer further asks if he can respond to the prosecution by saying Mersault merely keeps his emotions under control on the day of funeral. Mersault disagrees with the answer and prefers not to lie. His lawyer leaves looking angry. “I wanted to tell him that I was just like everybody else, exactly like everybody else.

The society honours certain moral ideals. However, when such ideals are honoured by individuals without compromise, the hypocritical society that cannot itself abide by such ideals, condemns those individuals. Mersault is an honest man who stays true to his feelings and thoughts. On the day of funeral, Mersault fails to show grief over his mother’s death as a son will usually do, as the high temperature distracts him from concentrating on the ceremony. Instead of conforming to social etiquette, he smokes, falls asleep, and drinks coffee. The arbiters of justice and moral ethos, who are granted the power to adjudicate and uphold the moral ideals, condemn Mersault not for being immoral, but for being true. Mersault’s death penalty symbolises the society’s reluctance to accept individuals unwilling to conform – hypocrisy is not denounced but a surviving trait.

Such indifference is not only exhibited by Mersault. To Mersault, the others are also indifferent. When Mersault is in court, his impression of the jurors is that “I was standing in front of a row of seats on a tram and all the anonymous passengers were looking up and down at the person who had just got on, to see what was contemptible about him.” They are watching Mersault for tangible physical details in the world which is lack of superior significance.

Freedom

During the imprisonment, Mersault once describes the location of the prison – that it is situated right at the top of the town and he could see the sea through a little window. I remember staring out of a small round window in a prisoner’s room in Château d’If near Marseille. The prison was surrounded by vast blue seas, and yet the prisoners were confined to their tiny dwelling space. As expressed by Mersault, it is often through the deprivation that you learn about its existence. This is why the government put people in the prison, and what freedom is for. To quote To Kill a Mockingbird, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

And yet it is easy to accommodate such loss of freedom. After all, one’s thoughts and beliefs are much shaped by the environment he or she is in. “… But that just lasted a few months. Afterwards, I had only the thoughts of a prisoner. I looked forward to the daily walk I took around the courtyard or the visit from my lawyer. As for the rest of the time, I got used to it. I often thought that if I’d been forced to live inside the hollow trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do except look up at the sky flowering above my head, I would have eventually got used to that as well. … It was an idea of Mama’s that people could eventually get used to anything, and she often talked about it.”

Life on earth and afterlife

Mersault is an antheist. While other Christian characters in the novella believe that the earthly life is merely a stepping stone to eternity, the existence of ultimate death makes Mersault find life nihilistic. This review does not intend to argue on the validity of any religion beliefs, and yet from this perspective alone, Mersault is not an outsider anymore. He is the only person who believes in the significance of earthly life. The other religious characters are in fact the outsiders, and yet they consider Mersault, who behaves and thinks differently, as the outsider of the majority.

Absurdism

The theme of meaningless life constantly appears in the novella. With the inescapable death, no deeds have long lasting meaning. As a consequence, all lives are the same. When Mersault’s boss offers him the opportunity to work in Paris and help set up a new branch there, Mersault replies that “you can never really change your life and that, in any case, every life was more or less the same and that my life here wasn’t bad at all.

Mersault even commits philosophical suicide by not attempting to fight against the trial which will likely bring him to execution. The transient nature of life makes Mersault think that life is not worth living. Also, as the ultimate death is definitely coming, it does not matter when and how one dies. In this way, one enjoys absolute freedom in life: “… it didn’t matter much whether you died at thirty or at seventy, because in either case other men and women would of course go on living, and it would be like that for thousands of years. Nothing was more obvious, in fact. But I was still the one who would be dying, whether it was now or in twenty years. When I thought about that, though, what truly upset me was the horrible lurch I felt inside at the thought of twenty years of life yet to live. But all I had to do to banish that feeling was to imagine what my thoughts would be like twenty years from now when I would have to face the same situation. If you are going to die, it didn’t actually matter how or when, that much was obvious.

For the first time in a very long while, I thought about Mama. I believed I understood why at the end of her life she had taken a ‘fiancé’, why she had taken the chance to start over again. There at the home, where lives faded away, there as well, evening offered a wistful moment of peace. So close to death, Mama must have felt set free, ready to live once more. No one – no one – had the right to cry over her. And I as well, I too felt ready to start life all over again. As if this great release of anger had purged me of evil, emptied me of hope; and standing before this symbolic night bursting with stars, I opened myself for the first time to the tender indifference of the world. To feel it so like me, so like a brother, in fact, I understood that I had been happy, and I was still happy. So that it might be finished, so that I might feel less alone, I could only hope there would be many, many spectators on the day of my execution and that they would greet me with cries of hatred.

Mama often said that no one is ever really entirely unhappy.” “Although actually, everyone is always a little guilty.

Perhaps to Mersault, death brings freedom from the heavy social chains. Perhaps death brings him true happiness.

Advertisements

“What Can I Do If All I Can Remember Is One Image?” – Review on The Sea Close By by Albert Camus

“I grew up in the sea and poverty was sumptuous, then I lost the sea and found all luxuries grey and poverty unbearable.” Albert Camus, the Nobel prize-winning French Algerian author suffered from poverty and ill-health when young. He attended Université d’Algers by earning school fees over different jobs, but was forced to leave school due to severe attacks of tuberculosis.

Camus is known to often write in a distant tone in works that explore absurdism, a term and notion coined by the author himself, stating that life has no inherent meaning and any attempt to look for rational meaning in life ensures failure and is thus absurd. The lack of metaphysical meaning in life should not lead one into despair. However, Camus is still widely regarded as a humanist. He believes in human dignity in an indifferent world. The Sea Close By perhaps shows the humanist side of Camus.

The Sea Close By is a distinct prose among Camus’s works. Departing from the distant tone, The Sea Close By, published in 1954, six years before his death, presents Camus as a sensual observer of the sea and landscapes while voyaging around the New World. As an extended metaphor, it is Camus’s and the reader’s summery day-dream.

Few can duplicate the lyrical description in creating a dreamy recollection of sailing experience as Camus does. “The moment we leave harbour, a short, gusty wind vigorously brushes the sea which curls backwards in small, foamless waves.” We begin our journey with Camus. We can almost see the sea waves as how they are in Camus’s expansive yet concentrated language – “a bitter, unctuous foam, the God’s saliva, flows along the wood and loses itself in the water where it scatters into shapes that die and are reborn, the hide of a while and blue cow, and exhausted beast which drifts a long way behind our wake.

Intertwining with the account of the sailing adventures, Camus writes about his meditation on various issues in the splendid language of the sea.

There are times when the world gets ugly. There are times when the boundaries turn murky. “On that day I recognised the world for what it was, I consented that its good should also do evil and its drawback carry benefits. On that day I realised there were two truths, of which one must never be told. Embrace. “Rivers and streams pass by, the sea passes and remains. This is how we must love it, faithful and fleeting. I wed the sea.

There are also times where you conform to the societal norms. “Men see me walk by in fine and learned streets, I admire landscapes, applaud like everyone else, shake hands, but it is not me speaking.” Through conforming you hope to establish linkage with the society, and yet sometimes such conformity further distances you from the crowd. “Since then, I have been waiting. I wait for the homebound ships, the house of the waters, the limpidity of the day. I wait patiently, am polite with all my strength. … Men praise me, I dream a little, they insult me, I scarcely show surprise. Then I forget, and smile at the man who insulted me, or am too courteous in greeting the person I love.” You still feel lonely because conformity does not bring genuine spiritual connection. “What can I do if all I can remember is one image?

You start to doubt your solitude. “There is no country for those who despair, but I know that the sea comes before and after me, and hold my madness ready. Those who love and are separated can live in grief, but this is not despair: they know that love exists. This is why I suffer, dry-eyed, in exile.

Nevertheless, stay hopeful, as one day, our voice within will be caught by another wanderer. “Each cry we utter is lost, flies off into limitless space. But this cry, carried day after day on the winds, will finally reach land at one of the flattened ends of the earth and echo timelessly against the frozen walls until a man, lost somewhere in his shell of snow, hears it and consents to smile with happiness.”

There are also times when death is near. “No commands, the machines are silent. Why indeed should we carry on and why should we return? Our cup runneth over, and a mute, invincible madness rocks us to sleep. A day comes like this which draws everything to a close; we must then let ourselves sink, like those who swim until exhausted. What do we accomplish? For ever, I have held it secret from myself. O bitter bed, princely couch, the crown lies at the bottom of the seas.

And yet to Camus, the sea is the salvation. Death at the sea brings salvation to soul. Death at the sea, means happiness. “If I were to die, in the midst of cold mountains, unknown to the world, cast off by my own people, my strength at last exhausted, the sea would at the final moment flood into my cell, come to raise me above myself and help me die without hatred.

Perhaps we are all yearning to be understood or be able to understand.

A sudden love, a great work, a decisive act, a thought which transfigures, all these at certain moments bring the same unbearable anxiety, linked with an irresistible charm. Is living like this in the delicious anguish of being, in exquisite proximity to a danger whose name who do not know the same as rushing to our doom? Once again, without respite, let us go.”

2014-03-01 17.58.16(Very few know that I worship this prose by Albert Camus fervently – it is my spiritual pillar and source of comfort in times of hardships. By reading his words over and over, I seek refuge and regain inner peace of mind. I remember picking up the book because it is thin in size and costs very little. Sometimes it is funny how random decisions make a change in life. And it is a good change.)

Lastly, please enjoy the indulging clip by Tom Beard with Clara Page reading the first part Logbook of the prose. I often play it as I read the prose.

“Nobody never gets to heaven… It’s just in their head.” – Book Review on Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley (Often go awry)
— Robert Burns (1759-1796), To a Mouse

The nobel prize winner John Steinbeck tells the story of two migrant workers George Milton and Lennie Small in a ranch in California. Steinbeck’s works often features ranch workers due to his summer experience at a ranch as a teenager.

George takes care of Lennie, who suffers from mental disability and is much dependent on George, as they move from one ranch to another. They share the dream of buying farmland, but is rather unrealistic in the time of depression. Lennie has a fetish for soft things and has been found petting a dead mouse in his pocket. Days go by until the flirtatious wife of Curley, the boss’s son, knows of Lennie’s fetish and allows him to stroke her hair. Lennie starts to stroke it harder and tighter and during the attempt to shush her panic, he accidentally breaks her neck. Lennie is scared and run to the place where George has promised to meet him if he gets into trouble. George comes after the other ranch workers, in particularly Curley, find out death of the wife. George mentions nothing but their shared dream of owning a piece of farmland, raising lots of rabbits, Lennie’s favourite animals. George then shoots Lennie from the back, out of mercy.

I read this book once years ago. As a reader who almost forgets every plot of the book, all I can remember is some character petting something soft in his pocket and the feeling of deep sorrows. Having reread the book I understand why I forget everything else but the fetish and sorrowful feeling.

This world preys on the weak

Lennie is kind-hearted and innocent, and yet his innocence, which brings nothing more than sympathy and compassion, leads to self-destruction. It does not follow that innocence is not a good virtue. To me it is. Only that in this world which preys on the weak, innocence may not be the most preferred way of survival.

George, although sometimes short-tempered and may scold Lennie on his inappropriate demeanour, is a loving character. He takes good care of Lennie across ranches like a brother. Same as innocent Lennie, George has a simple dream of earning enough to buy his farmland, where he can live peacefully with Lennie, away from all troubles that may be caused by unpleasant people at the ranch. He strongly believes in this dream that he retells it from time to time to Lennie, who gets elated listening to it. However, the death of Curley’s wife caused by Lennie crashes his ideal. He comes to realise the cruel nature of the society. With the impulsive and mean personality of Curley and his authority as the boss’s son, George knows that Curley will definitely kill Lennie mercilessly. He also understands that the society does not welcome and takes advantage of the weak. “If I was alone I could live so easy. I could get a job an’ not have no mess,” said George to Lennie before shooting him.

Nevertheless, George loves Lennie deeply. There exists also a unique bond between George and Lennie – they are not lonely wanderers in the age of depression and wanderings; they are two connected souls that together, they are ready to stand against the world. Indeed, prior to Lennie’s death, the two distinguish themselves from other lonely ranch workers: “Guys like us got no fambly. They make a little stake an’ then they blow it in. They ain’t got nobody in the worl’ that gives a hoot in hell about ’em. But not us, because I got you an’ … We got each other, that’s what, that gives a hoot in hell about us.”

One thing to note is that oppression does not only come from the physically strong or powerful authority. It may also originate from weakness. George sadly exhibits his oppression against Lennie at his moment of utmost weakness and helplessness through killing him.

Dreams are always dreams

Lennie’s death also represents the destruction of George’s dreams – the capability of sustaining themselves, becoming the masters of their souls, and the absence of harm and troubles from ill-intentioned people. These dreams are not much different from any other American dreams which advocate for following one’s own desires. The American Dream centres on the freedom and possibility of achieving what one wants. However, with oppression and the unfavourable circumstances in time, upward mobility is rare and difficult. Freedom can be hardly traced in this world which tends to confine people to established social orders. The American Dream, is merely a myth.

I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads. Hundreds of them. They come, an’ they quit an’ go on; an’ every damn one of ’em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ’em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out there. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody never gets no land. It’s just in their head.

Although set in the early 20th century, the hope to find a comfortable position for oneself may still be an unreachable dream nowadays haunting many of us.

Loneliness

Loneliness is a recurring theme in the novella. Curley’s wife admits to Lennie that she is lonely and often flirts with other ranch men to escape from the loneliness, but it causes herself and others troubles. Same for other ranch workers. Crooks is a black worker. Because of his skin colour, he has to live elsewhere and cannot join others to play cards. He would get fury when others go into his dwelling place. Candy is an aged man with only a dog as friend, but it gets killed by another ranch leader for it was “old and useless.” When he learns about the plans for Lennie and George, he participates in the discussion with strong interest and hopes to contribute for the farmland, and more importantly, a place where they can safely call home. They are all lonely people, either trying to connect to the world by their own means, or repel company in fear of re-encoutering loneliness having get used to friendships. Except Lennie and George. Although alienated from the world as migrant workers, they are not lonely souls like other ranch workers, because they got each other. However, this all ends when George kills Lennie.

Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.