My first stab at Camus could just be my last. It was a short book – 119 pages – which meant I actually managed to finish it. The book was first published in French in 1942.
One of the things that struck me forcibly about the novel, was the change in social attitudes. Now, in 2013, the attitude to beating up your girlfriend and being cruel and abusive to your dog, both actions treated in a calm tone of acceptance in the novel, are shocking to the politicised, sensitized eye of today. Ditto the casual naming of the local Arabs as ‘natives’ jars in today’s ears (book is set in Algeria – Camus was Algerian).
I read the foreword by Cyril Connolly and discovered novel was intended as an attack on French bourgeoisie attitudes prevalent in her colonies as well as a portrait of ‘the Mediterranean man’ as opposed to the man of mainland Europe. Neither of these themes was obvious to me, as I was reading.
To me, it was a portrait of a man who might possibly be suffering from Asperger’s syndrome. Mersault was portrayed as a man with zero emotional tone. He was a sensual man – he enjoyed physical sensations – smoking, swimming, sex – but came across with no emotional affect at all. He also seemed to be curiously passive throughout his arrest and trial. At the end, when he is badgered by the priest to acknowledge the existence of God, he refuses and finally looses it, when he attacks the priest. Even when he murders the Arab on the beach – it comes across as curiously flat.
During the murder trial, it seems as if the prosecutor is more incensed at Mersault’s calm unemotional lack of reaction to his Mother’s death and funeral, than he is at the murder of the Arab.
It was a curious and disquieting novel. I don’t think I shall be trying any more Camus. My first Camus was also my last.