“Aujourd’hui maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile : ‹‹Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués›› Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier.”
The first paragraph of L’étranger, a book I read years ago after finding it in a pile of my maternal grandfather’s belongings after his death.
Since then I’ve read it three times at different stages in my life, and each time been mesmerised by it. The haunting routines of the protagonist Meursault. His functional lifestyle and lack of concern about anything, even the death of his mother. A man whose days, routines, acquaintances, family, work, hold little or no value.
“Je me suis fait cuire des œufs et je les ai mangé à même le plat, sans pain parce que je n’en avais plus et que je ne voulais pas descendre pour en acheter.”
(I cooked some eggs for myself and ate them out of the pan without bread because I’d run out and couldn’t be bothered to go downstairs to buy some.)
I keep coming back to this line. It sums up the character. The minimum is always done. Eating the eggs out of the pan is enough. He would like some bread with the eggs – he is hungry, we know this – but he lets it pass. It’s not important.
The book continues in this style for its 182 pages almost devoid of description, which I like. I’m drawn into Meursault’s world, a world free from unnecessary distraction. He lives in his mother’s flat (his mother is in a home two hours away), he goes to work in an office, he smokes, he reads, he goes swimming, he has occasional sex, he goes to the cinema. All without feeling particularly anything for any of them.
The reason for this post is that Elizabeth very kindly bought me the French version for Christmas, having only previously read it in English. I was excited. I can speak and read French, but I’m not proficient. If ever I was going to start reading French novels, this was it.
I had started reading Saint Exupery’s Courrier Sud over the summer, but had got lost somewhere in his ramblings about his lost love Genevieve. I’d actually read the book in English years ago, and remembered it was pretty boring then, so a bad choice. L’étranger on the other hand was a guaranteed winner so I embarked on it on Christmas Day just after our traditional Christmas lunch of poached egg on toast (we had stuffed Turkey later).
I was engrossed from the start:
Mother died today. Or perhaps yesterday, I don’t know. I received a telegram from the home: “Mother dead. Funeral tomorrow. Yours faithfully.” It means nothing. It was yesterday.
And from here the story unfurls. A story of how a man should react to the death of his mother. A man overcome by grief, crushed by the loss, unable to partake in normal life. But this is not the case. Meursault gets on with life from the very first day. He goes swimming, goes to the cinema, has sex. It’s these small, almost irrelevant, actions that are ultimately Meursault’s downfall.
There is another strand to my quiet obsession with this book. When I was eight, I too was told that my mother had died. Not through a telegram, by my father. I remember the time, the place, the day, even the weather (overcast and warm), as though it was yesterday. And yet, like Meursault, life carried on as though nothing had happened.
I understand Meursault completely. I am (or at least was) him, an outsider looking in on the world. Indifferent to events around me and happy to plod along doing whatever is necessary to get through it. Murray Smyth, my housemaster at school, who I mentioned in Blogley 242 saw this. Describing me one afternoon as I was busy minding my own business away from everybody else, as insular. I didn’t know what it meant at the time so I looked it up: ‘Island like’, was part of the definition that stuck in my head. ‘Island like,’ I thought. ‘Like a boarding school.’ I didn’t understand the meaning of irony at the time either.
I think differently now. I’m not separated from other people or cultures, new or different ideas. I enjoy life and the world. I enjoy chopping wood, lighting fires, running, cycling, books, languages, food, animals, fresh air. I even like other people. But there’s part of me that can’t help thinking like, or wanting to be, Meursault. The Outsider.