Tuesday, 1 August 2017


I always thought of reading a particular book as unfinished business - the setting happens to be Algeria.
   A billion lifetimes ago, I caught a documentary on the author Albert Camus. Of note was his death in a car crash. Details of the author's doom translate into oddball fiction when dropped onto the page.
   Camus died with a train ticket in his pocket. If he'd boarded that train with his family, he'd have avoided being killed by his publisher.
   Francine Camus took the children through the winter landscape by train. Albert, on the other fateful hand, accepted a lift from his publisher pal.
   Being Scottish, I'd easily avoid this fate - if you spend money on a ticket, you use it and damn any inconvenience that comes your way. The offer of a free lift counts as an inconvenience once you've paid for another trip.
   Life is random. By default, death is random as well. I once avoided a travel-related death by not being in the wrong place at a very wrong time.
   If I'd been there, I couldn't have avoided death. Destruction was guaranteed.
   John Donne observes that death itself is slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men. This goes for the rest of us, too.
   If you risk doom on one form of transport instead of aboard another, which path do you take? At the outset, virtually every journey carries risk. Use the ticket? Accept the lift?
   Camus felt like keeping his publisher company, I suppose. Michel Gallimard didn't long outlive Camus. Nasty wreck.
   The writerly thing that jumps out of this story is the train ticket. And the really writerly thing that leaps from the affair is a snowstorm.
   No, not from the wintry French landscape. Inside the car. All those paper notes. The wreck was littered with dozens of pages from the writer's latest and greatest work - unfinished as he died.
   This documentary touched more upon the finished books, and I was curious about the story of a stranger. Camus set this in Algeria. On the American side of the ocean, that book is The Stranger. 

The Outsider. Cover, the Folio Society edition, 2011, illustration copyright Matthew Richardson. 

Conflict with an identical title forced a change to The Outsider on this side of the Atlantic, and that is how I've known the title down the years.
   The book's reputation is one of those awkward beasts. Do I really want to read a story about a cold fish who doesn't respond well to anything around him?
   But it's a classic.
   That label carries little currency. I've tackled a few dud classics in my time. No point naming names. I suspect emotional wear and tear on facing a few classics I've yet to read...
   Every million years I glare at The Whale, and turn away...much as two wedding-guests would hastily shun an ancient mariner.
   I know, from the nautical reputation preceding The Whale, that Mr Melville's weighty tome is a treatise on the inner workings of ceteceans. It also contains a few scenes about sailors.
   To deal with the generalities of the plot, I must wade to the eyebrows in the specificities of the whale itself. Ambergris and baleen are sure to feature.
   Camus died in a car, with a book and a publisher. His death reads now like a strange fiction. And his fiction, The Outsider, plays like fact.
   Eventually, I picked the book up and read the first part. (The book is divided into two sections, for reasons of the plot that I won't spoil here.)
   Would I even care about the uncaring character depicted in the story? I had to set the book's reputation aside and judge for myself, of course.
   And I found a character who observed a great deal. I remembered the line by Christopher Isherwood.

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. 
And I thought...no, not quite like that. But in the general area. Isherwood is saying (or waving) Goodbye to Berlin. Camus is remembered through the filter of winter-bare trees on Parisian streets...
   But his story of an outsider burns harshly under an Algerian sun. Long story short, too late, I finished my business with an unread book, and set it up on the shelf between...
   An unread book and an empty space where an unread book once perched. More unfinished business. The missing book was located on that special book storage area...the floor.
   I find it impossible to write about The Outsider without revealing the plot. It's not a barrel of laughs, that's for sure. This is Graham Greene, with all the jokes cut out and more heft in the telling for that.
   Camus. The Outsider. It's a classic.

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