Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Wednesday Book Review (now with 100% more music)

Only two books this week; I’ve been strangely disinclined to read as much as usual for some reason, and I chose not to sub a previously-read book in.

Also, remember how I said more books, less exposition? Yeah. That second part didn't work out so well.

Albert Camus – The Outsider (List book 206)
(Note: the French title of this book is L’Etranger, and thus English translations are sometimes titled The Stranger rather than The Outsider. Just in case you might have been confused by this. No, no, don’t thank me – it’s a public service)

I grabbed this from my Unread pile this morning largely at random, thinking only that it was slim enough that I could read it at lunch. And thus began a series of coincidences.

Firstly, today’s media has been all over the fact that George W Bush has been reading this book whilst on holiday. Apparently the fact that Dubya can read is in and of itself a newsworthy topic. (Incidentally, the Cure song Killing an Arab is based on The Outsider, and don’t think the irony of this has been lost on liberal bloggers).

Secondly. We bought the latest Interpol album (Antics – which is fucking brilliant, by the way) on the weekend, and have been listening to it on repeat in the car for the past five days. The husband tells me that at least one commentator considers this a concept album in which the songs comprise a continuous narrative. I’m unconvinced, but my interest was piqued by the claim that ‘Evil’, my favourite track on the album, is loosely based on the Camus book I was holding.

Whilst there are similarities (the lyrics in Evil seem to make reference to a murder on a beach, the subsequent solitary confinement of the perpetrator and an upcoming trial), I don’t think it’s necessarily deliberate. Interpol sing about lost love, frustrated passion and desperate longing. The Outsider, by stark contrast, is the tale of a man committed to truth and simplicity but divorced from the complex passion and depth of feeling of those around him.

Told in first person, the protagonist Meursault details a series of events that through different eyes would be emotional and dramatic; his mother’s funeral, his befriending and abetting of a local pimp who badly beats up a mistress, the beginning of a sexual relationship with a woman he has fancied for a long time, his murder of an Arab stranger and his own subsequent trial and execution. Heady stuff, and yet through Meursault’s eyes they are all just events, things that happen to him without meaning or reflection.

Camus said about The Outsider that 'In our society, any man who doesn't cry at his mother's funeral is liable to be condemned to death’. Meursault is no Josef K: he has clearly and without provocation committed an act of murder. However, it is the focus on his lack of remorse that Camus is interested on, and it is on this basis that Meursault is executed rather than given a lighter sentence.

Meursault’s lack of self-reflection, his alienation from the social world, make him unknowable and unlikable. However, his refusal to play the game, to do anything except state the truth, however unpalatable, wrings from the reader a certain admiration. As with The Catcher in the Rye, I can imagine that any adolescent would identify with the protagonist’s nihilism.

It’s a great book. I recommend it. Also, buy (burn, download, steal from your blind and helpless neighbour) Interpol’s Antics. Fucking brilliant.

Margaret Drabble – The Seven Sisters

Also written in first person, The Seven Sisters is the diary of Candida, a middle-aged divorcee alienated from her three grown daughters, making a new and much-circumscribed life for herself in London. After a period of grimy poverty, she comes into some money and travels through Tunisia and Naples with a group of female friends. How these women in the ‘third age’ of their lives interact with one another and themselves is the focus of the work.

I had difficulty engaging with this book, although I’ve enjoyed the author’s work before. In Candida, Drabble has created an uptight, self-conscious character who is given to deconstructing herself and her own need to impress and connect with others. The trouble is that she’s done it extremely well, and so the book reads like, well, a self-conscious personal diary written by an amateur. She plays with narrative style and perspective as a form of self-analysis, which makes one question Candida’s candidness; but rather than piquing my interest, this just made me more irritated with the character.

It’s a tricky skill, writing a flawed character in a way that doesn’t lose the reader’s sympathy. Drabble skilfully charts the growing optimism and personal strength of a woman thrown on her own resources, who is able to lose the ‘bleating, whining tone’ of her earliest entries in favour of a more positive voice…but personally, by the end of the book, I no longer cared.


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