A Review for Writers: ‘The Outsider’ by Albert Camus

As a writer trying to improve their craft, it’s worthwhile selecting books that enhance and challenge personal skills. It’s not that you can’t read for fun or that you have to hide all your “shameful” copies of Twilight (like I once did). I only suggest you select a book that challenges your views on writing—and perhaps, highlights possibilities.

This week, I’ve decided to review the much loved 1942 novel L’Etranger by Albert Camus, translated by Sandra Smith. The story follows a French Algerian named Meursault, whose morality is questioned by others after he attends his mother’s funeral and goes on to kill a man days later.

Although it’s tempting to get into the philosophical aspects of this book—I want to explore Camus’s engaging protagonist, Meursault, whose emotional reactions are refreshing and not in anyway overbearing.

What do I mean by “overbearing”? Well, it’s common for writers to fall into the trap where they exaggerate their characters reactions to certain problems—“He dropped the glass, I slapped him and screamed”. We’re worried our readers won’t understand the emotional impact unless we go out guns blazing.

Camus shows us that’s not necessary. Great impact and tension can be done through subtle gestures and mannerisms. Meursault is not a very expressive character, some even think he’s amoral—but I think Camus created him with complex feelings. He just doesn’t make it glaringly obvious.

Here’s an example:

“The burning sun struck my cheeks and I could feel drops of sweat gathering above my eyebrows. It was the same sun as the day I’d buried Mama, and like then it was my forehead that hurt the most and I could feel every vein throbbing beneath my skin. I was being burned alive; I couldn’t stand it any more.”

This is right before he shoots another man on the beach, and you can see how Camus avoids the obvious. His character doesn’t cry or yell out in frustration. Instead, it’s the sun, the throbbing head, and the build up of impatience; which makes it strangely appealing.

I’m not against characters having outbursts, I just think it requires great skill to make it believable. You’ve probably read a book where the main character cries and you feel nothing—not because you’re a heartless bastard—but because you’re not conditioned to react to tears alone.

Camus’s character garners more sympathy because he’s just trying to keep it together (which we can all relate to). His mother dies and he doesn’t want to obsess over it. What’s clever though, is that he gets his supporting characters to react instead.

An example:

This was his firm belief, and if he ever had cause to doubt it, his life would no longer have any meaning. ‘Do you want my life to have no meaning?’ he shouted. In my opinion, that was none of my business and I told him so. But from across the table, he was already thrusting the Christ figure in my face and screaming like a mad man…

This is a judge who is disturbed by Meursault’s lack of remorse after killing a man. He starts off quite composed, then goes into a raging rant once he realises that Meursault won’t repent. Why is this effective? Because Camus gives us plenty of action while keeping his main character still. We’re not emotionally invested in the judge, his reactions don’t matter to us. Meursault’s does. And he’s the considerate one in this scene. We instantly side with him over the raving lunatic.

So if Camus can get us to like a character who killed a man—imagine what you can do with yours.

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7 thoughts on “A Review for Writers: ‘The Outsider’ by Albert Camus

  1. I love reading book reviews. It’s like being in someone else’s head for a little while, being a different ‘reader’ to the one you usually are. It’s a great idea to present a book review for the writer. I think you are onto something very enticing for emerging writers that could become a regular blog.
    The focus on character and Camus’ portrayal of Meursalt was a helpful starting point for understanding a complex character whose behaviour is completely under the surface. Equally, showing us how to create action and interest through the example of the judge is another helpful insight for writers wanting to ensure their work stays engaging. Thanks Isabel!

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  2. Wonderful review. I especially liked this part: ‘We’re worried our readers won’t understand the emotional impact unless we go out guns blazing.’

    I’ve been thinking about this and really, all those gut punching moments, the sentences and paragraphs I’ve read that have forced me to put the book down and take a moment have been subtle, almost quiet. It’s this reservation in language and expression that really gets you. I suppose you could say it’s the same in life. Lots of ponder for my own projects.

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  3. The Plague has been sitting on my bookshelf for a few months now and this review has inspired me to finally give it a go. I’m glad that you didn’t attempt to sum up the whole story of The Outsider, but rather you gave us an insight into some of Camus’s writing strengths while touching on some his themes and writing techniques. I hope that you keep tackling those challenging texts, and sharing your thoughts on them when you do.

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  4. I fully agree with your sentiments. Easy, digestible novels, while they provide a fun read, they simply don’t reward the reader the way literary books do. Yes, they are challenging and you also need to invest more time and patience with them. However, they certainly leave a lasting impression that lingers in the mind long after you’ve closed the book. And as a buddying writer, you learn a great deal from great writing, it is as simple as that. ‘The Outsider’ is also one of the many books on my list to read.

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  5. The idea to narrow a classic book review format to focus on writing craft is a great concept—it keeps your audience in mind, as writing students, and this post casually informs us.

    What I found most interesting was the idea of truer/realistic characters. It’s so easy to rely on archetypal characters as an emerging writer, because they are what we know, but to write characters more subtle and complex stretches both language and our understanding of each other. Your suggestion to balance reading at a level more thought-provoking than just entertaining/what we like is a practical way to begin controlling our writing craft.

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  6. Isabel your book review for writers is a great angle, as is your choice of Camus’ portrayal of Meursault, He’s such a complex and fascinating character. You’ve inspired me to reread it but this time with a writer’s eye and ear. One of the books I’m rereading at the moment is Joseph Heller’s satirical novel Catch 22. Yossarian is another great character, but the associative, non-chronological structure is really inventive.

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  7. Great review! I especially love the way you take a considered look into breaking down elements of the writing craft. It’s incredibly helpful and relatable for writers– such as myself! Love love love that opening hook, it explores another more analytical way or learning and reading as a writer!

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