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Last Updated: Friday, 7 July 2006, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
The cult of the outsider
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Albert Camus
The Outsider published in 1942
Describes a young man in Algeria on trial for murder
Challenge to conventional morality delivered in a short, sharp, dispassionate style

Mean, moody and alone. What is the appeal of the outsider? The laureate of the cool teenager, Albert Camus, is having all his novels republished this week.

It's the perfect checklist for an artist to appeal to a brooding young man. Died young, looked good in moody, atmospheric photographs, wrote about serious stuff in a way that was seriously cool.

And most of all, he was an outsider, a rebel with his collars turned up, not part of the crowd.

Albert Camus, French writer and one of the youngest people to have won a Nobel prize for literature, is making a comeback.

Penguin are releasing all his novels again this week - and his most-famous work, The Outsider, was recently voted as the most significant "watershed" book for men.

Rebel, rebel

It's the book, preferably in dog-eared paperback, that generations of soulful young men have tucked inside their coat pocket, where it can be seen, even if never read.

Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando's 1950s rebel
It's the original rebel novel about the confusion and alienation of a young man in a dishonest and random world. Written in the 1940s, it was the predecessor of a whole line-up of rebels and outsiders.

Even though Camus was a left-bank existentialist, living in circles which survived entirely on cigarettes and black and white photography, by the time the cult of the outsider reached Hollywood it was big box office.

Movie stars such as James Dean and Marlon Brando portrayed loners at the edge of society, not even sure what they were protesting about.

"What are you rebelling against?" Brando's character gets asked in the Wild One. "What'd ya got?" he retorts. It was alienation, but with fashion and chiselled profiles.

And you can trace the lineage through pop music, with the self-absorbed boys' music of the likes of Morrissey, Joy Division and Kurt Cobain. Or in sport, it's the difference between being Eric Cantona or Bryan Robson.

Fatal attraction

But why should we want to be someone who is unwanted?

Camus football shirt
Camus, goalie in Philosophy Football
Social psychologist Arthur Cassidy says it is part of the process of adolescence to want to play with identity - to try out how someone else might feel.

The outsider, someone with an unusual or unfamiliar attitude, can be particularly attractive. It's why middle-class kids in leafy suburbs want to buy rap music about living in gun-toting ghettoes in the United States.

"Young people become bored with their own culture, it loses meaning for them - and they learn that it's not a bad thing to be an outsider, opposites can attract", says Dr Cassidy. Through images of rebels and outsiders they can have their own experimental identities, he says.

In literary terms, Camus's posthumous success reflects his ability to still feel modern, says Robin Buss, who has translated the new versions appearing this week.

First lonely teen

A book such as The Outsider "struck an entirely new note, it was something very original, it was the first real model for the lonely teenager," he says. And it has managed to retain its sense of immediacy.

Morrissey
Bard of angst-ridden teenagers

And there is something resolutely cool about the storytelling - dispassionate and to the point - which appeals to a male sense of style.

This sense of style extended beyond books. Camus was also a goalkeeper, playing in Algeria, where he had been born.

And, as part of the fashion for replica football strips, there is a range of Football Philosophy shirts - with Camus the number one.

Mark Perryman, who runs the firm, says they have sold about 5,000 Camus football shirts, carrying the quote: "All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football."

Moody and murderous

There's no escaping that Camus has a particular appeal for male readers. And a survey of most significant books, produced by academic and cultural commentator Lisa Jardine, found that The Outsider was the runaway winner for men.

ALBERT CAMUS
Albert Camus
Born 1913 in Algeria, his father died in World War 1
Edited underground French Resistance newspaper
Major works: The Outsider, The Plague, The Fall, The Rebel
1957 awarded Nobel Prize for Literature
1960 died in a car crash near Sens, north-eastern France
"What Camus stands for is unsentimental outsiderness - that's what Morrissey was and probably what gets people going about Pete Doherty," she says.

And its account of a "moody, slouchy, isolated, slightly murderously-inclined bloke" taps into something in the male world-view, she says, and into the "moody, alienated young men" in each generation.

Also, and very importantly, it's incredibly short at little more than 100 pages. While women opt for lengthy Victorian novels as their "watershed" novels, men want books that are sharp and to the point.

And just the thing to leave out if you want to impress someone.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Ah, L'Etranger. Fantastic book and - more importantly - when you're 18, male and clutching a copy, it makes you look VERY DEEP INDEED. I bagged at least two of my girlfriends with a well-placed Camus quote. Teenage chaps, take note.
Meursault, Dubai, UAE.

I first read the Outsider in 1962, hitchhiking between Brighton and Cardiff. It changed my life forever.
Chris Jones, Cardiff

Well Chris, that's Cardiff for you.
Angus D

The Outsider has a special place in my heart because I loathe hot sunny days; they have always given me the creeps. In the novel his mom dies (sorry to give it away) whilst the cicadas hiss in the stultifying climate. Finally! I thought, someone who understands that days motionless with sultry heat are about death, not the lovely overcast, dank days usually featured in movies. Still use the book as an example to help explain this little quirk.
Catherine Jones, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Emo for the Gauloise generation.
Laura, Cambridge

"Moody, slouchy, isolated, slightly murderously-inclined bloke" - describes me to a tee, yet I'm 29, so it can't just be adolescence, it's society. Women can accept society more because it's geared towards their goals in life, marriage, children, shopping, celebrities etc. But blokes tend to dislike being controlled and almost having to sacrifice everything they are and want to be, for the sake of a partner's goals. So what option is there for a bloke who doesn't want marriage/kids/a detached house and a BMW? Solosexualism!
Dean, Leeds

Dean from Leeds - don't be so sexist! Not every woman has 2.4 children, a rich husband and a weekly delivery of Hello as their goals. Most of the women I know, including me, have no interest in getting married, or giving up their lives to some useless bloke who can't even pick up their own socks. And apart from the word 'bloke' that quote applies equalyl to me too (and I look pretty good in black and white photos too..). The Outsider might be written about a man, by a man, but it speaks to something in women too. You can't ring-fence the idea of the 'outsider' to men....there's plenty of women out there longing to break away from the social norm, from the stultifying dullness of our parent's lives, from the 'goals' and 'ideals' society place on us, and men like Dean assume we want. Women can be Outsiders too!
Michelle, London

To Michelle London: Would you like to meet up for a drink? I've never met a woman like you
Dean, Leeds

Is there a football jersey with 'Michelle and Dean'?
Will, Portland, Oregon

I agree with Michelle. Women can appreciate where Camus is coming from with L'Etranger, despite society and men like Dean trying to tell us otherwise.
Lisa, Hull

Michelle from London I so agree. I read the Outsider at the age of 17 some 23 years ago, inspired by the Cure song. It isn't a book just for blokes, that's really silly. I hate 'women's' magazines and have no interest in celebrity and have often felt like an outsider because of my beliefs. Dean, it can sometimes take a long time to meet someone who shares a different take on life - but it's worth it when it happens. Hold in there!
Maria, Sheffield

I take it from their comments that Sean Coughlan and Lisa Jardine copies of the The Outsider remain unread in their coat pockets. Contrary to Lisa Jardine's opinion, Camus did not stand for "unsentimental outsiderness" and neither did Meursault. Meursault passionately believed in living what he considered to be the truth and was certainly no confused adolescent. It is mentioned in the book that Meursault has previously gone through a philosophical process in reaching his conclusions about the world. Conclusions that are not necessary shared by Albert Camus, the writer and his creation are not the same man.

The novel was not aimed at alienated teenagers but at those people concerned with securing value in a world with nothing to guarantee values. The theme of The Outsider fitted nicely with the philosophical projects of the left-wing intellectuals of the day, notably Jean-Paul Sartre who'd attempted to capture the subject less sucessfully in his own novel 'Nausea'.

L'Homme Revolté is a play on words, if Camus had wanted to write about 'a rebel' he could have used 'Le Rebelle'. His long essay is about the (il)legitmacy of killing in the name of revolt, a sustained attack on political violence and those who believe in killing for a better future - hence the two interpretations of a 'revolting man'. Camus was a rebel with a cause. His books tackled head-on and unflinchingly, those who accepted prison camps and torture as a necessary step towards freedom. His work is as relevent today as it was during his life time, to men and women. To anyone interested in beauty, happiness and living life.
Albert Camus Society UK, London

If L'Etranger changes your life, try the Myth of Sisyphus. It still gives me goosebumps reading those last sentences. Did Michelle and Dean ever go out on a date?
Nick Thomas, Denver

The Outsider - the Bible for the dissatisfied, the alienated and the misunderstood. Empowering to provide a direction and an understanding for those who feel lost and isolated.
Helen, Maidenhead

It's so refreshing to hear these comments. I read this book in my late teens along with La Peste (en Francais of course for extra cool points!) and it really made a difference. Thanks for the messages so far.
Michael, Sheffield

It's wonderful, although my favourite Camus is his non-fiction 'The Rebel' ('L'Homme Revolté'). I'm a woman, and the notion of a life built around "marriage, children, shopping, celebrities etc" disgusts and repels me in its superficiality and narrowness as much at 40 as it did at 19, when I first read Camus as part of a course on Existentialism. Vive Albert!
Doc M, Glasgow

L'Etranger changed my life when I first read it. For me,it made it cool to be different.
Stephen Robson, New York

I was completely ignorant of anything about the Outsider when I bought a copy (because it looked short and it was in the classics section), ironically enough to read on a beach holiday. So as I read on, I found I was sitting on a beach with the book in my hand thinking "hang on, he stole this from a song by the Cure!" Then I realised that wasn't very likely.
Jonathon, Nottingham

Yep, definitely a young, moody, intellectual, angst-ridden guy thing... it was recommended to me by an ex who had all those characteristics and it definitely did not appeal to me (a well read but somewhat airy bon viveur type).
Suzie, London

Not just for male readers.
Lucy, Cambridge

Definitely has the same appeal to young women. I read it for French A Levels in the Seventies and it was the most fascinating book of my school days.
Gina, Germany

I remember having breakfast in a coffee bar in University of London Goldmiths College with a dog-eared copy of this book on the table smoking a roll up cigarette the picture of late 80's intellect. It belonged to a friend of mine who had just gone to visit the toilet. I was dressed entirely in black and I remember The Smiths were playing in the background. A stunningly attractive French woman sat down nearby with a black coffee and to my amazement offered me a Gauloise and we started chatting. I was really into the film Diva directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix at the time. My friend appeared briefly and reading the signs departed without interruption. Late the next day I returned the book to my friend feeling that my life was beginning to read like a art film script. He smiled saying "works like a charm that Camus bloke" I nodded in full agreement.
David Raho, Nishihara, Okinawa, Japan

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