I’ve just noticed that it’s almost four months since my last posting. It seems like only last week. However, you must understand that at my age, 114, time flies ever more quickly. This might be the same for you, dear reader, even though you might only be a forty-something, for I’ve heard forty-somethings – who to me are mere children – say they don’t know where the time goes, and how old they’re getting.
You who are my faithful readers may be puzzled at my stating that my age is 114, since, in my previous postings, I referred to myself as a 113 year-old. Well, since my last posting I had another birthday, my 114th. My men, Mikey Squeaky and Freddy, gave me a surprise party with a birthday cake. Instead of 114 candles, the cake just had one, for 114 candles is too much to put on one cake, unless it’s a giant cake for twenty men.
So, given that it’s de rigueur for a birthday cake to have candles, and that 114 candles is too many candles to put on a cake for just four men, Mikey Freddie and Squeaky were faced with the conundrum of how many candles to put on the cake. What number would be the most neutral? They decided it would be one; so one candle it became.
There were other alternatives, such as having a cake large enough for twenty or so, and with 114 candles. That portion of the cake we couldn’t eat, we could give to the needy. But the needy may have become suspicious, for neither I nor Mikey Freddie and Squeaky, look the sort of men who would give portions of birthday cake to the needy, who, anyway, may have been aware that four men looking like us are wanted by the police, and have turned us in for the money which the police are surely offering.
Another alternative might have been to have the cake for twenty, with the 114 candles, and the four of us to just eat the cake over the next few days. I was so glad that Mikey Squeaky and Freddy didn’t suggest this, since (secretly) I abhor birthday cake, and any other kind of cake. I’ve never understood our society’s liking of cake. Along with hamburgers and fries, cake is the antithesis of a healthy food.
However, as an English gentleman of the old school, I don’t refuse food, however nauseating or unhealthy, when I’m a guest in someone’s home, or when food is presented to me in my honour, as my birthday cake was.
I wish today, though, to speak of something quite different, namely Albert Camus’ novel “The Outsider” which I’ve recently re-read. Let me say as an aside, that although the theme of this blog is books I’ve read, and films I’ve seen (well, apart from my telling of my being on the run, and the events leading to it), I read nowadays only books, since the films on offer at film houses within driving distance from where I’m hiding out, are, based on their descriptions, so ghastly, that were I to watch them, I would feel as nauseous as I would from eating only hamburgers and fries, and cake, unceasingly over many days.
Now, to The Outsider. I had read it once before, in 1946 – when first published in English – but, after sixty-four years, I didn’t remember much about it. However, even had I read The Outsider for the first time, say, two years ago, and remembered it, I still would have wanted to re-read it, since, to get the full value from a worthwhile book, one should read it at least twice.
The Outsider’s first line is the famous: Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. This bespeaks that the narrator, Meursault, a young man of French descent, but Algerian-born, and who lives in Algiers, is by nature insouciant. He takes life as it comes. Each event has its own significance. Nothing is more important than any other.
Here’s a passage which spoke to me. It concerns Meursault and his girlfriend, Marie:
Marie came that evening and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn’t mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married.
‘All right,’ I answered. ‘We’ll get married whenever you like.’ I then mentioned the proposal made by my employer, and Marie said she’d love to go to Paris.
Then she asked me again if I loved her. I replied, much as before, that her question meant nothing or next to nothing – but I supposed I didn’t.
‘If that’s how you feel,’ she said, ‘why marry me?’
I explained that it had no importance really, but, if it would give her pleasure, we could get married right away. I pointed out that, anyhow, the suggestion came from her; as for me, I’d merely said ‘Yes.’
Then she remarked that marriage was a serious matter.
To which I answered: ‘No.’
She kept silent after that, staring at me in a curious way. Then she asked:
‘Suppose another girl had asked you to marry he – I mean, a girl you liked in the same way as you like me – would you have said “Yes” to her, too’?
Then she said she wondered if she really loved me or not. I, of course, couldn’t enlighten her as to that. And, after another silence, she murmured something about my being ‘a queer fellow’. ‘And I daresay that’s why I love you,’ she added. ‘But maybe that’s why one day I’ll come to hate you.’
To which I had nothing to say, so I said nothing.
She thought for a bit, then started smiling and, taking my arm, repeated that she was in earnest; she really wanted to marry me.
Meursault, in his disinterestedness, acted as I might have, had my own wife Gladys (now long dead) asked me to marry her, rather than I her. Not that Gladys would have asked, because the young women of her day just didn’t do that. No, it was always the man who, on bended knee, asked for the lady’s hand, usually after asking her father’s permission. The father would want to take stock of the young man, would want to know, for instance, whether he had the means to support his daughter in the manner to which she was accustomed.
If I was as indifferent about Gladys as Meursault was about Marie, why did I ask for Gladys’s hand in marriage? Well, because marriage was expected of men, particularly of a career army officer as I was. And the most dependable wives were of the nice girl-next-door sort, as Gladys was, who would behave always in a manner befitting the military social circles in which I moved.
But I was never passionate about Gladys, for, in my bachelor days I’d had passionate affairs with exotic foreign women, after whom an English girl-next-door, like Gladys, would inevitably be a romantic disappointment. To begin with, Gladys, before our wedding night, had never known a man in the Biblical sense, so I was her first. Gladys was never passionate about me either, although she always performed her conjugal duties towards me whenever I requested them.
Back to The Outsider. Mearsault had been languishing in jail for some weeks, and so
…….was plagued by the desire for a woman—which was natural enough, considering my age. I never thought of Marie especially. I was obsessed by thoughts of this woman or that, of all the ones I’d had, all the circumstances under which I’d loved them; so much so that the cell grew crowded with their faces, ghosts of my old passions. That unsettled me, no doubt; but, at least, it served to kill time……..
This so echoes my inner feelings as a now womanless man myself. When last I made love to a woman, it was in April of this year (2009). In the four months since, my old loves have more and more crowded the space around my bed at night, and some share my pillow. Despite that most would now have died of old age, or, if alive, would be little more than a bag of bones in an old-age home, they look, when they visit me in the night, as young and beautiful as they did when I loved them as a young, and as a middle-aged, man.
I confess, dear reader, that I wasn’t faithful to Gladys. But I ask you to understand my position. While Gladys did always comply with my conjugal requests, she did little more than lie inertly on her back and allow me to enter. I found this unsatisfactory, so what else could I do but find comfort in the arms of other women?
Despite that I was born in Queen Victoria’s time, when psycho-analysis and psychology were in their infancy and otherwise almost unheard of, I know enough psychology to suspect that my choosing to re-read The Outsider right now, is because I, as an outlaw wanted by the police, am, like Meursault, an Outsider. Also, Meursault has killed a man, as have I, and he’s in jail where he awaits his execution. So, this is of great interest to me, since the police could find me at any time, and put me in jail, where I could well be executed if found guilty of murder.
How might it feel at the moment the judge finds me guilty? I got an inkling when I read this passage:
When the bell rang again and I stepped back into the dock, the silence of the courtroom closed in around me……..I didn’t look in Marie’s direction. In fact, I had no time to look as the presiding judge had already started pronouncing a rigmarole to the effect that ‘in the name of the French people’ I was to be decapitated in some public place.
These words turned my stomach to jelly, for I can think of no more awful a way of killing a man than by chopping his head off. Far better the lethal injection, which may be my fate. It’s so much more civilised.
Meaursault, indignant that the judge and executioner have it all their own way once sentence is passed, feels the condemned man should have a sporting chance of escaping his fate. Meaursault concludes that
……what was wrong about the guillotine was that the condemned man had no chance at all, absolutely none. In fact, the patient’s death had been ordained irrevocably. It was a foregone conclusion. If by some fluke the knife didn’t do its job, they started again. So it came to this, that – against the grain, no doubt – the condemned man had to hope the apparatus was in good working order! This, I thought, was a flaw in the system; and, on the face of it, my view was sound enough. On the other hand, I had to admit it proved the efficiency of the system. It came to this: the man under sentence was obliged to collaborate mentally, it was in his interest that all should go off without a hitch…..
While Meaursault’s analysis of the judicial killing system is acute, he doesn’t consider that to execute a man for having killed another, isn’t just an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; but three eyes, or more, for an eye; and three teeth, or more, for a tooth. In most cases, the man killed has hardly any time to contemplate before he is killed – perhaps a few seconds, or even a few minutes, but seldom more. But the killer may languish in jail for weeks, months, years, before the morning when he’s taken to the scaffold. He thus suffers infinitely more mental torture than the man he killed. Before his head is cut off, or he is hanged, he has already, in his mind, died a thousand deaths and more. Is this cricket?
The killer may have killed his victim in a fit of anger or passion. His judicial killers, on the other hand, kill him premeditatively, deliberately, coldly. But, while you regard the killer as a bad fellow who got his just desserts; you look up to his judicial killers – that is the judge, jury, hangman, guillotine operator – as fine fellows, who you might want to drink a beer with. But, you dear reader, will surely agree that what the judicial killers do to the killer, is far more monstrous than what the killer ever did to his victim.
Why do nice respectable people like judges, and those on juries, and hangmen, and guillotine operators – who pay their taxes, attend PTA meetings, go to church and all of that – act so barbarously? Well, it’s because each is only a bit player in the process. The jurors decide only whether or not the killer is guilty; the judge decides only what the sentence is; and the hangman or guillotine operator only pulls the lever. But, would jurors be so quick to find the killer guilty; and the judge so quick to pass a sentence of death, were they also required to pull the lever at the scaffold and witness the execution?
As to at what stage in life we die, Meursault waxes philosophic, saying
……it makes little difference whether one dies at the age of thirty or three-score and ten – since, in either case, other men and women will continue living, the world will go on as before. Also, whether I died now or forty years hence, this business of dying had to be got through, inevitably…….
Despite Meursault, should I be caught, and be condemned by a judge to death by lethal injection, I can take more comfort that it’ll be when I’m 114 or older, than were I only thirty-three, for, at thirty-three, one has so many more potential years to live.
If, as Meursault says, this business of dying has to be got through inevitably, why do I not immediately give myself up? Perhaps because this would imperil my men, Mikey Freddy and Squeaky, who, at forty or so, still have much living to do. Nonetheless, I’ll ask them what they think.