WHATSAPP WITH WINE
Updated: Aug 22
WhatsApp With Wine is where I 'WhatsApp' a guest for an interview about a recommended book for secondary school teachers. This book is strictly not about how to teach better: it should be a book that inspires more reading, knowledge, discussion and critical thinking. The interview does not have to take place over WhatsApp and drinking wine is not compulsory. Otherwise I feel that the title is perfect.
The Outsider by Albert Camus
It is perhaps inevitable that a discussion of recommended reading will focus on the relationship between gender and literature at some point. I interviewed David Gibbons, an English teacher who chose The Outsider by Albert Camus. Published in 1942, it is a story narrated by Meursault, a man who shows indifference to his mother’s death before engaging in a fatal conflict with a man who has threatened Meursault’s neighbour.
“It is supposed to be a man’s favourite book. The main character doesn’t seem to care. He has a certain obdurateness.” Like many recommended books, it affected the reader at a young age; David read it aged 18, whilst travelling abroad and was partly seduced by the edition known as Penguin Classics. He was a literature student and the book looked literary; it also looked thin. Whilst we are supposed not to judge a book by its cover, I say “hats off” to Penguin for validating certain books with saturated cover designs so that would-be English Literature students like me knew what to read. It definitely helped.
There are really two important plot points in The Outsider. One involves Meursault’s apparent indifference to his mother’s death, a response that positions him as social pariah or ‘stranger’. Secondly, there is a moment in the novel when Meursault, armed with his neighbour’s gun, is confronted by three Arab men and pulls the trigger. “There is a line about this moment relating to the weather; Meursault pulls the trigger because it’s a hot day. In court Meursault is unrepentant and remains so even when the priest comes to visit him in custody.”
The interesting factor about The Outsider is the gender division created amongst readers. “I understood him straight away,” said David of Meursault; meanwhile, fewer female readers name this book as one which had an acute impact upon them. David describes an interesting conversation with a female university friend who found that the novel simply did not resonate with her, despite two readings of it.
My own memory of The Outsider was Meursault’s indifference at his mother’s death. He is expected to grieve in a transparent, public way and, when he does not, he becomes the subject of suspicion. Meursault is very much a non conformist and it frightens people around him. At his mother’s funeral, Meursault goes through the motions of grieving for his mother without the visible sentimentality that people expect. “In pulling the trigger later,” explains David, “that is his release.”
I was reminded of a Curb Your Enthusiasm scene, when Larry David discovers that his mother has fallen sick, died and been buried, but only after dropping in unexpectedly to visit his parents. Larry’s father does his best at subterfuge until revealing the truth: “she asked me not to bother you; she knew how busy you are.” There are not many writers who would see the death of a mother as comedy gold and, like The Outsider, it either resonates with people or it does not. Curb Your Enthusiasm is also anti-sentimentalist. Larry does not cry or break down upon hearing the news; instead he wants to win the argument with his father: “why didn’t you tell me?” The father is unrepentant: “your mother asked me not to bother you.” In The Outsider, Camus is writing about something similar from a non-comedic stance: how people negotiate trauma, without sentimentality.
Camus’ style is both simple and minimalist: much of the time the reader infers rather than reads the novel. Camus was also a goalkeeper in Algeria. “That’s the other thing about him,” says David, “he talks about football, aggression and is philosophical.” There is an interesting trend in which studying literature in education is sometimes seen as effeminate and ‘unmasculine’. Historically, reading, writing and engaging with literature and philosophy was very much part of a traditional masculine identity. Somehow, the idea of engaging with art has become synonymous with being feminine. The take-up for literature courses is overwhelmingly female. (Despite this, many of the panels who decide book prizes are predominantly male.) Camus was an accomplished goalkeeper, but it is hard to imagine too many Premier League footballers discussing their interest in literature. Somehow, literature and masculinity grew apart.
David and I teach at a boys’ school and so the conversation turned to the relationship between exercise and the mind. Boys’ schools are very good at making their students do sport, including contact sports. Perhaps these same schools are not so good at getting their students to exercise the mind, namely through reading. “Boys should be tough physically and be able to argue their case.” We tell them to exercise; we encourage (or cajole) them into reading. The problems with not exercising are well known: obesity, diabetes, poor sleep and chronic stress. The problems with not reading are also known: ignorance and, as it were, an ‘intellectual’ obesity. It is curious how certain aspects of learning are dealt with dictatorially by teachers, whereas other aspects are approached with astonishing liberalism. Sport is compulsory, wearing a tie is mandatory, “put that phone away” and, if you have time, you could do some reading. This is not to say that Camus was in every regard a model citizen for secondary school students: most online images of Camus show a cigarette in his mouth. It is the intellectual toughness, matched by a physical toughness, that is desirable.
It is also strange how the power of words can evoke more unease in education than physical harm. In contact sport boys get injured frequently, but the risk is assumed to be worth the benefits of enjoying the sporting experience. David recounts an experience at a previous school where a sixth form reading group wanted to read Lolita to the horror of senior teachers who were worried about how the ideas of such a novel might be perceived by the parents. The teaching of literature is often compromised by PR concerns in a way that a broken leg in rugby does not reach. Perhaps it is hard to fight intellectual obesity when the literature goalposts move so often towards censorship.
The Outsider by Albert Camus is published by Penguin Books