Who: Jan Smits, professor of European Private Law
Book: L’Étranger (The Stranger), Albert Camus
Target: Law students
“I bought this book in 1986, when I was eighteen. My copy is in shreds. It’s a thin book, in easy French, short sentences. You can read it in an afternoon or evening.
“The story is set in Algeria, in the days when it was still a French colony. The main character, Mr Meursault, is a pied-noir – a Frenchman who lives in Africa. He kills a man who is referred to as ‘an Arab’ in the book. This is actually really strange because the murdered man was an Algerian; so he was a native.
“The first part of the book is about the murder. Meursault ends up in a fight on the beach. He is not feeling well; it is very hot and his mother had just died the day before. When he is threatened, he shoots the man. The second part is about the trial. Meursault refuses to defend himself. He doesn’t feel guilty. According to him, he is not being condemned because he committed murder but because he does not fit into society. He did not cry at his mother’s funeral, shows no remorse and does not believe in God. That makes him a stranger.
“Meursault is an outsider, alone against the world. His standards are not the same as the prevailing norm of the group; his truth is a different one. I always try to tell my students that there is not just one truth, not even in law. A law is the result of the norm of a group at a particular time. It is good to occasionally cast doubt upon the prevailing standards. Could something be done differently and why? One truth is not better or worse than another. The question is: can you justify this man’s reasons? Try to do so, even if you don’t agree with him.
“The great thing about literature is that you can read about alternative opinions. Those deviating opinions can also be found in music. For example in the song Ain’t Got No (I Got Life) by Nina Simone. It’s about all the things that she doesn’t have. A house, a car, lots of clothes. Things that the reigning views consider important. Then she sings about what she does have; her eyes, ears, voice, her life.
“It makes one think and realise that what is important, is relative. It depends on the person, the time and the circumstances.”
This column contains the recommendations made by lecturers of novels that shed a different light on their discipline than study books do