The First Man, by Albert Camus. ‘frans. by David Hapgood. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995) 325 pp., cloth $23.00.
…. Struggling against the wall that separated him from the secret of all life, wanting to go farther, to go beyond, and to discover, discover before dying, dis-cover at last, in order “to be,” just once “to be,” not for a single second, but for-ever.
Albert Camus The First Man
The literary world is mesmerized. Albert Camus has re-emerged and has us paying attention to his continuing questions. Over half a century since he burst upon the scene and thirty-five years after the tragedy of his fatal accident, the unfinished manuscript that was found in a briefcase near the site of the car crash and was put into print in 1994 unedited by his daughter Margaret has now been translated from the French by David Hapgood. The First Man, Camus’s final and most compelling work—an autobiographical novel—is set in Algeria, where he was born. In the quest for his heritage, Camus confronts the “duality” within himself—the “split” he fears he may never be able to assimilate. As he tried to explain, “The Mediterranean separates two worlds in me.”
Protagonist Jacques Cormery, when he returns to his homeland at age forty, fulfilling a promise to his mother that he would visit his father’s grave, is struck by the mystery of poverty. He is reintroduced to the world of poverty, an existence (in his words) “where want and ignorance made life harder and bleaker, as if closed in on itself….” “Poverty,” Camus witnesses, “is a fortress without draw-bridges.”
He lives once again the child he was, raised in a land of unremitting sun and scorching heat and where approaching night brought dread of the unknown, and all the while an ecstasy of joy and freedom prevailed. He doubts the man he now is, an author in his forties who has won fame and an active role at the center of French literary life, a luminary in Parisian intellectual circles.
Camus’s last work is replete with an emotion that is uniquely his: the love for his native Algeria—the heat, the sun, the sea, the people—all of which form the man he became. His position four decades ago, which met with strong unpopular-ity—an appeal for a compromise between assimilationist colonialism and militant nationalism—comes to mind as we read the evocations of his homeland. We can recall his tribute to “the particular culture of Algeria’s European inhabitants” and his warning of “the price that would be paid should anyone attempt to shatter it.”
The First Man is written in the third person; it parallels the chapters of Camus’s life. Like his own, the father of the main character, Jacques, was killed in World War I while he was still an infant. Like Camus, Jacques was brought up by his grandmother, who routinely whipped him for the smallest infraction; his mother—beautiful and sad—whom he worshiped, but who rarely spoke or made a gesture of affection; and his uncle, who was speech-impaired. Jacques grew up in a neighborhood of poor white immigrants in Algiers—a world defined by hard manual work and a stoical will to survive. The Cormerys (like the Camuses) lived in a world of silence: Jacques’s mother, who worked as a charwoman, was partially deaf and his uncle was partially mute; neither his grandmother nor his mother could read. There were no books in their home, no newspapers, no radio, no talk of the past or future.
Moving from the world of the poor and the uneducated to the world of books and ideas is not a new story. It has been the experience of others who have been able to find a way to transcend their life circumstances. What is striking in the life of Jacques (and Camus), however, is that those very qualities that made possible such a shift—the young boy’s intelligence and fervor, his hunger for knowledge—created a chasm so deep that it would exile him. Jacques (and Camus) would grow up as an outsider—unable to be at ease with family, wealthy classmates, or even himself.
The notion of The First Man derives its title from Camus’s view of Algeria as “the land of oblivion, where men try to learn to live without roots, where each one is the first man.”
“Remembrance of things past is just for the rich,” Camus observes. In order to bear up well, one must not remember too much, but rather stick close to the passing day, hour by hour, as his mother did. Like his father and Jacques Cormery and the European in Algeria, he sees himself as the “first man,” rootless, traditionless, creating his own history, threatened with anonymity and oblivion. “Every man,” Camus writes, “is the first man.”
An autobiographical novel has readers and critics palpitating: what does this author, celebrated in 1957 as “the moral conscience of his times,” tell? One thing is evident: he is not a phony intellectuality, filled with words. Camus felt his thoughts. Themes overlaying themes (poverty, silence, the hunger for knowledge, the search for what is right and wrong) resonate in a voice that is piercing. We are invited to enter his mind and heart and to see through the eyes of the child, as Camus moves us back and forth from early to middle years. Insights, before and after, inform Jacques Cormery, the man, as well. Magnificent passages of recollections, the absence of distance, give this book the ring of authenticity. Camus’s honesty, what his former schoolteacher called “ta pudeur instinctive,” has tremendous appeal, the appeal of the “real thing,” a prized work in a world of fabrication. His honesty amidst pseudo-intellectuals is all the more revered. His contempt for the intellectual without heart is what helped give Camus’s ethics its unique authority. And it is this “moral authority,” so lacking in our present-day world, that draws attention to Camus.
Throughout the book there are passages that radiate as Camus plumbs the inner being of the child, Jacques—with a ravenous appetite for life, an untamed and hungry intellect, living in an island of poverty, in an ignorant and handicapped family, “and all the while an ecstasy of joy, punctuated by the sudden counter-punches,” knowing he would recover, trying to understand, to learn, to assimilate this world he did not know. But “he would not abase himself,” because he felt a confidence that he would achieve and nothing would ever be impossible for him. He was prepared by the bareness of his childhood to find his place, “because there was no position he wanted, but only joy, and free spirits, and energy, and all that life has that is good, that is mysterious, that is not and never will be for sale.”
And now Jacques was, at forty, holding sway over so much, and yet, what was he? What had he achieved? He was looking back, trying to return to those early stirrings, blind stirrings, he calls them, which he realizes had never ceased, and which he still felt now. Yes, he concludes, this mysterious stirring was well-matched to this immense country around him. “This was the very country into which he felt he had been tossed as if he were the first inhabitant—these tangled hidden roots that bound him to this magnificent and frightening land.” It is the Algeria of his childhood and adolescence, where he goes in quest for his origins, and where he finds his roots and most meaningful bonds. Despite his eventual celebrity and material comforts, it is where he feels the deepest connection.
The looming figure of his silent, beautiful mother, to whom he dedicates the book, is ever-present: the mystery of his mother’s silence, of how she allowed (almost welcomed) his grandmother’s taking complete control of his upbringing, the decisions that kept the family functioning as it did and that provided the “core” of the home; the appreciation of his grandmother’s taxing and challenging circumstances—all this he finds himself pondering during and after his return to his homeland.
Camus’s lyrical prose brings an intensity to his thoughts; it is difficult to read this book without being stirred. Like the confessional novel, The Fall, which preceded this work by a few years, his protagonist is also “seeking the moral act.” Jean-Baptiste Clamence “sat on the fence”; Jacques Cormery takes further steps toward the scrutiny of a “moral sense” to which he appeals. They both attack and discard pretentiousness. Camus’s last novel is integral to embracing his whole body of work; he continues and adds to the legend that he became, not only as the conscience of his generation but as perhaps the most important moral voice since Tolstoy.
The odyssey of Jacques Cormery (and Albert Camus) is a questioning and in some ways an answering. He does find his identity, an identity ridden with conflicts; his poignant awareness of these conflicts may be what became his unique understanding of the human condition. . . . “Life, so vivid and mysterious, was enough to occupy his entire being.” These words from Camus’s final offering encapsulate the man and his work. •