The First Man | Critical Review by Adele King

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of The First Man.
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Critical Review by Adele King

SOURCE: "Le premier homme: Camus's Unfinished Novel," in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 83-5.

In the following review, King discusses Camus's literary legacy and the publication of The First Man.

When Albert Camus died in a car crash in January 1960, the manuscript of part of a novel on which he had been working was found in his briefcase. Thirty-four years later his daughter Catherine Camus, the literary executor of her father's estate after the death of her mother Francine in 1979, has edited this uncompleted novel, Le premier homme, and allowed it to be published. It became a major publishing event of 1994 in France, with over 100,000 copies sold within the first few months following its release. There were articles, sometimes many pages in length, devoted to discussion of the text in all the major newspapers and weekly magazines.

Publication of Le premier homme is also an event for the scholarly community. The international Société des Etudes Camusiennes organized its annual meeting in May, only six weeks after the novel was published, as a discussion, "First Impressions of The First Man." Already in France there are Master's theses being written on the novel, which had previously been the subject of an unpublished thesis based on the manuscript. The interest in the general community and among scholars can be partly explained by the continuing reputation of Camus as one of the most widely read novelists of this century (L'Etranger is the best selling novel on Gallimard's list and has been for many years). Studies of Camus are numerous. There are also more specific reasons, both in terms of Camus's biography and in terms of politics, for the wide discussion of Le premier homme at this time.

Before he died, many felt that Camus's inspiration had dried up. He had not published an original creative work since L'exil et le royaume in 1957. After winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, he had seemed obsessed with the problems raised by the Algerian war of independence. He told Robert Gallimard, for example, that he could no longer write, but would work in the theater. His enemies on the left, and they were numerous following his famous quarrel with Sartre after the publication of L'homme révolté in 1952, used his lack of new work as another stick with which to attack him. Even many critics favorable to Camus wondered if he had the creative stamina to continue. Catherine Camus waited to allow publication of Le premier homme partly because she felt the style of this first draft might be used to confirm doubts about her father's artistic ability.

For years Camus's refusal to embrace the cause of Algerian independence was considered an act of treason by the French left. The Algerian rebellion was by far the major political event in France during the 1950s, until de Gaulle finally granted the colony independence in 1962. The attitude toward Algeria of Camus, who describes the pied-noir culture of his youth with considerable admiration and love in his earlier work, always aroused controversy in France. After Camus's death, for example, some even read L'Etranger as a "racist," anti-Arab novel. Catherine Camus waited until the political climate was less hostile toward her father. Undoubtedly as well, she was reluctant to go against the wishes of her mother, who knew that Camus himself would have been unwilling to let an unfinished work be printed. Le premier homme, in fact, is not even an unfinished novel, but merely a draft of some chapters, with notes for additional material to be added. Some of the autobiographical material, particularly references to Camus's love affairs, may also have influenced Francine Camus's initial decision.

There were also by the 1990s other reasons to allow publication. In the present political situation, France is trying to maintain contact with the government of Algeria, the successors of the FLN against which France fought, but now the group which France has supported in its decision to annual the elections that gave a majority to the violently anti-French Islamic fundamentalists. With this political situation in the headlines almost every day, Camus's thoughts on Algeria seem of contemporary relevance and not necessarily politically suspect.

Since Camus's death, many critics and scholars have looked for more texts. Scholarly interest in Camus has been intense. Six of the seven volumes in the Cahiers Albert Camus series are previously unpublished or uncollected writings by Camus. The unpublished early novel La mort heureuse was printed in the series in 1971. A collection of early, mostly unpublished stories appeared in 1973. Articles from Combat were collected. An early version of Caligula was published. Catherine herself became involved in editing the uncollected articles from Alger-Républician.

Considerable work was needed to make this early draft available. Francine Camus had typed the handwritten manuscript, which contains many additions and marginal corrections and which is written in what seems to the reader looking at the sample pages included in this edition a handwriting almost impossible to decipher. In addition to the draft manuscript of thirteen chapters, Le premier homme includes loose notes for insertion found in the briefcase, and Camus's plans and general notes for the novel. Catherine also added correspondence between Camus and Louis Germain, his primary-school teacher and first important mentor in Algiers and the model for a central character in the draft chapters that exist.

Le premier homme is closely autobiographical, relating the childhood of a character modeled on Camus himself, though named Jacques Cormery. It was, however, intended as a novel, in fact the first work to which Camus presumably meant to give the label "roman." (L'Etranger and La Chute are called "récits"; La Peste is a "chronique.") In the existing draft, characters are occasionally called by their real names—an indication of how the writer had only begun to fictionalize his material. While Camus himself would have been very reluctant to let this work be published, many today will read it as much for its biographical interest as for its confirmation of Camus's ability as a writer.

Readers of Camus will initially be surprised by the wealth of detail, the capturing of a precise place, the realism of this work, in comparison with everything Camus wrote earlier. (Some of the notes, composed in the epigrammatic style of Camus's notebooks, are closer to what readers of Camus might expect than are the draft chapters themselves.) The Algeria of L'Etranger and La Peste is a Mediterranean country, but with little description to make it specifically North African. When Camus wrote descriptively, particularly in the early Noces, it was with a poetic intensity not suited to his fiction, in which the narrative voice is a principal organizing element. Another stylistic difference from the earlier work is the presence of a number of extended, page-long sentences, often beautifully written, a bit Proustian.

Le premier homme is divided into two sections: "Recherche du père" and "Le fils." Neither, however, is complete. The father for whom the hero searches died, as did Camus's own father, fighting in World War I for a country he had never seen before he was drafted. Jacques's search for some understanding of his father is rendered particularly difficult by the limited ability of his mother to tell him anything. She is illiterate, speaks little, suffers silently in a life of extreme poverty, supporting her children by doing housework, while dominated at home by her equally uncultured but tyrannical mother. As one commentator has noted, however, the very fact that the father chose to marry this woman should be of interest to the son, although he never mentions this.

Apart from a realistic description of the birth of the hero, in which his father is introduced as the new supervisor of a vineyard in Mondovi (Camus's actual birthplace), who arrives with his pregnant wife just prior to the birth of their second son, both sections of the novel are recounted in the third person but from the perspective of the hero. When he is forty, he visits his father's grave in France, only to realize that there is little he can learn about a man who died at the age of only twenty-nine and who, as a poor Algerian, left little trace. Some of those to whom Jacques turns are substitutes for his father: the schoolteacher based on Louis Germain, or the intellectual to whom the adult Cormery speaks and who is clearly based on the philosopher Jean Grenier, Camus's mentor from his lycée days.

In the childhood sections, which are the most complete, the sensual detail, and particularly the descriptions of the odors of poverty, are exceptionally vivid. The characters are to some extent familiar from earlier texts: the silent mother, the domineering grandmother, the deaf uncle. Interestingly, the older brother is almost never mentioned. The poverty of Cormery's childhood (and of Camus's) is more extreme than has usually been realized. While the essays in L'Envers et L'Endroit, Camus's first published work, give some indication of his cultural isolation at home, this becomes clear in Le premier homme's descriptions of Jacques's mother and grandmother attending school prize days with no understanding of the ceremony. Several French critics have commented on the vast difference between the childhood Sartre described in Les Mots and that of Camus. French literary discussion seems never to get beyond contrasting Sartre and Camus.

In the draft chapters relating the adult Cormery's search for his father, Camus sometimes appends marginal notes such as "make Jacques more of a monster," without indicating in what way the character is monstrous. He does comment, however, that he feels himself to be a monster. The bitter self-examination of La Chute has not been forgotten.

The title has already been a subject of much discussion. Is either father or son "the first man"? One explanation of the title is Catherine's: the first man is the Algerian, either European or Arab, the poor man without a past, whose life is completely forgotten on his death: "C'est tous ceux qui passent sur la terre sans apparemment laisser de trace mais qui quand même construisent ce monde dans lequel nous vivons." Like several other commentators, Catherine took pains to stress that, for Camus, both Arabs and pieds-noirs are of equal importance in an Algerian culture often at odds with that of the metropolis. There are indications that Camus considered both the Arabs and the pieds-noirs as new men, without roots in cultures of the past and sharing a life of poverty, but it is clear from this manuscript that he also considered the Arabs as fundamentally different from himself.

More often the "first man" seems to be Jacques Cormery (or Camus) himself, the son without a father to help him find his way in the world, to transmit a tradition. He describes himself as the "first inhabitant or the first conqueror." A similar theme that recurs is the dual world of Jacques, defined sometimes as the split between this hard, empty, traditionless Algeria and a Europe of measured spaces filled with centuries of culture; at other times the two worlds of Jacques are those of the family without books, where he must read the titles of silent films for his illiterate grandmother, and of the school and lyceé, where books are the sustenance of his imaginative life.

The chapter relating a conversation with the (unnamed) Grenier character, stylistically one of the least successful, is labeled by Camus in a marginal note: "To write and then to omit." The notation, illustrating how Camus planned to work through his autobiographical material, should make us wary of thinking that the more realistic and detailed style in Le premier homme was necessarily one that Camus intended to keep. In fact, some of the notes suggest what might have been a radical revision of the text: "Alternate chapters would give the voice of the mother. Comments about the same facts but with her vocabulary of 400 words." This possible organization sounds to me much closer to the earlier Camus, finding the tone for his fiction through the voice of an individual character.

Some draft material on the early history of the French colonization in Algeria, based on documentation of, for example, the number of deaths from disease among the first settlers, would presumably have been related to the search for a father who could hardly be known except as an example of this settler community. Other draft material, about terrorism in the 1950s, is not integrated into the story successfully in the existing manuscript. At one point Camus's marginal note suggests he was unsure whether or not to include one long passage about a terrorist attack.

Beyond the impressive description of his poor childhood, Camus was going to evoke a whole life close to his own, including (it appears from the general notes and plans) a passionate love affair, the discontent of a life in Paris, the impossibility of accepting terrorism in support of independence when it might hurt his family, and admiration for many Arabs who are contrasted to those fighting in the revolution. But it is perhaps impossible to speak about the themes of a work which is so incomplete. As it stands, Le premier homme is a tribute to Camus's mother (surely one of the few illiterate parents of any Western artist in this century), an impressive evocation of a childhood in Algiers, and a tantalizing glimpse of what Camus might have revealed of his adult life through a fictional form that he did not have time to finish.

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This section contains 2,239 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Adele King