The First Man | Critical Review by Elizabeth Hawes

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of The First Man.
This section contains 1,773 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Elizabeth Hawes

SOURCE: "Sunlight and Silence," in The Nation, October 2, 1995, pp. 358-60.

In the following review, Hawes discusses Camus's artistic and thematic concerns in The First Man.

Back in 1960, the sudden death of Albert Camus at the age of 46 was a tragic event for young intellectuals, like the breach of a promise, the end of then and the beginning of now. Memories of the day still remain—the photograph of the Facel Vega wrapped around a tree, the muddy briefcase in a field, the sense of personal loss, the unbearable Absurdity of it all. "Rarely have the nature of a man's work and the conditions of the historical moment so clearly demanded that a writer go on living," Jean-Paul Sartre mourned. "No modern writer that I can think of, except Camus, has aroused love," Susan Sontag wrote from America.

More than Sartre or Gide or even Malraux, Albert Camus had become the cultural hero of the postwar generation. From the early 1940s, when the young journalist from French Algeria raised a singular voice in the Resistance newspaper Combat, then published, in rapid succession, the novel The Stranger, the play Caligula and the essay The Myth of Sisyphus—his triptych of the Absurd—critics had spoken of le phénomène Camus. Almost overnight, Camus had risen to a celebrated role as "the moral conscience of his times." Like Meursault and Sisyphus, he was l'homme engagé, l'homme sans autre avenir que lui-même, committed to finding meaning in the modern world. In the next decade, he produced The Plague and The Fall, the long essay The Rebel, plays, translations, short stories and political essays, an oeuvre that was crowned with the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1957. By that time, however, Camus was en panne, estranged from Sartre and his old literary crowd by their criticism of The Rebel, anguished over the explosion of war in Algeria, suffering from writer's block and his own success, as silent as if he were in exile. When he died, he left behind only the rough beginnings of a new work he had described as the novel of his maturity and entitled Le premier homme.

Last year, after prolonged deliberation, Camus's family decided to publish the manuscript he was working on at the time of his death; it created a literary sensation in France. This unfinished novel, now translated into English as The First Man, has resurrected the author as dramatically as a revisitation.

As early as 1951, Camus spoke in his journals of his plans for an epic novel on the model of War and Peace. It would be his éducation sentimentale, he said later, the story of his Algeria, recounted for mainland France. The First Man is the beginning of this historical saga, told through the lives of a poor family named Cormery, which unfolds between the birth of a son, Jacques, on the eve of World War I and his nostalgic return home in the violent days of the Front de Libération Nationale in the late 1950s. It is also an astonishing piece of autobiography, for in name, chronology and virtually every important aspect of his life, Jacques Cormery is Albert Camus transposed to the third person. Like Cormery (the family name of his paternal grandmother), Camus had a father who was mortally wounded in the battle of the Marne and buried in Saint-Brieuc in Brittany, a strong silent illiterate mother whom he adored, a near-mute uncle and a tyrannical grandmother who ruled the household; grew up in poverty in the Belcourt neighborhood of Algiers; and was saved by a primary school teacher who introduced him to books, proposed a scholarship to the lycée and "opened for me the door to everything I love in the world." Like the adult Cormery, who speaks of "the secret exultation" of leaving Paris for Africa ("with the satisfaction of one who has made good his escape and is laughing at the thought of the look on the guards' faces"), he always rejoiced in the physical pleasures of his land. And like Cormery, he too, after visiting his father's grave in his middle age, set out in quest of the man he never knew and found himself back in his childhood.

Although The First Man was meant to be a full portrait of his life and times—the author's notes preserved in the appendix include references to sports, politics, morality, terrorists, farmers, old friends, lovers, children, Tipasa, Paris, Provence—Camus was able to complete only the first third of that work, which describes his search for his father and, more expansively, his childhood. Dedicated to his mother, the Widow Camus "who will never be able to read this book," The First Man is dominated by this humble figure isolated by semi-deafness and illiteracy, who did not hear the words of the officer who came to announce her young husband's death in France, "who had no idea what history and geography might be." Camus, who had earlier spoken of putting at the center of a work "the admirable silence of a mother and the effort of a man to find some form of justice or love which could counterbalance this silence," writes with poignant detail and a perceptible ache about the fearful and submissive woman he so loved, of the hollow in her neck that "to him had the scent of a tenderness all too rare in his young life," of her life that "by dint of being deprived of hope, had become also a life without any sort of resentment," of the shame of feeling shame when he had to describe her as a domestique in his lycée application.

As a portrait of poverty, The First Man is lyric in its illuminations. The most humdrum details of Jacques's youth are revealing—the single pair of pants pressed nightly, the nails in his shoes to preserve the soles and to prevent him from playing soccer, the street games with apricot pits; they describe a life of bare necessities, "among things named with common nouns," a life in the present tense. "Remembrance of things past is just for the rich," Jacques 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." In the search for his own heritage, Jacques confronts "the mystery of poverty that creates beings without names and without a past." Algeria is "the land of oblivion," he concludes, where men try to learn to live without roots, "where each one is the first man."

As a portrait of Algeria, The First Man is passionate and troubled. No one has written more evocatively of the North African landscape than Camus in his youthful essays, which brim with the joys, and freedom of the sun and the light, and, here, twenty years later, he luxuriates in recollections of swimming in the sea, hunting in the mountains, roaming the streets of the poor quarter where the houses smell of spices, the terraces of honeysuckle and jasmine. Algeria emerges as even more than physical sensations and childhood ways, as Camus describes the settling of the harsh and hostile land by waves of poor European immigrants; the primitive fraternity that exists between Frenchmen and Arabs—"We were made to understand each other. Fools and brutes like us, but with the same blood of men"; the menace in the air and "this soft unbearable burden on the heart" as the era of decolonization dawns. Camus, who had spoken out for colonial reforms and indigenous rights all his life, and consistently refused to justify terrorism in the name of revolution, still believed in the future of a multicultural Algeria, even as Arab bombs exploded under his mother's window. That was his dilemma in the last days of his life, the "night inside him," the "tangled hidden roots," and it called into question both his politics and his identity.

The First Man is Camus's own quest for identity. Like his father and Jacques Cormery and the European in Algeria, he is that eponymous first man, rootless, traditionless, creating his own history, threatened with anonymity and oblivion. "I am going to tell the story of an alien," the author reminded himself in his notes. This is the theme he first sounded in The Stranger, but here it becomes a personal saga that resonates with details—the shell fragment from his father's head that is kept in an old biscuit tin behind the towels, the elderly smell of his grandmother's flesh during one of their dreaded afternoon naps, the taste of the leather strap of the school satchel he chews during lessons. It is difficult to read this book as other than autobiography, because in its very nature as an unedited and unpolished first draft it has both a spontaneity and a transparency that are made even more obvious by the occasional slips into the first person, and the corrections and explanations included in the text. (In the French edition, the addition of facsimile manuscript pages, covered with Camus's small, tight, almost indecipherable script, adds a further sense of veracity to the work.) Camus's prose intensifies the sense of immediacy and purpose, for it moves in primal rhythms, magnificent surges of long sentences that seem like searches in themselves and consume whole pages before ending. If the short, blunt sentences of The Stranger reflected a world without connections or hope, the sweeping lyricism of The First Man speaks of something new.

Camus originally titled his novel Adam. Coming as it did several years after the confessional The Fall and at a time of personal decline and depression, it represented a new beginning for him. Even incomplete, it is the most ambitious and compassionate of his books. It is also an integral and important part of his whole oeuvre, both a continuation and an illumination of his thought. There is a story about his father's violent reaction to a public hanging that speaks to Camus's own strong opposition to the death penalty. There is a passage about "the secret of the light, of the warm poverty that had enabled him to survive and to overcome everything," that explains his humanism. "For all his life it would be kindness and love that made him cry, never pain or persecution, which on the contrary only reinforced his spirit and his resolution," Camus writes of Cormery, and thus of himself, in retrospection. In the last sentence of this last work, he also contemplates his own death—"he, like a solitary and ever-shining blade of a sword, was destined to be shattered with a single blow and forever"—and expresses "the blind hope" that he will grow old and die without rebellion.

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This section contains 1,773 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Elizabeth Hawes
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