The First Man | Critical Review by Stanley Hoffmann

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of The First Man.
This section contains 4,702 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Stanley Hoffmann

SOURCE: "Passion and Compassion: The Glory of Albert Camus," in World Policy Journal, Vol. 12, No. 4, Winter, 1995–96, pp. 83-90.

In the following review, Hoffmann provides critical analysis of The First Man. According to Hoffmann, "Rough and raw as it is, it is a splendid work of art, and it helps us to understand Camus—the man and his work—better and more profoundly."

The First Man is the final, unfinished work of Albert Camus. The manuscript—144 handwritten pages—was found in the car in which he died at the age of 46 on January 4, 1960. It was published in France only in 1994. One can see why Camus' widow hesitated to release it. It was almost impossible to decipher (as the reproductions of several pages show), devoid of commas, full of corrections and additions. Many words are missing and many remain illegible, many sentences are incomplete, several characters are given different names. And it is only a fragment of what was intended as a much bigger book, covering most of the life of the main character. Jacques Cormery, who is none other than Camus. The manuscript ends when he is 14, an adolescent who has just kissed his first girl.

According to Catherine Camus, the author's daughter, there was another reason why her mother, who died in 1979, had been reluctant to publish it. Camus' reputation had fallen dramatically—at least in the French intelligentsia, which he had never liked. (The public continued to buy his books, and high school students continued to study them.) French authors, after their death, often drop into a kind of purgatory from which they later emerge and move, finally, either to the paradise of the classics or to the hell of the forgotten. Gide is still in purgatory, and Malraux seems to keep him company there. Camus' purgatory felt very much like an antechamber of hell. He was denounced for his moralism, for his lack of understanding of politics, for his rejection of Algerian independence, for the amateurishness of his philosophical essays, for the grandiloquence of his plays, for the gray abstraction of The Plague.

The intelligentsia that decides on reputations had declared him the loser in the famous 1952 debate with Sartre over The Rebel, when Sartre denounced Camus as a belle âme who refused to dirty his hands and whose moral attitudes barely concealed the bourgeois sin of anticommunism. Camus, defending his work, had replied that Sartre had never done more than place his directorial chair at Les Temps Modernes in the direction of history. When the Algerian war broke out, Sartre, championing not only independence but the cleansing virtues of violence against the colonizers (in his famous, frantic preface to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth), filled the long years of the war with his vociferous support of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). Camus condemned terrorism and torture on both sides and—I paraphrase a famous sentence of his, pronounced when he received the Nobel Prize in 1957—found it difficult to prefer the justice of the Arab rebels, who fought to free their people, to his mother, who could have fallen victim to guerrilla terror. He lapsed into silence.

Sartre's embrace of complete independence for Algeria even if it meant killing or expelling all Europeans appeared far more realistic than Camus' occasional endorsements of schemes aimed at keeping Algeria French, while granting equal rights to the Europeans and to the Arabs.

"In these circumstances," according to Catherine Camus, "to have published an unfinished manuscript might well have given ammunition to those who were saying that Camus was through as a writer. His friends and my mother decided not to run that risk." But "between 1980 and 1985, voices began to be heard saying that perhaps Camus had not been so wrong." The twin children of Camus decided to publish the manuscript even though he "would never have published [it] as it is"—because of its importance as an autobiographical document. They were right. Rough and raw as it is, it is a splendid work of art, and it helps us to understand Camus—the man and his work—better and more profoundly.

The Poor Boy

It is not the first time that Camus tells us about his childhood in Algiers—about the death of his French father at the battle of the Marne in 1914, when Albert was still a baby; about the terrible poverty in which he (and his slightly older brother) lived, brought up by a partly deaf, illiterate, silent, and overworked mother who exhausted herself as a cleaning woman and by her stern, often brutal mother; about his adoration for this affectionate but somehow unreachable mother; about his love for the sun and the beaches of Algiers. We knew that, in an archetypical French way, his gifts had been noticed and nurtured by his teacher in primary school, and that thanks to him, he was able to continue to study in a lycée (where, later, the philosopher and writer Jean Grenier was going to encourage him again). But two things are distinctive about The First Man. One is the intensity of Camus' recollections and reflections, to which I will return. The other is the timing of this work and its purpose.

Camus, who had, in the 1930s, become, for a very brief period, a member of the Communist Party, and a lucid and sharply critical reporter on Algerian affairs (particularly on the plight of the Arabs), had moved—reluctantly—to metropolitan France, in order to get treatment for tuberculosis, just as the Second World War was engulfing Europe. He burst upon the literary scene in 1942, with the Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger. After the liberation, as editor and star of the Resistance paper Combat, for which he wrote trenchant editorials—demanding purges against collaborationists and denouncing nationalism and any return to France's prewar political diseases—he became one of the most fashionable and celebrated intellectuals in Paris. Much of this giddy, golden period is described (and somewhat distorted) in Simone de Beauvoir's Mandarins.

But the poor boy from Algiers never felt at home in gray and rainy Paris or at ease among the sophisticates of the intelligentsia, with their clans, mutual excommunications, sarcasms, and settlements of accounts. And then his popularity declined in the 1950s. The Fall, published in 1956, marked the end of his era as a Parisian guru. This sardonic, dark, and brilliant tale, written in a style that was far different both from the lyrical vein of some of his early stories and of his essays, and from the more austere style of his philosophical writings and of The Plague, has been interpreted very differently by critics. Some, like Conor Cruise O'Brien recently, see it as an exercise in self-criticism in which Camus rejected "his own role of Camus le juste, and also his role as a contemporary Saint-Just," and denounced the hypocrisy of his own moralism.

I do not doubt that Camus, insofar as he had participated in the glitter and clatter of Parisian intellectual café life, had wanted to make fun of his part in it. But I do believe that his target was Sartre, and that J.B. Clamence, the lawyer who says "I" in The Fall, and who becomes a judge-penitent pursued by the memory of the woman whom he has failed to rescue after she had jumped into the Seine, was a fictional representation of Sartre, the writer who felt guilty about his bourgeois origins and his apolitical youth, and who beat his breast, so to speak, on the breasts of others—all those whom he denounced as guilty cowards or stinkers. (It would be fascinating to compare Clamence with Sartre's own fictional character Frantz in Sartre's play The Condemned of Altona.)

Having turned his back on the Paris scene, demoralized by the atrocities of the Algerian war, torn between the desire to speak out on the ethical and political issues that were plaguing his contemporaries and the fear of compromising his integrity as an artist if he crossed the line that separates concern from commitment, and elucidation from engagement, Camus expressed his dilemma in the sad and lovely story of the painter Jonah who, when he dies, leaves an unfinished painting, an empty canvas on which one can find one word scribbled, but it is not clear whether it is solitaire or solidaire. Camus now suffered from a writer's block, which lasted several years.

The First Man was Camus' attempt to overcome this block by going back to his origins and by trying to make sense of his whole life. For Camus, unlike for Sartre, l'absurde was not the human condition, but the gap, the discrepancy, between an often beautiful but indifferent nature and human desires and aspirations that can never be fulfilled because, as Caligula puts, it, "men die and are not happy."

Camus wanted to understand himself, to see where his desires and passions had come from and where they had led him—an exercise far removed from the highly complacent and narcissistic self-criticism (mixed, as usual, with a denunciation of some of his bourgeois family members) in Sartre's Words but comparable to Proust's own gigantic quest for time past.

It is clear from the "notes and sketches" that accompany the text of The First Man that Camus would have been unsparing in his introspection of the adolescent and adult Camus, of his machismo, of his fickleness. Just as Sartre's attempt at a total "reconstruction" of Flaubert remains unfinished, Camus' effort to understand the person to whom he several times refers to as a "monster" was aborted. But the fragment he left is miraculously complete, and it has been very well translated by David Hapgood—not an easy task, since Camus' prose is often so (spontaneously, abundantly, intoxicatingly) poetic.

The Son or the First Man

It is divided into two parts. In the first, "Search for the Father," Camus tells the story of his father's arrival in the fall of 1913 in the hinterland of Bône, where he was going to manage a farm, and of his own birth during the night of this arrival. Then, abruptly, he takes us to Saint Brieuc in Brittany, where the father is buried. His son visits the grave in 1954 and, realizing that he is much older than his father was when he was killed, feels like an adult in front of a murdered child.

Attempts at finding out more about his father from his mother, or from settlers who had known him, bring out very little. Jacques only remembers his father's return in horror from having witnessed the execution of a murderer, an anecdote that Camus had elsewhere cited as the root of his own horror of capital punishment and that he links here to his father's violent death.

What Jacques discovers is the story of the French who settled in Algeria after the 1848 Revolution, attracted by the promise of land and work, which they did not have in metropolitan France. His father's family had come from Alsace after 1871, his mother's from Spain: poor devils uprooted by misery or persecution and driven to a land where they would disappear without leaving any trace, a "land of oblivion where everybody is the first man." Jacques, returning to Algeria from Saint Brieuc, feels that "he too was a member of the tribe," despite his attempt to escape from it.

The chapters about the missing father are interspersed with chapters about the games played by Jacques as a child and about the family in which he was brought up. The formidable grandmother who had had nine children, the mother who was hard of hearing, and her brother Etienne (also often called Ernest in the text), who was deaf and explosive, and whom his old mother treated with surprising gentleness because he was handsome: "it is our weakness for beauty" that "helps make the world bearable."

These chapters about Jacques as a child continue in the second part of the manuscript, "The Son or the First Man." They are the most moving and vivid. In one of his notes, he wrote: "Free oneself from any concern with art and form. Regain contact, without intermediary, thus innocence. To give up art here is to give up one's self. Renouncing the self, not through virtuousness. On the contrary, accept one's hell."

This is exactly what he accomplishes here. There is a constant, and constantly successful, effort to recapture the sensations, sounds, smells, and feelings of his childhood, which give his prose, full of long sentences that try to encompass a whole bygone world, a richness and lyrical precision he had never reached before. And it is made even more resonant by the fact that the man who thus brings the past back to a startlingly vibrant life at the same time reflects on it and on his feelings for it from the perspective of middle age, with the bitter wisdom of someone who had escaped from the past because he could not stand living in it any longer, yet felt forever after "exiled" from the miserable "kingdom" of his Algerian childhood.

Hence the peculiar lyricism of this rough draft, a lyricism both celebratory and desolate. Passion and compassion are fused in his evocation of those who brought him up, of his relation to them, of the relationship between his mother and her brother, of his love for his mother and for M. Bernard his schoolteacher—in real life, M. Germain, to whom Camus wrote a lovely note after receiving the Nobel Prize, and who replied in a letter that seems to come straight from the annals of the Third Republic, full of affection and admiration for his pupil and of worry for the future of l'école laique (they are published in an appendix). What could easily have been gloomy or misérabiliste is transfigured by the light of the Mediterranean, by the sun that made it all bearable, and that turned his condition into a "warm poverty that had enabled him to survive and to overcome everything."

A Fortress Without Drawbridges

Indeed, The First Man is a kind of pious tribute to all those who live in poverty—not in what has sometimes been called, pompously, the culture of poverty, because the poor, as he shows, are deprived of culture. In a life entirely eaten up by the need to work so as to earn just enough money to keep going, there is no room for objects except the most indispensable, no room for art, no time for religion, no connection "to traditional values and stereotypes." "Poverty is a fortress without drawbridges."

When little Jacques escapes to the beach or uses up his shoes playing soccer, he gets whipped by his grandmother, he should have been working. "Poor people's memory is less nourished than that of the rich; it has fewer landmarks in space because they seldom leave the place where they live, and fewer reference points in time throughout lives that are gray and featureless…. Remembrance of things past is just for the rich. For the poor it only marks the faint traces on the path to death. And besides, in order to bear up well one must not remember too much."

When Jacques resents his uncle because Etienne kept his sister away from a man for whom she seemed to have some affection, he—or rather the writer—comments that "the poverty, the infirmities, the elemental need in which all his family lived … made it impossible to pass judgment on those who were its victims."

The heart of this book is the portrait of young Jacques, of Camus, as a child, and what it tells us about the experiences that shaped his values. Unlike most other works of Camus, it is not about ideas; here, we are soaked in sensations and feelings. What we find, above all, is this extraordinary bond to the silent mother, whom he describes with a heartbreaking tenderness, whom he never blames for allowing her mother to beat her boy, and whom he reveres for her life of endurance, her lack of resentment, her gentleness. When Camus writes about the child's "despairing love for something in his mother that did not belong or no longer belonged to the world and to the triviality of the days," or describes himself endlessly watching "her in the shadows with a lump in his throat, staring at her thin bent back, filled with an obscure anxiety in the presence of adversity he could not understand," the depth and immediately of his feeling leads to the purest form of art.

His Ambivalence

What Camus also tells us is the story of a child whom poverty condemns to repeated humiliations. He keeps a few pennies from the money that his grandmother had given him to buy groceries and pretends to have dropped them in the hole that serves as a toilet. When the old woman goes looking for them in it, he feels ashamed to have deprived his family of the coins, which he had wanted to use to go watch a soccer game. When he goes to the lycée and has to indicate his mother's profession on a form, he is ashamed of having to write "domestic." When he has to seek a summer job—so that he will be able to compensate his family for failing to earn any money while studying at the lycée—he discovers that he cannot get one if he does not lie about his intention to return to the lycée in the fall, and he suffers bitterly for having "to lie for the right to have no vacation, to work far from the summer sky and the sea he so loved."

What gives the book its tension and keeps it from ever slipping into sentimentality is the drama of Jacques' ambivalence. He is tied forever to his mother and to his milieu by "two or three favorite pictures that joined him to them, made him one with them." But at the same time, the boy had a thirst for learning and a "hunger for discovery." School provided him both with an escape from his "destitute home" and with a "powerful poetry," which Camus describes minutely—the smell of the ink, the "varnished rulers and pen cases," the joy of finding out about the world in textbooks. If M. Bernard had not come pleading to Jacques' home, the grandmother would not have allowed him to go on to the lycée.

But as a result, Jacques was torn between two completely different universes. When he gained admittance to the lycée, "a child's immense anguish wrung his heart, as if he knew in advance that this success had just uprooted him from the warm and innocent world of the poor—a world closed upon itself like an island in the society—to be hurtled into a strange world, one no longer his." The world he belonged to was stifling, the one he escaped to would turn out to be cruel and deceitful. He felt as if he had betrayed the world of the poor for a false glory, but also that he could not have stayed in it.

The intensity of Camus' feelings, the delicacy and beautiful aptness with which he renders them, make one realize that the reason why they had been either expressed obliquely or fleetingly or else transposed and "distanced" in his fiction and plays was because he struggled between a flood of passionate emotions and the drive to control and master them, a drive inculcated by the school, but also by the need not to let himself be engulfed by his love for his mother and by his empathy, his pity, for his family's condition.

Camus describes himself as a mixture of life-long attachments to those he loves and indifference, as a man who felt at ease only with "what was inevitable … everything in his life he had not been able to avoid, his illness, his vocation, fame or poverty … The heart, the heart above all is not free. It is inevitability and the recognition of the inevitable."

This fervent desire to escape from poverty and from his mother's "life of blind patience, without words, without plans," and to live as an artist indifferent to the world, he expressed in his first novel, A Happy Death, which was published only after his own death. But the world diverted Camus from his dream of indifference, and he felt that he needed forgiveness from his mother—"but you do not understand me and cannot read me": all she could do was "smile on me."

The Roots of His Thought

The First Man is both a familiar story—the story of emancipation through learning and of the mix of innocent pleasure and obscure guilt that is childhood—and a revelation of the roots of Camus' thought. It is not a book about politics, and those who, one more time, attack Camus for his views on Algeria are the victims of their own obsessions. The Algerian tragedy was going to be dealt with in a part of the book Camus never got to.

This does not mean that we do not find here some essential clues about his feelings for Algeria. When he deals with the past—the arrival of the colons, and the life of the pieds noirs at the time of his childhood, he expresses, again, mainly compassion for the settlers who came from many lands and disappeared after having lived and toiled without roots. He mentions the xenophobia of the workers, afraid of losing their jobs to the Spaniards, the Jews, or the Arabs, and fighting for "the privilege of servitude." There are few Arabs in this story: to young Jacques, they are companions. The real divide is the one that separates all those born in Algeria from those born in France, like Jacques' lycée friend Didier, whose fervent patriotism astonishes Jacques, for whom France is an abstraction (in one of his notes, Camus wrote that "what they did not like in him was the Algerian").

In the brief passage where the older Jacques, having returned to an Algeria torn by the war, reports both on his reactions and on the reactions of some of the settlers, Camus makes clear his revulsion against the FLN's violence, and he tells the story of a settler who decides to destroy his vineyards and move to France after having heard the préfet denounce the way the colons had treated the Arabs; but the farmer who reports this story to Jacques says that the colons and the Arabs are "made to understand each other. Fools and brutes, like us, but with the same blood of men. We'll kill each other a little longer … And then we'll go back to living as men together."

Jacques himself, visiting his mother, hears a huge explosion in Algiers and protects an innocent Arab from the wrath of vengeful workers. We know now that the legacy of colonialism and the war itself destroyed that solidarity of Algerians, European and Arab, living on the same land and under the same sun that Camus dreamed about.

But it was always a mistake to read Camus as a political thinker or as a philosopher. He was haunted by the issues that l'absurde raised: suicide, murder, the impossibility of communicating fully even (or especially) with those one loves. But metaphysical questions and philosophical systems were not his domain. Insofar as public life was concerned, it was the ethical preconditions for political action that bothered him. He had no solutions to offer, only barriers he wanted to erect. He had one obsession, like Proudhon, with whom he shared enthusiasm for the artisan's work and hatred for work that is boring, work "so interminably monotonous that it made the days too long and, at the same time, life too short." He wanted fairness for human beings and, especially, for the poor.

This meant that politics had to be modest: grand salvationist schemes always led to more misery and oppression and deprived people of their right to their private lives; ideologies that subordinate means to ends and the present to a distant dubious future are evil; and the state is no more than a tool, not the culmination of history. What Camus taught was limits: do not do anything that adds to human misery, such as terror, torture, wanton violence.

On all these points, he clashed with Sartre, and this child of the poor resented especially Sartre's embrace of a proletariat he knew nothing about. Camus' rejection of Marxist and communist philosophies of history, his refusal to sanctify history, his advocacy of a kind of rebellion against servitude and injustice that says "we" and proclaims its solidarity with the downtrodden, his nausea at all forms of murder that add to the unhappiness and hasten the death that are our fare—all this comes directly from the childhood of a boy who had lost his father to the mindless massacre of Europe's Great War, who had experienced poverty and injustice but was singularly free of resentments and utterly devoid of hatred, for whom games, love, and learning, all the addictions of private life, took precedence over public affairs, who was entirely outside the ideological and class trenches of metropolitan France, and who sought solace in the light. When The Rebel was published, many scoffed at the fuzziness of that plea for both revolt and moderation, and especially of that hymn to la pensée de midi that comes at the end. The First Man shows where it all originated. "The nobility of the writer's occupation lies in resisting oppression, thus in accepting isolation."


Camus has, in recent years, regained much of his earlier prestige: the demise of Soviet totalitarianism, the fading of old ideologies, the advent of a kind of pragmatic centrism in France, the rediscovery of the virtues of liberalism (with its recognition of human rights, the limits it puts on state power, and the virtues it finds in rational discussion and compromise), the collapse of the FLN state and the tragedy of the independent Algeria, all of this has led to a rehabilitation of Camus. He finds himself now in the same pantheon as Raymond Aron (who liked him but saw him as an amateurish thinker).

However, this new fame may well rest on one more misreading, which would not have surprised the author of that elliptical and gruesome play, Le malentendu (a play that should be compared to Sartre's No Exit: for Camus, hell is not "the others," it is our inability to reach them).

France's new liberals tend to be close to America's neoconservatives. They worry more about sound finance than about social reforms and have very little to say about the poor. In their enthusiasm for the death of messianism, they have tended to bury the hope of a better life for the underprivileged with it. Camus would not be comfortable in their midst.

Indeed, Camus was above all an artist with a "very great vision" of art: "not because I see art to be above everything, but because it does not separate itself from anyone" (a sentence from one of the notes that has been dropped in the English translation). It is as an artist that he will survive—an artist whose view of life was far more complex, and often more somber, even despairing, than was suggested by the cartoon-like image of Camus as a kind of "Red Cross moralist" so fashionable in the 1960s. What saved him from despair and restored his bruised serenity was the memory of the Algerian sun and that bond beyond words to his mother.

When Jacques flew back from Saint Brieuc to Algiers, "he knew from the bottom of his heart that Saint Brieuc and all it represented had never been anything to him" and acknowledged "with a strange sort of pleasure that death would return him to his true homeland. With its immense oblivion, death would obliterate the memory of that alien [the French text says monstrueux] and ordinary man who had grown up, had built in poverty, without help or deliverance, on a fortunate shore in the light of the first mornings of the world, and then alone, without memories and without faith, had entered the world of the men of his time and its dreadful and exhausted history."

To those of us for whom Camus' voice, in the 1940s and 1950s, was always the voice of refined beauty, deep and humane wisdom, controlled passion, and noble art, the publication of The First Man is an invaluable gift.

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