BOOK REVIEW / Memory, and other luxury goods
THE FIRST MAN by Albert Camus trs David Hapgood Hamish Hamilton pounds 14.99
Sunday 08 October 1995
Camus's widow and friends thought it best not to publish it. At the time of his death Camus had antagonised both the left and the right by his condemnation of the Soviet Union and by his advocacy of a federal Algeria in which Arabs and Europeans would be equally represented. He was vulnerable to attack. The manuscript was directly autobiographical, scantily punctuated and entirely unrevised, and Camus, as his daughter Catherine says in her editor's note, was a very reserved man "who would no doubt have masked his feelings far more in [the] final version".
The decision not to publish made sense in France in 1960. So did the decision to publish taken by Camus's two children 30 years later. The text was established by Catherine Camus, with footnotes for variants and marginal insertions, and appendices for other related material. "We believed a manuscript of such importance would sooner or later be published unless we destroyed it. Since we had no right to destroy it we preferred to publish it ourselves so that it would appear exactly as it was."
That was their first consideration. Their second was that "this autobiographical account would be of value to those interested in Camus". This, however, radically underestimates The First Man. Its value doesn't depend on a prior interest in Camus, or in the French involvement in Algeria. Now that it is published, it is more likely to motivate the reading of Camus's other works than vice versa.
It consists mainly of memories of his childhood in Algiers - he renames himself Jacques Cormery - intercut with fragments of the longer novel: incidents in the Algerian war of independence that was being fought as he wrote; the arrival of Parisian settlers in 1849; Cormery's birth in 1913 in a rainstorm, on the kitchen floor of an empty farm in Eastern Algeria; his visit 40 years later to St Brieuc cemetery and the grave of his father, an itinerant farm-labourer who was killed in October 1914 in the first battle of the Marne.
The First Man burns with life, through the young Camus's fear of night and terror of death. The adult Camus's sense of dislocation vanishes in the details of the past, in his admiration for the boy he was - clever, rowdy, determined, on the beach with his friends, in the streets of Algiers, in the tram car, at his uncle's workshop, on the parade grounds where they played football with a ball made of rags, at his first school with his beloved teacher Louis Germain (to whom he dedicated his Nobel Prize).
It is the adult who feels alienated, and who suspects that his sense of being alive in the present is a deception. His gifted passion for the world seems most frustrated when most fulfilled, each achievement enlarging his sense of the unachieved. The boy is no less complicated, but his hopelessness is more specific. It is a matter of his love for his mother, and it is more easily displaced by the courage and demands of childhood: by the time he was 11, Camus got up at 5.30, took the tram to the lycee, arrived by 7.15 in time for the free breakfast that his scholarship entitled him to, worked all day and left school only at 7pm, after an hour of obsessive playground football followed by a two-hour period for homework.
In life, as in The First Man, Camus lived with his grandmother, mother, elder brother and uncle in a three-room flat in the European working-class district of Belcourt. Grandmother ruled the house. They were extremely poor: their only artificial light was one oil lamp, there was no running water, no bathroom, no light on the communal stairs, which stank from the lavatories. His gentle, handsome mother was a charwoman. She was illiterate, partly deaf and suffered from a speech deficiency (probably the result of childhood illness). Camus estimated that she had a vocabulary of about 400 words - 300 more than her younger brother, uncle Etienne, who was a skilful cooper.
In 1946 Camus wrote in his notebook, "I loved my mother with despair. I have always loved her with despair." His love for her disappeared into unintelligible shadow. She never hugged him, "for she did not know how", he wrote in 1937. The First Man records how, after 12 hours of school, he would return to "two or three hours of daily life ... close to his mother, whom he did not really join except in the sleep of the poor" (he and his brother shared a bedroom with her). After supper at eight, often eaten in silence, he would help his mother clear the table, then disappear into his library book while his mother "would seat herself by the window in winter, or in summer on the balcony, and watch the traffic of trams, cars, and passers-by as it gradually diminished". When his grandmother sent him to bed, he
kissed her first, then his uncle, and last his mother, who gave him a tender, absent-minded kiss, then assumed once more her motionless position, in the shadowy half-light, her gaze lost in the street and the current of life that flowed endlessly below the riverbank where she sat, endlessly, while her son, endlessly, watched 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.
When, as a man, he returned from France to visit, she kissed him on the doorstep, "holding him against her with all her strength", and then kissed him again:
'My son,' she said, 'you were far away.' And immediately, she turned away, went back into the apartment, and seated herself in the dining room that faced the street; she no longer seemed to be thinking of him nor for that matter of anything ...
Jacques Cormery is called "the first man" because he "had to bring himself up without a father", and with an absent mother. The first words of the manuscript are a dedication to her: "To you who will never be able to read this book". Those who know Camus's other work will find their feeling for it transformed by this account of his relation to her and to his dead father, together with the knowledge that he very nearly died of tuberculosis when he was 17. (There is no reason to doubt Camus's version of the doctor's words: "You are strong and I have to tell you the truth; I can tell you that you are going to die.")
The First Man is written with extraordinary force of feeling. It stands up to the oblivion and anonymity that consumed Camus's father, and that Camus so greatly feared. "Remembrance of things past is for the rich. For the poor it only marks the faint traces along the path to death." His family had almost no memory of its own past. They worked too hard, then slept, then worked again. He needed to recover what he could, and this moving book is a victory for memory: "the secret of the light", the city dead with heat, the "flies the boy had loved", during the obligatory siesta with his grandmother, "because they were noisy". It is thoroughly coherent in its unfinished state, and it has been well translated by David Hapgood.
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