Postcard from Paris: A skeleton rattles its bones: Farah Nayeri sees the French delight in a new book by Albert Camus

WHAT a rare treat it would be if, suddenly, the hidden work of a Flaubert or a Proust were brought to light and published. In the case of Albert Camus this is exactly what has happened. Camus' final work, an unfinished manuscript found in the car that crashed and killed him, has just been released after languishing for 34 years at the back of the family cupboard. The French press is feasting on a literary event unparalleled in recent memory. Meanwhile, the book is selling briskly: a second printing had to be ordered within a week of publication.

Le Premier homme ('The First Man') is the preliminary draft of an autobiographical novel that Camus set out to write shortly before his death in 1960, a novel that was intended to delve deep into the personal memories he so rigorously kept out of his earlier works. The story is unquestionably Camus' own; only the names have been changed. As a manuscript, it is flawed - incomplete, repetitive, a skeleton of bare, autobiographical fact lacking the fictional flesh that the author intended to wrap it in. So private is the work that Camus would have disapproved entirely of its publication.

Yet leaving it unpublished would have been an unspeakable pity. Le Premier homme reveals a sentimental, nostalgic and quintessentially Mediterranean Camus that neither the Meursault of L'Etranger or the Rieux of La Peste ever revealed. It is the single written testimony to Camus' emotional links with his native Algeria and the family he left behind.

If it weren't for his wife and daughter, however, the manuscript would still be languishing in a drawer. For a long time, family and friends had reservations about releasing it. Though he had won the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature, Camus, in his final years, had been written off as a finished talent by some of his peers. He had fallen out with Jean-Paul Sartre, who expected of him a far greater leftwing commitment than he was willing to provide. Camus' refusal to take sides in the simmering Algerian conflict and his blanket condemnation of violence had led him into open conflict with pro- and anti-independence camps alike. Releasing the manuscript, it was felt, would only have served to fuel misunderstanding about his position on Algeria, and would have unjustly detracted from his reputation as an author.

The book, composed in a series of flashbacks, starts with the birth of Jacques - meaning Camus - in a remote Algerian farmhouse, and ends with his first amorous encounter aged 15.

In between is a painful search for a missing father figure: Camus' father died when he was only a year old, one of the many anonymous victims of the First World War, and the little boy was raised in poverty by a mother who was incapable of showing affection, and a grandmother who was caring but tough. The man who came closest to replacing his father was his schoolteacher Louis Germain, who saved him from becoming yet another working- class dropout, and to whom he went on to dedicate his Nobel Prize.

The book's climax occurs in the second chapter, when the middle-aged Jacques visits his father's tomb. He is overwhelmed by a sudden sense of compassion, and resolves to find out as much as he can about his mysterious parent. The search quickly proves fruitless, because his illiterate family is incapable of telling him anything but the obvious, and the father has left few other traces behind. Indeed, writes Camus, this is characteristic of all working-class settlers in Algeria: they have no history, leave no mark. They are estranged, the sons of wanderers from another land, with no roots to speak of.

And yet nowhere do these settlers feel more at home than in Algeria. This is the irony that Camus so movingly demonstrates in his memoirs-in-disguise, an irony that explains his outrage over ordinary French settlers facing expulsion from the land that is theirs.

Camus seems equally angered with the common stereotype of the xenophobic white settler who insults and mistreats the indigenous Arabs. Working-class whites, he writes, are tolerant in their human dealings; only in matters of employment - in other words, survival - do they adopt a xenophobic tone. They are, after all, vying for the same positions of servitude. Camus makes such a convincing case for his native community that one wonders whether his daughter should not have published his scribblings sooner.

Le Premier homme is a revelation, too, in so far as Camus adopts a wholly new literary style. His prose is descriptive, sometimes even flowery, sensuous, and tremendously vivid. From the cool, unemotive style for which he is so well-known, Camus has switched to the naive and idealistic musings of childhood. It is said that human beings, in middle age, have a desperate urge to return to their roots in infancy. Thanks to Le Premier homme that urge, in Camus, is now documented.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone