Postcard from Paris: A skeleton rattles its bones: Farah Nayeri sees the French delight in a new book by Albert Camus
Saturday 23 April 1994
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Yet leaving it unpublished would have been an unspeakable pity.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.
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