The last word on the outsider

Rescued from the wreckage of the car crash that killed him, and edited by his daughter, Camus's unfinished novel may be his best. By Euan Cameron
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The Independent Culture
Catherine Camus looks uncannily like her father. I can say this because I once met Albert Camus and asked him to sign my copy of L'Etranger (The Outsider) at what was to be the last public talk he ever gave. It was to an audience of students at the University of Aix-en-Provence on 14 December 1959. Three weeks later, on his way back to Paris from his house in Lourmarin, the car, driven by his editor and closest friend Michel Gallimard, skidded and crashed, and the winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature and a hero figure to a generation of French youth, was killed instantly. He was only 46. It was a death, to coin the philosophical term he made famous, that was "absurd" in its futility, and the sense of loss we all felt in France was echoed around the world.

In the brief-case found in the wreckage of the car was the manuscript of the novel that Camus was working on at the time. It consisted of 144 handwritten pages, together with a scattering of notes, sketched scenes and variants, that gave some indication of how the work might have evolved.

This week, 35 years after Camus's death, his daughter Catherine Camus, accompanied by Michel Gallimard's cousin Robert (who was also a friend of her father's and another member of the celebrated French publishing family), was in London to help launch the English translation of that unfinished novel, now published as The First Man (Hamish Hamilton). In the plush elegance of her Knightsbridge hotel, she and Robert Gallimard spoke about their memories of Camus and the difficult decision that she and her twin brother had to confront about whether to publish the novel or not.

"After Papa's death, my mother had typed out a first manuscript and given copies to some of his friends to read. They were unanimous that it should not be published. They did not want to risk giving ammunition to Camus's detractors who said he was finished as a writer. And so the manuscript lay untouched for years until my mother died in 1979."

"It was all to do with politics," interjected Gallimard. "At first, Camus was lauded by Parisian intellectuals. At the time of the liberation of France, he was considered an extraordinarily good writer, who had revolutionised French literature with L'Etranger. He was seen both as a hero of the Resistance and as a fine journalist, and he was greatly admired for the unsigned editorials he wrote for the clandestine wartime newspaper Combat.

"He was also a good friend of Sartre's. The rupture with Sartre and the left-wing cultural milieu came about because Camus's experiences had been different to everyone else's. He had grown up in poverty, unlike most of the others. He had been a Communist in his native Algeria, but he broke with the party because he did not think it was sufficiently pro-Arab. Then there came a moment when Camus declared that there was no good dictatorship, either of the left or the right, and that he would fight equally against Soviet concentration camps as he would against Franco's Fascism. He found himself isolated. People began to say, 'He can't be a man of the left if he disapproves of Communism and therefore he can't be any good as a writer.'"

As Sartre's editor and Camus's friend, Robert Gallimard witnessed the two men's celebrated quarrel at close quarters. "Sartre told me that he considered La Chute (The Fall) to be a masterpiece and Camus a very good writer, but since he held politically opposed views, Camus had to be swept aside," says Gallimard.

"And so Papa was attacked by the intellectuals, the Communists, the left and the right," adds Catherine Camus. "Only the public, who never deserted him, remained loyal. The press presented him as someone who was finished, a tedious moralist. Furthermore, his stance over the Algerian problem also isolated him. Being a pied noir, and with his mother still living in Algeria, he could not back the FLN (the Arab separatist movement), nor could he support those who wanted a French Algeria. His solution was a federation, in which the Arabs would be fully integrated and have the same rights as French citizens, but his opinions were shunned by intellectual opinion. Camus was deeply depressed by what was happening in Algeria, and he felt so discouraged by the lack of loyalty among those he considered to be his friends that he, too, began to believe he was finished as a writer."

The First Man (Le Premier Homme) was to be a fresh start for Camus. The autobiographical work of fiction he embarked on in the year leading up to his death was something that had been on his mind for some time, yet the deeply personal nature of the chapters we can now read came as a complete surprise to those of his friends who had not read the manuscript. The completed work would clearly have been far more ambitious than anything Camus had written up to that point, and would surely have been his masterpiece.

"I think he wanted to write a novel about Algeria, from colonisation up to and including the Algerian war," says Catherine Camus, "but also a book that would deal with the German occupation of France and the Resistance. And it would have been a love story, which is something rather rare in my father's work."

Fortunately for admirers of Camus, in the early Nineties, Catherine and her brother decided to prepare the manuscript of The First Man for publication. It was a decision that caused them much heart-searching, but they have been fully vindicated. The novel has been universally praised and has sold over 400,000 copies in France alone. Camus's essential qualities as a writer - his humanity and good faith, his honesty and his moral standpoint, as well as his emotional warmth and his sympathy for the poor and the oppressed - shine through this incomplete, but deeply moving text. The First Man is steeped in Camus's affection for the Algeria in which he grew up, "this magnificent and frightening land", whose precarious path to independence caused him so much grief, and the beauty of whose landscapes - its heat and light, its sounds and smells - he evokes with such sensuality.

"I suppose it would have been his autobiography; at least to judge by the extracts we have," says Catherine Camus. Jacques Cormery, the central character of The First Man, is clearly Camus's alter ego, and she can vouch for the fact that apart from the figure of the father - who died when Camus was a baby from wounds inflicted at the battle of the Marne, fighting in his red and blue Zouave uniform for a country he had never previously known - the characters of the mother, the strict grandmother who holds the family together, and the stone-deaf uncle, are based closely on their real-life counterparts.

Camus grew up amid "a poverty as naked as death" in a suburb of Algiers. The fact that he escaped from such a background was due to a remarkable schoolteacher, Louis Germain (lightly disguised in the novel as Monsieur Bernard), who recognised Camus's potential and entered him as a scholarship candidate for the Grand Lycee. It was Louis Germain who,in the novel, "launched Jacques in the world" and who "uprooted him from the warm and innocent world of the poor - a world closed in on itself like an island in the society where poverty took the place of family and community."

Camus dedicated his Nobel Prize acceptance speech to this inspired man, and a letter written by Camus to him, together with another from Louis Germain addressing the novelist as "My dear child", are reproduced at the end of the book. It was Catherine Camus's idea to include these letters as a sort of epilogue to her father's posthumous work and it was a stroke of genius.

Catherine Camus was only 14 when her father was killed, but I ask her how she remembers him. "I'm now 50 and I've led a strange, nomadic life," she replies, "but whenever I've had serious difficulties, I've felt his gaze upon me. He inspired confidence, but he never imprisoned us. He liked us to love life, and he encouraged all our enthusiasms. He could be strict, but he allowed us freedom. He taught me freedom, love and respect for others."

The First Man, together with its various appendices, brings us closer to the private man than one would ever have thought possible, and when Catherine Camus speaks of her "Papa", her words ring with that moral authority that was the hallmark of Camus's work and of this unfinished masterpiece in particular.

n 'The First Man' is published by Hamish Hamilton at pounds 14.99