I thought I had read all of Albert Camus’s novels–turns out I was right and I was wrong. The First Man is an unfinished manuscript Camus was working on at the time of his death. It’s fairly long for a book by Camus, but based on his notes, it would have been much longer in the final version.
Here we have a bildungsroman that is told from Jacques’s perspective as a boy and, intermittently, as a 40-year-old man. The novel is written in great detail, all the peculiarities of being French in Algeria–and poor–and all the solemn facts of being poor and fatherless, growing up with a demanding grandmother, a slow-witted uncle, and a half-deaf mother, whom Jacques adores.
Algiers is depicted as rough, sun-blasted and coastal. The French are surrounded, naturally, by Arabs, and they are living a shadow life– a life shadowed by the presence of a France many of them never have seen, although that is where Jacques’s father died in WWI.
Jacques wins a scholarship to the lycée, which totally changes his life, but from the extant manuscript we can only guess how much since the 40-year-old is a sophisticated fellow with a penetrating moral vision that encompasses not only the contradictions of France and Algeria but also the contradictions of men and women, rich and poor, and war and peace.
From the remaining notes, also published in this edition, one can see that Jacques would have lived a complicated life, half on one side of the Mediterranean and half on the other. He would have been accomplished, thoughtful, a devout lover of certain women, and always mindful that the woman he loved the most, his mother, was beyond his reach, as he, on entering the lycée is beyond hers.
My thought is that this long manuscript is somewhat like Stephen Hero, Joyce’s first version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. That manuscript, too, was ultimately highly compressed, as I would expect Camus to have compressed this one.
This partial book is compassionate in the sense that all the characters are given their due; Jacques is aware of all their sacrifices, as well as their shortcomings. And yet he loves them all, and that accounts for the detailed rendering of his family life and his life as a boy among comrades, racing about the streets, exploring the beach, and having, before the lycée, essentially no knowledge of anything beyond his immediate sense perceptions.
The concept of “The First Man” is a way of conceptualizing everyone as the first person in his or her life, in his or her world. Here we have the essence of the bildungsroman, the awakening to cause and effect, consequences, economic differences, and the nature of relationships between human beings.
Oddly, the synthetic notes appended to this manuscript are more eloquent than the extremely well-written manuscript itself. They sum things up. They point to the conflicts that will emerge between the French and the Arabs, and they also suggest ways in which a second or third generation Frenchman born in Algeria is an Algerian, not a Frenchman, a person who must accept the duality of the self and others as the French, in their Cartesian way, tend not to, emphasizing the unity of France (where all students study the same school lessons at the same time all over the country.)
I would recommend this book to almost anyone for the graphic quality of its writing and for the insights it offers into a writer’s process. What cannot be seen here, which can only be imagined, is the aesthetic choices Camus ultimately would have made in rendering Jacques’s tale more compact and comprehensible.
As in The Stranger, the sun is a constant companion here, but Jacques is no morally insensible, anesthetized protagonist. He is sweetly real, vulnerable, intelligent, and sensitive. He wants to see the sun, to be in the sun, so he can see more and more of what the sun, light, reveals about life. Some mysteries are enfolded in the embrace of his father’s grave (he never knew him), but others, with the glittering intensity of the North African sun’s help, come clear: a man can be aware of everything, but he cannot be everything. Writers torture themselves over this point. They want to write faster than they can live so that they can have it all before they die.
Unfortunately for us, Camus died young, and here we have only a portion of his final thoughts about what it means to be alive.