Saturday, July 17, 2010

The First Man by Albert Camus

When Albert Camus met his tragic end in an automobile accident in 1960, he left behind this unfinished manuscript. His wife, Francine, decided its incomplete state, with lots of marginalia, notes, and interleaved sheets, would tarnish her husband’s reputation, so she decided against publication. When Francine died, responsibility for Camus’ literary estate fell to his daughter Catherine. She struggled with the decision, and rejected the idea of destroying the manuscript of about 144 pages with little or no punctuation, and with only the barest evidence of any revision. In the 1990s, at the urging of some scholars, she agreed to publication. The English translation appeared in 1995. I, for one, offer a most hearty thanks to Catherine for her decision.

This highly autobiographic novel offers many insights into the formative years of Camus. The death of his father -- when he barely passed his first birthday -- his strict upbringing by his timid mother who deferred to his martinet of a grandmother, to his early education and rescue from a life of poverty by a beloved teacher who recommended him for a scholarship to the lycée, and ultimately to his search for information about his father, appear with a warmth and nostalgia I have not experienced in any of Camus’ other works.

In fact, so many things in his early life strike me as startlingly familiar. For example, on his vacation, young Jacques Cormery frequently visits the local library,

“Thursday was also the day Jacques and Pierre would go to the public library. Jacques had always devoured any books that came to hand, and he consumed them with the same appetite he felt for living, playing, or dreaming. But reading enabled him to escape into a world of innocence where wealth and poverty were equally interesting because both were utterly unreal...illustrated stories that he and his friends passed around until the board binding was gray and rough and the pages dog-eared and torn, was the first to transport him to a world of comedy or heroism where his two basic appetites for joy and courage were satisfied” (244).

Jacques sets off for the lycée with the encouragement of a beloved teacher, and he experiences an epiphany similar to that used by James Joyce in the last paragraph of the Dubliners story, “Araby.” Jacques and Joyce’s young boy realized they are on the edge of new experiences and are about to put their childhoods behind them.

The manuscript has numerous passages with a bit of awkwardness, and footnotes hint at Camus’ indecision about diction or deletion, inclusion, or expansion of some information for the final version of the novel. But he deals with all the major issues found in all his works – life, death, religion, punishment, colonialism, prejudice, and family relationships. Camus always makes me think about all these topics.

If you are unfamiliar with Camus, this novel is the perfect place to start – a literary and philosophical buffet of his life and beliefs. The First Man represents a most important addition to the literary canon of existentialism. 5 stars

--Chiron, 7/17/10

No comments: