Jacques Cormery, protagonist of The First Man, is born in 1913, the same year as Albert Camus, and it is impossible to read this book without equating the two. In fact, Jacques’s mother is even referred to once as “the widow Camus.” Editing would have caught this and many other small slips, but Camus died in a car crash before he could take what remains basically a memoir, despite fictionalized episodes, and turn it into the ambitious novel that he envisioned. Judging from the notes included at the end of this edition, he planned to delineate the complex web of personal, political, and philosophical forces that determine the fate of his protagonist (and so all men). Ironically, this unfinished draft probably fulfills the author’s purpose as well as if not better than any expanded book would have.
Camus, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, is known mainly for L’Etranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946) and La Peste (1947; The Plague, 1948). Though associated with existentialism, Camus grew increasingly restive with this label, especially when other existentialists advocated the Communist Party line in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Camus actively espoused many radical causes, but he argued that true justice dictates respect for every single human being, which flew in the face of doctrinaire Marxist beliefs. He came under particularly fierce criticism for advocating European-Arab power sharing in Algeria. The First Man can be seen as a defense of his position.
Any reader who picks up The First Man expecting a dreary philosophical novel will be surprised by this delightfully lively and vivid account of an Algerian childhood. This is more surprising because Jacques is born into “a poverty naked as death.” Both sides of this family of mixed Spanish and French ancestry are illiterate peasants only recently transplanted to the city, where they scratch out a meager living. Jacques’s father dies at the first Battle of the Marne, a year after the boy’s birth. His half-deaf mother is so morbidly shy that she gives over the boy’s rearing to her own mother, who frequently applies a rawhide whip to Jacques’s legs. Yet Jacques recalls the glorious happiness of youth and the basic goodness of all these people, even the grandmother, whose fierce drive and pride in her family fuel similar flames in the young writer.
Framing long passages of memoir, Camus had begun to construct a novelistic structure alternating between two main narrative lines, with events in Jacques’s search for his father in the “present” of the 1950’s mirrored by discoveries in the past of his childhood forty years before. In the first chapter, a storm spreads to cover all of North Africa while a man and woman flee before it toward shelter where she can deliver a child. The man drives the horses relentlessly; the woman bears her pain silently. Their “Arab” companion, admiring their fortitude, tells them, “You will have a boy.” Proving to have virtues other than foresight, he shakes hands with the European man as his equal and shelters with him, shoulder to shoulder, in the rain after the woman has been safely delivered of the predicted son, Jacques Cormery.
Biblical overtones aside, the main feature of this chapter is its cinematic sweep. The characters are film icons—heroic man, stoic woman, noble Algerian. This highly polished opening, an idealized, even mythic depiction of Jacques’s origins (and human brotherhood), stands in counterpoint to the much bleaker reality of his life. Shifting into a more novelistic style, Camus jumps the next chapter forty years to a time when Jacques Cormery visits the grave of his father, Henri, killed in World War I and buried in France. Jacques, who has lived in France many years, returns to Algiers to learn more about the father he never knew. Though the “first man” of the title seems initially to refer to Henri, his identity has been obliterated by time. Jacques recovers a few scraps of information, but even for his mother, Catherine, Henri amounts to little more than faded documents and the shell fragment extracted from his head.
Perhaps intentionally, Jacques’s father never comes across as vividly as the other characters, but he influences his son as much as anyone. Jacques relates how his father was sickened by a public guillotining, and in another incident, recalled by an old army buddy, Henri responded to the atrocities of colonial warfare by saying, “A man doesn’t do that.” He is definitely the father of the boy who wins a fistfight only to find that victory is as bitter as defeat.
The book is divided into two parts; the first is called “Search for the Father,” though it deals with Jacques as much the second, “The Son, or The First Man.” The “present” narrative is absent totally from the second part, and it is difficult to see how Camus could have united the two story lines in the intended third section—“Mother”—with Jacques’s reconciliation with Catherine, since she is an emotional cipher even to herself. Over the course of the book, Catherine proves to be very different from the iconic mother of the opening. What appears fortitude there proves to be passive withdrawal from life....