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The First Man

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In contrast to his novels of existential despair, like THE STRANGER (1942) and THE PLAGUE (1947), Camus’ last book affirms the value, even virtue, of the human condition. The author’s notes interspersed throughout this edition leave no doubt as to the story’s autobiographical basis, but Camus names his alter ego Jacques Cormery. After opening with a near-cinematic setting of Jacques’s birth, Camus parallels “then” (Algeria from 1913 to 1928) with “now” (France in the 1950’s). The forty- year old Jacques, who has lived in France for half his life, visits the grave of his father who fell at the Battle of the Marne in 1914, barely a year after his son’s birth. He now returns to Algeria to “find” his father.

Time, however, has obliterated nearly all trace of the man, even for Jacques’s mother, Catherine, hard of hearing and morbidly shy. Instead of his father, Jacques finds himself and relives a childhood dominated by his no-nonsense grandmother. Though remarking often on the gulf between Jacques and his past, Camus bridges that gap, bringing the young Jacques and his impoverished working class family to life. For most of the book, the reader follows the boy through days filled with the joys that even the poor can afford: swimming, hunting, soccer, friendship, and books. There are terrors, too, but they do not penetrate far into the security provided by his family. Sadly, by helping him pursue the education they lack, they create the gulf separating the boy from his past, forcing him to create himself as “the first man.” Yet, he discovers he has never left them.

The manuscript, though unfinished at the author’s death, captures a completely realized world. The notes at the end suggest Camus meant to expand the “present” story of Algeria’s bloody war for independence from France (while expressing a French Algerian’s love for both countries, both cultures). Revision along this line, however, especially if overintellectualized, could have ruined the book’s wonderful spontaneity. In its present form, it manages the remarkable feat of conveying an immediacy of experience that suggests the author’s first flush of memory was still upon him as he wrote.

Sources for Further Study

The American Scholar. LXIV, Summer 1995, p. 428.

The Atlantic. CCLXXVI, August, 1995, p. 98.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 27, 1995, p. 14.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 3, 1995, p. 3.

The Nation. CCLXI, October 2, 1995, p. 358.

The New Republic. CCXIII, October 16, 1995, p. 42.

New Statesman and Society. VIII, October 13, 1995, p. 40.

The New York Review of Books. XLI, October 6, 1995, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. C, August 27, 1995, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXXI, September 18, 1995, p. 104.

Newsweek. CXXVI, September 4, 1995, p. 61.

The Times Literary Supplement. June 24, 1994, p. 26.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, November 5, 1995, p. 5.

World Literature Today. LXIX, Winter, 1995, p. 83.

The First Man

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 2,613 words.)