The First Man

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455

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.

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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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2158

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. At the same time, Jacques loves no one more and cares about no one’s love more. Unfortunately, his mother creates a void at the center of the book and can barely react, much less act. Absorbed in surviving daily life’s many threats, she does not understand her own past any better than she understands the causes of the violent war exploding all around her.

Though Camus does not develop the “contemporary” story very much, he makes it clear that he intended to underscore the common humanity of the opposing sides, Arab and European. After a bomb goes off near Jacques’s old home, for example, Jacques saves an Algerian from a mob. When Jacques interviews a French farmer about Henri, he learns little about his father but much about the bitterness of men forced off land they consider native soil. Camus illuminates the historical roots of the Algerian conflict, but neither his historical nor his political views have the impact of the account of his own childhood.

In a margin note to himself, Camus says, “The book should be heavy with things and flesh,” and it is, richly so. This is a familiar story, really, the artist as a young man, born into one world but growing up into another, then looking back in longing at his lost childhood world. The First Man stands out as a compelling portrait of youth not only because of its exotic setting, but because Camus’ prose brings that world, lost to him, alive for his readers.

The child, caught between the two deserts of sunlight and shade, started circling the table at a hurried pace, repeating like a litany: ‘I’m bored! I’m bored!’ He was bored, yet in that boredom was a game, a delight, a kind of excitement, for rage would seize him.

That same rage still drives the man who refuses to be a “blind anonymous being.” Jacques grabs at every trace of his past as both testament and protest. He records everything he can recall, from the protocol of sharing out fries among poor boys to the thrill of battling the sirocco with a palm leaf to the best way of tormenting a hated dogcatcher. More important, Camus’ prose conveys the immediacy of experience underlying this flood of memory. The author piles detail on detail without obstructing the flow of sentences that bring everything back to life—the workings of his uncle’s cooperage, the joys of their hunting trips, the baking of the “coarse brioches called ‘mounas’ and the light crumbly pastries called ‘oreillettes,’” the lighting of a lamp, even the grisly killing of a chicken. Memory’s overindulgence is redeemed by a great writer’s precision, as when Jacques and his young friends pass

alongside big sliding doors behind which they heard the horses stamping, the sudden snorts that would make the animals’ lips smack, the sound of the metal chains used as halters hitting against the wood of the manger, while the boys breathed with delight the odors of manure, of straw, and of sweat that came from these forbidden places that Jacques would still be dreaming about while he went to sleep.

Camus structures the memoir sections to reflect Jacques’s gradual awakening from self-absorption among “royal” joys that even a poor boy can afford, especially one who has the run of Algiers. The city’s streets, bazaars, beaches form a vivid background for boyhood games and fights. As Jacques grows up, he takes greater cognizance of those around him, especially his family. As a boy, he notices mostly the increasing distance from them, but the adult Jacques looks back astounded by the intensity of his love for them as well as their total otherness.

Jacques repeatedly compares his relatives to animals, fatalistic and stubborn. Sunk into an unthinking acceptance of their daily struggle, they are often good people, but they accept, even contribute to, the suffering of others. For example, they accede to France’s colonial control of Algeria and its bloody war. What separates Jacques from his family is an intelligent self-awareness first given an outlet in elementary school, where he is encouraged by M. Bernard. This teacher intercedes with the grandmother to enable Jacques to take a scholarship examination for the secondary lycée. Education changes the whole course of Jacques’s life, transforming the bright lower-class colonial boy into a middle-class French intellectual.

Jacques returns home hoping to close the gap between himself and his family. The adult Jacques finds that he cannot, but Camus’ description of the teenage boy’s relations with his family brim with a youthful zest that reanimate the relatives, especially his grandmother and his Uncle Ernest. The old woman embarrasses and shames the boy, whether groping through a latrine for lost change or asking him read the title cards of silent films aloud. At the same time this woman teaches him invaluable lessons about the fierce necessities of life.

Equally fortunate, Jacques has the example of his Uncle Ernest, shrewd, coarse, often irascible, yet irrepressibly good-natured. The man, born stone deaf, defies his handicap (unlike poor Catherine). Dominating those around him, he “expressed himself as much by onomatopoeic sounds and gestures as with the hundred-odd words at his disposal.” A man of great vitality and personal attractiveness, he is a hero to the boy. Still, Ernest prevents his sister from marrying again, forcing her to remain basically his housekeeper. “They hurt each other without wanting to, just because each represented to the others the cruel and demanding necessity of their lives.”

Jacques (or Camus) refuses to judge them. He loves them despite their failings, because his nature is riven by self-conscious dividedness. He sees what he was, what he is, and what he will become, and this inspires not fear or contempt, but compassion. Education can raise a man’s standard of living, but it can transform people only when it enables them to see others as they see themselves. This transformation, the work of imagination as much as knowledge, is achieved through art, which opens the reader’s eyes to the painful truth of his existence without causing him to despair. In the universe of this novel, people live and die without leaving a trace. Yet Camus’ belief in the basic meaninglessness of life, what he terms its “absurdity,” does not invalidate for him the intrinsic value of human existence. To the contrary, it obligates each person to affirm the value of every other human being.

Like Jacques Cormery, everyone is a “first man” born alone into a world and forced to create himself. Education offers the way toward self-creation, while imagination and art provide the bridge between persons. Ironically, to judge by this book, this optimistic existentialism derived from a sense of abandonment. Jacques is twice abandoned, first by the father killed in battle and then by an emotionally absent mother. Without bitterness, though, he faces the void around him, filling it with compassion for all of abandoned humankind. With this act of bravery, Jacques Cormery (and Camus) draws grace enough from imagination to offer hope of redemption to all the world and all first men.

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.

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