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The Lost World of Albert Camus

Le premier homme

by Albert Camus
Gallimard, 331 pp., FF 110 (paper)

Albert Camus died in a car accident in France, on January 4, 1960, at the age of forty-six. Despite the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded him just three years before, his reputation was in decline. At the time of the award critics fell over one another to bury its recipient; from the right Jacques Laurent announcing that in awarding the prize to Camus “le Nobel couronne une oeuvre terminée,” while in the left-leaning France-Observateur it was suggested that the Swedish Academy may have believed it was picking out a young writer, but it had in fact confirmed a “premature sclerosis.” Camus’s best work, it seemed, lay far behind him; it had been many years since he had published anything of real note.

For this decline in critical esteem, Camus himself was at least partly to blame. Responding to the fashions of the day, he had engaged in philosophical speculations of a kind to which he was ill suited and for which he was only moderately gifted—The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) has not worn well, for all its resonating aphorisms. In L’Homme Révolté (1951) Camus offered some important observations about the dangers of lyrical revolutionary illusions; but Raymond Aron said much the same thing to vastly more devastating effect in L’Opium des intellectuels, while Camus’s naive, almost autodidactic philosophical speculations exposed him to a cruel and painful riposte from Sartre that severely damaged his credibility with the bien-pensant intellectual left and permanently undermined his public self-confidence.

If his literary reputation, as the author of L’Etranger and La Peste, was thus unfairly diminished in contemporary opinion by Camus’s unsuccessful forays into philosophical debate, it was his role as France’s leading public intellectual, the moral voice of his era, that weighed most heavily upon him in his last decade. His editorials in the postwar paper Combat had given him, in Aron’s words, a singular prestige;1 it was Camus whose maxims set the moral tone of theResistance generation as it faced the dilemmas and disappointments of the Fourth Republic. By the late Fifties this burden became intolerable, a source of constant discomfort in Camus’s writing and speeches. In earlier years he had accepted the responsibility: “One must submit,” as he put it in 1950.2 But in the last interview he ever gave, in December 1959, his resentful frustration is audible: “I speak for no one: I have enough difficulty speaking for myself. I am no one’s guide. I don’t know, or I know only dimly, where I am headed (“Je ne sais pas, ou je sais mal, où je vais”).3

Worst of all, for Camus and his audience, was the dilemma posed by the tragedy of French Algeria. Like most intellectuals of his generation, Camus was bitterly critical of French policy; he condemned the use of torture and terror in the government’s “dirty war” against the Arab nationalists, and he had been a vocal and well-informed critic of colonial discrimination against the indigenous Arab population ever since the Thirties (at a time when many of the Parisian intellectuals who would later distinguish themselves in the anticolonial struggle knew little and cared less about the condition and needs of France’s overseas subjects). But Camus was born in Algeria, the son of impoverished European immigrants. He grew up in Algiers, and drew on his experiences there for much of his best work. Unable to imagine an Algeria without Europeans, or to imagine indigenous Europeans of his milieu torn from their roots, he struggled to describe a middle way; in his words, “Une grande, une éclatante réparation doit être faite…au peuple Arabe. Mais par la France toute entière et non avec le sang des Français d’Algérie.”4 AsFrance and Algeria alike grew ever more polarized over the issue, Camus’s search for a liberal compromise came to seem forlorn and irrelvant. He withdrew into silence.5

In the years following his death Camus’s standing continued to fall. Most people living in metropolitan France were unconcerned by the fate of Algeria and its various communities, Arab or European; as for the intellectuals, their interests in the Sixties and Seventies were so far from those which had moved Camus as to make him an object of scorn, condescension, and finally, neglect. He was overtaken by the radical and increasingly intolerant politicization of a younger generation, by the self-lacerating tiers-mondisme of the later Sartre and his followers, by the “antihumanist” vogue among scholars, by new fashions in literature, and, most of all, by a decline in the status of the writer. Looking back on his own time in the Sixties as founder/editor of the Nouvel Observateur, Jean Daniel would recall “quickly discovering that it was among the human sciences—history, sociology, ethnology, philosophy—that one had to look for the equivalent of the littérateurs who, in my youth, had served as maîtres à pensér.”6 In the world of Barthes, Robbe-Grillet, Lévi-Strauss, and Foucault, Camus was dépassé. Not that he was unread: L’Etranger, La Peste, and Caligula were established texts of the lycée and university curriculums, as they were (and are) on the reading lists of millions of students abroad. Albert Camus had become, in his own lifetime or very shortly thereafter, a worldwide “classic.” And this, too, was held against him.

It was thus at first sight rather curious to find him now once again in the headlines, his last, unfinished novel a major publishing coup upon its belated appearance thirty years after it was written. Nearly 200,000 copies of Le premier homme have now been sold. To be sure, this renewal of interest does not come out of the blue. In the seedy, corrupt public atmosphere of the dying Mitterrand era a clear moral voice has been sorely lacking, as more than one French commentator has glumly observed. Moreover, the French have become grimly aware of the decayed and neglected condition of their literary heritage; Albert Camus was one of the last of an era of great French writers, a link to the world of Roger Martin du Gard, Jules Romains, Gide, Mauriac, and Malraux. One reviewer, musing on the success of Le premier homme, wondered whether the French weren’t “celebrating the myth of a brilliant life, transformed by accidental death into a destiny, a sign from beyond the grave, a reproach from the days when French literature counted for something….”7 There is truth in this view, but to appreciate the contemporary impact of Camus we need to look a little further.

Camus’s rejection of violence, of terror in all its forms, reduced him to impotent silence at the height of the Algerian civil war and rendered him inaccessible to the generation that followed. But by the late Seventies, with nothing but blood and ashes to show for their support of revolutionary repression in Europe, in China, in Cuba, and Cambodia, French thinkers had swung around to a point of view remarkably close to that of Camus—though usually without acknowledgment: it was one thing to repeat Camus’s warning that “il est des moyens qui ne s’excusent pas,8 quite another to admit he had been correct all along. The so-called “New Philosophers,” such as André Glucksmann or Bernard-Henri Lévy, did not rehabilitate Camus, but they contributed significantly to the process whereby those who once scorned him for his “moralizing” obsession with responsibility have themselves now lost all favor. They have been discredited by their casual resort to future History to justify present crimes, and by the ease with which they asserted that others must suffer for the sins of their own fathers. The lucidity and moral courage of Camus’s stand shine through today in a way that was not possible in the polarized world of 1958: “As for me, I find it disgusting to beat the other man’s breast, in the manner of our judge-penitents.”9

Perhaps most important of all, the French-Algerian trauma is now behind us, and as it recedes into memory (and forgetting) it takes with it the confidence and the anger that shaped the attitudes of both sides. Thirty years after gaining its independence, Algeria is again in trouble, divided and bloodied by a fundamentalist movement temporarily held in check by a military dictatorship. However hopelessly naive Camus’s appeal for a compromise between assimilationist colonialism and militant nationalism, his prognosis for the future of a country born of terror and civil war was all too accurate: “Tomorrow Algeria will be a land of ruins and of corpses that no force, no power in the world, will be able to restore in our century.”10 What Camus understood perhaps better and earlier than any of his (metropolitan) contemporaries was not Arab nationalism—though as early as 1945 he had predicted that the Arabs could not much longer be expected to tolerate the conditions under which they were governed—but the particular culture of Algeria’s European inhabitants, and the price that would be paid should anyone attempt to shatter it. The lost world of French Algeria is at the center of his last, unfinished novel, and it is a subject to which French readers are open now in a way that would have been unthinkable in 1960, when the manuscript was found in Camus’s briefcase at the scene of his death.

Le premier homme was to have been Camus’s Bildungsroman, a tryptich of his life and times. Although he had been at work on it for some time (it is first mentioned in his Carnets in 1951), we have only the opening section, dealing with his childhood and the search for his dead father. The work is unmistakably, unambiguously autobiographical; as published it contains all his notes and corrections and one finds Camus occasionally interpolating the first person singular, as though this were indeed the story of young Albert Camus and not of “Jacques Cormery” (from the family name of his paternal grandmother). Like Camus’s father Lucien, “Henri Cormery” was mortally wounded at the Battle of the Marne, in October 1914, and is buried at a cemetery in Saint-Brieuc, the small Breton town to which Lucien Camus was evacuated and where he died from his wounds. His widow, her two sons (of whom the younger, Albert/Jacques, was not yet one year old), and their maternal grandmother are left in Belcourt, a poor European district of Algiers, living penuriously from the mother’s earnings as a domestic servant. The book is organized around two intersecting narratives: the quest of Jacques, now entering middle age, for the father he never knew, and the story of his childhood in a world dominated by his mother and grandmother.

Reading the inscription on his father’s tombstone, Jacques is caught up short by the realization that when he died in 1914, Henri Cormery was just twenty-nine years old, younger than the son now standing by his grave. The anonymity, the poverty, the brevity of his life echo through the book, a coda to the world of the European immigrants (Camus/Cormery was born into a family of immigrants from German-occupied Alsace, thus doubly exiled), to the unremembered past of the community, of the family, and of his own son, to the alienated manner of his dying—“Il n’avait jamais vu la France. Il la vit et il fut tué.11 Jacques, “who hated conventional gestures of this kind,” had long avoided visiting the grave. As an older Frenchman reminds him, “You don’t need a father—you raised yourself all alone.” The visit sets off a search for roots and creates in the story of young Cormery an oscillation and tension between the absent father and the second dominant theme of the work, the author’s troubling mother.

Catherine Camus, who was descended from Minorcan immigrants (a Spanish connection in which her son took great pride), was illiterate, partly deaf, and hardly spoke at all. In life and in the novel this silence, and her virtual inability to express herself in word or gesture, produced in her son a desperate confusion. As Camus put it in a much earlier work, “He pities his mother, is this the same as loving her? She never caressed him—she would not have known how.”12 In Le premier homme Jacques Cormery loves his mother “hopelessly,” but in his silent observations of the mute, exhausted woman he is “filled with vague anxiety in the face of a misfortune (malheur) he could not understand.” Like Camus, Cormery concludes that there is something magnificently dignified and even honorable about his mother’s silence in the face of such adversity, but it leaves him silent, too, unable to find a way through to this parent as well and frustrated at his inadequacy.13

What saves Cormery, from his despair and his past, is education. Here Camus writes from the heart, not only of the primary-school teacher who entered his life as a partial surrogate father, but also of the almost inexpressible importance of the French system of free primary education and competitive secondary-school scholarships for poor children of his generation. One of the most moving passages in the book comes when the teacher visits Cormery’s house for the first time and convinces his mother and grandmother to allow him to sit for the scholarship, even though success (and acceptance into the lycée) would deprive them of his earning capacity for years to come. This same chapter ends on the book’s only elegaic note—young Jacques passes the exam, says goodbye to his primary schoolteacher, and enters, with mixed feelings, upon a new world. It is a reminder that Camus, more than any of his fellow postwar literati, was a pure product of the Third Republic, and that its ethical and pedagogical ideals meant more to him than to most of his contemporaries. When his Nobel Prize acceptance speech was published in 1958, it was to that same school-teacher, M. Louis Germain, that Camus dedicated it.

Beyond the attention paid to the father, to the mother, and to its young protagonist’s schooling, Le premier homme addresses three topics already to be found in Camus’s early essays and stories: sensuality, poverty, and the special meaning, for him, of Algeria. No reader of Camus could have missed the importance of physical sensations and the world of the flesh throughout his work, from L’Etranger, where the omnipresent sun plays out its fateful role, to the Nobel Prize speech, where he spoke of never having been able to do without the light, the sense of well-being, the life of freedom in which he grew up.14 His last novel luxuriates in the sheer sensuality of the sun, the sea, of youthful bodies in the water and at the beach. Nowhere else in Camus’s writing is one so aware of his pleasure in such things, and of his ambivalence toward the other, cerebral world in which he had chosen to dwell. In Le premier homme Camus has recaptured something he tried to explain in a much earlier story, “Noces à Tipasa,” the appeal of “a life that tastes of warm stone.”15 The marginal notes reveal his intentions: “the book must be heavy with objects and with physicality.”16

Algeria, too, is physically present, its smells, its sounds, the topography of Algiers itself on its magnificent bay, the adventures of Jacques and his friends through the streets and the docks, hunting expeditions with his uncle into the back country. And there are the Arabs, “this attractive, disturbing people, at once close and separate.” In the childhood chapters Arabs come and go fleetingly, part of the natural streetscape of a mixed community, but when the older Jacques visits his birthplace and gets into conversation with a colon, the latter explains to him that it is inevitable that Europeans and Arabs will now fight each other, brutally. And then they will once again live together. Why? “Because that is what this land desires.” As for Camus/Cormery, his own feelings are made explicit: “So it was each time he left Paris for Africa, a quiet jubilation, his spirit opening wide, the satisfaction of someone who has just made a neat escape and who laughs when he thinks of the faces of the guards.” Yet Algeria is also a realm of doubts, a problem-filled place for Camus/Cormery, “the land of forgetting where everyone was the first man.”17

This is but one of the uses made of the book’s title. Like the others it concerns identity—that of the European in Algeria, that of the self-created Camus/Cormery born into a fatherless family of silent women, that of the orphaned father himself. And across all of these meanings there falls the shadow of poverty, the book’s pervasive theme and the occasion for some of Camus’s sharpest observations. The truly poor, he notes, speak little of the past—they are too obsessively concerned with surviving in the present; hence Jacques Cormery’s inability to find his own roots through his family, who seemed to him to have none—to have come from everywhere and to be living nowhere—“fatherless, with no transmitted tradition…one had to create one’s own inheritance. He was born on a land without ancestors and without memory.” The very purpose of the novel, according to Camus’s own notes, was to “tear this impoverished family from the destiny of the poor which is to disappear from history without trace. The Voiceless.” But like all scholarship boys, Camus/ Cormery’s success in breaking clear of his background is dearly bought: when he first enters the lycée Cormery is asked by a school official to list his parent’s occupation. He has no idea what it is—his mother cleans other people’s houses and does their laundry. A friend advises him that she is therefore a domestique. He writes it down, and is overcome with “shame—and the shame of having felt shame.”18 Like everything else in this book—the magnificent passages of recollections, the alternation between Camus’s characteristic classical brevity and less familiar, lyrical, paragraph-long descriptions, the absence of ironic restraint or distance—this has the ring of absolute authenticity.

Le premier homme is not only a recapitulation and development of Camus’s earlier stories and essays—many of which are echoed here, down to a phrase—but also an invaluable reminder of what was central to his concerns and what, contemporary opinion notwithstanding, merely peripheral. Much of the idea of the “absurd,” to which he owed his early fame, can now be understood as Camus’s way of trying to express the importance for him of place and sensation. Thus there is a passage in Sisyphus where he writes as follows: “In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between a man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.”19 Just as Camus is known to have felt that critics missed the point of the Algerian settings in La Peste and (especially) in L’Etranger, so his critics and admirers alike often both overinterpreted and lost the message of his nonliterary writings.

In reading Le premier homme we are also reminded, forcibly, that one of the most enduring messages in Camus’s oeuvre was of discomfort; he was an outsider in Paris, étranger in something of the sense used in his most famous novel. It was not that he felt out of place in the role of the intellectual, rather that there were two conflicting personalities in play, only one of which was understood and appreciated by his colleagues. When, during the Algerian conflict, he tried to explain the other part and hence his own pained ambivalence, few understood; “the Mediterranean separated within me two universes, one where memories and names were conserved in measured spaces, the other where the traces of man were swept across great distances by the sandy wind.” This separation of worlds had always troubled Camus; in an early (1939) review of Bread and Wine he picked out for comment the passage where Silone’s hero reflects on the risk of theorizing too much about the peasants and thereby coming to know them ever less.20 Camus, too, worried (and continues to worry in his last work) about the risk of losing touch, of severing one’s roots before one has even found them. And it was this essentially psychological intuition into the condition of the rudderless intellectual that helped give to Camus’s ethics of limits and of responsibility their peculiar authority.

It is this moral authority that is lacking in contemporary France, and that partly accounts for the enthusiasm with which Le premier homme has been met. The book itself is wonderful in many ways, incomplete and unpolished though it may be. But that is not why many people buy it. Camus’s own heirs and his publisher, Gallimard, were wary in their presentation of it, having withheld it for many decades for fear it would only further harm its author’s already dented reputation. The situation today could not be more different. After two decades of painful and incomplete inquiry into their troubled history, with Vichy a still-festering sore and the intellectual giants of the recent past reduced to a rubble of embarrassing citations, Camus the Just remains, in the prescient words of one critic, “the most noble witness of a rather ignoble age.”21 In an era of self-promoting media intellectuals, vacantly preening before the admiring mirror of their electronic audience, Camus’s patent honesty, what his former schoolteacher called “ta pudeur instinctive,” 22 has the appeal of the genuine article, a hand-crafted masterwork in a world of plastic reproductions. Jean-Paul Sartre, who did so much to tarnish his old friend’s reputation, and whose own advocacy of violence and terror would have truly shocked Camus had he lived to read it, went a long way toward making amends in the obituary he contributed to France-Observateur. Camus, he wrote, “represented in this century…the contemporary heir to that long line of moralists whose work perhaps constitutes whatever is most distinctive in French letters.”23 Sartre was surely right, and the belated publication of Albert Camus’s last novel is a sharp reminder that the French have been missing his distinctive voice these past thirty years. They miss it still.

  1. 1

    See Raymond Aron, Mémoires (Julliard, 1983), p. 208.

  2. 2

    See Albert Camus’s “L’Enigme” in Essais (Gallimard, 1965), p. 863.

  3. 3

    See “Dernière Interview d’Albert Camus” (December 20, 1959) in Essais, p. 1925.

  4. 4

    Major and conspicuous amends have to be made…to the Arab people. But by all of France and not with the blood of the French of Algeria.”

  5. 5

    L’Algérie déchirée,” in Actuelles III (Chroniques algériennes 1939-1958) (Gallimard, 1958), p. 143 (written in 1956). In 1958, in his last published thoughts on the subject, he complained that “on attend trop d’un écrivain en ces matières. Même, et peut-être surtout, lorsque sa naissance et son coeur le vouent au destin d’une terre comme l’Algérie, il est vain de le croire détenteur d’une vérité révélée.” (“too much is asked of the writer in these matters. Even, and perhaps especially, when his origins and his heart tie him to the fate of a land like Algeria it is fruitless to think him possessed of a revealed truth.”) (Actuelles III, “Avant-propos,” p. 27.)

  6. 6

    Jean Daniel, L’Ere des Ruptures (Grasset, 1979), pp. 29-30.

  7. 7

    Bernard Fauconnier, Magazine Littéraire, No. 322 (June 1994), p. 60.

  8. 8

    Albert Camus, Lettres à un ami Allemand (Gallimard, 1948, 1972) No. 1 (July 1943), p. 19.

  9. 9

    Avant-propos,” Actuelles III, p. 23. “En ce qui me concerne, il me paraît dégoûtant de battre sa coulpe, comme nos juges-pénitents, sur la poitrine d’autrui.”

  10. 10

    Albert Camus, “Lettre à un militant Algérien” (October 1955) in Actuelles III, p. 128.

  11. 11

    He had never seen France. He saw it and was killed.”

  12. 12

    Entre Oui et Non,” from L’Envers et l’Endroit, originally published in Algiers in 1937, republished in Essais, see p. 25.

  13. 13

    Et ce qu’il désirait le plus au monde, qui était que sa mère lût tout ce qui était sa vie et sa chair, cela était impossible. Son amour, son seul amour serait à jamais muet.” (“And what he desired more than anything in the world, that his mother might read that which constituted his life and very being, this was impossible. His love, his only love, would be forever mute.”) See Le premier homme, Annexes (Camus’s own notes), p. 292.

  14. 14

    Discours de Suède, December 12, 1957 (Gallimard, 1958), p. 20.

  15. 15

    Noces à Tipasa” (first published in 1939) in Essais, p. 58.

  16. 16

    Il faudrait que le livre pèse un gros poids d’objets et de chair.”

  17. 17

    la terre d’oubli où chacun était le premier homme.”

  18. 18

    et d’un seul coup [il] connut la honte et la honte d’avoir eu honte.”

  19. 19

    Le mythe de Sisyphe, essai sur l’absurde (first published in 1942) in Essais, p. 101.

  20. 20

    In Alger Républicain, May 23, 1939.

  21. 21

    Pierre de Boisdeffre, “Camus et son destin,” in Camus (Hachette, 1964), pp. 265-279 (see p. 277).

  22. 22

    In a letter from Louis Germain to Camus, dated April 30, 1959, and published as an annex to Le premier homme, p. 328.

  23. 23

    Il représentait en ce siècle, et contre l’Histoire, l’héritier actuel de cette longue lignée de moralistes dont les oeuvres constituent peut-être ce qu’il y a de plus original dans les lettres françaises.” J.-P. Sartre, “Albert Camus” in France-Observateur, January 7, 1960 (reprinted in Situations IV, Gallimard, 1964, pp. 126-129).

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