In 1960, Albert Camus died in a car accident. The handwritten manuscript of this incomplete autobiographical novel was found in the wreckage. It was published, thirty-four years later, by his daughter Catherine. Albert Camus's wife and friends were afraid to publish it at the time of his death for reasons Catherine Camus explains in her introduction.
`The First Man' is the story of Jacques Cormery's return, at the age of 40, to Algeria, and his reflections on his childhood there. The novel follows Jacques's life from birth to his years in the lycée in Algiers. The novel explores childhood and school, Jacques's love for his mother and his search for a father who died during World War I. The novel may be an incomplete draft, in need of editing and further polish but it has its own raw power, with its insights into a happy but difficult and poor childhood. The novel is also about the colonial history of Algeria, and the relationship with France. Poverty and illiteracy have their own impact, on Jacques and his family, and on their interactions with the world.
`To begin with, poor people's memory is less nourished than that of the rich; it has fewer landmarks in space because they seldom leave the place where they live, and fewer reference points in time throughout lives that are grey and featureless.'
The lessons Jacques learned from his life included his ultimate disappointment at winning a brawl in the schoolyard: `And then he knew that war is no good, because vanquishing a man is as bitter as being vanquished.' There is also his embarrassment at reading film subtitles aloud to his illiterate mother and grandmother at the cinema, and his joy when a public library opens near the lycée.
Those more familiar with Albert Camus's writing than I am may see insights into his other works that I, having not yet read them, cannot appreciate. I read this for a reading group discussion and am moved by the power of the writing, and the realisation, by Jacques Cormery, of the power of literacy. There is a sense too that the acquisition of literacy, as a precursor to written memory, becomes part of an individual's responsibility to society. Albert Camus may have been writing about himself as he collected thoughts and ideas for this novel but I doubt that he was only writing for himself.
`And he too, perhaps more than she, since he had been born in a land without forefathers and without memory, where the annihilation of those who preceded him was still more final and where old age finds none of the solace in melancholy than it does in civilized lands.'