The First Man- Albert Camus

 

“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 that it does in civilized lands, he, like a solitary and ever-shining blade of a sword, was destined to be shattered with a single blow and forever, an unalloyed passion for life confronting utter death; today he felt life, youth, people slipping away from him, without being able to hold on to any of them, left with the blind hope that this obscure force that for so many years had raised him above the daily routine, nourished him unstintingly, and had been equal to the most difficult circumstances-that, as it had with endless generosity given him reason to live, it would also give him reason to grow old and die without rebellion.”

 

This book was not what I expected. Due to the philosophical, melancholy nature of the first two Camus books I’ve read, (The Stranger and The Plague), I expected this book to be more academic, but it was far from it; it’s a more personal book, nostalgic, full of feelings and memories.

This book is considered to be an autobiographical novel, and its unedited manuscript was found in the car wreckage in which Camus was killed. Even for an unedited piece of work, it is simply a masterpiece. It was interesting to read Camus’ annotations, and “see” the thought-process related in his writing. The markings and notes definitely made Camus appear more “human” than he seems to be in his other books. The deep philosophical musings from his other books is notably missing.

Jacques Cormery (Camus), a poor, gifted French child, was born and raised in Algeria by a semi-deaf mother and a domineering grandmother. As an adult (40 years old), he becomes more curious about his father, Henri, who died during the war at the very young age of 29. Not knowing his father clearly affected Cormery:

“Something here was not in the natural order and, in truth, there was no order but chaos when the son was older than the father.”

Unfortunately, nobody in his family could really help him on his quest:

“In a family where they spoke little, where no one read or wrote, with an unhappy listless mother,who would have informed him about his young, pitiable father?”

However, despite his frustration, Cormery understands the situation; he understands poverty and its effect on people:

“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. Of course there is the memory of the heart that they say is the surest kind, but the heart wears out with sorrow and labour, it forgets sooner under the weight of fatigue. Remembrance of things past is just for the rich. For the poor it only marks the faint traces on the path to death.”

I will end with an excerpt from a letter that Louis Germain (Camus’ teacher, the man responsible for rescuing Camus from illiteracy) wrote to Camus:

“Who is Camus? I have the impression that those who try to penetrate your nature do not quite succeed. You have always shown an instinctive reticence about revealing your nature, your feelings. You succeed all the more for being unaffected, direct.”

This is the kind of book that will stay with the reader for a very long time. I would highly recommend it to all Camus fans.

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8 thoughts on “The First Man- Albert Camus

  1. Thank you for your personal and perceptive review. The passage you quote, about poor people’s memory, is the one that had the most striking effect on me. No doubt Camus indirectly refers to Proust here (“remembrance of things past”), thus cleverly linking litterature to pragmatic economic issues, rooted into people’s experiences and lives.
    Here is the original in French (I added some of the text, to include the beautiful word “enténébrée”).
    “Elle disait oui, c’était peut-être non, il fallait remonter dans le temps à travers une mémoire enténébrée, rien n’était sûr. La mémoire des pauvres déjà est moins nourrie que celle des riches, elle a moins de repères dans l’espace puisqu’ils quittent rarement le lieu où ils vivent, moins de repères aussi dans le temps d’une vie uniforme et grise. Bien sûr, il y a la mémoire du coeur dont on dit qu’elle est la plus sûre, mais le coeur s’use à la peine et au travail, il oublie plus vite sous le poids des fatigues. Le temps perdu ne se retrouve que chez les riches. Pour les pauvres, il marque seulement les traces vagues du chemin de la mort. Et puis, pour bien supporter, il ne faut pas trop se souvenir, il fallait se tenir tout près des jours, heure après heure, comme le faisait ma mère (…).”

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