The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1995, Washington, D.C.
Albert Camus died in literature’s most stunning car crash on January 4, 1960; he had lived in two very different worlds. One extended into the highest reaches of French intellectual and political life and brought him fame and honors, including the 1957 Nobel Prize for literature. The other was that of the lower-class European workers in the Belcourt quarter of Algiers where Camus was reared, a world of “poverty and sunlight.”
Even the details of his death reflected his movement between these two worlds. Returning from a vacation in the south of France with Michel Gallimard, scion of the prestigious Parisian publishing family, Camus died instantly when Gallimard lost control of his Facel Vega and struck a tree. (Gallimard died several days later.) Camus’s body, accompanied by only a few family members and close friends, was taken back to the cemetery at Lourmarin, a humble village in Provence where, in the last few years of his life, he liked to write.
Camus’s deep loyalty to the worlds of high art and simple human existence may be sensed in almost everything he wrote, but nowhere more poignantly than in The First Man, the unfinished manuscript found in his briefcase near the scene of the crash. The Camus family allowed scholars to consult the text of The First Man after the author’s death, but, because it was unpolished and incomplete, withheld it from publication. Destroying it was unthinkable, however. Camus’s daughter, Catherine, finally decided to oversee its publication. An instant sensation when it appeared in France last year, the novel remained on the best-seller lists for months. In her note to the American edition, which came out in August, Catherine reminds us that her father “was a very reserved man and would no doubt have masked his own feelings far more in its final version.” But she also points to one of the novel’s more intriguing qualities: in it, Camus’s voice sounds much as it did to those who knew him best.
The First Man also reveals how Camus, throughout his career, was both shadowed and inspired by the voiceless mass of people who, like the Algerians of his youth, go through their lives leaving barely a trace of their existence. Many of his tensions as a writer may have had to do with, on the one hand, his fear of sterility, a falling back into the simple silence of those people, and, on the other, his will to express the truth and beauty of their existence to a wholly different world.
In the preface to a new edition of some of his early work that appeared shortly before his death, Camus remarked that a writer “keeps within himself a single source which nourishes during his lifetime what he is and what he says. As for myself, I know that my source is in . . . the poverty and sunlight I lived in for so long, whose memory still saves me from two opposing dangers that threaten every artist, resentment and self-satisfaction.”
Ιn its printed version, The First Man runs to more than 300 pages, an already large text for the usually succinct Camus. But there are many indications that he was embarking on something even larger. The First Man was to have been, Camus said, “the novel of my maturity,” a large-scale saga on the order of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, encompassing the whole panorama of Algerian history from the 1830 French conquest and subsequent colonization down through the Nazi Occupation and the eventual Nazi defeat.
It is impossible to say how the novel would have finally turned out, or even whether Camus could have done what he intended. But the man painting on that large a canvas with the full palette of colors is quite different from the Camus that American readers of The Stranger and The Plague may expect. The First Man is neither stark nor anguished. Instead, a naked exuberance and love animate its pages. Camus seems to have been working back toward the wellsprings of his genius: “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to discover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened,” he wrote in the late 1950s. “This is why, perhaps after working and producing for 20 years, I still live with the idea that my work has not even begun.”