cover image The First Man

The First Man

Albert Camus. Alfred A Knopf Inc, $25 (325pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43937-0

Among the wreckage of Camus's fatal car crash in 1960 was a 144-page handwritten manuscript, a first draft of a projected epic, the Nobel Prize winner's final novel. Suppressed by his family for decades in order to avoid criticism from the Left, the manuscript, transcribed by Camus' daughter, was finally published last year in France, where it became a bestseller. Now the narrative, carefully annotated, has reached our shores, allowing admirers of Camus and of fine literature in general to delve into its complex, strongly autobiographical pages. Jacques Cormery, 40, returns to his native Algeria to learn about his father, who died at the Battle of the Marne when Jacques was one. In Africa, Jacques relives his childhood growing up in a house dominated by a gentle and illiterate mother and an abusive and illiterate grandmother. His only father figures are a ``half-mute'' uncle and a grade-school teacher who manages to get the boy a scholarship to a private high school. Meanwhile, the simmering racial and political conflict between Arabs and Frenchmen provides a compelling subtext that threatens to come to the fore at any moment. The autobiographical nature of the material is betrayed by Camus's occasional use of real-life names for the characters; for instance, as when he calls Jacques's mother the ``Widow Camus.'' The profuse footnotes can make the reading slow going, but the novel is a vital example of the writer's craft, its pages filled with alluring passages depicting an exotic world so removed it feels like part of another century. Camus, who customarily revised his fiction up to a half dozen times, no doubt would have changed much, and perhaps the final version would have stressed the bitter class animus already in evidence (``Remembrance of things past is just for the rich''). It's likely that no amount of reworking, however, would have disguised the novel's most compelling aspect: the warmth and humanity of its author's spirit. BOMC and QPB selections (Sept.)