The First Man
By Albert Camus
Original French Title: Le Premier Homme
Originally Published in French in 1994
Translated by David Hapgood in 1995
Review © 2012 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Literature, Modern Fiction
The First Man is the last novel written by the Nobel Prize winning French novelist Albert Camus before his untimely death in a car accident. In fact, the manuscript for this novel was found in the wreckage of the car in unfinished form. As such, this novel is essentially a working draft of the novel but it still manages to succeed in providing a powerful reading experience and the very raw nature of the novel in some ways adds to the emotional impact.
The First Man contains the reflections of 40 year old Jacques Cormery on his childhood and the father that he never knew. Most of the novel concentrates on Jacques’s childhood and coming of age in the North African city of Algiers. The story is highly autobiographical as Jacques’s childhood mirrors Camus’s in all major aspects. Just like Camus, Jacques grows up fatherless in the poorest part of Algiers with an almost deaf mother and an overbearing grandmother. In addition, Jacques mother is initially referred to as Lucie but on page 84 and for the remainder of the book, she is referred to as Catherine which is the real name of Camus’s mother.
With so much autobiographical content, it’s no surprise that Jacque’s childhood seems completely real and is written with deep passion. Camus also displays his trademark style of describing scenes filled with physical sensations, vivid impressions, and stark emotional impacts. The writing provides a visceral experience that envelops the reader in a unique atmosphere of early 20th century Algiers.
Growing up in an almost completely illiterate household in a state of abject poverty without electricity or running water, Jacques has no thoughts of feeling sorry for himself. He finds great pleasures in playing soccer any chance he can get or in going swimming at the shore or in going hunting with his deaf uncle. Then Jacques’s life is changed dramatically when he finds a father figure in an elementary school teacher who recognizes signs of high intelligence and talent in Jacques. This teacher nominates Jacques for a scholarship to attend secondary school and offers to help tutor him to help him pass the entrance examination. This provides one of the main themes of the novel, that education can transform lives.
Following the novel are 30 pages of “Notes and Sketches” and two letters, one from Camus to his favorite teacher and the reply from his teacher. The letters reinforce the tremendous impact of Camus’s teacher on his life and show the deep bond that developed between them. For those who are interested in the writing process, the “Notes and Sketches” give some fascinating insights into Camus’ creative process.While The First Man has some seriously rough edges and is obviously missing some sections, this unfinished draft of a novel provides a powerful reading experience that puts many fully edited novels to shame. It provides stirring images with strong emotional impacts that go a long way to illustrate the human condition. It also shows how amazingly resilient and optimistic children are despite all sorts of difficult circumstances. I highly recommend The First Man for a captivating account of a unique childhood that formed the intellect of one of the world’s most renowned writers of the 20th century.