Camus tells the story of Jacques Cormery, a boy who lived a life much like his own. Camus summons up the sights, sounds and textures of a childhood circumscribed by poverty and a father's death yet redeemed by the austere beauty of Algeria and the boy's attachment to his nearly deaf-mute mother. Published thirty-five years after its discovery amid the wreckage of the car accident that killed Camus, The First Man is the brilliant consummation of the life and work of one of the 20th century's greatest novelists. Translated from the French by David Hapgood.
"The First Man is perhaps the most honest book Camus ever wrote, and the most sensual...Camus is...writing at the depth of his powers...It is a work of genius."The New Yorker
"Fascinating...The First Man helps put all of Camus's work into a clearer perspective and brings into relief what separates him from the more militant literary personalities of his day...Camus's voice has never been more personal."New York Times Book Review
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About the Author
Born in Algeria in 1913, Albert Camus published The Stranger now one of the most widely read novels of this century in 1942. Celebrated in intellectual circles, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. On January 4, 1960, he was killed in a car accident.
Read an Excerpt
Intercessor: Widow Camus
To you who will never be able to read this book
Above the wagon rolling along a stony road, big thick clouds were hurrying to the East through the dusk. Three days ago they had inflated over the Atlantic, had waited for a wind from the West, had set out, slowly at first then faster and faster, had flown over the phosphorescent autumn waters, straight to the continent, had unraveled on the Moroccan peaks, had gathered again in flocks on the high plateaus of Algeria, and now, at the approaches to the Tunisian frontier, were trying to reach the Tyrrhenian Sea to lose themselves in it. After a journey of thousands of kilometers over what seemed to be an immense island, shielded by the moving waters to the North and to the South by the congealed waves of the sands, passing scarcely any faster above this nameless country than had empires and peoples over the millennia, their momentum was wearing out and some already were melting into occasional large raindrops that were beginning to plop on the canvas hood above the four travelers.
The wagon was creaking over a route that was fairly well marked but had scarcely any surfacing. From time to time a spark would flash under a metal wheel rim or a horse's hoof, and a stone would strike the wood of the wagon or else would sink with a muted sound into the soft soil of the ditch. Meanwhile the two small horses moved steadily ahead, occasionally flinching a bit, their chests thrust forward to pull the heavy wagon, loaded with furniture, continuously putting the road behind them as they trotted along at different paces. One of them would now and then blow the air noisily from its nostrils, and would be thrown off its pace. Then the Arab who was driving would snap the worn reins flat on its back, and the beast would gamely pick up its rhythm.
The man who was on the front seat by the driver, a Frenchman about thirty, gazed with an impenetrable look at the two rumps moving rhythmically in front of him. He was of medium height, stocky, with a long face, a high square forehead, a strong jaw, and blue eyes. Though the season was well along, he wore a three-button duckcloth jacket, fastened at the neck in the style of that time, and a light pith helmet over his close-cut hair. When the rain began streaming across the canvas above them, he turned toward the inside of the vehicle: "Are you all right?" he shouted.
On a second seat, wedged between the first seat and a heap of old trunks and furniture, sat a woman who, though shabbily dressed, was wrapped in a coarse woolen shawl. She smiled feebly at him. "Yes, yes," she said, with a little gesture of apology. A small four-year-old boy slept leaning against her. She had a gentle look and regular features, a warm gaze in her brown eyes, a small straight nose, and the black wavy hair of a Spanish woman. But there was something striking about that face. Not only would fatigue or something similar momentarily mask its features; no, it was more like a faraway look, a look of sweet distraction, such as you always see on some simpletons, but which would burst out only fleetingly on the beauty of this face. The kindness of that gaze, which was so noticeable, would sometimes be joined by a gleam of unreasoning fear that would as instantly vanish. With the flat of her hand, already worn with work and somewhat gnarled at the joints, she tapped her husband's back: "It's all right, it's all right," she said. And immediately she stopped smiling to watch, from under the canvas top, the road where puddles were already beginning to shine.
The man turned to the Arab, placid in his turban with its yellow cords, his body made stouter by baggy pants with a roomy seat gathered above the calf. "Do we have much farther to go?"
The Arab smiled under his big white moustache. "Eight kilometers and you're there."
The man turned to look at his wife, not smiling yet attentive. She had kept her eyes on the road. "Give me the reins," the man said.
"As you wish,"said the Arab. He handed him the reins, and the man stepped across while the old Arab slipped under him to the place just vacated. With two slaps of the flat of the reins the man took over the horses, who picked up their trot and suddenly were pulling straighter. "You know horses," the Arab said.
The husband's reply was curt and unsmiling. "Yes," he said.
The light had dimmed and all at once night settled in. The Arab took the square lantern from its catch at his left and, turning toward the back, used several crude matches to light the candle inside it. Then he replaced the lantern. Now the rain was falling gently and steadily. It shone in the weak light of the lamp, and, all around, it peopled the utter darkness with its soft sound. Now and then the wagon skirted spiny bushes; small trees were faintly lit for a few seconds. But the rest of the time it rolled through an empty space made still more vast by the dark of night. The smell of burned grass, or, suddenly, the strong odor of manure, was all that suggested they were passing by land under cultivation. The wife spoke behind the driver, who held his horses in a bit and leaned back. "There are no people here," the wife said again.
"Are you afraid?"
The husband repeated the question, but this time he was shouting.
"No, no, not with you." But she seemed worried.
"You're in pain," the man said.
He urged his horses on, and once more all that filled the night were the heavy sounds of the wheels crushing ridges in the road and the eight shod hooves striking its surface.
It was a night in the fall of 1913. Two hours earlier the voyagers had left the railroad station in Bfine where they had arrived from Algiers after a journey of a night and a day on hard third-class benches. In the station they had found the wagon and the Arab waiting to take them to the farm located near a small village, about twenty kilometers into the interior of the country, where the husband was to take over the management. It had taken time to load the trunks and their few belongings, and then the bad road had delayed them still further. The Arab, as if aware of his companion's disquiet, said to him: "Have no fear. Here there are no bandits."
"They're everywhere," the man said. "But I have the necessary." And he slapped his tight pocket.
"You're right," said the Arab. "There's always madmen."
At that moment, the woman called her husband. "Henri," she said. "It hurts."
The man swore and pushed his horses a bit more. "We're getting there," he said. After a moment, he looked at his wife again. "Does it still hurt?"
She smiled at him with a strangely absent air, yet she did not seem to be suffering."Yes, a lot."
He continued to gaze gravely at her.
Again she apologized. "It's nothing. Maybe it's the train."
"Look," the Arab said, "the village." Indeed they could see, to the left of the road and a little farther on, the lights of Solférino blurred by the rain. "But you take the road to the right,"said the Arab.
The man hesitated, then turned to his wife. "Should we go to the house or the village?" he asked.
"Oh, to the house, that's better."
A bit farther, the vehicle turned to the right toward the unfamiliar house that awaited them. "Another kilometer," said the Arab.
"We're getting there," the man said, in the direction of his wife. She was bent over double, her face in her arms. "Lucie," the man said. She did not move. The man touched her with his hand. She was weeping silently. He shouted, stressing each syllable and acting out his words: "You are going to lie down there! I will go get the doctor!"
"Yes. Go get the doctor. I think this is it."
The Arab was watching them with surprise. "She's going to have a baby," the husband said. "Is there a doctor in the village?"
"Yes. I'll get him if you wish."
"No, you stay at the house. You keep watch. I'll go faster. Is there a small cart or a horse?"
"There's a cart."Then the Arab said to the wife, "You will have a boy. Let him be a fine one." The wife smiled at him without seeming to understand.
"She doesn't hear," the man said. "At the house, you'll have to shout out loud and make signs." Suddenly the wagon was rolling almost without sound over the chalky subsurface of tuff. The road was narrower now. It passed alongside some tiled sheds behind which could be seen the first rows of the vineyard. They were met by a strong smell of fermenting grapes. They passed some large buildings with high-pitched roofs, and the wheels flattened the slag of a yard where there were no trees. The Arab took the reins without speaking and pulled them in. The horses stopped, and one of them snorted. With his hand the Arab indicated a small whitewashed house. A creeping vine ran around a low door with a frame stained blue by copper sulfate. The man jumped to the ground and ran through the rain to the house. He opened the door. It led to a dark room which smelled of an empty hearth. The Arab, who was following him, walked straight through the dark to the fireplace, and, scraping an ember, lit a kerosene lamp that hung in the middle of the room over a round table. The man barely took time to notice that he was in a whitewashed kitchen with a sink of red ceramic tile, an old sideboard, and a sodden calendar on the wall. Stairs finished with the same red tiles led to the second floor. "Light the fire," he said, and he returned to the wagon. (He took the little boy?) The woman was waiting in silence. He took her in his arms to set her on the ground and, holding her close for a moment, he lifted her head. "Can you walk?"
"Yes, she said, and she stroked his arm with her worn hand.
He led her to the house. "Wait," he said.
The Arab had already lit the fire, and with skillful and precise motions he was stoking it with shoots of vine. She was standing near the table, hands on her belly, and now her handsome face turned up to the lamplight was crossed by brief waves of pain. She seemed to notice neither the dampness nor the odor of neglect and poverty. The man was busy in the rooms upstairs. Then he appeared at the head of the stairs. "There's no fireplace in the bedroom?"
"No," said the Arab. "Not in the other room either."
"Come," said the man. The Arab joined him, then reappeared, walking backwards, carrying a mattress that the husband was holding by the other end. They placed it next to the fireplace. The man pulled the table to a corner, while the Arab went back upstairs and soon returned with a bolster and blankets. "Lie down there," the man said to his wife, and he led her to the mattress.
She hesitated. Now they could smell the odor of damp hair rising from the mattress. "I can't undress," she said, looking around fearfully as if she were only now seeing the place.
"Take off what you have underneath,"the man said. And he repeated: "Take off your underwear." Then to the Arab: "Thanks. Unhitch a horse. I'll ride him to the village." The Arab went out. The wife went about her preparations, her back to her husband, who had also turned his back. Then she stretched out, and as soon she had done so, drawing the covers over her, she gave a single, long, full-throated howl, as if she wanted to rid herself at once of all the cries that pain had stored up in her. The man, standing by the mattress, let her cry; then, when she fell silent, he took off his pith helmet, put one knee to the ground, and kissed the fine forehead over her closed eyes. He put his hat on again and went out into the rain. The unhitched horse was turning its head, its front hooves planted in the slag. "I'll get a saddle," the Arab said.
"No, leave the reins on. I'll ride him like this. Take the trunks and the other things into the kitchen. Do you have a wife?"
"She died. She was old."
"Do you have a daughter?"
"No, God be thanked. But I have the wife of my son."
"Tell her to come."
"I'll do that. Go in peace."
The husband looked at the old Arab motionless in the fine rain and smiling at him under his wet moustache. He himself was still unsmiling, but he watched the Arab with his direct attentive gaze. Then he extended his hand. The other man took his hand in the Arab fashion, with the ends of his fingers, then lifted it to his lips. The husband turned, making the cinders crunch, strode to the horse, vaulted onto it bareback, and rode off at a lumbering trot.
As he left the property, the man headed toward the crossroads from which they had first seen the lights of the village. They were shining now with a more dazzling light, the rain had stopped falling and the road, to the right, that led toward the village was laid out straight through the vineyards where the trellis wires glistened here and there. About halfway, the horse slowed down to a walk. He was nearing a sort of rectangular shanty; one part was a room made of masonry, and a second, larger part was built of wooden planks. Projecting from this second part was a kind of counter with a big matting pulled down over it. On a door recessed in the masonry one could read: "Mme. Jacques's Farm Canteen." Light seeped under the door. The man stopped his horse right by the door, and knocked without dismounting. Immediately a firm resonant voice asked from inside, "What is it?"
"I'm the new manager of the Saint-Apétre property. My wife is giving birth. I need help."
No one answered. After a moment bolts were drawn, bars were lifted, then dragged away, and the door opened.
"My name is Henri Cormery. Can you go to be with my wife? I'm going to get the doctor."
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Albert Camus's The First Man. We hope they will give you a number of angles from which to approach this unfinished "autobiographical" novel by one of the twentieth century's most important literary figures.
1. The first chapter of this novel is different from the rest. In it, the author/narrator imaginatively re-creates the situation of his own birth, whereas elsewhere he works closely from memory. Does this chapter seem more "fictional" than the rest of the book, which can be seen as verging on memoir or autobiography?
2. One of the titles Camus considered was Adam. How would this title also be appropriate? How does the idea of the "first man" work throughout the novel, and how does it relate to Jacques's feelings about Algeria?
3. Jacques Cormery's visit to his father's grave is far more significant than he expects it will be. How is he changed by his realizations in the cemetery? What is the meaning of the "statue" [p. 26] he has erected of his adult self? How is Jacques himself suddenly placed in a different relationship to history that of France, that of Algeria, that of his own lineage by his visit to the cemetery? At this point, the novel becomes a search for a lost history and a missing person. What is at stake in this newly urgent search?
4. What is the role of memory in Jacques's effort to find his father? How does his mother's relationship to the past differ from his own? Discuss some of the ways in which scraps of information and details of his father's life, related to him by people who remember his father, become important. What sort of a person does he reconstruct from the story of his father's disgust at the mutilation of the sentries in the war in Morocco [pp. 64-66] and from the tale of his father's response to the execution of the murderer Pirette [pp. 81-82]? How does the shell fragment extricated from his father's head, stored in a biscuit tin, take on a more complex meaning?
5. Perhaps Jacques hasn't truly missed his father until his visit to the cemetery because he has had the good fortune to have had substitute fathers, Malan, Monsieur Bernard, and his Uncle Ernest. Why haven't these relationships ever fully taken the place of the father he has never known? How does Jacques's Uncle Ernest function as a very different sort of second father for the boy?
6. In the novel, how is the mother's identity fixed by the loss of her husband in the French forces in World War I? What happens when a potential lover enters the household? How does this episode express the forces of love and cruelty in the family?
7. In the opening chapter of the novel, Camus demonstrates some ambivalence about the presence or absence of a brother four years older than his fictional self, Jacques Cormery. Do you find it strange that the brother, though often mentioned as the narrative progresses, doesn't play a larger role in the story? Do you think that Camus would have decided at a later point of composition to take the brother out of the story altogether, or to make him a more important character?
8. Camus once wrote, "For me honor in the world is found among the oppressed, not those who hold power." How does Jacques's victory over Munoz in the schoolyard fight illustrate an early example of this moral vision? How does Jacques's theft of the two-franc piece (and his grandmother's attempted recovery of it) affect his understanding of the family's economic situation, and his own betrayal of the family? In another situation in which his grandmother plays a major part, Jacques is forced to lie in order to get a summer job. Why is this particular act of loyalty to the family's economy so difficult for him?
9. Jacques Cormery lives in a household in which he is the only one who reads. Household objects have humble, common names, if any at all, whereas Jacques discovers that in other homes "you ate off the Quimper dinner service" [p. 60]. He grows up speaking French, the language of colonial power in Algeria, yet his people are as powerless as the indigenous Arabs. How does Camus develop the theme of the family's relationship to language, to speaking, and to silence? How is all this connected to Camus's larger themes about freedom and intellectual life?
10. According to Jacques, poverty extends itself not only to language but also to memory. Thinking about his mother's clouded memory, Jacques reflects that "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 gray and featureles...Remembrance of things past is just for the rich" [p. 80]. Is memory a luxury? Is the cherishing of the past only for those with the leisure to dwell upon it? Could Jacques himself live a life without memory? How does his own desire to recapture his childhood and his father's life contradict his statement?
11. As Camus was writing The First Man, Algeria was in the throes of revolution. How is the Arab presence felt in Camus's novel? When Camus sees Algeria as "the land of oblivion," is it only the experience of the colonists, or pieds noirs, in the land that he speaks of, or does he include the Arab peoples as well? Is the co-existence of the Arab and immigrant communities felt in the novel, or do the two seem entirely segregated? How, if at all, do you think Camus might have developed the matter of the Algerian revolution in a finished version of the novel?
12. Notice the distinction between the descriptions of the weather, the landscape, and the architectural environment in the first and second chapters the first takes place in Algeria, "this nameless country" [p. 3], the second in northern France, "a land that for centuries had been cultivated to the last square meter" [p. 20]. See also pages 40-41 for a more extended comparison of Jacques Cormery's thoughts about France and Africa. How do Jacques's responses to weather, to landscape, and to buildings express different feeling states in him about his two conflicting national identities Algerian and French? Where does he feel that his true identity lies?
13. Camus chooses to use a very smooth method of moving in and out of the past. How do you experience the handling of time in this novel? Note some of the places where the shifts into the past occur, and where time returns to the "present," in which Jacques Cormery is forty years old. Do you feel that Camus's use of time is effective?
14. Do you experience The First Man as a work of fiction or as a memoir? How would you describe the mode of narration? Is the narrator omniscient, or does the narrator have access only to the thoughts and memory of Jacques? Do the appendix, the marginal notes, the switching from real to fictional names, the plans for further development, etc., disturb your immersion in the work as fiction? Do they, on the other hand, help you to feel engaged in Camus's writing process and in the evolution of a novel in progress?
15. Many readers comparing The First Man to Camus's other writing are struck by his departure in this book from his habit of emotional reticence. In her introduction, his daughter expresses the opinion that Camus would have toned down the directness of the emotional expression, and hence his own degree of personal exposure. And Camus wrote to his wife that the draft of his book was very autobiographical, but would be "less so" in its final version. Do you feel that Camus is too close to his subject, and that a greater emotional distance from his own fictionalized life would have improved the novel? Or, on the other hand, do you think that any such distancing tactics would have seriously diminished the novel's power?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
When Albert Camus met his tragic end in an automobile accident in 1960, he left behind this unfinished manuscript. His wife, Francine, decided its incomplete state, with lots of marginalia, notes, and interleaved sheets, would tarnish her husband¿s reputation, so she decided against publication. When Francine died, responsibility for Camus¿ literary estate fell to his daughter Catherine. She struggled with the decision, and rejected the idea of destroying the manuscript of about 144 pages with little or no punctuation, and with only the barest evidence of any revision. In the 1990s, at the urging of some scholars, she agreed to publication. The English translation appeared in 1995. I, for one, offer a most hearty thanks to Catherine for her decision.This highly autobiographic novel offers many insights into the formative years of Camus. The death of his father -- when he barely passed his first birthday -- his strict upbringing by his timid mother who deferred to his martinet of a grandmother, to his early education and rescue from a life of poverty by a beloved teacher who recommended him for a scholarship to the lycée, and ultimately to his search for information about his father, appear with a warmth and nostalgia I have not experienced in any of Camus¿ other works.In fact, so many things in his early life strike me as startlingly familiar. For example, on his vacation, young Jacques Cormery frequently visits the local library,¿Thursday was also the day Jacques and Pierre would go to the public library. Jacques had always devoured any books that came to hand, and he consumed them with the same appetite he felt for living, playing, or dreaming. But reading enabled him to escape into a world of innocence where wealth and poverty were equally interesting because both were utterly unreal...illustrated stories that he and his friends passed around until the board binding was gray and rough and the pages dog-eared and torn, was the first to transport him to a world of comedy or heroism where his two basic appetites for joy and courage were satisfied¿ (244).Jacques sets off for the lycée with the encouragement of a beloved teacher, and he experiences an epiphany similar to that used by James Joyce in the last paragraph of the Dubliners story, ¿Araby.¿ Jacques and Joyce¿s young boy realized they are on the edge of new experiences and are about to put their childhoods behind them.The manuscript has numerous passages with a bit of awkwardness, and footnotes hint at Camus¿ indecision about diction or deletion, inclusion, or expansion of some information for the final version of the novel. But he deals with all the major issues found in all his works ¿ life, death, religion, punishment, colonialism, prejudice, and family relationships. Camus always makes me think about all these topics.If you are unfamiliar with Camus, this novel is the perfect place to start ¿ a literary and philosophical buffet of his life and beliefs. The First Man represents a most important addition to the literary canon of existentialism. 5 stars--Jacques, 7/17/10
A great autobiography. I read for my English class, very intriguing and keeps you reading. This is one book you do not want to miss. The details and events are striking!