Making sense of a life

This is my review of The First Man (Penguin Modern Classics) by Albert Camus.

If possible, this is best read in French to appreciate fully Camus’ writing.

When forty-year-old Jacques visits his father’s grave, he is taken aback by the realisation that he was only twenty-nine, far younger than his son is now, when killed in the First World War. The compulsion to find out more about his father takes Jacques back to Algiers where he was brought up, but the visit fails to provide many clues as to what his parent was really like. Jacques realises that he will never know his father, who will remain a mystery resulting from his poverty, being one of the anonymous masses despatched in waves to develop North African territory between the sea and the vast expanses of desert. So Jacques must be self-sufficient, “le premier homme”, learning to grow up without a sense of roots and recollections from the past.

The book develops as a moving account of Jacques’ childhood in a close-knit but impoverished family, starved of opportunity, lacking books, newspapers, even a radio, too busy in the struggle to survive to communicate much or reflect life. He craves the affection of his widowed mother who is clearly proud of him, but cannot express her emotions. Isolated by her deafness and illiteracy which means she can only earn a living as a cleaner and washerwoman, the nearest she gets to escape is to sit by the window, watching the world go by. A brief attempt at romance is destroyed when her brother beats up the suitor who threatens the family unit. Jacques’ formidable grandmother’s belief in character- building includes sending him out at the night to catch a chicken in the coop before forcing him to watch its execution. At thirteen, he is denied the pleasures of roaming free in his summer holidays by her insistence on his earning money in the accounts office of a hardware store.

At first I was disappointed to find that this fictionalised autobiography of Albert Camus, in which he sometimes reverts to the characters’ original names, is incomplete – an unedited stream of conscience found at the scene of his fatal car crash, a draft which so dissatisfied him that he intended to burn it. My initial impressions were of a disjointed, often banal and indigestible read, with long sentences in interminable paragraphs of I counted up to eight pages.

I became hooked at the point where Jacques is taken under the wing of primary school teacher M. Bernard, the father figure when he needed one, who sees the boy’s potential and goes out of his way to prepare him for the entrance exam for the lycée, his escape route from a life of grinding poverty, not to mention charming the boy’s grandmother into letting him continue his studies when he could be contributing to the family’s meagre earnings. It is fascinating to see how schools have changed: overhearing Jacques called a “teacher’s pet”, M.Bernard readily admits this, announcing it is the least he can do for comrades killed in the war to favour one of their deserving offspring. When, as honour among pupils requires, Jacques beats up the boy who has mocked him, and the parents complain, Jacques is mortified to be forced to stand in the corner of the school yard for a week with his back to the ball games he loves. M. Bernard sidles up and gives him permission to look across to where the other boy is being punished in the same way.

There are wonderful descriptions of the oppressive, prolonged heat of Algiers in the long summer months, suggesting the germ of the idea for “L’Étranger”, or the joys of childhood, as when Jacques brandishes a palm branch to revel in the feeling of the wind vibrating through his body. A recurring background theme is the effect of colonisation where a centralised French cultural curriculum is imposed without any concessions, together with the uneasy relationship between Arabs and residents of French origin. Also, Jacques’ intense introspection, examining issues from all angles foreshadows Camus’s philosophical writing in later life, as in “La Chute”. In short, this book is not only a vivid portrayal of the life of a bright but emotionally repressed boy in a poverty-stricken but close-knit family, but also a key to the literary works which brought the author fame and criticism.

It repays rereading to tease out the mass of insights and ideas. Invaluable for any student of Camus and his work, the power of its spontaneous flow compensates to some extent for the lack of editing.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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