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The First Man ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (45)

    It is better to be wrong by killing no one than to be right with mass graves.
           -Albert Camus

This unfinished autobiographical novel comes to us nearly forty years after Camus died in a car crash, because, as his daughter explains in her introduction, his wife and friends were afraid to publish it at the time of his death.  They feared that it would make an easy target for the increasingly numerous critics of Camus, who had gone from being an icon of the left, winning the Nobel Prize in 1957, to being a pariah, because of his principled stand on two issues: first, he refused to turn a blind eye to the Gulag and denounced the totalitarian methods of the Soviet Union; second, he refused to go along with the Algeria-for-the-Arabs climate of the times, calling instead for a sharing of power between natives and European colonists.  In addition, the preoccupation with morality in his writings struck the intellectuals of his day as antiquated and quaint.  Publishing a fragmentary work would have invited attacks on his already sliding reputation by a literary class which had turned on him for these myriad political reasons.

The novel, which was actually found in the wreckage of his car, would indeed have been greeted with hoots and catcalls by the Left.  It is the most sentimental and personal of all his works.  The story of Jacques Cormery's return to Algeria and his reflections on his coming of age is filled with inchoate longing, for the Algeria of his youth, for the Father who died when he was just a child, for the love of a beautiful but deaf and distant Mother and for a moral code by which to live.  It brilliantly evokes a distinct place and time and the happy memories of a difficult childhood.  There are numerous vignettes that earn a place in memory--from the disappointment of winning a schoolyard brawl "vanquishing a man is as bitter as being vanquished", to the embarrassment of reading movie subtitles aloud to his illiterate grandmother.  Taken on its own terms, the novel is a classic tale of youth and moral development.  And in terms of our understanding of the mature Camus, it goes a long way to explaining the sense of alienation which pervades all of his other writings.

His failure to toe the politically correct line is most evident in his treatment of the incipient Arab uprising.  Here is what a French farmer tells his employees after he plows under his own farm:

    The Arab workers were waiting for him in the yard..."Boss, what are we going to do?"

    If I were in your shoes, the old man said, "I'd go join the guerillas.  They're going to win.  There're
    no men left in France."

Not exactly a sentiment that's designed to ingratiate the author with either of the fanatic Wings of French politics, Left nor Right.

But ultimately, the book is most important for the way in which it illuminates the author's life long attempt to craft a moral structure that will obtain despite his belief that life is finite, directionless and fundamentally pointless.  The course of the Century has seen morality reduced to a bourgeois, conservative concern.  An author, theoretically of the Left, who was so concerned with morality, was, and would still be today, a complete anachronism.  The fact that sentiments like the epigraph above (It is better to be wrong by killing no one than to be right with mass graves.) were sufficient to earn him the enmity of the intellectual elites of his day, is indicative of the degree to which the Left has abandoned any pretense of moral reasoning, in favor of an orientation towards politically desirable results, regardless of the means used to arrive at those ends.

The Myth of Sisyphus is the central metaphor of existentialism in the writings of Camus (see Orrin's review).  Sisyphus was one of the Titans and, for his rebellion against the Gods, he was sentenced to roll an enormous boulder up a hill.  Every day the boulder would roll back to the bottom and he would have to start over again.  Camus used this senseless, unproductive task to symbolize all of human existence.  Man is trapped in a life which never achieves anything, has no meaning beyond mere existence and leaves no aftereffects upon his death.

It is ironic then that this greatest philosopher of existentialism, a life denying theory which inevitably leads to the Death Camps, should have written this beautifully life affirming work.  As his daughter says in her intro, Camus would never have published such an open and honest novel, he would have masked his personal feelings.  We are lucky he never got the chance, because what survives here, in a raw unfinished form, is his best work--a story which demonstrates that life is not tragic but rather that even a brutally difficult life of emotional isolation and grinding poverty can produce a great man like Albert Camus.  That a life which seemingly illustrates his dictum about the harsh senseless nature of existence, should forge a man of such adamantium moral rectitude and that he, in this most revelatory work, should look back on those years with so much love and nostalgia, for me at least, puts the lie to the theory that existence consists of little more than Sisyphiphean despair and endurance.

There is nothing absurd or desperate about the life that he portrays here; his accidental honesty provides an overwhelming argument against the very philosophy he espoused.  And the capacity of even his impoverished and ignorant family to forge a Camus and the enduring influence of both his writing and the example that he set by speaking important truths demonstrates that man is capable of progress, indeed is continually making progress.  France, a nation with much to be ashamed of, should be especially embarrassed that the best work of its best philosopher had to await the fall of Communism before friends and family felt that his reputation could withstand the revelation of this masterpiece.  But then again, the fact that it can safely be published now is another sign of progress.


Grade: (A+)


Albert Camus Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Albert Camus
    -LETTER: 21 January (1948): Albert Camus to Jean Grenier
    -ESSAY: What Albert Camus’s The Stranger Says About Our Contemporary Anxieties: Kate Christensen on Finding Inspiration in the Existentialist Classic (Kate Christensen, November 30, 2023, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Camus and the Crisis of the West: The Rebel considers what happens when human beings are unwilling to live within the limits placed on them by the cosmos. (Graham Mcaleer, 8/18/23, Law & Liberty)
    -ESSAY: Albert Camus on suicide, absurdity, and the meaning of life: Albert Camus was a Franco-Algerian philosopher with some great insights on the meaning of life, why you should look to this life and not the next, and why suicide is a poor choice. (Scotty Hendricks, 3/20/23, Big Think)
    -ESSAY: Orwell, Camus and truth: On honesty as an attitude (William Fear, 12 March, 2023, The Critic)
    -ESSAY: Camus’s Atheism and the Virtues of Inconsistency (Craig DeLancey, 1/21/20, Culturico)
    -ESSAY: Influencing the Young Albert Camus: Perspectives on Jean Grenier (Jesse Mosqueda, January 3, 2017, Fragments of History)
    -ESSAY: Is Human Suffering Metaphysical Or Mundane? (Dwight Furrow, 1/23/23, 3 Quarks)
    -ESSAY: The philosopher who resisted despair: Albert Camus and the search for solace in a cruel age. (Sean Illing, May 28, 2022, Vox)
    -ESSAY: Is It Ironic That Life Is Absurd? (Tim Sommers, 5/16/22, 3 Quarks)
    -ESSAY: Can France resist tribalism?: Albert Camus agonised over his divided country (BOYD TONKIN, 1/02/22, UnHerd)
    -VIDEO: Camus: The Madness of Sincerity
    -PODCAST: Camus (Melvyn Bragg, 8/11/19, BBC In Our Time)
    -VIDEO: Albert Camus: The Madness of Sincerity — 1997 Documentary Revisits the Philosopher’s Life & Work (Open Culture, November 30th, 2014)
-ESSAY: Without God or Reason: Albert Camus faced the human condition with clarity. (Morten Høi Jensen, January 6, 2021, Commonweal)
    -ESSAY: On Albert Camus’s Legendary Postwar Speech at Columbia University: “The years we have gone through have killed something in us.” (Robert Meagher, November 10, 2021, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Who are You Calling an Existentialist?! in “Albert Camus and the Human Crisis” (ROSS COLLIN, NOVEMBER 3, 2021, Chicago Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Of course Albert Camus was a goalkeeper. (Emily Temple, February 16, 2021, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Without God or Reason: Albert Camus faced the human condition with clarity. (Morten Høi Jensen, December 24, 2020, Commonweal)
    -ESSAY: Reading Camus in Time of Plague and Polarization: The French Algerian writer steadfastly defended democracy and humanity against dogmatic ideologies of all stripes. We need to read and reread him today. (MUGAMBI JOUET, 12/07/20, Boston Review)
    -ESSAY: How Camus and Sartre split up over the question of how to be free: If the idea of freedom bound Camus and Sartre philosophically, then the fight for justice united them politically. (SAM DRESSER, 19 July, 2020, Big Think)
    -ESSAY: Camus and the Neo-Cons: More in Common Than They Might Suspect (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, February 7, 2004, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Albert Camus: Camus has overtaken Sartre to become the popular hero of existentialism. Now even his views on Algeria have outgrown Sartre (Paul Barker, December 2003, The Prospect)
    -ESSAY: Camus as Conservative: A post 9/11 reassessment of the work of Albert Camus (Murray Soupcoffm, Iconoclast)
    -ESSAY: To be a man: Albert Camus' vision in The Plague was bleak, but his study in terrorism is also a fable of redemption (Marina Warner, April 26, 2003, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: 'This one's had a good start born in the middle of a move.': This is how Albert Camus, alias Jacques Cormery in the novel, was born - Camus called it his War and Peace, but after he was killed his friends suppressed the First Man for fear it would undermine his reputation. Antoine De Gaudemar of Libération on the novel held back for 34 years (Antoine de Gaudemar, April 16, 1994, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Personal Writing by Albert Camus (Robert Zaretsky, LA Review of Books)
    -POEM: Death and the Sun: An original poem from 1986 (Derek Mahon, Times Literary Supplement)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Albert Camus (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "albert camus"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Guide to the Nobel Prizes : Albert Camus
    -Albert Camus--Nobel Laureate for Literature 1957 (Nobel eMuseum)
    -Albert Camus (Nobel Prize Internet Archive)
    -Nobel Acceptance Speech
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: Albert Camus (NY Times Book Review)
    -existentialism and Albert Camus (Katharena Eiermann, Realms of Existentialism)
    -A Page About Albert Camus
    -An Albert Camus Page
    -Albert Camus (1913-1960)
    -Albert Camus Critical Interpretation Page
    -Existential Frames: Existentialism: An Introduction
    -The Notebook on Albert Camus
    -A Page About Albert Camus
    -Albert Camus (1913-1960) (Bohemian Ink)
    -Albert Camus (Timothy Leuers)
    -Annotated Existentialism Links
    -ETEXT: The Myth of Sysiphus by Albert Camus
    -ESSAY: The Absurd Hero (Bob Lane)
    -ARTICLE: Camus's Last Work, a First Draft, Shows His Life and His Style (ALAN RIDING, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Classic French Novel Is 'Americanized' (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: SISYPHUS IN ORWELL'S DECADE (Gunter Grass, NY Times Book Review)
    -ARCHIVE: "Camus" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: THE FIRST MAN By Albert Camus Translated by David Hapgood (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: THE FIRST MAN By Albert Camus. Translated by David Hapgood (Victor Brombert, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  Le premier homme by Albert Camus (Tony Judt, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Albert Camus, Le premier homme   The Last Camus (David Cook, ctheory)
    -s o l i t a i r e   e t  s o l i d a i r e  Russell Wilkinson talks to  Catherine Camus about Albert Camus' The First Man (Spike)
    -REVIEW: of The Stranger (Paul M. Willenberg, Senior Honors English, The Overlake School)
    -REVIEW: of 'The Plague' by Albert Camus (Stephen Spender, NY Times Book Review, August 1, 1948)
    -ESSAY: Sickness Unto Life (James Wood, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of  A Happy Death by Albert Camus (John Weightman, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Notebooks 1942-1951 by Albert Camus (Paul de Man, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Notebooks, 1935-42 by Albert Camus (Susan Sontag, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of ALBERT CAMUS A Life By Olivier Todd Translated by Benjamin Ivry (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of CAMUS By Patrick McCarthy (Peter Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of ALBERT CAMUS A Life By Olivier Todd. Translated by Benjamin Ivry  (Isabelle de Courtivron, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Albert Camus: A Life by Olivier Todd (John Weightman, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Camus by Patrick McCarthy (Frederick Brown, NY Review of Books)

    -The Notebook  for Contemporary Continental Philosophy
    -REVIEW: of Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 by Tony Judt (John Weightman, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY:  Idealism and Its Critic (John Bayley, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Summing Up Sartre (John Weightman, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Sartre's Cage (Stuart Hampshire, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: The Deadly Sins/Despair; The One Unforgivable Sin (Joyce Carol Oates, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE BLOODY CROSSROADS Where Literature and Politics Meet. By Norman Podhoretz (Cynthia Ozick, NY Times Book Review)