Great Books: Albert Camus’ Le premier homme

Albert Camus' final work on his childhood and adolescence is the key to fully understanding his philosophy and politics.
camus premier homme
A still from the Italian film adaptation of Le premier homme, Il Primo Uomo. Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo.
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For most readers, Camus begins and ends with L’étranger, usually in the final years of secondary school. L’étranger is considered a good choice for 17-year-olds with a decent grasp of French for a) its famously simple, unnervingly simple, prose and b) the narrator’s apathetic despondency which is thought to resonate with people on the brink of adulthood realising that it may not be all it is cracked out to be. As a result, perceptions of Camus also end here, at a very teenaged moment of screaming at the sky.

But over the past two years, La peste has had a real revival, as readers compared their own situation to that of the inhabitants of the plague-ridden city of Oran. While this may have initially been a case of misery loving company, I imagine that most readers were unexpectedly heartened by this story, especially those who had flicked their way through L’Étranger beforehand. The novels are like two sides of the same coin: life is painfully and laughably cruel but what’s to be done about it? Nothing, give up, replies L’étranger, the best you can, replies La peste

A couple of things guided Camus’s writing to this point, the war and his participation in the Resistance certainly, but his craft was always likely to develop in this way. By the early 1940s, Camus had consciously divided his work into three cycles, each with a flagship novel: the first is the Absurd with L’étranger, the next is Revolt and the relentless heroism of La peste and the final cycle was supposed to be Love, but was never completed.

Who knows where Camus’ cycles and stages would have taken us if it weren’t for his death in 1960. Perhaps if he had decided to get the train back from Lourmarin instead of hopping into Michel Gallimard’s sports car and crashing into a plane tree he would have exceeded this planned trinity of movements. At 46, he had a good few books, essays and plays still in him. He had the start of a novel in the boot of the car alone, a book which he had unashamedly predicted would be his finest work, his War and Peace, and the novel to tie up his final Love cycle.

Le premier homme amounted to 144 handwritten pages on the childhood and adolescence of a French-Algerian man named Jacques Cormery. Cormery’s life however, resembles that of the author so much that he may as well have been called Albert Camus. The suitcase containing Cormery/Camus’ life was found in the mud following the fatal crash and was left relatively untouched for three decades. Camus’ literary, philosophical, and political reputation had taken a fair bashing leading up to his death and his family and publishers were reluctant to stoke any more bad press. 

By the 1990s however, Camus had been vindicated on several counts. At a time when lauding the radicalism of the USSR was the height of fashion amongst the French intelligentsia with Sartre spearheading the trend, Camus decried its totalitarianism and its human rights abuses. He mocked Soviet supporters’ ‘decision to call total servitude freedom’ and by the mid-nineties, few in the Western world would disagree with his derision.

When it came to the second hot-topic issue of his era, Algeria, Camus’ moderate stance supporting the equal rights of Algerian natives but also the right of the European Pieds-Noirs to remain in Algeria earnt him enemies on both sides. He dreamt of an Algeria where Europeans and Algerians lived alongside each other in mutual respect and peace, but he struggled to square the circle that few French and fewer Algerians wanted this. He became bitterly disappointed by this impossible situation and, should he have lived longer, he would have become even more so: after Algeria won its independence two years after Camus’ death, almost all of the Pieds-Noirs fled. But by the 1990s, Algeria had fallen into an especially ugly civil war filled with terrorist attacks and assassinations. While certainly flawed, I imagine many found Camus’ suggestion of harmonious co-habitation a favourable alternative. And so, in the early 1990s, Camus’ daughter Catherine finished the process of transcribing the messy, unpunctuated pages found in her father’s trunk and published them in 1994.

The book is clearly a work in progress, the name of Jacques’ uncle changes half-way through, many words proved unintelligible to Catherine despite her diligent efforts, and the plot is not quite firm enough or long enough to resemble a finished product. But even in its unfinished state, Le premier homme is the key to unlocking Camus and his philosophy. 

Jacques’ father (like Camus’ and so many others) was killed in the First World War and buried in a far-off field. Growing up in the sparseness of poverty with a deaf and illiterate mother, a mute uncle and a tyrannical grandmother, all memory of Jacques’ father is lost. Any connection to a family history had been severed: when the past is an oblivion, ‘each one is the first man’. 

The first section of the book ‘Recherche du père’ is an attempt to fill this void of memory. In the second chapter, Cormery travels to his father’s grave only to find it housing a man much younger than he is, ‘an unjustly murdered child’. The realisation that he, the son, is far older than his father floods him with an absurd anguish. He then visits the village where he was born, trying to find some answers there. Instead, he hears of another bloody, absurd conflict, this time played out between the colonising French and the native Arabs. A fellow Pied-Noir tells him ‘what we’ve done here is criminal’. Another acts as a mouthpiece for Camus’ dashed hopes for Algeria: ‘We will continue to kill each other, cut each other’s balls off, torture each other. Then we’ll start living together again. It’s the country that wants it’. Cormery’s/Camus’ passionate love and faith in Algeria, paired with his disgust at how his people came to settle there adds another dimension to his identity crisis.

Emerging out of this ugly mess, little Jacques has no familial, historical nor patriotic values to lead him. Instead, he must ‘learn on his own, grow up on his own […] and find his morality and truth on his own.’ The rest of the book ‘Le fils’ tells of how he does this: partly through the determination of revolt, but mainly through the relief brought about by love.

Love rises up in many forms: love for his gang of scrappy friends, love for the sea they swim in, the football they play and the greasy chips they share. Love for his silent mother, his vivacious, incomprehensible uncle and even his bullying grandmother. Love for school, his wonderful teacher, and the arduous tram journey through Algiers to and from it. When setting off to write this book, Camus said that he hoped it would be ‘heavy with things and flesh’. The story is rich, certainly but rather than weighing down the narrative, Camus’ dive into sensuality cast light onto his prose which had previously been so blank and thick with philosophical implications.

In this way and, in so many other ways, the work is a mirror image to L’étranger: while Meursault is indifferent to his mother, Jacques, reveres his. Meursault murders an Arab man for want of something better to do. Meanwhile, Jacques lives among them in a working-class neighbourhood, delighting in their sweets and playing with their children. L’étranger ends with a young man’s execution while Le premier homme finishes on a note of ecstatic triumph: Jacques has brought home his first pay cheque and asserted himself against his grandmother, he’s kissed a girl, he’s not only been admitted to the prestigious lyceum but been given a prize, he’s been selected to be the goalkeeper of his school’s football team— the position Camus played in his own youth with, according to match reports, great passion and courage.

While outshined by the adolescent angst of L’étranger and the unnerving timelessness of La pesteLe premier homme is the true Camus novel. Disparagingly, Sartre once called Camus ‘a kind of schoolteacher, worthless in philosophy’, a statement which proves somewhat ironic upon reading Camus’ final work. He began writing Le premier homme in response to winning the Nobel Prize for literature, to his enormous surprise. Upon winning, he wrote to his schoolteacher, Louis Germain, who helped him obtain a scholarship to the lyceum. Their correspondence is usually included in the book’s appendix, as a means of showing its likely origins. Dated a few days after winning the prize, Camus wrote to his teacher saying that upon hearing the news ‘my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.’ Camus’ ultimate lesson is uncomplicated: the lack of a father (both earthly and heavenly) frees us to shape our own meaning, rules, and priorities. In the final full chapter he likely ever wrote, Camus suggests his reader ought to use this to pursue nothing ‘but only joy, free spirits, and energy and all that life has that is good, that is mysterious and that is not and never will be for sale’. This lesson is obvious and natural to a child left to their own devices, and the reader finds it within Camus’ own childhood, not in the philosophical extremes of his other works.

Eve Webster

Eve Webster is Editorial Assistant at Engelsberg Ideas.

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