Something Royal

John Sturrock

  • Le Premier homme by Albert Camus
    Gallimard, 331 pp, frs 110.00, April 1994, ISBN 2 07 073827 2

It is all but thirty-five years since Albert Camus was killed, when the Facel Vega sports car in which he was a passenger went off the road between Sens and Paris. Among his things was found Le Premier homme, the manuscript he had been working on for nearly a year at the time of the accident and on which there was still some way to go. Only now are we given it to read. It is extraordinary that it should have taken so long, disappointing that there should be no editorial word in the current edition to explain why. It’s not as if the book is so underweight that Camus’s reputation will shrink as a result of it, nor does it show him in any ugly new light personally or philosophically. Le Premier homme runs as a continuous text to some two hundred and sixty pages, and should do his reputation more good than harm – especially with those of us who always found L’Etranger and La Peste more stilted than persuasive in their death-defying humanism. Le Premier homme, too, has its stilted moments but they are more than offset by an uncharacteristically mundane account of Camus’s childhood in his native Algiers.

The publisher’s description on the cover calls this a ‘novel’, a ‘great novel’ indeed. Great it isn’t; nor is there much to be gained by thinking of it as a novel. Few will read it as that; rather, they will take Le Premier homme to be the great writer’s honest, confirmatory look back, in his mid-forties, at the straitened colonial boyhood he long ago emerged from. A success story. Except that this great writer would like us to believe that his literary success has been as nothing, because it has meant a deep betrayal of his origins. Like all autobiography, Le Premier homme has a case to put, it is a skewed look back at the past. Camus has chosen to afford himself some light protection – Camusflage? – by changing most of the names: the family is no longer called Camus but Cormery, and Albert has given way to Jacques. These aliases don’t quite hold throughout: Jacques’s widowed mother, who is sometimes Lucie and sometimes Catherine, Camus’s mother’s real name, on one page becomes the Veuve Camus, and on another the primary schoolmaster who was the principal agent of his eventual déracinement, reverts from Bernard to his real name of Germain.

With revision these tiny backslidings from fiction to fact would have been corrected, and Le Premier homme been much rewritten no doubt by Camus, with his habitual fussiness. How fortunate, then, that he wasn’t able to rewrite it, because here for once he is writing freely, and on the whole simply, not complicating his prose as he too often did in an urge to increase its specific gravity. The manuscript was drafted in obvious haste: we have his daughter’s word for that in the few lines of Preface she has provided for the book. Haste was normally foreign to Camus when he was writing; but so was the intimate subject-matter he is calling up here. His freedom of manner is suited to the urgency of this return to his youth, to the sparse, unfailingly authentic setting of his Algerian family. Just before he started on Le Premier homme, in 1958, Camus wrote a new Preface for the reissue of his first book, L’Envers et l’endroit. In it he talks of trying now to rediscover his lost ‘centre’: ‘If, in spite of all my efforts to construct a language and to make myths live, I do not succeed one day in re-writing L’Envers et l’endroit, I shall not have succeeded in anything, that is my obscure conviction.’ L’Envers et l’endroit contains a short piece called ‘Entre oui et non’ that is to do with the alienated Camus thinking and feeling his way back into his childhood home, in an act of what he calls ‘repatriation’. To that extent, Le Premier homme is a re-writing of the earlier book; or better, a de-writing of it, a much fuller ‘repatriation’ by which Camus hoped to write his way back across the Mediterranean Sea, and so close the divide that had opened between the fêted, hyper-articulate man in Paris and the obscure, almost wordless household in which he had been raised.

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