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.

Le Premier homme is then, by Camus’s standards, a plainly conceived book: it aims self-consciously at the lyrical only once, and in a revealing connection (of which more in a moment). You might say that this was to have been his version of Les mots, the book that Sartre disingenuously claimed was his ‘farewell to fine writing’: the book by which the guilty élitist would purge himself of his élitism and throw in his lot with the anonymous masses. Camus had a deeper reason to throw in his lot with those masses than ever Sartre did. Sartre was a bourgeois, root and branch; Camus was not, he was an oddity, an intellectual on the liberal left who had actually been born into the proletariat. So where Sartre was required by his ideology to disown his origins, Camus could lay claim to virtue in espousing his. Les Mots is a cruel and witty book, without a good word to say about the institution of the family. Le Premier homme is the reverse: it has only good words to say about the family – words too good, in the end, to be believed.

Le Premier homme is a fulsome act of restitution performed by Camus to the mother from whom he had long before become radically separated in both physical and mental space. The dedication is to the ‘V[eu]ve Camus. A toi qui ne pourras jamais lire ce livre.’ The book itself begins with an account of Jacques Cormery’s birth in rural Algeria, in 1913, a mixture, let’s suppose, of how Camus imagined that inaugural event and what he had been told about it by others. That much is faction; what follows is memory. Jacques is making one of his regular visits from Paris to his mother in Algiers, having just, for the first time and at her request, been to Brittany to visit the grave of his father. Exactly like Camus’s real father, Henri Cormery had been mobilised in the opening weeks of the First World War and fatally wounded on the Marne, when his son was only a few months old. At the graveside, Jacques realises, first, that he is now ten years older than his father was when he was killed, that the ‘natural order’ has been overturned when a son can be older than his father; and then, that ‘he can’t invent a piety he doesn’t feel’ towards a father whom he never knew.

There is a touch of the Meursaults about this, of the young man who, in L’Etranger, instead of putting on a show of grief after his mother’s funeral, has sex with his girl and goes with her to the cinema to see a Fernandel farce. This refusal to invent a piety he can’t feel does Meursault no good: once he is on trial for murder, it is brought up as evidence of his ruthless nature and plays as much part as the crime itself in getting him sentenced to death. Interesting, that in Le Premier homme it should be a dead father and no longer a dead mother who evokes the same troublesome lack of response. For when it comes to his mother, Cormery is everything that the indifferent Meursault wasn’t: he shows her nothing but piety, with an insistence that not only comes to grate but raises questions as to what Camus is up to (and what he was up to in L’Etranger, too).

Catherine Cormery is now seventy years old, able for the first time in forty years to live without working thanks to the money she gets from her sons. As a war-widow on an insufficient pension she had been obliged to go out and clean in order to bring up her children. She has worked, something that for Camus was of the utmost importance – one remembers the motto of the self-effacingly heroic Doctor Rieux in La Peste: ‘Il faut faire son métier.’ (Rieux had also been born into the working-class and could only ever in consequence take the side, he said, of life’s victims.) Catherine has worked selflessly, but it doesn’t show. Jacques finds her ‘beautiful’, and remembers the ‘desperate’ love he had felt for her as a boy.

Ominously, however, as Camus describes her, this altogether estimable woman is practically without a mind. She has no inner life of any kind, and her stoicism seems more vacuous than heroic. She is deaf, she hardly speaks, is barely literate, and is apparently quite uninterested in what is going on around her. It is as if she has been emptied of her identity so that she can act the part in Le Premier homme of an ideal of resignation and of anonymity, and as such stand pathetically opposed to the ‘folie de vivre’, the energy and the will to rebel, that have marked the life of her anything but anonymous son. Then, having reduced her to a nonentity, he declares that, whatever he may have achieved in the world, compared with his mother he is ‘nothing’. Some ‘nothing’ is all one can say: there are moments when Le Premier homme seems disturbingly extreme in its mother-cult.

There are pleasures in Jacques’s boyhood, but they are found always out of doors, in the streets, at school, on the beaches, scenes which are described with an admirable vigour and concreteness by Camus. Home is impossibly dour, ruled over by a tough old Spanish grandmother who is quite ready to beat the children and who takes all the decisions, not least the life-changing decision that, despite what it is going to cost, the clever young Jacques be allowed to go on to the lycée rather than leaving school to earn a wage. For this pinched, unsmiling way of life, Cormery yet expresses an absolute regard. This is the ‘kingdom of poverty’, a condition that has ‘something royal’ about it. For him to go back now to Africa from Paris is to ‘return to the childhood from which he had never been cured, to the secret of the light, of warmhearted poverty that had helped him to live and to overcome’. The light one can understand: better to be poor in the Algerian sun than in the northern dank. It’s the warmheartedness that makes less sense, when there is so very little of it on display here. The Cormery family are tenaciously supportive of one another but more out of obedience to the ethos of their milieu than out of any explicit warmth of feeling. Camus is determined that poverty should be acknowledged, if not as a moral good, then as a moral alibi, inasmuch as the poor are to be excused from condemnation by their condition – a peculiar, sentimental view to find coming from someone otherwise so obdurate in his moralism.

At the time when he was writing Le Premier homme, Camus had a particularly strong reason to glorify his mother and her invisible kind. He had been living through the ghastly terminal years of French rule in Algeria, years of nationalist terrorism in support of the movement for Algerian independence, and of Army and pied-noir brutality against the Arab population that they despised. Camus’s record on Algeria was good, though nuanced compared with the out-and-out opposition to colonialism of nearly all those he mixed with in Paris. He had long demanded democracy for the country but he wanted also to preserve its links with France. In the Fifties he campaigned for a form of federalism, a liberal solution that was hopelessly out of phase with the prevailing extremism on either side. Above all, he asked that there should be a formal truce, to stop civilians from being attacked and killed, in both Algeria and the metropolis. He refused absolutely, unlike some leftist intellectuals, to endorse the FLN’s campaign of bombing – as he had years before refused to endorse Stalinist terrorism as a permissible bad means to a good end. To someone who had been brought up in Algeria and whose mother still lived there, terrorism against civilians was not to be endured: ‘If a terrorist throws a grenade in the Belcourt market where my mother shops, and if he kills her, I would be responsible if, to defend justice, I defended terrorism. I love justice but I also love my mother.’

This much quoted – and not a little derided – remark, made in 1956, helps to explain why his mother should be cast in the role she has in Le Premier homme; her living presence in Algiers having determined Camus to an unpopular independence of mind over the future of the colony. There is terrorist activity in the city during Jacques’s visit, an explosion outside the apartment, French parachutists driving about in jeeps. The terrorists are referred to as ‘bandits’, a description that establishes a sinister continuity between them and an earlier generation of Arab troublemakers, the more traditional and less obviously political ‘bandits’ who are loose in the countryside at the time of Cormery’s birth, and whose ‘atrocities’ are part of settler folklore.

Catherine Cormery is as oblivious of what is happening politically as of everything else; she knows only that she won’t do what her son suggests and remove so late in her life to France. There isn’t much open politics at all, in fact, in what we have of Le Premier homme, nothing to show quite how Camus’s views might be changing, if they were, as he wrote it. This edition includes, however, numerous notes and fragments jotted down by Camus for possible future use in the book. One of them is, in its astonishing way, political, and worth giving in full:

And he exclaimed, looking at his mother, and then the others: ‘Give the land back. Give all the land to the poor, to those who have nothing and who are so poor that they have never even wanted to have and to possess, to those who are like her in this country, the vast army of the poor, most of them Arabs and some of them French and who live or survive here out of obstinacy or endurance, in the one honour that is worth anything in this world, that of the poor ... and I then, poor once again and at last, cast away in the worst of exiles at the far end of the world, I shall smile and die happy, knowing that the land that I so loved and those and she whom I revered are finally reunited beneath the sun of my birth.’

How seriously might we take this, as Camus’s last, visionary throw when it came to the Algerian problem? By the time he wrote it, in 1959, de Gaulle had agreed that the country should have its independence, which was not the outcome that Camus had wanted. In Le Premier homme he would go much further than he had felt able to go before in reasserting his own Algerian-ness and how it had formed him. Jacques Cormery’s despairingly unreal solution for the country’s future is one that does away with the racial difference fatally bedevilling French Algeria, by subsuming it within a class difference, allowing the disinherited of both races to merge. In this light, the ‘kingdom of poverty’ takes on a new, geographical resonance and the revered Catherine Cormery is freed to live at peace with the Arab majority, in the anonymity that Camus has chosen to be the ennobling characteristic of the poor. He, too, for all the distance that he has travelled up and away from his origins, can seemingly become a part of this same glorious ecumenical order by divesting himself of his name.

This is a ‘repatriation’ too far. The one place in Le Premier homme where Camus sets out very obviously to raise the tone, to lift his language to meet the grandeur of his theme, comes when he turns, quite briefly, to evoking the arrival of the first French settlers in Algeria, in the middle of the last century. The tone here is one of epic, as he exalts the hard lives and often unpleasant deaths these people suffered, whether from disease or from the hostility of the Arab population whose country they were settling. 1959 was a tactless moment to be writing in terms like these, but Camus thought that the ordinary colonisers like his own family had been falsely incriminated, that they deserved better. Whether they deserved the better he was set on doing them is another matter. The Algeria to which, as Cormery, Camus comes back in Le Premier homme is an allegorical, no longer a physical territory, ‘the land of oblivion where each one was the first man’.

A psychoanalyst who had known him once assured me that Camus’s death wasn’t the impeccable contingency it appeared to be: that the driver of the car had drunk freely with his lunch, as Camus well knew, that Facel Vegas were fast and reportedly unstable, that Camus hated speed but still got in, that he was in one of his suicidal phases. If this is right, then the portentously named ‘land of oblivion’ might be a less sunlit destination than Algeria: it might be the state of death in which the incurably famous Albert Camus would become nothing at all.