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Mother's Silence Impelled Camus to Speak

Interview with Albert Camus's daughter reveals why she published his last book

From the outside, Albert Camus's last home in the village of Lourmarin is just another door on a narrow, cobblestoned street. But from inside, it is a home of immense warmth, looking out on the sun-drenched fields and signature fruit trees of southern France.

The house all but exemplifies a local saying: ''To live well is to live hidden.''

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Camus purchased the home with the money from his 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature, and furnished it himself, down to the last bed, bench, fork, and plate, as a surprise for his family.

''The First Man,'' the book he began here one year before his death in a car accident in 1960, was as much of a surprise to readers as this well-concealed house did to his family.

''In this book, he abandoned a certain reserve to say who he was, and who he had been, in his own voice,'' says daughter Catherine Camus in precise but measured French. She now lives in the house and manages her father's literary estate.

''I can't say for certain, but I think the book was a revolt, a rejection of what people said about him: that he was a moralizing ascetic. My father was very much alive, warm, full of humor, tender, and sensual. All at once, he wanted to affirm what he really was.''

At the time of his death, Camus was honored in international literary circles, but very much alone in France.

His political views on his native Algeria had alienated both Algerian nationalists fighting for independence and the French settlers opposing them. The conflict, Camus said, could only end in ''blood and ashes.''

''The book was an attempt to come to terms with his own life, after all the problems he had,'' she adds. ''He felt very attacked, very alone in life, and especially isolated from the Paris intellectual scene, which was dominated at the time by [his Marxist rival] Jean-Paul Sartre.''

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Francine Camus, his wife, found the manuscript for ''The First Man'' in a briefcase in the back seat of his car and later read it to friends and editors at the Paris-based publishing house Gallimard. ''All felt it was too unfinished,'' says Catherine Camus. ''They also considered the context: 1960 and virulent times against Camus in Paris.''

The manuscript was a first draft, often illegible, and, like all of Camus's first drafts, written without a mark of punctuation. Camus usually revised his drafts at least four or five times. Francine Camus punctuated the first edited version of the manuscript.

Catherine Camus took up editing of her father's works after her mother's death in 1979. She said she decided to publish ''The First Man'' at the urging of her father's friends.

''Many people knew of the existence of this manuscript and said it must be printed,'' she says. ''When a manuscript exists, you have two choices: to destroy it or watch someone else publish it, and then you won't know in what condition.''

The idea of writing this novel first appears in his notebooks in 1951. ''He told my mother that if he didn't write a book on poverty and the silence of his mother, he would have written nothing,'' she says.

Camus's mother spoke very little. She had been deaf as a child, and when she lost her husband in World War I, she returned with her son to the home of her mother, where she had little say in the running of the house. ''She was very sweet and tender,'' says Catherine Camus. ''Camus always wanted to speak for those who had no voice.''

''Poverty is anonymity,'' she adds. ''This book was a way of living for those who have no names.''

The 144-page manuscript took three years of editing. ''He told my mother it was just short of one-third of what he wanted to write.

''The book was to have covered the period of French colonization, the war in Algeria, resistance and the German occupation, and a love story. The part that was written is totally autobiographical.

''There has been an extraordinary reaction to this book in France,'' she adds. ''I have received hundreds of letters saying what a joy it is to see him in print again - even from the Parisian intellectual milieu.''

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