THE FIRST MAN
By Albert Camus
Translated from the French by David Hapgood
Alfred A. Knopf
336 pp., $23
'The First Man'' is the novel Albert Camus was working on at the time of his death in 1960. Owing to what they perceived as the perilous intellectual climate of those times, the author's widow and friends feared that publishing the unfinished, unrevised rough draft of a work-in-progress would seriously damage the writer's reputation, already under fire. So, ''The First Man,'' Camus's last work, remained unpublished for more than 30 years.
Camus's children, now grown up, have decided to publish this beginning of what very likely could have been a major autobiographical novel, one in which the normally reserved and laconic writer movingly reveals the intense emotions, experiences, and attachments that made him who he was. And, like Proust's ''Remembrance of Things Past,'' ''The First Man'' would clearly have been an autobiographical novel far transcending autobiography, reaching out to encompass the realms of family, country, society, and history, where the lives of individuals are played out, with or without their consent.
''The First Man'' takes us back to French Algeria, where Camus was born in 1913. Its protagonist, Jacques Cormery, is the child of an illiterate Spanish mother and an Alsatian-French father killed on the battlefield during World War I. The boy has never known his father. And the books he will grow up to write will never be read by the mother whose love helped inspire them. Devoid of this background - of family tradition, a father's authority, a mother's ability to appreciate her child's achievement - Ja cques Cormery feels himself to be in the lonely, infinitely challenging position of being a ''first man.''
Camus poignantly expressed his aims in his notes and sketches, which are printed at the end of the book:
''I want to write the story of a pair joined by the same blood and every kind of difference.... She silent most of the time, with only a few words at her disposal ... he constantly talking and unable to find in thousands of words what she could say in a single one of her silences.... Mother and son.''
To achieve this, Camus sought a method that would free him from concern with art and form, enabling him to regain ''direct contact and thus innocence.'' Whether or not he managed to attain the unmediated directness he had in mind, there is an arresting urgency about this novel that imbues it with an extraordinary sense of passion and life.
The narrative is reflective and analytical, yet rich with sensuous detail. The reader cannot help feeling caught up in Camus's strong desire to recapture the sights, sounds, and emotions of a lost world. Jacques Cormery's childhood combines terrible poverty and intense happiness. The cramped apartment, the hot, dusty streets, the stark, unforgiving North African climate, the family's struggle to make a living are all powerfully evoked; the personalities of friends, family members, and teachers vividly a nd lovingly drawn.
Camus's account of his protagonist's education is not only very touching, but particularly relevant to our own time and place. For these rootless children of poverty and illiteracy, the state-run schools offer a refuge: a haven of order and serenity and an entry into the wider world. Their teacher, though anti-clerical himself, provides his pupils with firm moral guidance, condemning, ''with all the more vigor those evils over which there could be no argument - theft, betrayal, rudeness, dirtiness.''
The gap between home and school is enormous; the boy feels he is commuting between two different worlds. Yet thanks to the school, Jacques and his classmates come to feel ''for the first time that they existed and that they were the objects of the highest regard: They were judged worthy to discover the world.'' It is their first step toward freedom and independence.
Cormery's story also serves as an elegy for a people: the so-called pied noirs, Algeria's Alsatian, French, and Spanish settlers, themselves refugees from poverty and persecution, who came to be seen as oppressors of the Arab populace: ''Whole mobs had been coming here for more than a century, had plowed, dug furrows ... until the dusty earth covered them over and the place went back to its wild vegetation ... All those generations, all those men come from so many nations ... had disappeared without a t race, closed in on themselves.''
Camus's vision of humanity - of rootlessness, moral choices, and a seemingly indifferent universe - is nowhere expressed more eloquently than in this unfinished novel resonating with the accents of finality.