Royal, Robert: Τhe other Camus

Yet the personal and political uncertainties and paralysis during the 1950s had some good effects for Camus. In an unforeseen divergence from his plan, he began writing the short stories that eventually were collected as Exile and the Kingdom. These powerful stories display a wider range of human life and emotion than appears in the earlier work. One story, “The Fall,” grew into a long, intricate monologue that had to be published separately as a short novel. The speaker, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a former Parisian lawyer living in Amsterdam, provides an anatomy of the moral hypocrisy of his time, and perhaps of Camus himself, in language that often becomes epigrammatic: “A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the newspapers.”

At first, these works were relatively neglected and disparaged, perhaps because they were so different from what Camus’s readers had come to expect. Today, The Fall seems Camus’s best novel, and the stories show a life that The Plague and perhaps even The Stranger no longer have. Some unanticipated impulse was making itself felt, an impulse that broke loose in 1958, when he began The First Man.

The First Man has been described as a book about a man in search of a father, and that is a central part of protagonist Jacques Cormery’s story. The novel opens on the night of Cormery’s birth, during a downpour, as his father, together with a sympathetic Arab, drives a wagon bearing Cormery’s mother, already in labor, to their new home in Algeria. A note in the appendix may explain part of the significance of this scene: “At 40, he realizes he needs someone to show him the way and to give him censure or praise: a father. Authority and not power.”

This strikes an unusual note in Camus, as does the whole novel, which is highly autobiographical and personal. Forty years after the death of his father, Camus (like Cormery in the novel) visited a military cemetery and discovered, with a shock that is physical as much as emotional, that his father died at 29. Until then, Camus had little interest in his unknown progenitor. But the silent graveyard confrontation with the fact of unfulfilled aspirations spurred Camus, as it does the fictional Cormery, to find out more about his family’s Algerian past.

The larger saga of Algeria, the Tolstoyan dimension the author projected for The First Man, had not yet been sketched when Camus died. This is particularly unfortunate because Camus would have produced a balanced account of Algerian colonial experience, which, for all its moral ambiguities and outright horrors, had something heroic to it.

The manuscript of The First Man has been consulted by scholars in the years since Camus’s death, and some parts of the story are fairly widely known. What is less known, and what alters our overall view of Camus, is the emphasis he gives to the aliterate, basically a historical silence of the people from whom he sprang. It is one of Camus’s admirable qualities that his family, which knew nothing of civilizations, history, or wars other than their immediate effects on family members, never caused him shame or self-doubt. Those silent lives buffeted by nature and history were, for him, reasons for pride, not embarrassment. They were part of that great, wordless mass of humanity that, since the beginning of time, has had to face life without intellectual illusions. As Cormery says at one point, for all his travels and experience in a larger world, “they were greater than I am.”

Prominent among these mute figures, almost to the point of obsession, is Camus’s mother, Catherine. If much of The First Man involves the search for a father, some of the narrative and fragments at the end of the volume suggest that Camus intended to dedicate the book to his mother. In fact, he contemplated an unusual literary strategy: some scenes would be presented as they would appear to an average literate person, others as they would appear to a woman, like Camus’s mother, whose everyday vocabulary ran to about 400 words. Dedicating the entire book to her, Camus explained, would add the irony that it would be an expression of love and admiration for a person, and a whole world, that could never understand it.

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