mourn for that other country — “The First Man” by Albert Camus

first man

[CN: settler colonialism, violence, racism]

A thought that arose more than once while reading AC’s final unfinished novel for a class assignment: Man, im bummed he died in a car wreck at 46. ive read a remark somewhere that the universe took him out when he was only just starting to rev up in his art, and it’s hard to disagree now. The book is overflowing with gorgeous language, as EXILE AND THE KINGDOM is, and the tone is relaxed while painstakingly sifting through childhood memories for every last tactile detail, every procedure of daily life, striving to recover as much as possible before the past is totally lost. (Applause to David Hapgood and Justin O’Brien who translated these two books respectively.)

For Camus the French Algeria of his youth is a space abandoned by history. He is indeed a “first man” as everyone there is, torn from a common past or heritage. In this novel he tries to bear witness to the experiences of the pied-noir, although there’s a gnarly political context that ill try to address below.

THE STRANGER gets so much attention (at least in my experience), and it’s a great text when you’re a sad high schooler, but i now see it for the early work that it is. (Dominick LaCapra points out that the ending is largely swiped from Stendhal’s RED AND BLACK.) It’s tempting to associate Camus with that book alone if it’s assigned in high school, and take the aloofness of Mersault as the embodiment of existentialism/absurdism. But really this was only the starting point for Camus’s moral project. Life is totally meaningless, yes, and we recognize the constructed nature of our values and ethics, although neurotypicals seem to be a lot better at keeping these realities from interfering with daily tasks than myself. But there are things worth being passionate about, people who need justice, structural violence that must be opposed.

So Camus was in a different place here in TFM, probably approximate to the feelings of the protagonist Jacques Comery. In an early scene he’s hanging out in a restaurant with a friend, and says

I’ve loved life, I’m hungry for it. At the same time, life seems horrible to me, it seems inaccessible. That is why I am a believer, out of skepticism. Yes, I want to believe, I want to live, forever.

Pretty vague, but the takeaway is the stark contrast that J.C. (see what he did there?) tightly holds within him. Life is precious and cruel. People want meaning, the universe is silent. Embracing the Absurd means refusing absolutes, accepting values, even oppositional ones, just not absolutely.

THE FIRST MAN, even in its rough and unfinished form, was the most compelling novel ive read in a long while. If anything the seams and skeleton-bare parts make the text even more interesting bc of the insight it gives into Camus’s creative process. He is just spewing all the details he can gather. Paragraphs and sometimes sentences will pile on for sixty lines or more. (i cant imagine writing in this kind of rapid everything-plus-kitchen-sink way by hand. i bought a yellow legal pad before starting my undergrad history thesis bc i had this idea to slow down my composing by going long hand. LOL, nope, that didnt happen.) Marginal notes in the manuscript are conveyed through multiple footnote systems.  Some chapters are unnumbered, some are numbered and lettered, and the text closes with twenty pages or so of disjointed notes, memos, and isolated dialog. These wood shavings are sometimes no longer than a line, and one intriguing bit goes: “The book must be unfinished.”

In any event, the notes suggest just how epic in scope this book would have been. The parts Camus fully realized only cover his birth and childhood up to secondary school and puberty, but it looks like he planned to include his life in Paris, living under German occupation and editing the resistance journal Combat. i should state now that it’s clearly an autobiography in the third person. Sometimes he slips and uses real names in the narration.

This was one of those readings when after the first chapter i knew i was hooked. The year is 1913 and a rickety horse-drawn wagon with a pregnant white woman aboard is making its way across the landscape.

big thick clouds were hurrying to the East through the dusk. Three days ago they had inflated over the Atlantic, had waited for a wind from the West, had set out, slowly at first then faster and faster, had flown over the phosphorescent autumn waters, straight to the continent, had unraveled on the Moroccan peaks, had gathered again in flocks on the high plateaus of Algeria, and now, at the approaches to the Tunisian frontier, were trying to reach the Tyrrhenian Sea to lose themselves in it.

Yes, i would happily read pages and pages of Camus talking about clouds. Actually this curtain opener is a lot different from the rest of the work. It’s a heavily romanticized treatment, making J.C.’s birth on a dark and stormy night in an unfamiliar town into nothing short of a nativity scene. It’s also the only time we see the father, who will be killed in the Great War. It’s speculation combined with imagination — the father has fallen into oblivion like so much else in French Algeria. It’s all Camus can do to emplot the past which is long gone, to fabulate history.

We flash forward to 1953, and the adult Jacques is visiting his father’s war grave in Saint-Brieuc before traveling back to his mother in Algeria. Woven through this line of action are memories of childhood, living with his older brother, his hard of hearing and semi-mute but hardworking and deferential mother, a tyrannical grandmother, and an uncle with a learning disability who loves his dog and likes to go hunting (a wonderful sequence to read). We observe childhood games for the impoverished, fighting at school, reading aloud the titles in silent movies for his grandmother, who can’t read.

The historical forces that have shaped the lives of the pieds-noirs, that is, the French and European settlers in Algeria, seem elusive. They are known only by the orphanages in the wake of WWI, and the hospitals which look after disabled veterans. They remain concealed from J.C.’s family, who have had no education, have only seen the same milieu outside their low-income flat, and have known nothing but work and poverty all their lives. The mediterranean sky and desert expanses are exhilarating for young J.C., who holds a platonic fascination for the poor white folx who go swimming, with descriptions of glistening brown bodies that harken back to Camus’s early lyrical essays. But it’s also a site of abandonment, by history and by metropolitan France as well as memory itself.

 To begin with, poor people’s memory is less nourished than that of the rich; it has fewer landmarks in space because they seldom leave the place where they live, and fewer reference points in time throughout lives that are gray and featureless. Of course there is the memory of the heart that they say is the surest kind, but the heart wears out with sorrow and labor, it forgets sooner under the weight of fatigue. Remembrance of things past is just for the rich. For the poor it only marks the faint traces on the path to death.

It seems to me the narrator is trying to convey the experiences of this settler class, who are indeed brutally poor but are still colonizers, trying to show the rest of world what life was really like for them, to restore some dignity to these people who scratch a living in a “land of oblivion.”  The explicit burn on Proust is just one of many swipes against French intellectualism and the literati on the whole.

This performance behind the work is where the meat really is. So, i dont really know the full details about the drama in Camus’s later career — i want to read one of the english biographies on him this summer. Basically, Camus was serious about embracing the position of the Absurd, saying yes and no at the same time, never committing to one side, and this alienated just about everybody, including the pieds-noirs whom he treated so carefully and way too generously here.

There are at least two dimensions to the fallout that pushed Camus out of the Parisian scene and left him isolated and embittered. There was his rejection of Stalinism, which ruined his credibility with the left. On this front he turned out to be right, and im tickled by his anti-authoritarian principles. THE REBEL in the most practical terms basically prescribes anarcho-syndicalism, and holds scathing remarks for bourgeois liberal hypocrisy that are still relevant to current day struggles against neoliberalism and the police.

The other dimension is a lot more problematic. The French left, under the hegemony of Sartre, was in favor of a decolonized and independent Algeria. Camus did not support independence. To be sure he was pro-decolonization and in favor of reparations for the indigenous Arab and Berber populations. However he did not want the Europeans to be kicked out, and advocated for a federation of Europeans and Arabs with equal rights. At the risk of being reductionist, his reasoning does seem sentimental. In TFM  Jacque’s reuniting with his mother is interrupted by an FLN bombing down the street. J.C. wants to take his mother to France to keep her safe. She simply says “I want to stay home.” That is to say, the roots are too deep.

Camus wrote something to this effect in a piece that appears in ALGERIAN CHRONICLES.

There has never been an Algerian nation. The Jews, Turks, Greeks, Italians, and Berbers all have a claim to lead this virtual nation. At the moment, the Arabs themselves are not the only constituent of that nation. […] The French of Algeria are themselves an indigenous population in the full sense of the word. Furthermore, a purely Arab Algeria would not be able to achieve economic independence…

So this seems kind of egregious. To call the white settlers “indigenous” is a reach at best. And casually stating that an independent Algeria can’t get by without the economic development of Western powers is incredibly patronizing (i hear that Algeria is now one of the few nations without a deficit.) Doesn’t he want justice and reparations for the indigenous who faced violence and starvation for a hundred plus years? Yes, but not absolutely.

For all the careful thinking he devoted to holding both sides across his entire career, there are huge blind spots for Camus on the Algerian question. TFM explores the relationship between the pieds-noirs without a past and larger historical forces, but the role of white supremacy is never recognized. There’s a beautiful section in the book that describes the hardships of the original settlers in the mid 19th century, living in tents and dying to disease every day.

…wandering through the night of the years in the land of oblivion where each one is the first man, where he had to bring himself up, without a father, having never known those moments when a father would call his son, after waiting for him to reach the age of listening, to tell him the family’s secret, or a sorrow of long ago…

Maybe im being too unkind but the massive paragraph where i snipped this bit smacks of a romanticized frontier myth, where white folx carved out a living and tamed the wilderness without any help. Camus recognizes the huge investment by the state that made this colonization possible, and the state-run collective farms that helped these settlers survive, but the connection goes unmade. Even without a father for help or legitimacy, there’s still the state. White people got where they are because of government handouts which by design excluded black and brown people. The narrator here explicitly forgives the rampant xenophobia of the pieds-noirs, not realizing that anti-immigration policies were pursued by governments to crush radical organization led by the immigrant working class, forging a bond between the poor and the capitalists thru whiteness.

There’s a French farmer character in the novel who says about the Algerian conflict, which is just beginning:”We were made to understand each other. …We’ll kill each other for a little longer, cut off each other’s balls and torture each other a bit. And then we’ll go back to living as men together.” As if there were a peace to return to. The vision of solidarity between the little people of the pieds-noirs (as opposed to the super rich plantation owners) and the Arabs, united in poverty, is too optimistic. Capital has done its work to make such a bond near impossible — here as everywhere else, the white people will choose whiteness.

And besides, it’s hard to take the offer in good faith bc of AC’s treatment of Arab people in all his work. Men or women, they’re monolithic, inscrutable, silent. They’re ignored unless they pose a threat or are killed or act out in a non-subjugated way. Rarely do they have a name. They are the back scenery of pied-noir adventures in an off-putting way; that is, AC centered all of his writing on the viewpoint of pieds-noirs and that’s his experience and that’s fine, but surely the indigenous could have seemed more human.

Was Camus racist? He was white, so, probably. But i have to admire anyone who stands by their principles, especially in moments when just about everyone is telling you to take a goddamn side already. This unfinished novel didnt get published until the late 90s, when the author’s reputation was being restored, and when folx were just beginning to honestly face and work through the Algerian war that didnt even have a name until this point. And that’s great for AC, who was truly a gifted dude of letters. But why he has become so welcome in the Western cultural establishment given this political context and how it changed thru the 20th century is a worthwhile question to ask.

Just about any part of the novel would be good for an excerpt — there’s bound to be a gem of a clause or phrase in any given paragraph. im choosing a vignette about childhood pleasure and guilt in tapping some family money to go to a soccer game, which also illustrates through the earthy facts of human bodies the grinding “kingdom of poverty” that was the author’s childhood.

Actually im throwing in another one, from when Jacques is a teenager at secondary school. The opener with the “Kabyle shepherd” comes out of nowhere even in context, but this paragraph showcases AC’s wonderfully transporting language with its smells and the intense attention to everyday life.


The First Man by Albert Camus

No one had actually taught the child what was right and what was wrong. Some things were forbidden and any infraction was severely punished. Others were not. Only his teachers would sometimes talk about morality, when the curriculum left them in time, but there again the prohibitions were more explicit than the reasons for them. All that Jacques had been able to see and experience concerning morality was daily life in a working-class family where it was evident no one had ever thought there was any way other than the hardest kind of labor to acquire the money necessary to their survival. But that was a lesson in courage, not morals. Nonetheless, Jacques knew it was wrong to hide those two francs. And he didn’t want to do it. And he would not do it; maybe he could do what he’d done before, squeeze between two boards to get in the old stadium at the parade grounds and see the match free. That was why he himself did not understand why he did not immediately give back the change, and why, a little later, he came from the toilet and declared that a two-franc piece had fallen in the hole when he dropped his pants. Even “toilet” was too exalted a term for the small space that had been improvised in the masonry of the landing of the one upper floor. A Turkish-style hole had been drilled in a mid-size pedestal jammed between the door and the back wall. The place was without air, without electric light, without faucet, and they had to pour jerry cans of water in the hole after each use. But nothing could keep the stink from overflowing into the stairs. Jacques’s explanation was plausible (footnote: No. It was because he had already claimed to have lost the coin the street that he had to find another explanation.) It saved him from being sent back out on the street to look for the lost coin, and it cut short any further action. Yet Jacques felt a pang as he announced his bad news. His grandmother was in the kitchen chopping garlic and parsley on an old board that was green and pitted with use. She stopped and looked at Jacques, who was waiting for her to explode. But she remained silent and studied him with her icy-clear eyes. “You’re sure?” she said at last.

“Yes, I felt it drop.”

She was still studying him. “Very well,” she said. “We shall see.”

And Jacques, horrified, saw her roll up her right sleeve, baring her knotty white arm, and go out on the landing. He dashed into the dining room, on the verge of throwing up. When she summoned him, he found her at the washbasin. Her arm was covered with gray soap, which she was rinsing off in a gush of water: “There was nothing there,” she said. “You’re a liar.”

He stammered: “But it could have been washed down.”

She hesitated. “Maybe. But if you’re lying, it’ll be your tough luck.”

Yes, it was his tough luck, for in that instant he understood it was not avarice that caused his grandmother to grope around in the excrement, but the terrible need that made two francs a significant amount in this home. He understood it, and now he clearly saw, with a spasm of shame, that he had stolen two francs from his family’s labor. Even today, watching his mother at the window, Jacques could not explain how he could have failed to return those two francs and yet have enjoyed going to the match the next day.

* * *

But the Kabyle shepherd who, on his mountain that the sun has scaled and eroded, watches the storks go by while dreaming of the North from which they came after a long voyage — he may dream all day long, in the evening he still goes back to the dish of mastic leaves, to the family in long robes, to the wretched hut where he has his roots. In the same way, while Jacques might be intoxicated with the foreign potions of the bourgeois (?) tradition, he remained devoted to the one who was most like him, and that was Pierre. Every morning at quarter after six (except Sunday and Thursday), Jacques would go down the stairs of his building four at a time, running in the mugginess of the hot season or the violent rain of winter that made his short cape swell up like a sponge; then at the fountain he would turn in to Pierre’s street, and, still on the run, climb the two stories to knock softly at the door. Pierre’s mother, a handsome woman with an ample build, would open the door that led directly to the sparsely furnished dining room. At the other end of the dining room a door on either side led to a bedroom. One was Pierre’s, which he shared with his mother, the other was his two uncles’, rough railroad men who smiled a lot and said little. As you entered the dining room, to the right was a room without air or light that served as both kitchen and bathroom. Pierre was chronically late. He would be sitting at the table with its oilcloth cover, the kerosene lamp lit if it was winter, holding a big brown bowl of glazed clay in both hands, and trying to swallow the scorching coffee his mother had just poured him without burning himself. “Blow on it,” she would say. He blew on it, he sucked it in and smacked his lips, and Jacques shifted his weight from foot to foot while he watched him (footnote: schoolboy’s cap). When Pierre had finished, he still had to go to the candlelit kitchen, where, at the zinc sink, a glass of water awaited him and, lying across it, a toothbrush spread with a thick ribbon of a special kind of toothpaste, for he suffered from pyorrhea. He slipped on his short cape, his cap, and his satchel, and, all rigged out, gave his teeth a long and vigorous brushing, then spat loudly in the sink. The pharmaceutical odor of the toothpaste mingled with the smell of the coffee. Jacques, a bit disgusted and at the same time impatient, would let that be known, and it was not unusual for this to result in one of those sulks that are the cement of a friendship. Then they would go down the stairs to the street in silence and walk unsmiling to the trolley stop. But other times they would chase each other, laughing, or while running they would pass one of the satchels back and forth like a rugby ball. At the stop they waited, watching for the red trolley to see with which of two or three motormen they were going to ride.

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