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October 24, 2017

Albert Camus, The First Man

On this day in 1960 Albert Camus was killed in a car crash outside Paris at the age of forty-seven. On the basis of his novel The Outsider (1942), his "philosophical prose-poem" The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), his plays, his Nobel Prize (1957), his political activism, and his Humphrey Bogart good looks, Camus was elevated to almost cult status in the middle decades of the century. This left him feeling as if sentenced to "the center of a glaring light," and in his Nobel speech he asked to be seen only as "a man almost young, rich only in his doubts and with his work still in progress." He said that his "solitaire et solidaire" principles remained intact, and that he was still on the side of the Left "despite myself, and despite it," but Sartre and others formerly friendly began to vilify him for not using his fame to champion their causes, especially the idea of Algerian independence at any price. He retreated to his country estate in order to write, if not to save himself:
    I forced myself to live like everyone else and to resemble everyone else. I said what was needed to unite people, even when I myself felt a stranger, and in the end, the catastrophe came. Now I wander amid the debris, as an outlaw, drawn and quartered, alone and accepting to be so, resigned to my singularities and weaknesses. And I must reconstruct a truth after having lived a sort of lie all my life.
The incomplete manuscript of The First Man, the autobiographical novel that Camus was working on at his death, was found in the mud at the site of the car accident, and published by his daughter in 1995. Camus hoped that it would be his masterpiece, and so it is regarded by many reviewers -- its incompleteness and unrevised, often unpunctuated, form adding to the sense of honesty and immediacy.

The search-for-self theme is clear throughout. Early on, the hero stares at his unknown father's gravestone in Saint-Brieuc, and at "the statue every man eventually erects and that hardens in the fire of the years, into which he then creeps and there awaits its final crumbling." Against this, the hero offers "this anguished heart, eager to live, rebelling against the deadly order of the world that had been with him for forty years...." On the last page, the hero hopes that his lifelong "unalloyed passion for life confronting utter death" will stay with him a little longer, and that "as it had with endless generosity given him reason to live, it would also give him reason to grow old and die without rebellion." Two entries in Camus's notebooks indicate that, in the full novel, his hero would find himself full circle and with what he was looking for:
    End. Takes his son to Saint-Brieuc. On the little square, standing facing each other. How do you live? says the son. What? Yes, who are you, etc. (Happy) he feels the shadow of death thickening around him.
Nor would there be any doubt about his politics, Algerian or otherwise:
    The end. ..."Return the land. Give all the land to the poor, to those who have nothing and who are so poor that they never wanted to have and to possess, to those in the country who are like her, the immense herd of the wretched, mostly Arab and a few French ... and then I, poor once more and forever, cast into the worst of exiles at the end of the earth, I will smile and I will die happy, knowing that those I revered, she whom I revered, are at last joined to the land I so loved under the sun where I was born."

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