The first man, Albert Camus

The father of Jacques Comery died when Jacques was only one year old. He died in the trenches, fighting for the motherland. In Algeria his wife is left behind with two children and out of necessity she moves back with her mother who lives in Algiers.

The family is bitterly poor with three adults and two children and it is only after a long struggle that Jacques is allowed to go to secondary school.

The first man is a special book, because the writer was never able to finish it. Albert Camus died in a car-accident on January 4th 1960. This unfinished manuscript was found later in his bag. He had made notes for parts of the book he still wanted to write and he also never had the chance to correct the manuscript.

It was published in 1994, and the publishers left the manuscript as it was. They only corrected the punctuation and placed footnotes to show where Camus gave alternative sentences or made a remark.
This has been the right choice. In the first place you get a really good idea of the story Albert Camus wanted to tell, and secondly it also gives an insight in how a writer works.
That the story is unfinished is no problem, the story that is there, is absolutely beautiful and worthwhile.

In The First man Albert Camus describes his own childhood as the son of French colonists in Algeria and he does this vividly. The heath of Algiers that stifles everything during the afternoon, the little boys who run around the city, causing mischief and sometimes have enough money to buy sweet pastry from the Arabic salesmen, while the sea breeze gives some coolness. You see the city with colorful customs of the French, Spanish and Arabic inhabitants.

But he also describes very well the restrictions poor people have to deal with. If there are no books, no education, then it becomes very difficult to understand the outside world.
Grandmother is illiterate, the mother can read and write some, but has such a limited vocabulary that half of what she reads has no meaning for her.

It is not just misery for young Jacques, it is clear the mother loves her children very much and the uncle is also a good man who tries his best for the boys. Grandmother can be strict and harsh, but this is also because of the circumstances.

Albert Camus, 1913-1960
Mister Bernard
Luckily for Jacques he has his teacher, Mister Bernard. He will play a huge role in Jacques life, just as Albert Camus himself also had his teacher to thank for the success he had in later life, becoming a philosopher, writer and even a Nobel prize winner in 1957.

In the Dutch version there are two letters in this book, the letter Albert Camus wrote to his teacher to thank him, and the reply. I really loved to read those, it shows how much a teacher can change sometimes in the life of some students.

Mister Bernard has his own methods and knows how to stimulate his pupils and catch their interest. At the same time he also has a firm discipline. It is due to his intervention that Jacques can study at the lyceum, even if grandmother said no in the first place because that would mean that Jacques would not be able to earn money for six more years.

It is moving to read how the young boy wrestles with his new life and the two worlds he now lives in, that are separated and will never come together. With each lesson at school he removes himself further away from his family. He feels ashamed of his family, and then also feels ashamed for feeling ashamed.

It is the story of a boy who has to raise and educate himself. He is the first man, since he has no example, no role-model on the road he is going.

This was the first book by Albert Camus that I read and I absolutely loved it. I think The first man is one of the most beautiful books I ever read.

Original French title: Le premier homme
Published in 1994