Russell Wilkinson talks to Catherine Camus about Albert Camus’ The First Man
In January 1960, the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus was killed in a car crash along with his friend and publisher, Michel Gallimard. Recovered from the wreckage of the crash was the unfinished manuscript of Camus’ latest novel, The First Man. In 1957, Camus had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in recognition of his most famous novels, The Outsiderand The Plague.
Fifty years after its original publication The Outsider is still France’s best-selling novel this century. In October 1995, The First Man was finally published in English, thirty five years after Camus’ death. His daughter, Catherine Camus, elected to publish the manuscript unedited. Its drafts have been organised into the completed text of the novel and authorial notes which supplement its progression and development. As such, The First Man shows the rarely glimpsed process of a work in progress. The novel itself is a deeply autobiographical meditation upon Camus’ poverty-stricken childhood and fatherless family within Algeria at the turn of the century. While it remains unfinished, much of the text possesses Camus’ characteristic lucidity and sensuality, clearly demonstrating that his best writing was yet to come before his tragic and untimely death at the age of 47.
Catherine Camus and her partner Robert Gallimard visited London in October 1995. At the Basil Hotel, they discussed the implications of The First Man for our evaluation of Albert Camus as a writer and a political philosopher at the close of this century. The interview was conducted in French.
R: In your editor’s note for The First Man you suggest that now is a more suitable time for the reception of Camus’ work. Do you think Camus has been neglected in recent years?
CC: He was never abandoned by his readers. Camus is enormously read. He’s the highest selling author in the entire Gallimard collection, and has been for some years now. Sales haven’t ever stopped, so to talk about rediscovering him would suggest that he isn’t read anymore and that’s not true. It’s just that, in publishing The First Man I said to myself, ‘this is going to be awful,’ but awful from the point of view of the criticism. I’m not afraid of Camus’ public. I’m afraid of what will be written in the papers.
However, there are indications that today the intellectuals are coming back to Camus. History has given them reason to, with the fall of communism. In fact it was always the Communist problem which was responsible for the opposition to Camus. It was always and overall a political thing, a kind of misunderstanding. Camus had denounced the gulag and Stalin’s trials. Today we can see that he was right. To say that there were concentration camps in the USSR at the time was blasphemous, something very serious indeed. Today we think about the USSR with the camps also in mind, but before it just wasn’t allowed. Nobody was allowed to think that or say that if you were left-wing. Camus always insisted that historical criteria and historical reasoning were not the only things to take into account, and that they weren’t all powerful, that history could always be wrong about man. Today, this is how we are starting to think.
R: Do you think that Camus’ work is becoming vindicated then, after this time of intellectual isolation?
RG: It all depends on the period. Just after the war, the liberation of 1945, Camus was well known, well loved by Sartre and all the intellectuals of that generation. There is an interview given by Sartre in the USA where he is asked what the future of French literature is, and he replies that the next great writer of the future is Camus. And so time passes, and a much more political rather than literary reasoning intervenes, and from the day that Camus wrote The Rebel, in 1955, there comes the rupture, and all, nearly all of the left wing intellectuals become hostile to him. Since he was already unfavourably viewed by the right-wing, he found himself entirely alone.
Then, during the ’80s, those you would call the young philosophers of France, such as Bernard and Gluxman, pointed out that Camus had said things no one wanted to hear in the political arena. They said it was Camus who was right, not those who had slid under the influence of Sartre, that is to say an unconditional devotion to Communism as seen in the Soviet Union. And ever since then the evaluation of Camus has continued to modify up until today. Intellectuals of Camus’ age who had previously disliked him now appreciate him. And at that point we come back to literature, and it’s agreed that he was always a great writer.
R: Which brings us specifically to the publication of The First Man. How will this book alter our perception of Camus’ work?
CC: We must remember that Camus wrote not even a third of what he had wished to. The First Man is his posthumous last work. But in fact, in a certain way, it is his first, because in it you find the signs of his commitments, and of the whole way of writing as well. This mixture of austerity and sensuality, the will to speak for those not able to speak for themselves.
R: There are times in his letters to Jean Grenier [Camus’ philosophy professor in Algeria, published in the Selected Notebooks] when he sounds unhappy with his work on The First Man. After receiving his Nobel Prize, did he feel pressurised to produce his definitive work?
CC: He wasn’t writing under the influence of the Nobel Prize. That was an external thing for the artist in him. The Nobel Prize comes from outside, it’s a social recognition [reconnaissance] in a way. And I think a true artist is driven by interior necessities. We can’t talk about the book he wanted to write because we have barely its beginnings. He had written hardly any of it, but he needed to write it. It seems to me that if you look at the style of The First Man it conforms much more to who he was as a man, it resembles him very closely.
R: Will we get a clearer notion of his ideas through The First Man?
CC: Perhaps not, because it’s in quite a crude state. But then, in this condition one sees more, without any of the artifices of art, without anything having been erased. It is, perhaps, at the same time, more truthful. I think he wanted to write something to explain who he was, and how he was different from the age that had been conferred upon him. He was viewed by many as an austere moralist, but it was on the football pitch and in the theatre that he learnt his ‘morality’. It’s something sensed, it won’t pass uniquely through thought. It couldn’t possibly. He started thinking through sensation. He could never think with artefacts or with cultural models because there were none. So it’s true to say that his morality was extremely ‘lived’, made from very concrete things. It never passed by means of abstractions . It’s his own experience, his way of thinking. There are those who will find his notions about absurdity appealing, and others who will be drawn by the solar side of his work, about Algeria, the heat and so on.
R: Since The First Man deals with Camus’ birth and childhood in Algeria, it seems strange that Camus’ deep personal involvement with the Algerian nationalist crisis tends to get overlooked in the traditional portrayal of him as a French writer. Do you think The First Man will re-emphasise the importance of Algeria in our consideration of Camus?
CC: I hope so. Camus’ was born in Algeria of French nationality, and was assimilated into the French colony, although the French colonists rejected him absolutely because of his poverty. Politically, he was in favour of a federation, and effectively he considered that like South Africa today (or as they are trying to do), there should be a mixed population with equal rights, the same rights for the Arab and the French populations, as well as all the other races living there.
R: Do you think he saw himself as the first member of a race of the uprooted, given the absence of his father and the cultural duality of his upbringing?
CC: Not on a political level. He is The First Man because he is poor, which has never been much to human beings. He really did know Algeria. He was an exile from his country, but still living in its language. Solitaire et solidaire. It’s not like those who are exiled to a country where the language is not theirs. He didn’t have much hope that things would work out, but he wanted them to. Algeria had reached such a degree of violence that once such violence is created there’s no more room for reflection. And there’s no mediating position. If you look at Bosnia today, the Croats, Bosnians and Serbs, they’ve all created so much horror that one starts to wonder how these peoples can live together, after having done what they have. Already the violence has reached such a degree that everybody is living in hate, there’s no possibility of reflection, no mediating position. There’s no one who can say ‘this person is wrong there and right here’, and that ‘one is right about that and wrong about this’. This is what could allow populations, or even two human beings, to live together. We will only solve problems by the acceptance of, and enrichment by, our differences.
R: So Camus tried to live the paradox of being both “solitaire et solidaire”?
CC: I think Camus felt very solitary. You can see it in all his books. The Outsider isn’t Camus, but in The Outsider there are parts of Camus. There’s this impression of exile. But where he is in exile isn’t especially in Paris or elsewhere, but from the intellectual world, because of his origins. And that’s a complete exile. Just because of his way of sensing before thinking. He’s in a field that he often feels like escaping from. In any case, you have to learn what blood is. It all has to be rationalised. In that he feels exiled, solitary…
RG: …And yet one thing that is evident is that Camus could never be a ‘neutral’ man. This is because he was committed; look at his real physical involvement in the Resistance. He took part, there, in the combat against Nazism. And he always held a profound commitment [engagement], a real resistance to all totalitarianism. For example, it’s often forgotten that Camus was extremely hostile [farouche] towards the Franco regime, and right to the end. He refused to travel to Spain, he left UNESCO because UNESCO accepted Franco’s Spain and allowed it a discourse. Camus was completely intransigent, and that’s not at all a neutrality. It’s combat, it’s a man who involved himself, committed himself. Of course, he wasn’t an existentialist, but he was a committed man. He was a man of combat. It wasn’t for nothing that he directed the Resistance journal called Combat.
R: What makes his commitment different from that of the existentialists?
CC & RG in unison: He was not an existentialist!
RG: He always refused to be.
R: Another example of being solitaire et solidaire, of being great friends with Sartre but remaining apart from the existentialist credo?
CC: Yes, today, we’re starting to see how it works. But usually it’s when you get smacked in the face with things that you start to understand them. Everyone has so much hope for a better humanity, and many, including Sartre, turned to the idea of communism in its beginnings. Generosity had a place in people’s hopes. But Camus points out that we have a lot of things to pass through. Everything has to be accepted before it can be improved. When Sartre was asked whether or not he would live under a communist regime he said, “No, for others it’s fine, but for me, no.” He said it! So it’s hard to say just how intellectual his stance is. How can you think that never in your life would you go to live in a communist regime and still say it’s fine for everybody? A very difficult thing, that, but Sartre managed it.
Camus didn’t; and today this is what we are confronted with, I mean what is pure ideology, which takes no account of the human context. In economics it’s the same. Economics wanted to take into account theory over and above human criteria, or the parameter ‘man’. And you end up beating your head against a wall again, it doesn’t work. Not if you make an abstraction of man. That’s why Camus is more a la mode now, because he always says ‘yes, but there’s man. That’s the first thing, because myself, I’m a man.’ And that’s what solidarity is.
R: Is The First Man his ‘bridge’, then, between experience and philosophy?
CC: What the articles which have been written about The First Man propose is humility. The acceptance of these contradictions. Seeking an explanation is death. The lie is death in Camus. That’s why in Camus’ play The Misunderstood the son dies, killed by his sister and his mother, because he lied. He never told them who he was. They killed him because they didn’t recognise him. But Camus also says that nothing is true which forces exclusion. From that, you’re obliged to accept contradictions if you don’t want to reject certain obvious things about life, certain evidences. If you create a system, and you say ‘here there is truth’, in that kind of pathway [chemin], then you’ll evacuate all the other pathways and you’ll kill life. It’s up to each individual. It wasn’t exactly the establishment he attacked. He said, “if it’s good, so much the better.” His aim was to help people to live. That’s the most important thing. I think for an artist what is most important is to touch as many hearts as possible.
R: Being written for his mother, do you think The First Man gives a clearer picture of his ideas on femininity?
CC: It’s true that women appear very little in his other works. They have a very marginal place. But femininity, yes, effectively there is more in The First Man, not only in terms of women but stylistically, in its elements, the notes he wrote. You can see a real love story in it, a childhood love story, Camus’ first. Meursault [protagonist of The Outsider] and Marie were never up to much really. There is Dora in The Just and others in his plays, but they aren’t so well known. I think for Camus his mother was more than just that. She’s love, absolute love. That’s why it’s written for her, dedicated to ‘you who will never be able to read this book’. And love is very important in The First Man, in that Camus loves these things he never chose, he loves his childhood experience in a very real way. Their poverty meant that there was nothing else they could think about but what they would eat, how they would clothe themselves. There’s just no room for other things in his family. It’s difficult for others to imagine the position in which he found himself. There is no imaginary existence in their lives.
French intellectuals are mostly petit bourgeois, and it’s hard to say whether that makes Camus’ work more valuable. I’d rather say that it’s different. Necessarily. His positions are sensed. So, naturally, those intellectuals who don’t have that experience have difficulty in comprehending it. But I think it made Camus more tolerant because he had already seen both sides of things when the others had only ever seen one. They imagine poverty, but they don’t know what it is. In fact they’ve got a sort of bad conscience about the working classes. It’s the perspective they could never adopt, not in the way Sartre wants to, because they weren’t familiar with them. They could never address themselves to the working classes. They don’t know what it means, and that gives them a bad conscience about it. Camus has a greater proximity to those in poverty.
R: And does this proximity result from his humility, which can been seen in the letters at the end of The First Man to Monsieur Germain, his old schoolteacher?
CC: It’s because his teacher in The First Man has a primary place. Camus shows us this teacher exactly how he was. The First Man is completely autobiographical. The mother he describes is the woman I knew, and she was exactly as he describes her. And this teacher really existed. But it’s also to show that people attach so much importance to celebrity, and Camus writes his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in thanks to his teacher. Recognition, gratefulness exist. It’s to show that this is what has come from what his teacher did for him. And also throughout the world there are Monsieur Germains everywhere. That’s why I published the letters, so that he could have a place in the work. But I couldn’t ever act or think on behalf of what my father would have said or done. He’s an artist, he considers himself an artist, and so he takes on the responsibility of speaking for those who are not given the means or the opportunity.