I have always had mixed feelings about Camus. I read his three major novels – two of them twice – and always felt like I was missing something. I was never bored but I remember straining very hard to find the profundity that was supposed to be there and never coming up with anything. The Stranger seemed like it was about someone from another planet, and fascinating as it was I never felt like it was saying anything particularly true about human nature. There were some cutting passages in The Fall, but again, I felt like something essential had again been pared away and left a document that was somehow not fully human enough to be a great novel. The Plague, honestly, I barely remember, except for a strange flatness that hung over the entire thing, from the setting down to its gray narration.
It was not until I came to Camus’s essays – selections from his Actuelles, collected in English as Resistance, Rebellion, and Death – that I started to get some sense of why people consider him a great writer. Here at last was a whole person. Every page had a sense of immense honesty and, for me at least, nobility – the voice came from a man who thought things out from himself and felt intensely that it was his responsibility to convince people of what he believed was the truth. Like Orwell, like John Holt, I get a sense from his pages that he feels that communication with many different sorts of people is possible, and that his prose is motivated, before any consideration of beauty, with reaching them.
It is for this reason that Reflections on the Guillotine and The Unbeliever and Christians are so strange to read in today’s political climate. Despite the fact that people are still producing hundreds of articles on the death penalty and the place of religion in society, with many of the same points that Camus made, something about his voice is totally different. One feels that he includes in his audience people who don’t agree with him and makes an honest effort to change their minds. He actually believes that intellectual debate is possible. He occasionally even concedes that in past arguments he has been wrong (incredible!). I have very little idea what sort of life he led, but I get the impression that he was a good man. To paraphrase a line out of his last novel, there are people who vindicate the world just by existing, and he is one of them.
That last novel is The First Man, and I had actually never heard of it until I saw a huge number of copies sitting on the library shelf. Apparently it was an unrevised first draft, written by hand, that he was working on when he died; it was found in his bag, sitting in the car that he crashed in. It is the best thing he ever wrote, and if he got a chance to finish it I think it would have been one of the world’s great novels. At the moment, all that is even close to finished is the sections about his childhood in Algeria (almost completely autobiographical, apparently) but it is still some of the most beautiful and warm-hearted writing I have ever read, and the fact that such finished passages spooled onto the paper with barely any edits makes me convinced that there is such a thing as genius and inspiration.
There is no real plot, yet. It is just the story of a poor, gifted kid growing up in Algeria. His father died when he was still an infant and he is raised along with his brother by his half-deaf mother, his handicapped uncle, and his grandmother. Everyone in the family besides the two boys is illiterate, and it is a hard life that is still filled with joy. When you look at the notes, it is clear that the book is as motivated by ideas as Camus’s other novels – what it is like to grow up without a past, the psychological impact of poverty – but here the ideas are wearing flesh and blood; they come out of the material instead of the other way around. There are also some sections that have no thematic importance at all, that are just there to communicate the pleasure of being a child and playing with friends.
I love reading but I am very rarely moved by novels anymore, and I was by this one – on its own merits and also, although this is purely secondary, because of how Camus died. There is something unbearably sad about an artist dying precisely at the moment that he finds his true voice, his greatest voice. It is the same feeling I get when listening to Sam Cooke’s last records. I remember laughing when I came across a note that Camus had added to the end of an ordinary sentence; it said, for no reason that I could make out, “Exoticism pea soup.” And it seemed so strange and sad that no will ever know what he was thinking when he wrote that to himself.