"The First Man," by Albert Camus, translated from the French by David Hapgood. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 336 pages. $23.
Albert Camus, the French writer and Nobel Prize winner, died in 1960 when he crashed his car. In the wrecked car was the incomplete first part of what, clearly, was a much larger project, an autobiographical novel. His son and daughter have now edited and published that manuscript.
To read it is to visit a tomb and find that a spring is bubbling from it. One of the themes is a search for the father who was killed in World War I a few months after Camus was born; another is a rending, brilliant evocation of the long-submerged claims that Algeria's harsh landscape and history exert on him. A third is a joyfully vivid re-creation of a childhood in the teeming port of Algiers in the 1930s, a childhood constrained by poverty but wonderfully free in exploration and sensuous discovery.
We know Camus' work largely as austerely voiced allegory and reflection upon the condition of modern man. Like Kafka's, these apparently abstract writings suggest much more than abstraction, as if a rich and complex human presence were drawing breath in the next room. In this book Camus yanks open the door and stands there in an unmediated poetic blaze.