Review by Ian Keogh
The First Man is the novel Albert Camus was working on when he died in 1960, yet for reasons explained in Alice Kaplan’s introduction it remained unpublished until 1994, including Camus’ notes alongside the text. It’s ambitious, Camus having stated his forthcoming work was intended to match the scope of War and Peace, and the work in progress piled revision upon revision, not just in terms of plot, but phrases and words as Camus sought his perfection.
Jacques Ferrandez, then, was faced with a fundamental choice before even embarking on the adaptation, and selected to render The First Man as a straightforward story, settling on a single interpretation in telling the life of Jacques Cormery. Because the story was unfinished there’s a prevailing ambiguity and a temptation to ascribe meaning where there may be none. For instance, did Camus intend the opening sequence of Jacques’ birth to parallel the Biblical nativity and therefore configure Jacques as a would-be saviour? As so many aspects mirror Camus’ own life, possibly not, but the ambiguity remains.
The First Man concerns Jacques, a successful French Algerian writer in the late 1950s, attempting to learn about the father he never knew. This is during a time of turmoil and impending revolution in French colonised Algeria, at the same time incorporating anecdotal history. Camus evokes the detail of the past by drawing from his own life, and Ferrandez conveys that emotional richness. The First Man is populated with memorable characters, and Ferrandez supplies them sympathetically or otherwise, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions about what’s left unstated.
Horrific treatment is a consistent theme, whether from colonial resentment, war or what was then considered acceptable in disciplining a child, and in being true to who some people were Camus includes unpalatable views, which in turn make the adaptation. So does some of Camus pontificating on ancestry and poverty, but it would be mistaken to credit this version entirely to Camus. Via diligent research and carefully created art Ferrandez brings the varied locations to startling life via thorough immersion. His landscapes are beautifully created in simple line and watercolour, and he’s very precise with period detail, while using thoughtful techniques to draw lines between it and the present, such as the changing relationship between Jacques and his mother seen on the sample art. While that relationship has its complexities, it’s the connection between grandmother and grandson that dominates The First Man, Jacques’ matriarchal figure being the indomitable old woman aware only the family’s own toil will put food on the table.
Ferrandez achieves what Camus didn’t in creating something complete, and while not everyone’s going to agree with Camus’ thoughts on life, love and culture, it’s a masterful condensation of intent that in its original form was nowhere near as concise.