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College Quarterly
Winter 1995 - Volume 3 Number 2
The First Man
Albert Camus
Toronto: Knopf Canada, 1995
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

I have been many times blessed with wonderful teachers. Most have been distinguished by their wisdom, expertise, erudition and, occasionally, charm. One stands out for none of these, but he was crucial. His name, I seem to recall, was Mr. Podgornik. He was a substitute teacher who appeared for a few months in my high school French class in 1961. He was young and small and shy. I suspected that he was a Hungarian refugee. I imagined also that he was buying time until he could pursue scholarly studies, perhaps at the University of Toronto. He was certainly no high school teacher. Whatever he had experienced from young people in Europe was assuredly different from my duck-tailed, leather-jacketed, teen-aged brethren. He sometimes talked quietly about his studies at the Sorbonne; we wondered why he hadn't tried out the Parisian night life about which we knew nothing but fantasized much.

But Mr. Podgornik (if that was truly his name) did something marvellous for me. He introduced me to the work of Albert Camus, dead then less than a year. At his suggestion, I read The Stranger. I never looked back.

Camus' novels, plays, essays and notebooks are dear to me. I own them all and all are well-worn. Camus was no formal philosopher nor a clever player of French intellectual politics. Despite what people who should know better say, he was - as he took great pains to insist - never an existentialist. His language was plain. His message was humility. His ideas never permitted the intolerance characteristic of communism, imperialism and nationalism. His writing was always decent. Camus was a poor Algerian soccer player with the gift of the gab.

Perhaps Mr. Podgornik was poor too. He simply disappeared; Camus didn't. Now, 35 years after his death, Camus' last (unfinished) novel has been published. His daughter Catherine (at whose photo I have stared for three decades wondering what it was like to be Camus' child and to be deprived of him at age 14) has at last let this most plainly autobiographical volume speak clearly of the physical pain, the sensual joy and the transparent poverty of his childhood. This childhood under the relentless Algerian sun allowed him to experience the world viscerally.

Unlike Sartre, who felt nausea at decaying matter and preferred, instead, intellectual experience, Camus enjoyed reality. Sartre wrongly condemned Camus for denouncing Stalinism and called him a traitor to the left when he criticized the terrorism of Algerian nationalism. On those and other issues Camus' moderation has been proven right.

So, as we approach the evidently witless, eviscerated and contentless version of fin-de-si?cle “virtual reality”, it strikes me that interest in Camus may return. His limpid language and even temper sound well over the current cacophony of cheap political thrills. Sadly, by their own admission, few in charge of Ontario's colleges read much and those who do normally disavow serious philosophy. Still, there may be some room left for people to think a little bit and to live as they think.

Camus captured me just before I turned 20; The First Man completes a journey from the notebooks, to the novels, to the plays, to the essays to a timeless truth. The First Man is surely Camus' autobiography - appropriately cut off near the middle. His early talk remains and, at a time when corporate chatter - with its teeny bits and weeny bytes - passes for discussion, his youthful lucidity may get our attention.

We are, after all, in a tiresome time of ethical minimalism from which thoughtful people may seek non-economic (hence, non-idiotic) relief. Moralists like Camus, whose roots are in Nietzsche more than in Moses or Marx or Milton Friedman, fill the bill. Morals that flow from greater spirits than Preston Manning and Pat Buchanan may yet inform our civil discourse and (if they do) poor, dead, human Alberto may be heard again.

Someone once said that Sartre was like an exciting lover while Camus was a faithful husband. We are now deprived of Sartre. His early Stalinist commitments were tragic; his later Maoist enthusiasms were a farce. Eroticism became artificial and revolution has become a slogan with which to sell soap, fast food and “common sense.” Deeper feeling may now be found in husbands, if only as a moderate, literary next-to-last stand.

Howard A. Doughty teaches Natural Science and Canadian Studies at Seneca College in King City, and is editor of The College Quarterly.