Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Gene M. Heyman

Gene M. Heyman is a research psychologist at McLean Hospital, a Lecturer in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, and an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College. His new book is Addiction: A Disorder of Choice (Harvard University Press).

Recently, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Camus, Albert (1996). The First Man. New York: Vintage Books.

My reading tends toward nonfiction, but I often have a novel going too. Over the years, my favorites have been Dickens and Philip Roth. Yesterday I finished Albert Camus' posthumously published, unfinished, last novel, The First Man. My impression is that Camus was less than half way done with the story and was planning to go back, revise, delete, and fill in hastily sketched scenes and characters. Nevertheless, the book is a “must read.” I can't imagine anyone who would not find pleasure and inspiration in the main character, Jacques.

The novel is autobiographical, but told in the third person. Jacques grows up in an impoverished French-Arab neighborhood in Algiers. He shares a small, bare apartment with his nearly deaf-mute mother, a tyrannical grandmother, a madcap, possibly brain-damaged, uncle, and an older brother. The brother is one of several blank spots in the book. We learn virtually nothing about him, although he is nearly the same age as Jacques. Possibly Camus planned to flesh him out after the narration was more underway. At the age of one, Jacques loses his father in World War I. The Camus family never recovers. They have few possessions, little family lore, no cultural traditions, and no books. What they know about France is that in the summer it is not as hot as it is in Algeria. What they know about Algeria goes no further than the boundaries of their neighborhood. Only Jacques can read.

Against--or perhaps in spite of--this bleak background, no boy in fiction has had a more intense childhood. For Jacques anything can become an adventure and glorious game. The trolley driver who avoided a dog on the tracks becomes the “heroic friend of the animals,” and the heavy-set brakeman who takes the corners so fast that the trolley loses its overhead wire wins Jacques’ admiration and the nickname “the bear.” On the way home, Jacques and his friends cross swords with a bald shopkeeper, whose great naked dome they loudly jest doubles as a racetrack for flies. Insulted by their gibes, the shopkeeper hires some thugs to teach the boys a lesson. Jacques and his best friend Pierre escape, but the others do not. At recess, Jacques plays soccer, despite the warnings of his grandmother. If she finds scuffmarks on the soles, she promises she will beat him with a whip. There are often scuffmarks, and she always keeps her promise. In the apartment, he lies on the floor with his uncle's dog so that he can feel the furry warmth of the panting animal. At age forty, he fondly remembers the smells of the wet wool trousers of his schoolmates.

On days off from school, Jacques and Pierre roam the city. One of their favorite haunts is the "Home for Disabled Veterans,” a sprawling building, with thick walls, cool hallways, and a redolent kitchen. It is located just beyond the last trolley stop at the edge of a grand abandoned park. The veterans are missing an arm or leg both. A few scoot around in wagons on the stone floors. A young, once-athletic veteran playfully threatens to kick Jacques and Pierre in the ass with his one leg. The adjoining park is densely wooded. There are tall eucalyptuses, royal palms, and rubber trees with low branches that take root again as they spread from the central trunk. Exotic flowers and thick hedges cover the ground. In a small clearing hidden by the dense foliage, Jacques and Pierre build an herbal laboratory, where they concoct poisonous potions. They gather oleander leaves, known for their soporific powers, cypress cones, which litter a cemetery, and the petals of strange plants. They have no particular victims in mind, but estimate that their concoctions could decimate most of Algiers.

But the boys’ best days at the convalescent home were when the notoriously fierce North African winds reached gale force levels.

On those days the children would dash to the closest palms, where long dried palm branches were always lying around.... Then, dragging the branches behind them, they ran to the terrace; the wind blew furiously, whistling through the big eucalyptuses that were wildly waving their top branches, disheveling the palms, making a sound of paper crumpling as it shook the big shiny leaves of the rubber trees. The idea was to climb up to the terrace, lift the palm branches and turn their backs to the wind ... then abruptly turn around. The branch would immediately be plastered against them, they would breathe its smell of dust and straw. The game was to advance into the wind while lifting the branch higher and higher. The winner was the one who first reached the end of the terrace without letting the wind tear the branch from his hands, then he would stand erect holding the palm branch at arm's length, one leg extended with all his weight on it, struggling victoriously for as long as possible against the raging force of the wind. There, standing erect over the park and plain seething with trees.... Jacques could feel the wind from the farthest ends of the country coursing down the length of the branches and down his arms to fill him with such a power and an exultation that he cried out endlessly, until his arms and shoulders gave way under the strain and he let go of the branch, which the storm carried off along with his cries. Pgs 243-244.

The immediate context is the crippled veterans with their missing limbs. If we widen the circle, we see Jacques impaired family and their barren apartment, where even words were hard to come by.

In day-to-day affairs, Jacques' exuberance joins forces with his remarkable intelligence and strong sense of honor. He excelled in the classroom, and at early age had a nuanced sense of right and wrong. He would shamelessly lie for boyhood pleasures, such as playing soccer, but was stricken if asked to lie about something important, such as money. The ever-brave Jacques is paralyzed with uncertainty when his grandmother forces him to tell a lie to secure a summer job. He also must have been puzzled by his own intelligence when those closest to him could not read and had so little knowledge of the world. As an adult, Camus joined other left-wing intellectuals in the fight against fascism and exploitation of the less fortunate, but he parted with the Left over the Soviet Union and the war in Algeria. Camus correctly saw that the Soviet Union had become a totalitarian state and argued that the French settlers deserved a place in a new independent, multi-cultural Algerian state.

Camus died when Jacques was about to enter his last year of high school. We never learn what happens to his friend Pierre or to the playful, somewhat zany uncle. There are a few hints about the women who are soon to enter Jacques’ life, but there is no hint of the literary career that lies ahead. No one could possibly guess that Jacques would win the Nobel Prize for literature and write hugely influential, highly principled political essays. In the 1960s, every American college student who took French read L’Etranger at least once. I am sure that biographers have tracked Camus’ path from the obscure Algerian lycee to the Nobel Prize. Sadly, we will never hear Camus’ version of the rest of Jacques’ story. I would like to know if Camus maintained his childhood trick of turning everyday events, even the most humble, into an adventure and parable. I like to think that he did.
Read an excerpt from Heyman's Addiction, and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue