WHEN Albert Camus died in a car crash in 1960, the unfinished manuscript for his novel, Le Premier Homme, was found with him. For 34 years it remained unpublished - his wife's decision. She did not want this book - highly political in 60s France, and highly personal - which was unrevised, unfinished, lacking punctuation and a firm structure, to give ammunition to those who were saying Camus was finished as a writer. His daughter, Catherine, explains in the preface to the English edition, that she and her brother were persuaded, eventually, to publish, because: 'we believed a manuscript of such importance would sooner or later be published unless we destroyed it. Since we had no right to destroy it, we preferred to publish it ourselves, so it would appear exactly as it was.' Had her father lived, Catherine Camus states, the novel would have been different: he was a reserved man and would have masked his feelings more in any final version. This is not, yet, a novel. Camus has scribbled messages to himself: Put this piece before that. Is it night? Or, tellingly, when Jacques, the protagonist, appears as an adult looking back at his life, the author writes himself a note: 'From the beginning show the alien in Jacques more'. So what we have is a shifting course of ideas, without any fixed structure. Names, incidents are fleeting and changeable. Yet, despite its unintentioned deconstruction, this is still a very touching piece. The chapters have almost biblical titles: In Search of the Father; The Son. It seems that the book is intended to be an exploration of the individual odyssey: a look at what makes a man the way he is. The world of Cormery, and of Camus, is Algeria, with its burning sun and a colonisation policy which means that neither settlers - ploughing fields in their ridiculous top hats - nor Arabs feel that they fully belong. Jacques Cormery's father died in France in World War I. Jacques' first sense of connection with him came when he was 40, visiting the grave, and feeling for his own 28-year-old father as if he were his own son. Jacques returns to visit his family in Algiers, and remembers his childhood. It is divided into the days before and the days after he went to the lycee on a scholarship, and began to break with his background, become an alienist. He knew, at nine, that his success in the lycee exams had uprooted him from the warm and innocent world of the poor. 'He would have to grow up and bring himself up alone, and it would be at the highest cost,' is the bleak observation. The alienist of Camus' perception is the 20th-century educated European. No longer is there a trust in God, or Victorian morality, or even family. The only thing to believe in is what things feel like, or smell like, or taste like: and even that is transient. Jacques is entirely sensual: he remembers his mother's neck, the richness of the sea, the taste of hard-won french fries. His memories recapture the simplest joys: the smell of wet wool from coats, the sharp smell of wet ink, the taste of a satchel strap. Jacques the boy takes life, waves it around, and celebrates it. 'You love life; you have to, since that's all you believe in,' a friend, Malan, tells Jacques the adult. The language is lyrical, poetic. Jacques' mother can remember little of her past: 'there remained only a memory as imperceptible as the ashes of a butterfly wing incinerated in a forest fire.' There is some delightful symbolism. At his communion class, Jacques is hit by the priest as punishment for making faces. With the tip of his tongue he discovers the inside of his cheek has been cut by the blow: 'he swallowed his blood' - and it is a far more meaningful action than the religious ceremony a few weeks later. Camus emphasises limitations and restrictions. Jacques' uncle Ernest (sometimes called Etienne) is stone deaf. His mother is partly deaf, and fully illiterate. Yet neither is portrayed as a victim: it is poverty, as much as loss of a physical sense, that can limit your ideas of the world. Jacques' life is packed with alternative father figures. His deaf uncle is the most fascinating: Ernest is beautiful, sexy, adored, mercurial. He is remembered as 'talking his head off at the bar while (his friends) all laughed - laughter where there is no mockery, for his friends adored Ernest for his good nature and his generosity'. His primary school teacher, Monsieur Bernard, with his 'sugar' cane and his fierce, proud, protection of his young charges, is another man to whom the young Jacques feels himself drawn. Yet still, in true Etranger style, the boy - and later the man - feels himself lacking in relationships. But he is more complicated than Meursault, the outsider of Camus' seminal text. He loves, but finds he cannot love enough. He wants to belong and then finds there is nothing to belong to. He feels, but he does not have the vocabulary to understand his feelings. The notion is best expressed by Malan: 'there is a terrible emptiness in me; an indifference that hurts.' The book ends with two letters. One was written by Camus to his old primary school teacher, Louis Germain - the model for Monsieur Bernard - after he received the Nobel Prize. The other was the last letter written by Germain to Camus. There is a world of mutual respect in those letters. A final touch of tenderness in what is a beautifully mature and tender book.