Albert Camus maintained a lifelong, intimate, and candid correspondence with French philosopher Jean Grenier. Camus had been Grenier’s student at the University of Algiers, and would dedicate his first book to Grenier.
TO JEAN GRENIER
September 18,1951, Paris
I didn’t know where to write to you to tell you of my surprise, and my gratitude, upon receiving these recollections, which have awakened many things in me. If I didn’t have a strange inability to write recollections, I would have liked to relate the same facts from the point of view I had them. Then you would have read that the very young man in Belcourt whose greeting surprised you was above all overcome by timidity and gratitude because you had come to him. It’s so true that with this visit, which left you so bewildered, began the loyalty to you that I have maintained for twenty years and that will not fail. This paradox is in fact quite natural. In these pages, which go well beyond their subject and which touched me more than I can say, only one thing is missing which, moreover, could not be there: the precise awareness of what you were for me. It’s very generous of you to refer to those times as if I could have been your equal back then. But I was an adolescent without any experience or curiosity other than that of sensation. A young barbarian, somewhat limited and rather withdrawn. Not so much, however, not to sense when I met you that I was being introduced to another world in which I learned that I was nothing. This is why, if it’s true that I’ve always had a “Castilian” side, it never bothered me in front of you. I have no pride before those I love or admire. I told you one day, laughingly, my disappointments as a philosophy student. It was meant to be funny; they were not disappointments of self-esteem, but rather the uncertainty of a mind more forthright than subtle. But the result was worth it: you taught me that intelligence could be flexible without ceasing to be efficient.
At one time, and you are right to point it out, I did refuse to agree with you. I did not understand how you could advise me to become a Communist and then yourself take a position against Communism. I explained this to you later because by then I understood your position. But at the time I suffered too much from the experience (I’m glad for it now) to have been able to remain lucid. While on this subject, let me tell you how I left the party. The posters and the selling newspapers, believe me, had nothing to do with it. For a young sportsman, it was even sort of fun and in any case I did it, of my own free will, for the theater and for the Maison de la Culture, never for the party, which was busy taking care of its intellectuals. But I was put in charge of recruiting Arab militants and having them join a nationalist organization (L’Étoile Nord-Africaine, which later became the PPA). I did it, and those Arab militants, whose comportment and loyalty I admired, became my friends. The turning point of ’36 came. These militants were charged and imprisoned, their organization dissolved, in the name of a policy approved and encouraged by the Communist Party. The few who escaped the police came to ask me if I would allow such infamy without saying anything. That afternoon has remained imprinted on my mind; I still remember that I was shaking as they spoke to me; I was ashamed; I did then what was necessary. I recognized that you were right in what you wrote. But then you could not have been right in what you had advised me; I did not understand. I can swear, however, that I never held it against you. I was only disappointed in friendship, as others are disappointed in love. Since then I have understood: first, because I know you better, and also because I have better assessed all that I learned then, which I would never have learned otherwise.
Let me tell you yet another important thing about me: I did not have an unhappy childhood, the real poverty I lived in was never that painful. I never heard complaints or demands around me, our life seemed natural to me. If it’s true that I have learned since, at the lycée for example, that fortunes could be unequal, you also know that social classes in Algeria are not as distinct as they are here (it would have been different had I been Arab, naturally). Later on, as you know, I had a difficult life. But I regret nothing. My blessings have outweighed my misfortunes. And among my blessings, because it was one for me at that time, I count that of having met you and having been able to maintain your friendship, in spite of what I was.
This is what I’m getting at: you are right to attribute to my character the uneasiness you felt in approaching me. I know that I push away many people sometimes. There are few I really miss. But with you, how can I not regret having closed myself off for so long. If I had been less abrupt and withdrawn, less concerned with bothering you, in a word, more open, you would have realized sooner that a friendship at least had been established with you forever. True generosity would have been to think less that I could not bring anything to you and open up to you, whatever the risk. But I never spoke to you about my life; I never even let it show that I very often thought about you, about that unknown pain you seemed to be suffering from. Yes, it is again a blessing that life has at least been generous enough so that I can write you this letter today, letting my ideas flow, without any fear of exceeding or not arriving at the right expression.
I should also speak to you about the foundations of revolt, and Christianity. But it seems that I still have a long way to go and a lot to learn. My only fear today is not returning justice and love to everything that deserves justice and love. Yet I know that this is impossible. And, for example, if I acknowledge the greatness of the Gospels, I cannot help judging historical Christianity without charity. I am not unaware that there are mysteries, believe me. But I am more sensitive to those of nature than to those of history. Christianity, and it seems to me that nothing in Jesus’ teachings allowed this, has done everything to cover up the former with the latter. What can I admire and love in this, I who never felt I had a religious soul, except before the sea or night? The fact remains, however, that this hostility, this lack of understanding, in the strongest sense, makes for one of my sorrows. But let’s drop this.
Dear Grenier, dear friend, do I need now to thank you? You don’t thank those who have raised and guided you. You ask them to continue to be what they are. Keep me in your friendship, it is essential to my life, and to my efforts. And have no doubts about your difficult student and trusting friend.
Excerpted from Correspondence: Albert Camus & Jean Grenier, 1932-1960, trans. by Jan F. Rigaud. Translation © 2003 by University of Nebraska Press.