At 17, and in his last year at the lycee in Algiers, Camus first encounter Grenier. Jean Grenier, 15 years Camus’ senior, had just recently started his teaching appointment at the Lycee Bugeaud where Camus had been attending. What followed was a lifelong mentorship, and ultimate friendship, that Camus himself often proclaimed as one of the most defining relationships in his life. Camus speaks best for himself, as he always does, regarding what Grenier has provided him and the world. Camus sent Grenier, who was living in Egypt at the time, a copy of his 1949 radio address regarding Genier’s recently awarded Prix du Portique:
He has no subject matter other than man’s solitude and his craving for the absolute. Apparently, he simply elaborated upon a lengthy subject not relevant today. But it would seem that this subject includes all others. For none of our writers has taken up so early and with such fine results the issues that are the very core of our concerns: choice engagement, action, evil, political orthodoxy. He took up these subjects with an undying spirit, showing that these new ideas had a past. Unlike so many others, he has never tried to legislate them, knowing how to take into account both ignorance and pain. A difficult current runs throughout his work. It supposes an unknown and concealed suffering which makes such an indirect confession a very emotional one. It adds a passionate resonance to the strength of the argument. And so, we love, and also admire, an exceptional work which does not seem to affirm anything but which provides us with certitudes and which, by a simple touch with the truth, succeeds in overwhelming us. pg. 260
Throughout the course of their correspondence, Camus expresses himself deeply to Grenier from whom he consistently seeks approval. Grenier, at first, speaks as to mostly practical matters and assessments of Camus’ works. Some might find Grenier’s standoffishness to reflect that of a substitute father-figure for Camus (whose own father died in WWI). However, the tone changes with the years. Toward the end of Camus’ life, the exchange is that of peers who have gained boundless respect for one another.
The letters probably would only appeal to those fascinated by Camus and Grenier. Much of their content is mundane. But there are moments where one can imagine the turning points in their thinking. For example, in February 1946, Camus reacts to the aftermath of the Hitler nightmare:
At least this has made me reflect upon many things. I will use my essay on revolt to say that this cult of history and the will to power in which we live is both an insanity and a theoretical error. It’s time to start the critique of Nietzscheanism (in its Hegelian aspect), not from the traditional viewpoint, but from a contemporary one. Out of nostalgia, no doubt, I am turning more and more toward the side of mankind that does not belong to history. If it’s true that we live in history, I know that we die outside history. Both truths must be considered. The Greeks and the Christians understood that. pg. 90-91
Likewise, Grenier continually explores his own rejection of doctrine. The inhuman aspect in the rigorous application of theoretical conclusions appalls him. His offhanded Latin quote by the Scholastics on page 148: In necessariis unitas, in dubiss libertas, in omnibus caritas (“in necessary things, unity / in doubtful things, liberty / in all things, love”) expresses also the purpose and core of Camus’ work.
As much as I appreciate this collection, I have difficulty getting past the voyeuristic quality in viewing correspondence. Camus had destroyed many of his earlier letters and those that are still in existence reveal his insecurities and his yearnings for solitude. In our tabloid culture, there is nothing that would be considered shocking. However, the intimacy expressed is from a man who was in many ways a private man. Camus poured much of himself into his published works and, by taking more than what he willingly offered, it’s hard not to feel selfish.