Today is the anniversary of the death of French-Algerian author Albert Camus. His achievements were numerous, but over the past year, for obvious reasons, one particular novel of Camus’ has been spoken of more than any other: The Plague (originally titled, in French, La Peste), the fictionalised and prescient story of an epidemic that decimates the Algerian city of Oran—a harrowing book he began writing whilst in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France. It was ten years after that novel was published that Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.” Days after finding out, Camus wrote to someone who had steered him through a tough childhood, and to whom he felt he owed so much: his former teacher, Louis Germain. That letter, and Germain’s reply, are below.
19 November 1957
Dear Monsieur Germain,
I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honour, one I neither sought nor solicited.
But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.
I don’t make too much of this sort of honour. But at least it gives me the opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.
My dear child,
I do not know how to express the delight you gave me with your gracious act nor how to thank you for it. If it were possible, I would give a great hug to the big boy you have become who for me will always be “my little Camus.”
Who is Camus? I have the impression that those who try to penetrate your nature do not quite succeed. You have always shown an instinctive reticence about revealing your nature, your feelings. You succeed all the more for being unaffected, direct. And good on top of that! I got these impressions of you in class. The pedagogue who does his job conscientiously overlooks no opportunity to know his pupils, his children, and these occur all the time. An answer, a gesture, a stance are amply revealing. So I think I well know the nice little fellow you were, and very often the child contains the seed of the man he will become. Your pleasure at being in school burst out all over. Your face showed optimism. And I never suspected the actual situation of your family from studying you. I only had a glimpse when your mother came to see me about your being listed among the candidates for the scholarship. Anyway, that happened when you were about to leave me. But until then you seemed to me to be in the same position as your classmates. You always had what you needed. Like your brother, you were nicely dressed. I don’t think I can find a greater compliment to your mother.
It gives me very great satisfaction to see that your fame has not gone to your head. You have remained Camus: bravo. I have followed with interest the many vicissitudes of the play you adapted and also staged: The Possessed. I love you too much not to wish you the greatest success: it is what you deserve.
Know that, even when I do not write, I often think of all of you.
Madame Germain and I warmly embrace all four of you.
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Letters taken from More Letters of Note - reproduced by permission of the Estate of Albert Camus.