Few gestures are more dazzling than those born of human gratitude. One of the most poignant examples of such an act (not to overlook all those which go unnoticed, happening every day) is a letter from the French writer Albert Camus (1913-1960) to his primary school teacher, written a few days after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. The award was granted for “a work which highlights the problems arising in the conscience of men today.” And if there was a modern writer who knew how to describe human interiority and the importance of living a meaningful life, knowing always the true nature of love and happiness, it was this French thinker.

Camus’s father died on the battlefield during World War I, before the boy had reached one year of age. He and his older brother grew up in misery, in French Algeria, next to their mother (an illiterate and almost deaf woman) and his grandmother, and with little chance of a kinder future. But Camus was lucky enough to meet Louis Germaine, his elementary school teacher, and one of the first to notice his enormous genius and to help him to exploit it. It was a meeting which reminds us of education’s ability to ennoble both life and mind. Germaine not only gave extra-curricular classes to his young pupil, he also insisted to Camus’s mother that she request a scholarship such that Camus could continue his studies.

Three decades later, at age 44, the philosopher became the second youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. On November 19, 1957, just a few days after receiving the distinction, Camus wrote a letter to his teacher affirming the definitive importance of the teacher’s presence and support during those formative years.

The letter from Camus to Germaine, of which little else is known, was released 35 years after the writer’s death with the publication of his posthumous and unfinished work, The First Man (1995). It’s an autobiographical novel in which the author highlighted the role of his teacher in his life. It is known, for example, that Germaine accompanied him by tram to the entrance exam to the institute and that he waited for him, sitting outside on a bench while Camus sat for the exam. Then, Germaine went out of his way to get the scholarship for his young student.

Germaine replied to Camus’s letter in 1959 in a letter that was also published after Camus’s death. “I think I know the nice little man you were and the child, very often, contains the germ of the man he will become. The pleasure of being in class shone in your entire person. Your face expressed optimism […] Your celebrity has not gone to your head. You’re still Camus himself,” the professor wrote in what could be one of history’s most moving epistolary exchanges.

The letter to Germaine, a text which, in its resplendent simplicity, pays a tribute in words to one of the most important men in Camus’s life. It also reminds us of the inadvertent magic of one of those most fortunate of events that can happen to a person, to know someone who will change their life forever.


Dear Mr. 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 honor, 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 honor. 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.

Albert Camus

 

 

Image: Creative Commons – Antonio Marín Segovia

Few gestures are more dazzling than those born of human gratitude. One of the most poignant examples of such an act (not to overlook all those which go unnoticed, happening every day) is a letter from the French writer Albert Camus (1913-1960) to his primary school teacher, written a few days after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. The award was granted for “a work which highlights the problems arising in the conscience of men today.” And if there was a modern writer who knew how to describe human interiority and the importance of living a meaningful life, knowing always the true nature of love and happiness, it was this French thinker.

Camus’s father died on the battlefield during World War I, before the boy had reached one year of age. He and his older brother grew up in misery, in French Algeria, next to their mother (an illiterate and almost deaf woman) and his grandmother, and with little chance of a kinder future. But Camus was lucky enough to meet Louis Germaine, his elementary school teacher, and one of the first to notice his enormous genius and to help him to exploit it. It was a meeting which reminds us of education’s ability to ennoble both life and mind. Germaine not only gave extra-curricular classes to his young pupil, he also insisted to Camus’s mother that she request a scholarship such that Camus could continue his studies.

Three decades later, at age 44, the philosopher became the second youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. On November 19, 1957, just a few days after receiving the distinction, Camus wrote a letter to his teacher affirming the definitive importance of the teacher’s presence and support during those formative years.

The letter from Camus to Germaine, of which little else is known, was released 35 years after the writer’s death with the publication of his posthumous and unfinished work, The First Man (1995). It’s an autobiographical novel in which the author highlighted the role of his teacher in his life. It is known, for example, that Germaine accompanied him by tram to the entrance exam to the institute and that he waited for him, sitting outside on a bench while Camus sat for the exam. Then, Germaine went out of his way to get the scholarship for his young student.

Germaine replied to Camus’s letter in 1959 in a letter that was also published after Camus’s death. “I think I know the nice little man you were and the child, very often, contains the germ of the man he will become. The pleasure of being in class shone in your entire person. Your face expressed optimism […] Your celebrity has not gone to your head. You’re still Camus himself,” the professor wrote in what could be one of history’s most moving epistolary exchanges.

The letter to Germaine, a text which, in its resplendent simplicity, pays a tribute in words to one of the most important men in Camus’s life. It also reminds us of the inadvertent magic of one of those most fortunate of events that can happen to a person, to know someone who will change their life forever.


Dear Mr. 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 honor, 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 honor. 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.

Albert Camus

 

 

Image: Creative Commons – Antonio Marín Segovia