Influencing the Young Albert Camus: Perspectives on Jean Grenier

In the family of historical subfields, intellectual history is often treated as a shunned stepchild among blood-related siblings. This happens for many reasons, but one main reason is that intellectual history is simply misunderstood. Most people think intellectual history is the study of a specific idea’s development over time, which is indeed one way of doing intellectual history but certainly not the only one. In fact, this way of doing intellectual history has fallen out of favor, since it has the tendency to look at ideas without regard for their interaction with other phenomena. (I am avoiding the word “context” because genealogy is a form of context.) This type of analysis is referred to as “vertical”; however, “horizontal” analysis has come to replace it. As the historian Stefan Collini explains the change, “instead of works which cut a ‘vertical’ (and often teleological) slice through the past… the tendency of recent work has been towards excavating a more ‘horizontal’ site, exploring the idioms and preoccupations of a past period as they manifest themselves in thought and discussion about various issues that cannot readily be assigned to current academic pigeon-holes.”[1] Horizontal thinking, then, allows for a more ecumenical analysis, one that goes beyond a discussion of an idea’s development to maturity. It is with this horizontal mode of analysis that I want to frame my discussion of Albert Camus, one of the France’s most famous writer-philosophers in the twentieth century.

What does this mean for my historiography, you may ask? Well, it means that I had to get creative when choosing a topic in order to avoid, for example, looking at how different authors interpret absurdity in Camus’ thought generally or in one of his texts. This would be vertical history, or an interpretation of it, and that is something I wanted to avoid. I knew I wanted to use Alice Kaplan’s Looking for the Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic,[2] but it was not until I read a few essays in The Cambridge Companion to Camus that I arrived at an effectual topic:[3] Jean Grenier’s intellectual influence on Camus before the publication of The Stranger in May 1942. Jean Grenier was one of Camus’ mentors as a young writer,[4] and his influence on can be seen in much of his writing; however, I am focusing on the years before The Stranger because that is where the literature focuses its interpretive energy. Admittedly, this takes me away from Camus himself, but focusing on Grenier allows me to avoid falling into literary criticism or biography. It also allows me to cover something related to Camus that is not so “been there, done that.” Ultimately, I hope to show that, although opinion differs about Jean Grenier’s influence on Camus—for example, with regard to extent and effects—the authors agree that Grenier did have a noticeable influence on Albert Camus’ intellectual upbringing.

Perhaps it is obvious that one’s mentor is tagged as one of their main intellectual influences, but it is not something that it often discussed. More often than not, discussions of an author’s intellectual influences center on canonical writers that that person reads; often that person responds to those influences in their own writing. Rarely, however, is an author’s teacher or mentor discussed, for, in the intellectual history most people imagine, an idea is studied hermetically, without regard for context. In this intellectual history, Camus can be studied without knowledge of his teacher, in the mode of literary criticism. But to understand Camus prior to the birth of The Stranger and at least some of the ideas that run through it, we need to learn about the man who shaped Camus’ intellectual world to a great extent. Camus met Jean Grenier in 1930, the same year he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Although he was seventeen, and had already been influenced in some way by his primary school teacher Louis German and his uncle Gustave Acault, it was Jean Grenier who really set Camus up for a life of the mind. As Kaplan summarizes it, “In 1930, Camus met Jean Grenier, his lycée and then his university teacher, who guided his early reading and encouraged him to take the double path of literature and philosophy.”[5] It may be too much to say that Grenier is responsible for giving us Camus, but as someone who is in graduate school because his own mentor encouraged it, I would suggest that it might also be accurate. After all, not only did Grenier introduce Camus to the thinkers he would grapple with throughout his life as a writer (e.g. Schopenhauer, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche & Bergson),[6] he also recommended the book that convinced the young Camus that he could be a writer: La Douleur (grief), by André de Richaud. As Kaplan puts it, “[Camus] considered La Douleur his license to write,”[7] because it showed that one didn’t need to write about bourgeois concerns like André Gide or Marcel Proust to become a successful writer.

Toby Garfitt’s “Situating Camus: the formative years,” chapter two of The Cambridge Companion to Camus,[8] is devoted entirely to Grenier’s influence on Camus, with special attention focused on the early nineteen thirties. Although Garfitt mentions early influences in Camus’ life,[9] he, like Kaplan, sees Grenier as a distinct moment in the development of Camus’ intellectual life. And yet, Garfitt speaks about Grenier’s early influence on Camus in a slightly different way than Kaplan. For example, after quoting Camus at age sixteen, Garfitt writes, “It was in the following year, 1930-1, that Camus encountered the man who was to unlock the world of books and ideas for him. The man was Jean Grenier, who at the ago of thirty-two arrived back in Algiers (where he had already taught for a year in 1923-4) to teach philosophy at the Lycée.”[10] Whereas Kaplan points to Grenier as a teacher who “guided” and “encouraged” Camus’ intellectual passions, Garfitt calls him “the man who was to unlock the world of books and ideas” for Camus. If this doesn’t reveal a big enough difference, Garfitt’s next sentences should. As if anticipating someone questioning Grenier’s mentor credentials, Garfitt writes,

But Grenier was not only a teacher of philosophy and a practicing philosopher himself; he had recently begun to publish essays in the Nouvelle Review Française (NRF), and he had even worked for a while for the publishers Editions de la NRF (Gallimard), so that he brought with him all the prestige of the Parisian literary world. His aim was less to teach the official syllabus than to open his pupils’ minds to culture in a broad sense.[11]

Grenier was a teacher, yes, but he was much more than that, according to Garfitt: he was a practicing philosopher, a published writer in one of France’s most prestigious literary magazines, and an employee of Gallimard, one of the literary world’s top publishers. While Garfitt writes that Grenier “brought with him all the prestige of the Parisian literary world,” it seems that what he really wants to suggest is that Grenier brought the Parisian literary world to Camus. That is, Garfitt believes Grenier gave Camus a Parisian literary education, or at least as much of a Parisian literary education as he could expect to receive in French Algeria. However, as the last sentence in the quoted passage demonstrates, Grenier also gave Camus a cultural education that went beyond the official syllabus dictated by Paris. In other words, Garfitt maintains that Grenier was more than just Camus’ teacher: he was the person who set in motion the intellectual curiosities that would allow Camus to one day write some of the most stunning pieces of writing, including his first breakthrough novel The Stranger, and he while doing this, he represented the possibilities of intellectual life. As Garfitt puts it in the conclusion to his chapter, “The period 1931-4 was crucial for Camus’s intellectual development, and it is clear that many of the elements that he absorbed in those three years were introduced to him, and mediated, by Grenier.”[12]

Significantly, Grenier was to have a more direct impact on The Stranger. Garfitt, for one, points out that Grenier noticed his influence in The Stranger. Grenier recommended Dostoyevsky to Camus during the period 1931-4, and, as Garfitt tells it, “He later noticed that Dostoyevsky’s analysis, in Notes from the Underground, of man’s awareness of his total impotence within a blind, even absurd world, was very similar to that found in L’Etranger: it may well have been his own teaching that got Camus thinking along those lines.”[13] We would never be able to prove definitively that this specific Dostoyevsky piece was on Camus’ mind while he was writing The Stranger unless he had written it down in his journal, which he apparently did not, since Garfitt makes no mention of it. (Even if he had written it down, we would still need to handle the claim with caution, less we make the mistake of taking autobiographical claims at face value.) But the suggestion by both Grenier and Garfitt is enough to show that Grenier’s teaching stayed with Camus in some noticeable way, at least until The Stranger.

If this is not direct enough for you, Kaplan does one better by providing an example of how Grenier influenced The Stranger in a more tangible way. After writing a novel titled A Happy Death, which contains elements that would eventually end up in The Stranger, Camus sent Grenier the manuscript for feedback. Grenier’s feedback was not good, and Camus took it to heart. As Kaplan writes, “Camus burned Grenier’s response with the rest of his correspondence in October 1939—burned the harsh words of reproach. We know how harsh the letter must have been because the fussy and often disapproving teacher carefully saved Camus’s response.”[14] Kaplan quotes Camus’ response to Grenier at length, but for our purposes, the beginning of the response is enough to get an idea of how Camus reacted to Grenier’s harsh criticism: “First of all, thank you. Yours is the only voice that I can heed with profit. What you say always revolts me for a few hours. But this forces me to reflect and to understand. . . . Today what you are saying is absolutely right.”[15] Clearly, Grenier’s opinion carries great weight with Camus, and Kaplan does a good job of showing this. After the quote, the remainder of which being full of dejection, Kaplan adds, “Then as he poured out his heart for many pages, Camus asked Grenier a question that gave his teacher enormous power over his future: ‘Before going back to work, there is one thing I’d like to know from you because you’re the only one who can tell me straight: Do you sincerely believe I should continue writing?’”[16] As if pouring his heart out for pages was not enough, Camus asks Grenier to decide his future for him. Grenier’s response was apparently so harsh that Camus felt he was not even qualified to make the decision himself. Kaplan informs the reader that “Camus realized he could only answer the question for himself,” but she leaves us with no doubt that Grenier is an important figure in Camus’ life intellectual life. If fact, in the next chapter, Kaplan informs the reader that Camus, although he attempted rewrites, abandoned A Happy Death; furthermore, character and plot points of the novel that would become The Stranger began to emerge in noticeable form during this time, after Camus abandoned A Happy Death. If The Stranger emerged in the period following Grenier’s letter, then the proposition that Grenier set the novel in motion is not that ludicrous; this is exactly the proposition Kaplan makes by telling the story in this way. To be clear, I do not think Kaplan is suggesting the Grenier is the sole cause of The Stranger; rather, I think she is suggesting that Grenier was integral to its development. In this way, Grenier was also integral to Camus’ intellectual development as a thinker and writer.

Interestingly, Grenier had a less obvious impact on Camus’s intellectual development prior to The Stranger: he persuaded Camus to join the Algerian Communist Party (PCA) in the late nineteen thirties. Ieme van der Poel mentions this aspect of Grenier’s influence in her Cambridge Companion to Camus chapter “Camus: a life lived in critical times,”[17] which attempts to provide the larger historical context to Camus’ life while giving the reader insight into how Camus negotiated that context in his writing. As Poel notes, “From 1935-1937, Camus was a member of the Algerian Communist Party. In his choice of membership, he was certainly influenced by his former teacher and mentor, the writer Jean Grenier. It is less obvious why, after a relatively short period of time, Camus was struck off the party’s register.”[18] Grenier appears and disappears in one sentence, which is probably not surprising in a chapter devoted to the larger historical context of Camus’ life, but it is significant that Grenier gets a mention in the years before The Stranger was published. Kaplan, too, mentions Grenier’s role in Camus’ decision to join the PCA, though her language is his a bit harsher than Poel’s. As she puts it, “[Camus] joined the Communist Party in 1935, urged on rather cynically by Grenier, who hated the Communists but thought party membership was a rite of passage, and by a school friend, Claude Fréminville.”[19] Although the language is slightly different, Kaplan and Poel agree that Grenier had a hand in getting Camus to join the Communist Party. Garfitt agrees as well, but his take is a little different. “In terms of political commitment,” writes Garfitt, “Camus was under pressure in 1934 to join the Communist Party, but he wanted to keep his eyes open and avoid being ‘blinded by short-term convictions’; in the course of the next year Grenier was to encourage his pupil to follow his natural inclinations and join the party.”[20] Garfitt makes it known that Camus was indeed under pressure to join the Community Party, but he believes Grenier’s influence was one of encouragement, not of pressure. Regardless of the differences in interpretation among the three authors, they all believe that Grenier influenced Camus’ decision to join the Algerian Communist Party in some capacity. To what degree communism had a lasting or even short-term impact on Camus is less important for our purposes than acknowledging that during his time with the Communist Party, Camus was not under Grenier’s tutelage as much as he had been when not in the party. According to Garfitt, this and other breaks from Grenier “had a positive value in helping Camus to establish his intellectual independence.”[21] Thus, Grenier persuading Camus to join the Communist Party may be one of his most important (indirect) influences on Camus in the years leading up to The Stranger.

The Stranger is one of Albert Camus’ most well known pieces of writing, if not the most well known. Those of us who have read the novel can easily see why this book was the one that launched Camus’ career as a literary star. What most readers do not know, however, is that the story behind The Stranger is a fascinating one, filled with hardship and a lot of determination.[22] Even less known is that Jean Grenier, Camus’ first mentor, influenced his intellectual makeup in profound ways. Some of this influence made it into The Stranger, some of it made it into his other writing, and some of it influenced Camus in more general ways that manifest at the level of worldview. Regardless of the exact influence, the authors discussed in this paper seem to believe that Grenier had a significant influence on the young Camus. Looking at their points, it is hard to disagree with them.


[1] Stefan Collini, “Intellectual History,” Making History, 2008, accessed January 2, 2017, http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/intellectual_history.html.

[2] Alice Kaplan, Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[3] Edward J. Hughes, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Camus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[4] Camus’ other mentor was Pascal Pia.

[5] Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, 9.

[6] Kaplan writes that “Nietzsche was the philosopher who counted most for Camus during those years [at university], in style and substance; he admired Nietzsche, he wrote, as a poet-philosopher ‘susceptible of engaging in contradictions’” (Kaplan 10).

[7] Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, 10.

[8] Toby Garfitt, “Situating Camus: the formative years,” in The Cambridge Companion to Camus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 26-38.

[9] Garfitt mentions German and Acault, as well as Schopenhauer, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Bergson, but he also mentions Molière. His comments on Molière are relevant and worth quoting. He writes, “At the Grand Lycée in Algiers, where Camus discovered a totally different world from that of the rough working-class district of Belcourt where he grew up, the author who appealed most to him was probably Molière. The implications of that are still to be explored, both for his dramatic practice and for his often unrecognized humour” (Garfitt 26).

[10] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[11] Garfitt, “Situating Camus,” 26-27.

[12] Ibid., 37.

[13] Garfitt, “Situating Camus,” 29.

[14] Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, 26.

[15] Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, 27. The quote continues, “I took great pains over this book. . . . I am still happy that certain parts please you, happy to have made progress. I have to confess that I am not indifferent to this failure. I don’t need to tell you that I am not satisfied with the life I’m leading. And so I had given great importance to the novel. Clearly I was wrong.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ieme van der Poel, “Camus: a life lived in critical times,” in The Cambridge Companion to Albert Camus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 13-25.

[18] Ibid., 16.

[19] Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, 19.

[20] Garfitt, “Situating Camus,” 34.

[21] Ibid., 37.

[22] See Kaplan’s Looking for The Stranger for this story.

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