"Evenings, whole weeks, spent on one word, just think! Sometimes on a mere conjunction! ... I’d like you to understand, doctor. I grant you it’s easy enough to choose between a ‘but’ and an ‘and.’ It’s a bit more difficult to decide between ‘and’ and ‘then.’ But definitely the hardest thing may be to know whether one should put an ‘and’ or leave it out."
Joseph Grand to Dr. Rieux in The Plague
From time to time, I like to challenge myself with a self-awareness question: Am I primarily an atheist who has chosen to use writing as his form of expression? Or am I primarily a writer who has chosen to use atheism as his frequent subject matter? In other words: for me, which came first, the medium or the message?
I ask myself that question, rhetorically, as a “snap-out-of-it” slap when I find myself temporarily mired in atheistic rage or frustration. Because honestly? For me, the question is almost a no-brainer. I’m a writer first. I love writing about atheism more than any other subject. But I love writing about anything more than I love not writing.
I suspect that last sentence may be true of some others here in the Atheosphere. And it was very likely true of Albert Camus, as well. In his lifetime, he was labelled an existentialist, an absurdist, an anti-nihilist. His novel The Plague is a short book with dozens of ideas that could have been written by an author sporting any or all of those labels. Four of the book’s themes, by no means all, are: the physical and emotional toll of separation, the individual’s inability to control events, religion’s pathetic response to tragedy, and love as a means to both transcend existence and root oneself even more deeply in it.
Heavy stuff. But the book, to me, is above all a love letter to writers and their crazy aspirations. And some of it is hilarious.
Most of the main characters are writers of one sort or another. The narrator, whose identity is not revealed until the very end, is, of course, both a character in the novel and the teller of its story. I won’t reveal his or her identity. But here’s a list of five of the main characters and their relationship to writing:
- Dr. Rieux, the "hero," who corresponds with his absent wife through letters and telegrams;
- Raymond Rambert, a young visiting journalist, who finds himself trapped in town while on assignment for his newspaper;
- Father Paneloux, the priest, who writes and delivers two of the most odious sermons ever created;
- Jean Tarrou, a strange "tourist," who keeps a quirky journal that supplies some of the most colorful details of the narrative; and
- Joseph Grand, a low-level government clerk, who has secretly been writing “the perfect novel” at night.
While I, myself, am not secretly working on a novel, perfect or otherwise, it was Joseph Grand with whom I identified. About halfway through the book, I realized that I cared more about him than any of the other characters. I doubt that Camus intended Grand to be the reader’s focus, but he came alive for me. I know that guy. He’s a caricature of every writer who cares about writing, who has hopes and fears about the ultimate "worth" of his output. He's me. Maybe he's also you.
”What I really want, doctor, is this. On the day when the manuscript reachers the publisher, I want him to stand up — after he’s read it through, of course — and say to his staff: ‘Gentlemen, hats off!’” ...
I like to think of my blog audience — perhaps you like to think of yours, too — as having that very same reaction every single time I/you write one of my/your scathingly brilliant and perfect posts. In my case (I can't speak for you) I’d even be happy to supply the hats; I have few enough readers to keep that well within my budget.
Of course, in the real world, striving after perfection is a losing strategy for a writer. Grand's search for the ideal expression is immobilizing. After months, maybe years of working on his novel, all he has managed to get down on paper is:
One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Bologne.
That’s it. Later, when Tarrou asks him, “How’s your young lady on horseback progressing?” Grand reveals that he has decided to replace “elegant” with “slim,” because it’s more concrete. And he has dropped “the month of” because those words “tended to rather drag out the trot.”
Next he showed some anxiety about the adjective “handsome.” In his opinion it didn’t convey enough, and he set to looking for an epithet that would promptly and clearly “photograph” the superb animal he saw with his mind’s eye. “Plump” wouldn’t do; though concrete enough, it sounded perhaps a little disparaging, also a shade vulgar. “Beautifully groomed” had tempted him for a moment, but it was cumbrous and made the rhythm limp somewhat. Then one evening he announced triumphantly that he had got it: “A black sorrel mare.” To his thinking, he explained, “black” conveyed a hint of elegance and opulence.”Finally, Tarrou suggests “glossy,” and Grand is once again, although only temporarily, happy. Having found the ideal word to replace "handsome," he can truly get underway with his great work.
“It won’t do,” Rieux said.
“Because ‘sorrel’ doesn’t mean a breed of horse; it’s a color.”
“Well — er — a color that, anyhow, isn’t black.”
I gotta admit that writing is often like that for me. I struggle with unimportant words, waiting for that sparkling phrase with the magical rhythm to jump into existence and dance across the page/screen. For me, every single post is a battle with the recalcitrant English language. Nothing I write ever seems to capture exactly what I was trying to say. Some of you are perhaps nodding your heads in recognition of yourselves, maybe thinking, "It's like that for other people, too?" Yeah, it is. Welcome to the club.
Near the end of The Plague, Joseph Grand manifests symptoms that may well be the titular disease, an almost certain death-sentence. Tarrou and Dr. Rieux visit him and find him in bad shape. From his deathbed, Grand holds fifty pages of manuscript out to the doctor, desperately wanting to hear his work read aloud for one last time. Rieux looks through the pages and sees hundreds of versions of the same sentence, over and over again with “small variants, simplifications or elaborations.” Finally, solemnly, he reads:
One fine morning in May, a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a glossy sorrel mare along the avenues of the Bois, among the flowers.
Perfect, finally perfect, although, ironically, too late. Grand, “knowing” that he’s dying, orders the doctor to burn the manuscript, and, reluctantly, Rieux complies.
The next day, the sick man has rebounded. He announces happily to the doctor, "I was overhasty. I’ll make another start. You’ll see, I can remember every word."
Ah, the writer: ever the optimist. Whether it’s Albert Camus, or those of us ranting and raving in the Atheosphere, or the clerk who secretly scribbles his novel night after night after night, we must tell ourselves — delude ourselves maybe — that we can take a bunch of words, throw them onto a piece of paper or a screen, and have other people understand what we’re trying to say. Writing is unlike other learned skills that get easier with practice. The more you do it, the better you get at it, the harder writing becomes. That perfect sentence never wants to happen.
But you gotta do what you gotta do, right?[One thing I've gotta do is tell all Nonbelieving Literati that our next book is Not the End of the World by Christopher Brookmyre. Beware the Ides of March, because that's our target date.]