Sunday, March 7, 2010

Grand Lessons from Camus

There's a character in Albert Camus' The Plague that struggles with his desire to write. A secondary character, at least through parts one and two that I finished reading today, Joseph Grand is a poor, low-level civil servant who joins the sanitary squads after the plague infects his town.

This comes in direct conflict with his desire to work on his manuscript, but he feels it is necessary. He feels citizens have to do something against this menace.

The story he has composed thus far is merely a sentence about a woman on horseback. Throughout the novel, he dickers with that sentence obsessively but the plague forces him to push it from his mind.

“He made honest efforts not to think about his ‘horsewoman,’ and concentrate on what he had to do.”

At the end of the section part of the novel, Grand's opening sentence is this:

"One fine morning in May a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a glossy sorrel mare along the flower-strewn avenues of the Bois de Boulogne."

The author promptly complains about the number of S sounds in that sentence. In the novel, he changes the opening phrase, the description of the horse, the adjective regarding the woman and even the bit about the flowers.

But he never writes beyond that sentence. He shares the sentence and each minute change with his peers in the novel, but never does he progress.

Camus tells us that Grand is the type of man who struggles with the meaning of words, but Grand is not alone in this. How many of us struggle in a similar fashion? How many of us cling to a sentence?

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