What The Plague taught me about writers

THE PLAGUEOctober 14-18, 2013

The Plague is not a happy read, but it’s a worthwhile read. It’s political, it’s philosophical – it’s a meditation on humanity. But for me, the most interesting aspect is Albert Camus’ statement on ‘the writer’. He shows that every writer struggles with the ‘perfect’ phrase, the ‘perfect’ word. In The Plague, Camus captures this endless hardship through the character of Grand.

Grand, a writer, struggles with this sentence:

“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 Boulogne.”

As the first sentence of his ‘writing project’, Grand desires perfection; he wants the Publishers to literally stand up and applaud after hearing it. But he admits it lacks something. And initially he devotes his time during the plague to work on the offending sentence while the rest of the world struggles with mortality.

When later asked how his work is going, his new sentence reads as:

“One fine morning in May a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flower avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.”

Grand then extracts feedback from his friends. As all writers know, getting feedback is a dangerous endeavor – every word under scrutiny is subjective. Handsome goes under the microscope, then sorrel. No wonder Grand is so exhausted by page 137.

When we meet Grand again and the topic of his work comes up, Grand (in what appears to be his final death throes) asks the Dr. to read his revised sentence (or ‘famous phrase’ as the book puts it):

“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…”

Grand’s own response seems to be one of horror. “Is that it?” he demands.

Sadly, yes.

Grand recovers from the plague, and this act of survival results in a fresh start for the sentence. He doesn’t write it, but tells the Dr. that “[he’s] cut out all the adjectives.”

So, here’s what I imagine that final sentence to read as:

“One morning in May, a horsewoman might have been seen riding a mare along the avenues of the Bois, among the flowers…”

This is a man who has spent almost an entire year on one sentence, while those around him were dropping like flies. It’s a ridiculous sentence always has been and the “might have been” drives me nuts!

So what’s the point? Well, I think it’s threefold:

1. I think Camus is commenting on the writer’s obsessive need to choose the most apt word, create the perfect image, and tell the best story. This is something all writers are guilty of on some level.

2. In the grand scheme of things, does exact wording really matter? Are people going to memorize every sentence of a book? Does each individual sentence have to be perfect in a novel? One might make a case for poetry, but I think Camus is commenting that a perfect sentence isn’t necessary. Especially in this book when there’s a plague going on. In short, writers are often too much in their heads when real world needs are great.

And 3. The fact that the plague in the town of Oran is documented in writing, and the narrator addresses this need to document, speaks to the idea that the role of conscientious observer the writer plays is important. Writers do perform a valuable job.

And all this is a little big for a drizzly Saturday morning. My brain hurts. That’s how I know The Plague is a good book!

Libby

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “What The Plague taught me about writers

  1. A nice piece of serendipity. I’ve been in the mood lately for a rereading of several of Camus’ books, and just found that I no longer have a copy of The Plague. That will have to come out of next month’s book budget, I guess. Just as well, really, with NaNo just about on top of me, and ongoing research for a book.

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  2. Interesting thinking. My general rule of thumb when it comes to word obsessiveness is: the longer the piece, the less I worry. Short stories are wonderful for developing poetry-like prose. Longer stuff, no way. If you’re writing something that’s 350k, the focus needs to be on the pacing, not getting your coat hooked on every sentence.

    That said, opening lines are a bitch. And there are times when obsessiveness is needed, even in longer works.

    Loved the post and the ideas you put forward. 🙂

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