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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Hats Off! (More on Camus' The Plague)

I'm in the midst of re-reading The Plague.  In case you're unfamiliar with the story, it's about the bubonic plague unexpectedly devastating a modern city in North Africa.  Although a possible scenario, Camus is not strictly interested in scientific realism as other stories such as Outbreak.  At one point, doctors hopefully administer an innoculation to a dying child to test its efficacy.  That doesn't quite make sense, does it?  You can't innoculate against a disease once you already have it, right?
What Camus is really interested in is how people react.  There are those who turn to religion, to love, to service of fellow man, to despair, to mad hope.  There is a criminal about to be tried to whom the plague is actually good news, who feels more at ease in a world where everyone is as haunted and hunted as himself.  All of these are people attempting to make meaning in a meaningless world.  Camus, who must have at times viewed the character as despicable, makes even the priest seem worthy and noble.
In a story like this, every reader searches the cast of characters for the one most like himself.  Who would I be?  How would I act in this situation?  The character with whom I most identify is the aspiring author, Grand.  Even before the Plague strikes, Grand finds meaning in his lonely, menial existence, crafting his great novel. (So obsessed is he with perfection, he can never get past the first sentence.)
"What I really want, Doctor," Grand tells Dr. Rieux, "is this.  On the day when the manuscript reaches the publisher, I want him to stand up - after he's read it through, of course - and say to his staff: 'Gentlemen, hats off!'"
Rieux was dumbfounded, and, to add to his amazement, he saw, or seemed to see, the man beside him making as if to take off his hat with a sweeping gesture, bringing his hand to his head, then holding his arm straight out in front of him.
"So you see," Grand added, "it's got to be flawless."
Though he knew little of the literary world, Rieux had a suspicion that things didn't happen in it quite so picturesquely - that, for instance, publishers do not keep their hats on in their offices.  But, of course, one can never tell, and Rieux preferred to hold his peace.
Elsewhere, Grand explains the extraordinary difficulty of his craft:
"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."
Of all the characters, Grand is the one I'd like to be.  He is laughable, naturally, and absurd, but in Camus' world we are all absurd, struggling against the greater absurdity of the world.  I love Grand's passion, though, even envy it.  It reminds me of something from Thoreau about a man driven to create the perfect walking stick - just that and no more - and in his pursuit of this simple perfection finds the clue to immortality.
How does Camus, the Nobel-winning author, feel about the writer of his creation, who sweats and labors and entire life polishing that one never-finished sentence?  Well, he does name him Grand.
Hats off!

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