Albert Camus’ novel The Plague is one of my favourite books, despite its often depressing subject matter: an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city of Oran in Algiers just after the end of World War II. Among other things it’s a meditation on death and how we confront it, and it ends up being inspiring. Well worth your time if you haven’t read it.
It’s not all doom and gloom by any means, and there’s one particular character whose experience is certainly on the amusing side. It’s the bank clerk Joseph Grand, who in his spare time is writing a novel. When we first hear of this project, Grand reluctantly shows his friends the first line of the book:
“It’s my opening phrase,” Grand says “and it’s giving trouble, no end of trouble.” …
‘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 Camus’ novel moves on and more and more fall victim to the plague, Grand becomes one of those helping the sanitation squads who collect and dispose of the bodies of the dead. Despite this work on top of his everyday job at the bank, Grand keeps working hard at his own book. The problem is that he can never get beyond the first sentence, which has to be perfect. He keeps trying different adjectives, different word orders, a different arrangement of clauses.
One evening Grand announced that he had definitely discarded the adjective “elegant” for his horsewoman. From now on it was replaced by ‘slim.’ “That’s more concrete,” he explained. Soon after, he read out to his two friends the new version of the sentence:
‘One fine morning in May a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.’
“Don’t you agree with me one sees her better that way? And I’ve put ‘one fine morning in May’ because ‘in the month of May’ tended rather to drag out the trot, if you see what I mean.”
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.
[English translation by Stuart Gilbert]
Ultimately Grand himself catches the plague and seems unlikely to survive. On his sick bed, he asks his friend Tarrou to bring him his precious manuscript. They find that it is fifty pages long, consisting almost entirely of the same opening sentence repeated again and again but with endless variations. In despair, Grand commands them to burn the whole thing.
What is the point of my describing all of this? More than anything it’s an amusing illustration of the precept:
“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
—Attributed to Voltaire
As writers, we should aim for excellence, certainly. But perfection is an ideal, and we don’t live in an ideal world. One runs into diminishing returns, and as in the case of Camus’ character, may end up drifting further and further from our ultimate goal. Absolute perfection may be simply unachievable, and there’s no point pursuing it at the expense of completing a work of art.
At which point, I’m reminded of that aphorism of Robert Browning:
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?”