Writers on Writing #17: John Smolens
A Plague upon Everywriter
In Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague, which is about a deadly epidemic that strikes Oran, a city on Africa’s Mediterranean coast, Joseph Grand aspires to write a novel, and his opening sentence is:
One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.
Hemingway might not have found this to qualify as “one true sentence,” which, he claimed—or boasted—was all that was necessary to begin a story. But it is Joseph Grand’s sentence and he places great stock in it. His difficulty is that he can’t get past this one sentence; he can’t get it exactly right, and thus he continues to agonize over each word, revising, rearranging, reworking just how the horsewoman and her mare might ride down the avenues of Bois de Boulogne. Thus there is no next sentence; there’s just the first and only sentence.
I first read The Plague when I was in high school, and, as I’ve been doing more and more frequently here at the dawn of my declining years, I reread the novel a few summers ago. For some reason, I found Grand’s one-sentence dilemma (or perhaps it was as sentence sentence) was one of the most memorable aspects of the novel. To the teenaged version of me, who didn’t yet have a clue that he’d spend his adult life trying to write stories, Grand’s dilemma seemed remote, never realizing that I was, in my own way, destined to share his dilemma. For decades now, I’ve been subject to Grand’s sentence sentence: sometimes I just can’t get past that one sentence. I suspect I’m not alone; I suspect that most, if not all, writers suffer from Grand’s plight. Rather than writers’ block, that dastardly disease that prohibits one from putting any words to paper, there’s an equally insidious delirium that invades literary ambitions. Call it writer’s plague.
Joseph Grand’s ambitions are fairly common. He dreams of writing a book that will cause an editor to suddenly stand at his desk and announce to a roomful of editors who are all toiling away in a prestigious publishing house (this, of course, is the before the day of computers and office cubicles): “Hats off, gentlemen!” It’s also a time when publishing was a decidedly male profession.
Grand faces numerous obstacles (and he hasn’t even received a rejection slip yet), some or all of which may be remotely familiar to many a scribe. He’s a timid, unassertive soul who works as a municipal clerk; he has been passed over for promotion and there’s little chance for advancement in the future. To compound his dead-end job, his wife has left him, and though he wishes to write to her in an attempt at saving their marriage, he can’t bring himself to compose the letter—he can’t find the words that might convince her to return to him. But perhaps Grand’s greatest liability—and this may be considered to be the genius of Camus, at once cruel, ironic, and humorously absurd—is the fact that he’s really not very good at expressing himself. He doesn’t have a facility with language and through much of the novel he speaks in a halting, uncertain fashion. He attempts to remedy this malady with the study of Latin, but to no avail; he continues to slave over his one sentence.
I decided to reread The Plague because I had been working on a novel that was about a fever epidemic that ravaged East Coast cities in the 1790s. The story is set in Newburyport, Massachusetts, an old seaport north of Boston, where I had lived for a decade before coming to the Midwest, first to complete my graduate studies, and then to teach here in Michigan. The novel is called Quarantine because Newburyport was quarantined during a particularly virulent outbreak of the fever, and I read Camus’s novel again with the hope that it might proffer some insight into what happens to a city that is shut off from the rest of the world as a result of a deadly plague. I wasn’t surprised to find (and am relieved to report) that though Camus’s story and mine intersect in some ways (people die swiftly and horribly; fear and panic leads to lawlessness; black market profiteering flourishes; some individuals’ behavior is selflessly heroic, while others are shameless cowards) they are clearly very different novels, very different takes on the human experience.
The arc of Joseph Grand’s story in The Plague is haunting. To a degree, he’s Everywriter. He wishes to express himself, yet he struggles to find the exact words, what Flaubert called le mot juste. Apparently it’s not just a French thing, this difficulty in not only finding the precise word, but continually finding the right words, so that the sentences just trot along elegantly, much like a handsome sorrel mare clip-clopping down the flower-lined avenues. There are times when we all have trouble getting the horse out of the barn, so to speak. I wish I had some answers, some fool-proof solutions, some 12-step program for writers’ plague. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t, for if, like Grand, you really get hung up on that one sentence, you’ll find yourself riding a steed that’s going nowhere; and if you doggedly keep writing sentences, all the while knowing that the whole thing isn’t cutting it because you haven’t nailed that first sentence, making everything that follows is out of kilter, you’ll be plagued by this nagging sensation that neither the parts nor the whole really add up. Your sorrel mare is destined to turn into a sway-back nag.
So is there a solution? Is there something one—Everywriter—can do to overcome this dilemma? I don’t know, really, and wish I did. I do know what Joseph Grand does in Camus’s novel. He has experiences which tend to stiffen his resolve, if not his spine. Early in the novel, he sees a message written in chalk on an apartment door: “Come in. I’ve hanged myself.” (Now here are two perfectly true sentences with which to begin a story.) Grand accepts this grim invitation and upon entering the apartment he manages to save a man named Cottard from strangling to death. Soon Grand turns his skills as a clerk and a writer to gather information, thus becoming a valuable chronicler of the plague that has caused Oran to be quarantined. Later in the novel, the narrator, Dr. Bernard Rouix, discovers Grand’s 50 page manuscript, which is filled with (you guessed it) nothing but variations of his first sentence. When Grand falls ill with the plague he instructs Rouix to burn his failed book. Ironically (not miraculously—this is, after all, a novel by Albert Camus), Grand survives the disease, an event which marks the beginning of the end of the epidemic. This experience further emboldens Grand, who eventually writes a letter to his estranged wife. We don’t learn if she will return to him after the plague has ended, but what we do know is that writing the letter improves Grand’s outlook—he’s more optimistic and hopeful. So much so that he continues to work on the first sentence of his novel. I told you, Camus can be a cruel and funny guy.
At the end of the novel, when the plague has subsided, Grand informs Dr. Rouix that he’s made a fresh start with his book, claiming: “‘I’ve cut out all the adjectives.’ And, with a twinkle in his eye, he took his hat off, bringing it low in a courtly sweep.” Writing is hard, absurdly so. After a day of writing sentences, take your own hat off.
John Smolens's The Schoolmaster's Daughter, a novel of the American Revolution, is available from Pegasus Books, New York. The paperback edition, as well as his new novel, Quarantine, will be published in September.