Joseph Grand is a character in The Plague, by Albert Camus, a slim but inspiring novel bounced from liberal arts reading lists by the ruthless obsolescence of relevance. The story takes place during an epidemic in 1940s Algeria. Grand is a civil servant, distinguished by his colorless fulfillment of duties and his obsession with writing a perfect novel, a work of art of such obvious quality that:
“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!’”
Unfortunately, Grand can’t get past the first sentence. His ideals don’t allow him to move forward until the text is flawless. As he puts it:
“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.”
At one point, Grand’s opening reads:
“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.”
As soon as he solves one problem–the substitution of “slim” for “elegant” say–another crops up. It’s “handsome” this time, which he believes doesn’t paint a clear enough picture. He rejects “plump” as demeaning and vulgar. He discards “beautifully groomed” as awkward.
Then one evening he announced triumphantly that he had got it: “A black sorrel mare.” To his thinking, he explained, “black” conveyed a hint of elegance and opulence.
“It won’t do,” Rieux said.
“Because ‘sorrel’ doesn’t mean a breed of horse; it’s a color.”
“Well—er—a color that, anyhow, isn’t black.”
Grand seemed greatly troubled. “Thank you,” he said warmly. “How fortunate you’re here to help me! But you see how difficult it is.”
Well said, my muse. Only you would understand how many times I previewed this post before publishing.