19. On the importance of the figure of Joseph Grand in The Plague
Or, the origins of Albert Camus’ theory of the novel
In The Plague there is a moment of respite from the daily struggle, when Rieux and Tarrou go swimming in the sea. It is a moment when bodies and nature are momentarily at a truce, albeit an uneasy one. But this is only a singular event in the novel. There is a more regular, diurnal respite described in the novel, however, and that is provided by the character of Joseph Grand. A clerk, Grand works at his usual job during the day, and then he volunteers for two hours every evening, as a sort of general secretary for the public health squads: compiling daily statistics, preparing schedules for the following day, co-ordinating their activities. But after that, at the end of each evening, he returns home and continues work on a novel, an absurd literary activity within which he is incapable of getting beyond the first sentence, endlessly writing and rewriting it, night after night. Rieux soon discovers Grand’s literary obsession, and their nightly conversations, after Grand had finished his secretarial work for the evening, become a regular respite for Rieux from the daily grind. Increasingly, Grand would linger in the office to participate in these conversations, with Tarrou eventually joining them.
This invokes a moment in the story of the mythic figure of Sisyphus that most interested Camus: the moment at the end of each day when Sisyphus had reached the summit with his rock, and the rock would begin to roll back down to the base, where it would await him until morning. The moment when, momentarily unburdened, Sisyphus would make his descent. ‘That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering,’ Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, ‘that is the hour of consciousness.’ Adding that, in these moments, Sisyphus ‘is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.’ Or, as Tarrou says to Rieux before they go swimming: “In the end, it’s stupid to live under the plague alone. Of course, a man must fight for the victims. But if he stops loving anything else, then what use is his fight?”
When we first encounter him in the chronicle, the narrator describes Grand as somebody ‘who didn’t seem at all heroic’, but later, after witnessing Grand’s unwavering concentration on his secretarial work, even after a long day in the office, and then his equally tireless commitment to his nightly literary task, all without complaint, the narrator came to modify his view.
‘Yes, if it’s true that people insist on offering themselves examples and models of what they call heroes, and if there absolutely must be such a one in this story, the narrator proposes precisely this insignificant, unassuming hero who had nothing going for him but a little goodness at heart and a seemingly ridiculous ideal.’
This moment is significant for another reason. In this same section the narrator also draws a point of contrast between Grand, his secretarial and literary activities, and the journalism the township is otherwise inundated by, the newspaper articles and radio broadcasts that deploy ‘the language of convention’, in the ‘the tone of an epic or of a prize ceremony’ which so grated on the narrator when he encountered it: ‘And that language couldn’t apply to Grand’s small daily efforts, it couldn’t comprehend, for instance, what Grand meant in the middle of the plague.’
Here the figure of Grand becomes tied to the more general theme of language in the novel. This figure becomes the embodiment of what Camus had learned from Brice Parain. ‘The history of philosophy for Parain is basically a history of the failures of the mind, confronted with the problem of language,’ Camus wrote in 1943. ‘Man has not managed to find his words.’ That same year, in The Misunderstanding, the character of the wife explains the fate of her husband: ‘Only at first he couldn’t find the words that were needed. And then, while he was groping for the words, he was killed.’ This is also how, in Combat, in September 1945, Camus described his contemporary political reality:
‘Despite our provisional failure, we remain convinced that this country and this world cannot be saved until they find the right words, the right vocabulary.’ (emphasis added)
What makes Grand the hero of the novel is not so much that he embodies this failure of the mind, but that he remains conscious of it. And what makes this consciousness so important, for Camus, is that it is associated in the novel – at the level of content – with the writing of a work of literary fiction, and it is associated, with The Plague itself – at the level of form – as the enactment of such literary fiction.
By June 1938 Camus had already completed the first draft of his manuscript-novel, A Happy Death. That month he heard back from Jean Grenier, his mentor, who had read it, and, taking Grenier’s criticisms onboard, Camus decided to revise the work. Over the next six months, Camus overhauled A Happy Death, beginning what would become The Stranger. This transition was precipitated by a crucial shift in Camus’ thinking. During 1938 he had encountered the work of Franz Kafka. He had written an article for Alger Républicain on Kafka’s The Castle, and by February 1939 he had nearly completed an essay on Kafka and The Trial. This essay became the original centrepiece of the final part of The Myth of Sisyphus, pertaining to “Absurd Creation” – but it is interesting to note that it was also one of the first – if not the first – completed section of the work that Sisyphus would later become. In many respects, the argument of this broader work can be seen to have developed out of Camus’ thinking critically about Kafka’s literary fiction, but more generally through rethinking the role of literary fiction itself, including, at the same time, Camus’ own practice of writing it. It is in this Kafka essay that Camus first outlines the themes of the absurd experience and hope as an avoidance of that experience. He argues that in The Trial Kafka produced an absurd work, but in The Castle he betrayed this experience and created instead a work of consolatory hope, and worse: an existential work. ‘This subtle remedy that makes us love what crushes us and makes hope spring up in a world without issue,’ Camus writes in the final, published version of this Kafka essay, ‘this sudden “leap” through which everything is changed, is the secret of the existential revolution and of The Castle itself.’ It is a secret, however, which Camus decided to expose, and to consciously avoid in his own work.
Two consequences emerge from this moment, but they are related. The first pertains to how Camus approached his own writing of fiction. He wanted to avoid what he had criticised in Kafka, temptations which were also present in A Happy Death, but which, in The Stranger, he sought to overcome. Several years later, when Grenier first read a draft of The Stranger he was concerned over what he saw as an overt influence of Kafka, particularly in deploying the theme of the trial. But Camus defended these similarities, by arguing that he was conscious of this comparison, but he was motivated more by his own experiences as a journalist in the courtrooms of Algiers, and that the characters and events of his novel were more concrete and grounded in the ‘everyday’ as opposed to the more surreal situations of Kafka’s works. In this, he is consistent with what he had argued in his essay on Kafka, and also in what he would say, a decade later, in his essay on Melville, when he contrasted the two writers. ‘In Kafka,’ Camus writes in 1952, ‘the reality that he describes is created by the symbol, the fact stems from the image, whereas in Melville the symbol emerges from reality, the image is born of what is seen. This is why Melville never cut himself off from flesh or nature, which are barely perceptible in Kafka’s work.’
The second consequence pertains to Camus reorienting himself in relation to, and against, philosophy. In 1936, Camus submitted his diploma dissertation on the topic of Christian metaphysics and Neo-Platonism at the University of Algiers, where he had been studying philosophy. In August that year he told Grenier that he’d like to do more work in a similar vein, ‘I mean of a technical nature and in philosophy.’ He told Grenier that this was largely to remain in contact with university work, perhaps with a career as an academic in mind. Earlier that year, in May, Camus had made a passing reference in his notebooks for a ‘philosophy work’ on ‘absurdity’. But there are no other references on this topic until December 1938 when he writes a long note about the need to distinguish between absurdity and irrationality, and about the importance of opposing hope, which he associated with irrationality. This long note focuses on the image of a man sentenced to death – what became the basic plot of The Stranger, but what is also the fundamental situation of Camus himself, with regards his tuberculosis – as it relates to an absurd experience. It also references Dostoevsky’s character Kirilov and the question of suicide. Earlier that same year, in May, the Théâtre de l’Équipe performed The Brothers Karamazov, with Camus playing the role of Ivan. Embodying this character so intimately arguably provided Camus with a unique perspective from which to read and reread both Dostoevsky and Kafka that same year.
Interestingly, it is an essay on Dostoevsky and Kirilov – probably also started, if not completed, around this time – that would eventually replace the Kafka essay in the final, published version of Sisyphus. This replacement was only possible because Camus had levelled the same charge of hope and escape from the absurd on Dostoevsky that he had initially identified in Kafka. It is from this starting point during late 1938 and early 1939 that Camus would eventually develop his argument regarding ‘philosophical suicide’, effectively transposing his rethinking of the role of literary fiction into an argument against philosophy generally, and existential philosophy in particular.
This also provides the seeds for his later distaste for allegory, which precisely subordinates a literary work to an external, non-literary ground, such as a philosophical system. In Sisyphus he refers to this as a ‘thesis-novel’: ‘The thesis-novel, the work that proves, the most hateful of all, is the one that most often is inspired by a smug thought. You demonstrate the truth you feel sure of possessing… Those creators are philosophers, ashamed of themselves.’
This long note from December 1938 is the first mention of the absurd in Camus’ notebooks since 1936. Even here, he remains tentative, the title for this section being: ‘On the Absurd?’ But it was while he was finishing his essay on Kafka, and working on early sketches of The Stranger, that in January 1939 Camus finally resolves, in his notebooks, to ‘read about the absurd’. However, one month later, in February 1939, Camus writes to Grenier: ‘I have many projects. I am working on my essay on the Absurd. I have given up making a thesis out of it. It will be a personal work.’ Gone is the earlier plan to produce a technical work of philosophy, a thesis. In part, this may be because in the interim, Camus failed to acquire his medical certification to become a teacher. This would have also blocked him from also being an academic, thus severing his need to remain close to the university, and to operate within an academic idiom. But it is also because in the interim he had come to consider philosophical discourse as inadequate to the experience of the absurd, and actively so. A “philosophy of the absurd” is a contradiction in terms, and a performative contradiction at that.
If Camus wanted to avoid such hope, to reject the ‘leap’ which negates his own experience, then he would need a discourse within which he could criticise the shortcomings of philosophy without succumbing to its temptations, and at the same time open up a discursive space to allow literary fiction to flourish, as its own form of human inquiry. This is largely why The Myth of Sisyphus was written in the form of a series of closely linked literary essays. This is perhaps why, in the opening paragraph of the published work, he stated, quite explicitly: ‘The pages that follow deal with an absurd sensitivity that can be found widespread in the age – and not with an absurd philosophy which our time, properly speaking has not known’ (emphasis added). The second paragraph of Sisyphus then reinforces this claim: ‘There will be found here merely a description, in the pure state, of an intellectual malady. No metaphysic, no belief is involved in it for the moment.’
Of course, working in a literary idiom was not much of a change of direction for Camus, and it was, if anything, a reassertion of what he had already been doing, but henceforth more consciously so, and with a more determined focus. After all, he had already published one collection of lyrical essays by this stage, and was about to publish the second such collection that same year that he started writing Sisyphus. He simply expanded this literary form to incorporate more fully his thoughts and description about absurdity, hope, and suicide, both physical and intellectual.
He had also been working in the theatre, a practice which underpinned much of his literary practice. I’ve already suggested that the theatre had helped Camus reorient his body to the world after his tuberculosis had reduced his sport and swimming activities. One of the main shifts in writing The Stranger was, for example, his adopting a monologue form. And it is not insignificant that he drew on themes from Greek tragedy in his essay on Kafka, which he then used to rethink his approach to writing literary fiction more generally.
In the final part of Sisyphus, Camus explored the situation of the artistic creator, with an emphasis on literary creation. Here he contrasts the creator with the philosopher, by arguing that while they may both begin with the same experience of the absurd, the latter proceeds by ‘explaining and solving’ the experience away, while the former rejects such avoidance behaviour and is concerned with simply ‘experiencing and describing.’ Camus thus describes a work of art – a literary work – as that which retains a consciousness of the absurd, but one in which, by the very act of being written, by the very act of being read, rebels against abstractions, illusions, or hopes that may otherwise distract him from that consciousness, while at the same time rebelling against the absurd itself. ‘The work of art is born of the intelligence’s refusal to reason the concrete,’ Camus states. ‘It marks the triumph of the carnal... The absurd work requires an artist conscious of these limitations and an art in which the concrete signifies nothing more than itself. It cannot be the end, the meaning, and the consolation of a life.’
In this, Camus considers a work of art as a bulwark against the encroachment of a philosophical discourse, and its implicit intellectual suicide. ‘It would be wrong to see a symbol in it and to think that the work of art can be considered at last as a refuge for the absurd,’ Camus states. ‘It is itself an absurd phenomenon, and we are concerned merely with its description. It does not offer an escape from the intellectual ailment.’
Although this is largely a criticism which Camus levels against other fiction writers – such as Kafka or Dostoevsky – it is at the same time also a self-criticism. Or rather, it is an argument which emerged out of a previous act of self-criticism. A Happy Death was, in many respects, such a ‘thesis-novel’, a situation which Camus attempted to rectify with writing The Stranger. In doing so, it was a self-criticism that developed into an argument against philosophy generally, existential philosophy more particularly, and its debilitating influence on his thought. He then attempted to describe this situation and its consequences – this ‘intellectual malady’ – in The Myth of Sisyphus.
It would therefore be incorrect to read Sisyphus and conclude – as many have done over the past eighty years – that Camus was somehow attempting to produce a “philosophy of the absurd” (something which he explicitly argues against, as a contradiction in terms). And it would be incorrect to conclude – as many still do – that he produced The Stranger as an illustration of such a philosophy (which simply compounds the previous error, and diminishes the value of literary fiction more generally, as mere illustration or ornamentation, an allegory). In both works, Camus is attempting something far more interesting, and far more radical.
When in early 1941 Camus made the first two notes which would mark the starting point for his writing, over the next seven years, The Plague – ‘On Oran. Write an insignificant and absurd biography’ (March) – ‘Plague or adventure (novel)’ (April) – he had only just finished in January of that year the manuscript for The Myth of Sisyphus. And so he would have made these initial notes regarding his next project with his own arguments from Sisyphus at the forefront of his mind; his arguments against hope, against the existential ‘leap’, against ‘philosophical suicide’, and, in terms of literary fiction, against the ‘thesis-novel’. The challenge he had set for himself, in starting this new project, was to create a work consistent with these arguments, and one that would not give in to the temptations which he had only just charged other authors – such as Franz Kafka –with succumbing to. With The Stranger also recently completed by this point (but still unpublished), Camus was sure he had written a work equal to a work such as Kafka’s The Trial. But what he had to avoid, in starting his next novel, was recreating the failure of The Castle.
In part, this challenge became embodied in the figure of Joseph Grand, whose own literary pursuit in The Plague would, over the following years, keep the narrator, Rieux, and the author, Camus, honest. In doing so, this figure enacted the thread of an argument regarding the vagaries of language, of always looking for the right words, an adequate vocabulary, that occupied Camus, from his initial engagement with Brice Parain in 1943, The Misunderstanding in 1944, Combat in 1945, and “The Human Crisis” in 1946; a thread which culminates in The Plague. ‘In the end, and above all, Joseph Grand could not find his words,’ the narrator of that work tells us.
But the point is he didn’t give up trying to do so.
Next week we will outline the importance of the imagination in Albert Camus’ theory of the novel, and in his thinking generally.
If you appreciate reading this newsletter, and you want it to continue, then please consider doing one of two things, or both: please consider signing up to this newsletter (or updating to a paid subscription).
And please share this newsletter far and wide, to attract more readers, and possibly more subscribers, to ensure that it continues.