Saturday, 7 July 2012

THE DIFFICULTY STARTING

"How's your young lady on horseback progressing?" Tarrou would ask. And invariably Grand would answer with a wry smile: "Trotting along, trotting along!" 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. "Plump" wouldn't do; though concrete enough, it sounded perhaps a little disparaging, also a shade vulgar. "Beautifully groomed" had tempted him for a moment, but it was cumbrous and made the rhythm limp somewhat. 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. 
"Why not?"
"Because 'sorrel' doesn't mean a breed of horse; it's a color."
"What 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."
"How about 'glossy'?" Tarrou suggested.
Grand gazed at him meditatively, then "Yes!" he exclaimed. "That's good." And slowly his lips parted in a smile. Some days later he confessed that the word "flowery" was bothering him considerably. As the only towns he knew were Oran and Montelimar, he sometimes asked his friends to tell him about the avenues of the Bois de Boulogne, what sort of flowers grew in them and how they were disposed. Actually neither Rieux nor Tarrou had ever gathered the impression that those avenues were "flowery," but Grand's conviction on the subject shook their confidence in their memories. He was amazed at their uncertainty. "It's only artists who know how to use their eyes," was his conclusion. But one evening the doctor found him in a state of much excitement. For "flowery" he had substituted "flower-strewn." He was rubbing his hands. "At last one can see them, smell them! Hats off, gentlemen!"
Triumphantly he read out the sentence: "One fine morning in May a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a glossy sorrel mare alongthe flower-strewn avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.  "But, spoken aloud, the numerous "s" sounds had a disagreeable effect and Grand stumbled over them, lisping here and there. He sat down, crestfallen; then he asked the doctor if he might go. Some hard thinking lay ahead of him. It was about this time, as was subsequently learned, that he began to display signs of absentmindedness in the office. A serious view was taken of these lapses of attention, as the municipality not only was working at high  pressure with a reduced staff, but was constantly having new duties thrust upon it. His department suffered, and his chief took him severely to task, pointing out that he was paid to do certain work and was failing to do it as it should be done. "I am told that you are acting as a voluntary helper in the sanitary groups. You do this out of-office hours, so it's no concern of mine. But the best way of making yourself useful in a terrible time like this is to do your work well. Otherwise all the rest is useless."
"He's right," Grand said to Rieux.
"Yes, he's right," the doctor agreed.
"But I can't steady my thoughts; it's the end of my phrase that's worrying me, I don't seem able to sort it out."
The plethora of sibilants in the sentence still offended his ear, but he saw no way of amending them without using what were, to his mind, inferior synonyms. And that "flower-strewn" which had rejoiced him when he first lit on it now seemed unsatisfactory. How could one say the flowers were "strewn" when presumably they had been  planted along the avenues, or else grew there naturally?
 From The Plague, by Albert Camus

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