We now start to enjoy yet another masterpiece, yet another fairy tale. Of all the fairy tales in this series, Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary is the most romantic. Stylistically it is prose doing what poetry is supposed to do. (Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, 125)
Given that last sentence, and it is easy enough to find other critics saying the same thing, it can be surprising how ordinarily well written so much of Madame Bovary can be. An obsessive attention to the perfect sentence and most original metaphor is one of the legacies of Flaubert, perhaps a bad one. Descendants of Flaubert like Marcel Proust and Nabokov and John Banville strive to make every sentence intensely interesting and to make every metaphor new. Sometimes they succeed. So shouldn't their ancestor be more dazzling?
Flaubert, in his letters, whines, moans, and howls, accurately, it seems, about the difficulties of producing single sentences. He tested his sentences by “bellowing” them, as did his friend and collaborator, the poet Louis Bouilhet, scrutinizing not just the images or words but the assonances, alliterations, and rhythms. The music of the writing is obviously impossible to capture in English and no one tries, although I would love to read a translator’s attempt at a passage of imitation Flaubertian verse. Herman Melville is the only fiction writer working in English before Flaubert whose prose does what poetry is supposed to do, whose prose can frequently be converted to verse. Melville risked – and achieved! – the incoherence of compressed verse; Flaubert was nothing if not clear. He could write plain prose as well as fancy.
Rohan Maitzen has assembled a sampling of some of Madame Bovary’s striking metaphors. Every one is good – the snake-like hiss of the corset string is a favorite of mine. Maitzen emphasizes Flaubert’s restraint. His imagery and metaphors are not written in the interest of bee-yoo-tee, and he is only lyrical or, worse, luminous, on special occasions. Flaubert savagely expunged metaphors, adjectives, and effusive description from Madame Bovary. He wrote lots more than he kept. This is what André Gide was getting at when he criticized as inartistic Victor Hugo’s “uninterrupted mobilization of all the possible resources,” for “not spar[ing] us a single one.” Hugo gives us every metaphor he can think of; Flaubert only keeps the best one, the one that best serves the novel. Or such is the idea.
Look at me go on and on, without offering a single sentence of Flaubert’s, brilliant or indifferent. All right, another favorite. The first sentence belongs to Emma’s first lover Rodolphe, the “he”; the second is one of the novel’s rare direct addresses to the reader, the purest merging of narrator and author in the book, a barely concealed statement of purpose:
Since he had heard those same words uttered by loose women or prostitutes, he had little belief in their sincerity when he heard them now: the more flowery a person’s speech, he thought, the more suspect the feelings, or lack of feelings, it concealed. Whereas the truth is that fullness of soul can sometimes overflow in utter vapidity of language, for none of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars. (II.12)
I am relying on Francis Steegmuller’s biography of creativity Flaubert and Madame Bovary (1950) for any biographical details.