The unadorned Flaubert I mentioned yesterday was a necessary piece of what Mario Vargas Llosa calls in The Perpetual Orgy the Invisible Narrator, “a glacial, meticulous observer who does not allow himself to be seen” (188), the narrator who resembles a movie camera. I always think of the cab scene (III.1) as the perfect example, the scene that the journal publishing the Madame Bovary serial suppressed as obscene even though the camera shows us nothing but 1) the exterior of an enclosed carriage, 2) the face of the “demoralized” cabbie, and 3) the streets of Rouen, sometimes from the perspective of the cabbie, sometimes, seemingly, from the air, sometimes perhaps on a map. A film version might resort to animation.
I am amazed to note that the famous scene is only two pages long. The narrator keeps his cool, never glancing in the carriage, avoiding adjectives and metaphors until the end, when he gives us a useful one that serves as a naughty punchline:
Along the river front amidst the trucks and the barrels, along the streets from the shelter of the guard posts, the bourgeois stared wide-eyed at this spectacle unheard of in the provinces – a carriage with drawn shades that kept appearing and reappearing, sealed tighter than a tomb and tossing like a ship.
The cinematic version of the scene places the camera among the bourgeois, perhaps in a café. Prose allows Flaubert to compress the appearances of the carriage into three words. Having changed the path of the fictional sex scene forever, Flaubert indulges himself with a showstopper (Emma is discarding a letter she had written to Léon):
At a certain moment in the early afternoon, when the sun was blazing down most fiercely on the old silver-plated lamps, a bare hand appeared from under the little yellow cloth curtains and threw out some torn scraps of paper. The wind caught them and scattered them, and they alighted at a distance, like white butterflies, on a field of flowering red clover.
Silver, yellow, white, red. Re-readers, or first-timers with a better memory than mine, will remember the black butterflies that went up the chimney back in I.9.
Aspiring and impressionable writers of a certain temperament read this passage, these sentences, and swore fidelity to Gustave Flaubert. This was what they would write. Hugo is too crushingly present, Balzac is too sloppy, Stendhal too – well, I do not understand Stendhal so well. Different models, all “realists” in their own way, for different creative tendencies.
And anyway Flaubert is not all that invisible in Madame Bovary. Reading this astringent novel after the all-Hugo, all-the-time Toilers of the Sea perhaps exaggerated the difference. Vargas Llosa identifies “no more than half a hundred” (194) intrusions by the Philosopher Narrator. I included the one of the strongest yesterday, Flaubert’s lament for the dancing bears, but others are more ambiguous and amusing:
Here they make the worst Neufchâtel cheese in the entire district; and here farming calls for considerable investment: great quantities of manure are needed to fertilize the friable, sandy, stony soil. (II.1.)
The objective narrator, almost an agronomist here, cannot resist the chance to attack their cheese. Who among us could?