One last note on Flaubert’s plain style. In this passage, something terrible has happened. An infant has just died:
She [the mother] sank on to the edge of the divan, where she sat with her mouth open and tears pouring from her staring eyes. Then a torpor came over her and silence fell on the room. The furniture had been overturned. Two or three napkins were lying on the floor. Six o’clock struck. The night-light went out. (3,4)
The clipped sentences and imprecise number of napkins are all in the French original. Thousands of subsequent “minimalist” writers have tried to recapture the effect of this moment. The same flat style that is tedious when describing a dinner party becomes sublime in the presence of death. Who would criticize such a scene for lacking ornament? Many of those later writers, especially those who wrote short fiction, thought something like “Why not just cut out the boring dinner party scene and just keep the really powerful moment?” And some succeeded in doing just that, while others only managed to make emotionally rich moments dull.
4. Beauty. Such moments are among the easiest in Sentimental Education to call beautiful, as are the moments of elevated language, the garden of asparagus “which looked like a little forest of feathers” (2, 5) and so on. I could imagine an aesthetic in which the flatter, plainer, duller passages are meant to contrast with – pump up the significance of – the heightened moments. A risky strategy, boring the reader.
Men sitting at a narrow table were placing lumps of paste on revolving disks in front of them; their left hand scraped out the inside while their right stroked the surface, and vases could be seen rising like flowers blossoming out. (2, 3)
Flaubert, though, considers the novel to be beautiful all the way through. Any surface dullness is of no consequence because he can see the hidden patterns he has carefully constructed underneath the flat surface. They are always there somewhere, they are beautiful.
I have increasingly wondered why Flaubert was so committed to the form of the novel. Why do so much research if the good part is the part you make up? Why not write prose poems, or Finnegans Wake, or The Rings of Saturn? The latter gives me a clue. Flaubert, I am often told, is a “realist.” And he is.
5. Metaphysics. Here I need help. I am going to get it from Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946, tr. Willard Trask).
Auerbach describes Flaubert as a kind of mystic of reality, the devotee of a theory “of a self-forgetful absorption in the subjects of reality” (486). The purpose of the artist is “to transform reality through style; transform it so that it would appear as God sees it, so that the divine order – insofar as it concerns the fragment of reality treated in a particular work – would perforce be incarnated in the author’s style” (357-8). The representation of reality by the artist is more beautiful and meaningful than reality because the representation is more real.
There is a strong dose of Schopenhauer here, although I doubt he is Flaubert’s source. The artist – the great artist? – is, in a limited way, able to glimpse the real reality behind the usual false reality which he then represents as a new false but improved reality. And that’s the best you can hope for. Thus the subject does not matter, the characters do not matter (although being able to take jabs at some bourgeois enemies is a pleasant bonus), or they only matter arbitrarily as material for the creation of the marvelous new object. “[I]n his book [Madame Bovary] the world consists of pure stupidity, which completely misses true reality, so that the latter should properly not be discoverable in it at all; yet it is there; it is in the writer’s language…” (489).
No one is obligated to believe any of this to read Flaubert successfully. I believe Flaubert believed it. A number of later writers, too.