Wednesday, June 27, 2012

We long to make music that will melt the stars - Flaubert's plain prose

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.


  1. I do hope you'll peek at the French now and then. The word translated as "melt" is "attendrir," for example, which has some different overtones. I'm glad I don't have to translate Flaubert...

  2. I appreciate your goading - I do peek at the French, but not enough. It is rewarding, but exhausting. I also sometimes compare Steegmuller to another version I read several years ago, Mildred Marmur's version. It is a Signet Classics edition, so completely without prestige; it seems at least as good as Steegmuller.

    Marmur has "to move" for "attendrir" which is also nice and also has associations that are completely wrong. "Move" + "melt" shows what Flaubert means. The music of the writer does not move the stars from their position or overheat them until they are softened, but rather moves them to pity and melts their starry hearts.

    The two sentences I quote above, with the bear, are one in Flaubert, with a semi-colon joining them. Marmur turns it into four sentences.

  3. Hmm. When I think "plain prose" I might think of O'Connor. Flaubert's prose, at least in the uncredited translation I'm reading, seems quite fine and lovely. Certainly the images Rohan lists are not very beautiful, but the book--to my eye at least--is chockablock full of lovely figurative language. Right alongside angular, jarring images, sure. But I have a hard time seeing Flaubert's "plainness." Perhaps I misunderstand what you mean; though I agree, perhaps, that I had an expectation of being bedazzled because of the historical baggage other writers have laid upon this book. Though some passages in MB really are dazzling.

  4. Here is an early example, coming right after the dazzling description of the cap:

    The cap was new; its peak was shiny.

    "Stand up," said the teacher.

    He rose. His cap dropped to the floor. Everyone began to laugh.

    He bent over for it. A boy beside him sent it down again with his elbow. Once again he picked it up.

    A later one (II.5):

    It was a snowy Sunday afternoon in February.

    All of them - Monsieur and Madame Bovary , Homais and Monsieur Léon - had gone to see a new flax mill that was being built in the valley, a mile or so from Yonville. The apothecary had taken Napoléon and Athalie along to give them some exercise, and Justin accompanied them, carrying a supply of umbrellas over his shoulder.

  5. Yes, that's pretty plain. Now that I think about it, a lot of Flaubert's dramatized scenes are unadorned and kind of angular, aren't they? He's much prettier doing landscapes (even such "landscapes" as the wedding procession or Emma's childhood history). Though perhaps the sentences even there are plain; though how much can you separate a sentence from the fabric of the scene? Any individual brushstroke in a masterpiece is likely to be very humdrum. So I don't have an answer.

    Possibly the concept of writing "at the sentence level" really developed later than Flaubert, and he was more concerned with the larger-sized components of the novel. I don't know.

  6. "Unadorned," yes, that's the right word.

    Madame Bovary is Flaubert's first published novel, but the fourth one he wrote. The earlier three were highly adorned. His friends were horrified when the third turned out to be nothing but hundreds of pages of adornment.

    So in Madame Bovary Flaubert is actually simultaneously working on the perfect whole, the perfect section, the perfect decorated sentence, and the perfect unadorned sentence.

    The brushstroke analogy is not bad. I have read plenty of art critics who discuss better and worse brushstrokes, although I do not know quite what they mean.

    In the big set-pieces like the wedding or the ball Flaubert happily moves close so to the "something interesting in every sentence" idea.

  7. My knowledge of French is far too poor to read Flaubert in the original, but when I read the translations, I usually have the French versions (they are my wife's copies: unlike myself, she knows the language well), and frequently turn to them to get some idea of what the original sounds like.