Thursday, June 28, 2012

White and black butterflies & Flaubert's visible narrator

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 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?


  1. In the nineteenth century, a passage certainly did not have to be explicit in any way to be considered obscene. If it forcibly encouraged the reader to imagine sexual activity, then it was pornographic. Hence the carriage scene was an affront to the censors. Flaubert knew it, his editor knew it (and was a great deal more concerned about it than Flaubert!). They were jolly lucky to get through the trial. While I've been reading your posts, I've been thinking I must recommend a short biography of Flaubert, one of the Hesperus Brief Lives series, written by Andrew Brown. It's highly attentive to all sorts of quirkiness in Flaubert's work and very well written itself. Just thought you might appreciate it.

  2. I do indulge in a bit of presentism there, don't I? The crime of the carriage scene, compared to the more suggestive bits of Balzac, say, is that it is too good - too effective on the imagination. Thus the irony of the dimness of the cabbie, who never figures out what is going on.

    In Francis Steegmuller's account of the trial, Flaubert and his lawyer were greatly aided by the incompetence of their opponents.

    Thanks for the recommendation. Steegmuller's biography is so intensely focused on MB that anything afterwards is just a coda. The Brown book sounds like a perfect way to fill in the rest of his life.

  3. Sometimes it's impossible to know when the editorializing comes from the characters and when from the narrator. In this great bit:

    So it was decided to stop Emma reading novels. The enterprise did not seem easy. The good lady undertook it. She was, when she passed through Rouen, to go herself to the lending-library and represent that Emma had continued her subscription. Would they not have a right to apply to the police if the librarian persisted all the same in his poisonous trade?

    whose term is "poisonous?" The elder Madame Bovary's, or the nameless narrator's? And is it narrative/authorial intrusion whenever sarcasm raises its head in the narrative, however subtle? Free indirect style blurs a lot of lines between points of view so it can be hard to say. And ultimately it's absurd: every word of course comes from Flaubert's pen. But playing around with the edges of the various levels of abstraction is great fun.

    Hey, in all this discussion of technique, nobody's mentioning how funny this book is. Some of the characters are hi-larious. I'm a pokey reader so I've just this morning got to the chapter where Rodolphe Boulanger declares his intention to seduce Emma. He seems like he'll be a lot of fun. The chemist is a laugh riot, and so's Madame Bovary senior. The chemist could be a Dickens character if he was a little less earthy.

    1. I'm sure that should read "...Emma had discontinued..."

  4. Yeah, I count "poisonous" as a pure example of free indirect - the narrator & character share the word. We slip from the invisible narrator into the elder Mme Bovary's thoughts or even speech but with no precise boundary.

    I think the thing about the cheese and an "investment" consisting of nothing but manure counts as a mention of comic Flaubert. My prejudice, actually, is that all great novelists are comic writers at some level. Something about the cock-eyed view of life necessary to move reality into fiction, an attunement to the incongruities of existence.

  5. Flaubert did have a comic vein: "Bouvard et Pécuchet" and "The Dictionary of Received Ideas," for example.

    And he wrote three plays, all comedies, which I read this weekend, next to the air conditioner. "The Candidate" is a satire on provincial politics; "The Castle of Hearts" is a musical extravaganza, with fairies, gnomes, talking trees, and waltzing mannequins; "The Weaker Sex" is a misogynistic screed, in which evil shrews mistreat perfectly nice men. Flaubert's sense of humor strikes me as often angry and heavy-handed. In "The Castle of Hearts," for example, there's a scene among the bourgeois, who have pointy heads, dress alike, and worship a soup pot. For some reason, the stage seems to have brought out a very visible narrator. Curious.

  6. No! Singing gnomes! Worshiping a soup pot! Too good to be true!

    Flaubert is a fascinating study, I'll tell you that.

    In his letters, Flaubert is often hilarious, too, but still in that angry way you describe. And of course parts of Bovary and Sentimental Education are quite funny, too. The comedy of humiliation, often, but still funny, even if I wince while reading.

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  8. Hey, where'd Scott's comment go?

    So Flaubert adored Shakespeare, particularly "Lear," "Macbeth," "Othello," that crowd. I would include support for this statement but I just took Steegmuller back to the library.

  9. I deleted it because it was overly vague because only half thought out; I'd intended to immediately--immediately, I say--rephrase it so it would contain both more grammar and more sense. Alas, my workday reared it's ugly head and now it's hours later.

    What I said was, more or less, that overtly comic works generally strike me as being mean-spirited, whereas the comical moments in tragedies or dramas seems more tender and human. Shakespeare's comedies are violent things, with cruel jokes and crueller characters and not much in the way of real humanity. Compare them to his tragedies, where there is always comedy of the more tender and insightful (but less cutting) variety.

    The second half of Madame Bovary contains, I think I said, plenty of that latter kind of comedy. I ended by wondering if Flaubert had read Shakespeare, and I'm not surprised to learn that he adored the tragedies. MB is in many ways structured like a 5-act tragedy.

  10. I don't think Flaubert is invisible at all. There isn't a single paragraph in "Madame Bovary" that doesn't carry the imprint of his considerable personality. When an author has so pwerful a personality as does Flaubert, invisibility, even when aimed for, is impossible.

  11. See the post before this one, in the comments, the paragraph about visiting the flax mill. That one would be a good test.

    The idea about power of the personality makes me a little nervous. Powerful personalities leave impressions, less powerful personalities do not. A weak personality might be invisible, but not a powerful one. Prejudice on my part, perhaps - I typically give the artist credit and assume a certain amount of control.

    Even in Hugo, the massive Hugoness of it all is a rhetorical technique. Art.

  12. As an ecology professor, I find your references to 19th C applications of fertilizers wonderfully useful for classes and for context of thinking about humans in the natural environment. It is from you that I learned about the import of mummified cats to Englad for fertilizer, from Egypt. Manuring was big in Europe then, as farming responded to the scientific elaboration of plant nutrition. The US was in the game too, in a different way. We invaded islands around the world to steal the bird guano that weak governments could not protect. Industrially fixed N, a German scientific and engineering advancement, made all of this manuring and guano a quaint memory.

  13. Thanks for visiting and commenting. I wonder if anyone has written a novel - I mean a good novel! - on the Guano Rush. It would have been a good subject for Conrad or Stevenson or Kipling.