Sunday, November 30, 2008

Flaubert's First Time at the Writers' Group

I am reading Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary as part of my full-on assault on continental literature, begun this fall in an attempt to know all my Frenchman, Germans and Russians by their sentence structures in time for the GRE Subject Test.

I am disappointed! I had my hopes up, thought I would be blown away by the insight, romance, and sensuality of French literature. Flaubert misses the mark.

As an aside, before I start tearing Monsieur apart, I would like to note that I checked out a Proust reader from the library the next day, and I continue to be floored by it. Marcel Proust (along with other Marcels, i.e. Duchamp) is my new hero. Hope is not lost for me and French literature.

So, my problem (or one of them anyway) with Flaubert is this: the man cannot construct a scene. The entire novel is told in exposition, or in feeble attempts at scenes that are really very expository. How can you write a novel about love, sex, affairs, the wretchedness of women (if you will) without showing it in the charged, heated, fiery prose of the fully present immediate past tense?

To the first couple of chapters I gave the benefit of the doubt. Flaubert describes M. Bovary's upbringing, from which the narrator has some narrative distance. Exposition is fine for these scenes, and in 1857 I don't know if the world was ready for a novel that jumped between time periods a la Slaughterhouse V (Madame Bovary only moves forward in time but even that may have been confusing -- Flaubert doesn't announce it or anything). So the past tense, removed voice is probably the best choice. But then we move to the recent past (Bovary's first wife, his courtship of Emma), and then into the present (from Emma's wedding on), and we are still being "told" what happens, almost never "shown."

When describing Emma's life with Charles, everything is written as "She would walk the path," "He would say to her," "They would play games." This "would" sums up a series of walks on the path, exchanges between lovers, social evenings out, but almost never describes any particular day or night or passing emotion or passionate act.

There is some beautiful description in the work, but it is mostly of nature, houses, and men's attire. The rays of sunlight and the dusty road of Emma's walk with her Italian Greyhound, the noiseless bubbling water and glass-decorated walls of Emma's walk with Leon on the riverbanks, the curling eyelashes and creamy flushed cheeks of Emma's lovers. These images hold my attention.

Flaubert also makes some worthy attempts at describing very short scenes, which he peppers with literary devices. He seems to hit his stride when he gives himself over to a scene, and when he returns to expository language, it actually makes it hit just right. For instance, when Emma tosses her wedding bouquet into the flames and watches:

She threw it into the fire. It flared up fatser that a dry straw. Then it looked like a red bush in the ashes, slowly disintegrating. She watched it burn. The little cardboard berries burst, the brass wires twisted, the braiding melted; and the shriveled paper petals fluttered on the grate like black butterflies, then flew up the chimney.
When they left Tostes in the month of March, Madame Bovary was pregnant.
Gorgeous! The similies are nice, the symbolic disintegration of the bouquet with its twisting insides and melted edges is fantastic, and the return to expositon ("Madame Bovary was pregnant") actually give us a kick in the pants. It is then that he also returns from calling her "Emma." Emma is the girl who burned the bouquet. It is Madame who is pregnant.

Another problem. When some dialog miraculously appears, it is sandwiched by expository explanation, and then the first words of the very next paragraph will be "The next day..." When something like a scene takes place, Flaubert often runs away from it instead of using it to build momentum!

Only toward the end of the story does this get any better, a good example I remember being a scene between Leon and Emma where they actually play with each other's clothing while they talk. But even that is interrupted by expositon that stands in for dialog: "The clerk warmly explained that ideal natures were difficult to understand. He had loved her at first sight...[and so on]" Well, how the heck did he say all of that? If a character tells another "I loved you at first sight," shouldn't we get to be audience to that as it actually happens? Maybe Flaubert thinks that is unimportant?

And another thing -- if we've gotten into the clerk's pants, shouldn't we be calling him "Leon"?

So I pictured Flaubert at one of my writers' group meetings. We have certain syntactical and stylistic expectations, and most of us agree on some key points. Don't write fiction in the present tense. Don't use the passive voice unless you have to. Avoid the gerund when you can. Don't use ellipses or semicolons in fiction. And most importantly for Gustave, SHOW don't TELL, or SCENE not EXPOSITION.

After he reads a few pages, the best of us will begin to fear for him, to feel embarrassed for him at at listening to these words, knowing he'll never get anywhere unless he adds some dialog or brings the story into the "now." I picture the group leader looking over his manuscript, shaking her head, making the pages bleed with red ink.

There have been a few writers in the group who had Flaubertitis. My hand would get (haha...would get) tired of writing "dialog," "dialog," "dialog," "SHOW us," etc, in the margins.

Yeah, those ladies would tear Gus apart. I forgot to mention it's a women-only group. So even if Gustave were allowed to attend as a special guest, and even if we could get past his expository extravagance and find some enjoyment in it, we would all take exception to his chauvinistic treatment of Madame B -- er -- Emma.

Some Irishman wrote a line for the back of the book: "Possibly the most beautifully written book ever composed and the most important novel of the century." Um, do you read much? He should have had them underline "Possibly." Even if I conceded that some of my distaste for this novel is my own humble opinion, that the book really is a great work (I never said it should be stripped from the canon), I could still not begin to agree with the silly statement on the back of my Signet Classics edition. Regretfully, I cannot afford to buy reputable critical editions of every work, and even some of those must be taken with a box of sea salt.

So I think Flaubert may have a had a chance at that "most important novel," and at "beautifully written books" of all kinds if he had just attended a writers' group once in a while. I know it really helps me.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the things I love about you, Robyn. You're one of the only people I know who would not only embark on a full-on assault on continental literature, but also describe it in such a creative way. GRE Subject Test? Is it wrong that I have absolutely no idea what that is.

    I was surprised to hear you were disappointed by Madame Bovary. I'm glad that you aren't soured on all French literature. I certainly have to brush up on it, after I read the, oh, hundred or so books already on my roster ;)

    I've found that most books/stories that I can't get through are also told entirely through exposition. I need to hear (or actually read) characters speak. Passionless exposition is just dull.

    Slaughterhouse V! One of my very favorite novels by one of my very favorite authors. My mentor actually met Vonnegut once. I was so awestruck by that. It was one of those wonderful moments where I really embraced my inner writer dork. I couldn't give a damn about celebrities, but really great authors...I turn into a giddy school girl. Well, as giddy as I get anyway :)

    When I had to rewrite my first book, my coach told me to focus on scenery. I was so confused when he told me that the problem was I was telling the reader instead of showing. Looking back on that rough first draft, I actually cringe now. So many writers have that problem nowadays. You have to understand the difference between showing and telling in order to be a truly great writer. It's also something that you have to continually brush up on.

    Those descriptions that you mentioned did sound quite lovely. Might this novel have had some potential at one point? I really liked your analysis of that effective literary device. It's something I probably wouldn't have caught at first glance.

    My favorite sentence of this entry: "And another thing -- if we've gotten into the clerk's pants, shouldn't we be calling him "Leon"?" Brilliant. It gave me a much needed laugh.

    After reading all your key points, I find myself questioning how anyone who appreciates the art of writing could not know them. It really reminded me of what my mentor and I regularly talk about. By the way, I think you could start a drinking game with the amount of times I bring up my mentor.

    I often wonder how most of the classic writers would fair in today's market. It's sad, but good writing is rarely picked up by agents or publishers. Intelligence doesn't sell. I actually get depressed thinking about it.

    Your writing group sounds heavenly...and a little scary.

    By the way, I'm preventing myself from going on the "women get the short end of the stick constantly" rant that has been building up in me since Thanksgiving. I've had my fill of chauvinism and yet still have to deal with it constantly. It irks me a little.

    Of course the Irishman doesn't read much? We're lucky if we can write any kind of legible sentence, much less read thousands of them ;) Sorry, it's not politically correct, but since I'm a little Irish, I'm allowed.

    Wonderful entry. I eagerly look forward to the next one.


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