Thursday, June 28, 2012

Realism Under Construction

I am still reading Flaubert's Madame Bovary. I am a slow reader, much slower now than in my youth. I figure I'm not quite a third of the way through the book. Emma and Leon are becoming attracted to each other in a vapid sort of way. Both of them are bubble-heads who feel put upon by the mundanity of life. Why do I not have some other, more glamorous life, in some other, more glamorous place? They ask themselves this and sigh.

My current impression of the novel is that it's uneven. There are large patches of glorious prose that carry me along quite happily, and there are large patches of more rather heavy weather, where Flaubert is building, putting together a symbolic landscape into which he'll eventually bring Charles and Emma. Some of that construction (I refer here to the opening pages of the Yonville part) is not so pleasant to sit through. I can see why Flaubert needed to construct the elaborate set, but I did not enjoy the noise of the hammers and saws. I am speaking in metaphor, damn it. I blame Gustave.

The symbolic network Flaubert creates is elaborate and I do admire the craft. Alas, I think this might be one of those novels I admire more than I enjoy. We'll see, I guess, how the scales are weighted when I reach the end. But because I am familiar with the plot of the book, I can see that Leon shuffling sadly past Emma's bedroom window (both Emma and Leon convinced they are suffering from the lack of glamour and pining for each other) might parallel and contrast with the profane beggar who sings a bawdy outside the window of the room in which Emma dies, later on in the book.

I am also growing too much aware, I think, of the editorial nature of the symbolic landscapes, and I must say that Flaubert might have overdone it. For example:

They returned to Yonville by the water-side. In the warm season the bank, wider than at other times, showed to their foot the garden walls whence a few steps led to the river. It flowed noiselessly, swift, and cold to the eye; long, thin grasses huddled together in it as the current drove them, and spread themselves upon the limpid water like streaming hair; sometimes at the tip of the reeds or on the leaf of a water-lily an insect with fine legs crawled or rested. The sun pierced with a ray the small blue bubbles of the waves that, breaking, followed each other; branchless old willows mirrored their grey backs in the water; beyond, all around, the meadows seemed empty. It was the dinner-hour at the farms, and the young woman and her companion heard nothing as they walked but the fall of their steps on the earth of the path, the words they spoke, and the sound of Emma's dress rustling round her.

The walls of the gardens with pieces of bottle on their coping were hot as the glass windows of a conservatory. Wallflowers had sprung up between the bricks, and with the tip of her open sunshade Madame Bovary, as she passed, made some of their faded flowers crumble into a yellow dust, or a spray of overhanging honeysuckle and clematis caught in its fringe and dangled for a moment over the silk.

That's all very fine, yes? But the thing is, it's a method Flaubert uses constantly: to present a long long list of beautiful things and then, at the end, to continue on with an image of destruction or decay. As I said on Monday, I think, Flaubert infuses the prose little by little with toxins. There is nothing wrong with this little trick, except that Flaubert is using it in a repetitious manner. Emma is spoiling everything nice; everything that Emma thinks she desires is actually ruinous. The individual uses of this conceit are all very fine and inventive, but the continuous use of this conceit--even with the great variation of surface detail--is becoming tiresome. I understand, however, that because Madame Bovary was stylistically unique when it was first published, Flaubert's readers were not necessarily trained to read novels closely, to recognize the importance of symbols in prose literature the way one does with poetry. So I cut Flaubert slack and sit through his detournement of lists. Because a lot of the lists are entertaining.

Anyway, I continue with Madame Bovary but I am not filled with the desire to read more Flaubert after this book. I miss Chekhov, po pravdi govorya.

Also: A quick update on the WIP. I am at about 75,000 words, pushing forward with Chapter 15 (the penultimate chapter). I think it's pretty good so far. I see that there are some things that will need to be adjusted early on in the story, because there were things I didn't know when I was first writing the novel and so I have continuity errors (by which I really mean mischaracterizations) in the opening chapters. But that's all easy stuff. I think my own symbolic background is working out and my metaphorical wagers are paying off. I think. I don't really know, but I have a good feeling. I should have this draft finished in a couple of weeks, and then I will ignore the MS while Mighty Reader subjects herself to the first draft and attempts to give me feedback that I will attempt to ignore before claiming her advice and her ideas as my own. She's become used to my behavior in this regard, but that doesn't excuse it, I know.


  1. This morning on my way in to work I found myself choosing to look out the window instead of reading MB. Part of that is simply me not wanting to look at words in that moment, but I'm also falling in and out of love with the writing. I'm thinking I'll finish the book; I'm still intrigued by what might happen. But I'm feeling like you.

    And, hey, I just bought myself a Zipcar membership, Bailey!

  2. I love Zipcar! Make sure to buy the annual damage waiver. It's well worth the $70/year or whatever it is. I assume you get a university discount? I did!

    I read somewhere this morning where someone calls MB "claustrophobic." I won't quite go that far, but I do get the feeling that Flaubert is pushing me around a lot. It's a novel that's very conscious of form, of the mechanics of writing. It's almost a textbook.

    When I read Moby Dick I had difficulty with passages/chapters where Melville was building his symbolic world, but those passages/chapters all paid off in the end. I hope the same will be true of Bovary. There are passages where I tell myself that Flaubert enjoyed the writing, and others where I feel like he was tinkering, mitering edges, sharpening gear teeth; not much liking the work but feeling it was all necessary. I don't know. I think I see how Nabokov was possibly too much influenced by Flaubert. VN and GF both sort of wear on me the same way after a while, though VN is more broadly funny than what I've seen in GF. This is all very interesting and inconclusive.

  3. Thanks for the info on the waiver. I was trying to decide. I didn't get the university discount. I signed up through Groupon, so that was the only discount I could use, but it seems substantial.

    I definitely feel pushed around with Flaubert. That's probably the thing I feel the most. He's moving me wherever he wants me to go, and I see his "love" as being a love for precision, like a clockmaker's love. Then, of course, there's the eroticism, which I am finding fascinating.

  4. I can almost imagine how romance writers have taken cues from Flaubert about eroticising their stories. There's so much yearning going on. Though I have never read a romance (in the current sense of the word) so I am only imagining this.

    During lunch just now, I wrote about 500 more words of Go Home, Etc. As I was reading over the whole of the chapter-in-progress, I began to see how my own prose has some of that Flaubertian pushiness, how I'm often building tension up in waves and pointing the reader where I want him to go. Which is what AmateurReader(Tom) said I'd find in Madame Bovary: writers since Flaubert are all influenced by Flaubert. I got my grounding in form and craft from people like Grass and Nabokov and Byatt, but they got it from GF. I think. Anyway, my ideas about long-form fiction seem to be in flux today. Which is interesting and therefore good.

    I share some of that "clockmaker's love," you know. Though I also want to speak in defense of imprecise, unexamined irrationality.

  5. Yes, Byatt is a worshiper, too. Grass I don't know - ah, no, obviously, Grass gets to Flaubert via Theodor Fontane.

    The French New Novelists like Robbe-Grillet took the kind of repetition you describe so well above and turned it into an aesthetic principle - the novel should be nothing but repetition, as repetitive as possible.

  6. Yes, there is much yearning in romance, as you say in your comment, hehe. I can definitely see that coming from MB.

    And thanks for your examples! I'm not sure I spotted the devices you speak of in your post - about the long lists of descriptions followed by something destructive, over and over, when I first read the book. I want to read it again now as I see you and others reading it and commenting on it here and there.

    I'm almost to 76k in CURSE, so I think that's fun that we are sitting around the same word count! I hope I can finish in a few weeks, but I am absolutely certain you will have less revision-work to do than I will since I've written this draft so damned fast. Mine also has a lot of inconsistencies because there were things I just did not know at the beginning, and there are some ridiculously large plot holes I need to go and fix. But I will plow my way to the end first! I will!

    Good luck with yours!

    Is that enough !!! for you?!!!

  7. Tom, now that I'm reading Flaubert, I'm seeing his fingerprints everywhere. Which, as I say, you predicted.

    When I was a young man I read piles of Grass but at some point I reached saturation point. At Crabwalk, I think. Or Telgte, maybe. There are a lot of commonalities between Grass and Nabokov, I think. Stylistically.

    I don't know your French New Novelists, but I can see playing with repetition. Arnold Schoenberg used to say that variation was a form of repetition, you know. And a great deal of Beckett is slight variation on a handful of closely-related themes, yes?

    Michelle, every good book I read changes me as a reader. I assume that the next twenty books I read will all be viewed through the lens of Flaubert-spotting. Won't that be fun and irritating? It's too bad you're too busy to re-read Bovary now, with the rest of us!

    I'm not convinced that your revisions will necessarily be more extensive than mine. You edit and revise as you go along, and I just singlemindedly write page after page and don't look back much. So we'll see! I figure the first two or three chapters will have to be completely rewritten in mine. I have no idea how long that will take. But I think I'll have this draft complete by the middle of July, and that's exciting. We'll see which of us finishes first. A prize will be awarded, I think.

    More exclamation points!

  8. A I don't know ... I haven't done as many editing-as-I-go type of revisions on this one. It has been much messier, which is why it has gone faster, I suppose.

    Either way, it's all exciting!

    New books rock!

  9. I always get sort of punchy and goofy at this stage in the first draft (that's how the bear got into the Horatio book, how the sailing ship got into the forest in Cocke & Bull, how the two patrolmen got into the rowboat in the detective book, etc). In the scene I just wrote, I named a convenience store clerk "Gustave" and had him quote Flaubert. Because I could.

    The entire structure of this new book is looser than my earlier novels. I don't know what I'll do to it during revisions: make it tighter, or make it more loose. We'll see. Anyway, it doesn't matter. Revisions are way more fun than first drafts, right?

  10. Yes, yes, they are. I hate drafting, in all honesty. The faster I can get through this first draft, the better. The fun part is making it suffer and take shape under my writerly wrath.

  11. I have myself convinced that my next book will be Fun!To!Write! though I already know that's a lie.

    I'm about halfway through the penultimate chapter. No matter how much I write, I can't seem to get past the halfway point, as if the chapter keeps stretching out into infinity before me. I keep telling myself that I'm almost to the end of it, but then I find out that I'm not. What the hell?

  12. I always think my next book will Fun To Write. It always is, but with a heavy dose of hard work and heartache along with it, lol. Why do we keep doing this? I think it's for the feeling I get when I finish. I swear it's the most addicting thing ever.

    And oh my gosh, I feel like that about the freaking long chapter I just finished. It took me forever to write. I thought it would never end. I sure hope it's not super boring. *chews nails*