Flaubert was rubbish by Bill Kirton
|The man himself
I’m a Flaubert bore. I often mention him. It’s both a hangover from when I used to lecture on French literature (that was my day job and they paid me for it. Amazing.) and it’s because his writing is so deceptive and so challenging. This is a composite of two blogs I wrote on my website a few years ago after reading Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale. It’s a fascinating read about adulterous goings-on (or maybe not) in Victorian England. I was reading it on my Kindle and seemed to be getting to the end but was a bit puzzled to see that the percentage indicator showed that I was barely halfway through it. The reason for this was that the second half of the book is a reproduction of the famous translation of Madame Bovary by Eleanor Aveling-Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl. The author had included it because Emma Bovary was also an adulterous Victorian wife. (But then, apparently, so was Eleanor.)
Anyway, I read a few passages of the text and the translation’s not great. This is no surprise because it’s very, very difficult to convey the complexity of Flaubert’s style. In fact, Eleanor herself wrote: ‘Certainly no critic can be more painfully aware than I am of the weaknesses, the failures, the shortcomings of my work’. But a passage very near the beginning reminded me of just how much more you get out of the text than the story. You don't have to; the story's good in itself, but there's more there if you want it. There have been plenty of commentaries on it and my comments owe lots to various perceptive academics but, with a grateful nod to them, let’s just read it, without any academic or historical baggage, and see how we react.
There’s all sorts of stuff going on in the text. When the book starts, for example, the narrator is a classmate of Charles Bovary. The first sentence is ‘We were in class, studying, when the headmaster came in, followed by a “new fellow”’. So that makes the narrator a character in the story. He then goes into minute detail of what Charles looked like, what he did, how his father and mother met, what their marriage was like, and yet, after a few pages of this, he writes ‘It would be impossible now for any of us to remember anything about him’.
What? After all that detail? And what about the few hundred pages still to come which will tell the intimate story of Emma herself, with all her adventures, thoughts, dreams and shattered illusions? And all this from one of the boys in Charles’s class?
Clearly, Flaubert was a rubbish writer. Emma's eyes change colour several times in the book. It seems that sometimes they're black, sometimes brown and sometimes blue. He obviously hadn’t been to any creative writing classes and learned about narrative arcs, head-hopping and all those other essentials you need to understand in order to write. And yet he’d taken five years to write the book, walking up and down his ‘shoutery’ in the garden reading the words out loud to get the rhythms exactly right, and spending days agonising over punctuation and searching for ‘le mot juste’.
No, he obviously knew what he was doing, so why did he make such obviousAs well as the bits I’ve already noted, the whole opening sequence seems designed to establish Charles as an awkward, oafish individual with very little going for him – altogether the last sort of person the romantic Emma should be getting hooked up with. His name implies his bovine nature and, in fact, his clumsy actions lead to the teacher telling him to write out twenty times ‘ridiculus sum’.
He’s supposed to be a stylist par excellence so where does that apparent clumsiness and inconsistency come from?
|A sample of his work
At the centre of those actions is a passage about Charles fussing with his cap. The other boys had the habit of throwing theirs towards the hooks in the classroom as they came in and sat down, but Charles is a new boy. He’s brought in by the headmaster and just sits with it on his knee. Here’s my own loose translation of Flaubert’s description of the cap:
It was one of those composite hats, where you find traces of the bearskin, shako, derby, sealskin cap, and cotton nightcap; in short, one of those wretched things whose dumb ugliness has depths of expression like an imbecile's face. Oval, stiffened with whalebone, it began with three round lumps; then alternating lozenge-shaped patches of velvet and rabbit skin separated by a red band; after that came a sort of bag that ended in a cardboard polygon covered with complicated braiding, from which hung, at the end of a long thin cord, small twisted gold threads in the form of a tassel. The cap was new; its peak shone.
No such thing could possibly exist. How the hell do all the various bits fit together? And, as well as that, it's ‘dumb’ and yet it has ‘depths of expression’. Just look at the first line: It was one of those composite hats, where you find traces of the bearskin, shako, derby, sealskin cap, and cotton nightcap.
How many hats have you seen like that? And yet there must be umpteen of them about the place because it's 'one of those hats where...'. That's like introducing a character by saying ‘He was one of those men who always wear a tie’. You do that and the reader thinks ‘Ah yes, I know the type’. But then the middle bit of the description takes it even further, conjuring up a grotesque parody of a hat. How on earth could something so impossible be ‘one of those caps where…’ – an expression which suggests the world is full of them?
The short, third sentence, too, is typical of Flaubert. He frequently uses bathos to undermine his own narrative, writing long, deliberately ornate build-ups, multiplying progressively weaker subordinate clauses and tailing off into absurdity. After the long accumulation of excrescences on the headpiece, he ends with the banality of ‘The cap was new; its peak shone’.
This seems to be writing which asks questions. Yes it’s contributing to the idea that Charles is awkward and definitely not romantic, but it’s also challenging readers to make sense of nonsense, it’s collecting and grouping words to mean nothing. With Flaubert, you get great stories, laughs, memorable characters, but you also get intimations that the world isn’t the comprehensible, structured place we want books to bring us. For this so-called realist writer, reality is a construct. Passages like this one show us that he's not just telling the story of poor Emma, he's doing something very different with his words. This is more than fiction (if you want it to be).