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 obvious
A sample of his work
‘mistakes’? He’s supposed to be a stylist par excellence so where does that apparent clumsiness and inconsistency come from?

As 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’.

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.

OK, be honest, have you any idea what it looks like?

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).


Umberto Tosi said…
There's a wonderfully ironic chapter in Otto Friedrich's fascinating "Olympia: Paris in the Age of Manet" about Gustave Flaubert's all-consuming passion for writing classical heroic sagas,all of which turned out badly, but how friends finally cajoled him into writing a novel based on a dissatisfied bourgeois wife of his acquaintance - a subject he at first thought beneath him. The novel, of course, turned out to be Madame Bovary, his first success and most famous work.
Wendy H. Jones said…
What a fascinating insight. Thank you
Mari Biella said…
An intriguing insight, Bill - thank you. I'm now tempted to root out my old copy of Madame Bovary, and reexamine it in more detail.
Jan Needle said…
damn you, bill, i'll have to read it again, but this time i'll try it in french. and can we have links to the summerscale book, please, and your blog? bang goes a quiet easter holiday playing with the grandkids and their pigs and dogs and chickens. i blame that emma bovary. slapper!
Lee said…
The best sort of post -- one that's going to send me off for a re-read (and I have to admit that it's been more than forty -- egads, 40! how is that possible? -- since I've read it).
Dennis Hamley said…
I agree, I know I've got a copy somewhere so I'll start looking now. But you've expressed a profound truth. With the great writer, everything means something.
Fascinating. I must confess I haven't read Madame Bovary - but this might send me off to look for it! I have an (irrational, I know) aversion to books where the heroine seems to have to die for her sins. So however good the book it bugs me while I'm reading it. I know, I know - mad Cathy pops her clogs in my favourite Wuthering Heights, but there's a resolution of sorts in young Cathy and besides, she doesn't do it to herself like Emma B and Anna K. I'm a Becky Sharp kind of a woman - well, I appreciate her. Don't behave like her I hope! But you've got me convinced.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks to everyone for the comments. What a pity I’m not a beneficiary of Flaubert’s estate, with all the new copies of Bovary they’ll be selling.

Seriously, though, I really do think it’s worth re-reading (and I can beat your 40 years, Lee; for me it’s about 55). Many of my re-reads were as part of the job, of course, but still I always come across something (either new or comfortingly familiar) which stops me reading and just makes me look harder at the text to see how he achieved whatever the effect was. It undermines all sorts of accepted wisdoms, elevates absurdity to magnificence, and simultaneously indulges in and mercilessly parodies the extremes of Romanticism.

Emma’s hungers may be for clichés but I suspect most of us have shared them at some point. How about ‘Les meilleurs baisers ne vous laissent sur la lèvre qu’une irréalisable envie d’une volupté plus haute.’ ? (The best kisses only leave on your lip an unrealisable desire for a higher voluptuousness.)

Or, if we shun such ‘ordinary’ delights, surely as writers we’ve felt some of the things to which Flaubert alludes. This, too, is from Madame Bovary: ‘…comme si la plénitude de l’âme ne débordait pas quelquefois par les métaphores les plus vides, puisque personne, jamais, ne peut donner l’exacte mesure de ses besoins, ni de ses conceptions, ni de ses douleurs, et que la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé ou nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.

Since I can’t begin to do this justice, I’ll steal from probably the best translation there is, by Lydia Davis: ‘…as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity’.

And Jan, I’ll sidestep your provocative ‘slapper’ remark. The links are:
http://amzn.to/1H1wAaO (which is Kate Summerscale’s Amazon page where you’ll find Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace but also the excellent The Suspicions of Mr Wicher.
And my own blog is at
Susan Price said…
human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity’.

glitter noir said…
Great post, Bill. I have nothing else to do besides reading books about Rome and Egypt and Caesar while working on my WIP...so now I look forward to hunting the just-perfect translation of a book that didn't work for me. But one you've convinced me I need to re-read.
Bill Kirton said…
I think I understand why many (most?) people don't rate it, Reb. It's by no means a page-turner. But I think that's the point. Turns of phrase like the one which impressed Susan (and which I've trotted out for 50-odd years) need to be absorbed, savoured, not just for what they say but for the stylistic perfection, the balance and rhythm. I used to try to encourage students to dwell on the gaps between the book's major events and set pieces and just absorb the mood, sense of place (internal and external) etc., etc. I must have bored them out of their skulls.
glitter noir said…
I'll keep that in mind, Bill. I don't always need page-turning prose. Read and loved most of Nabokov, savoring the style just as you suggested. Maybe I'm readier for Madame now. Then again, I may always prefer Vlad as phrase impaler.

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Navigating by the Stars

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

No, The Times Journalists at the Hay Literary Festival, Burglarising is Not What It's All About, says Griselda Heppel

Little Detective on the Prairie