Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gustave Flaubert

The sin of sitzfleisch

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Yesterday, I was reading the new profile of Mark Zuckerberg by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker when I came across one of my favorite words. It appears in a section about Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, who describes her husband’s reaction to the recent controversies that have swirled around Facebook:

When I asked Chan about how Zuckerberg had responded at home to the criticism of the past two years, she talked to me about Sitzfleisch, the German term for sitting and working for long periods of time. “He’d actually sit so long that he froze up his muscles and injured his hip,” she said.

Until now, the term sitzfleisch, or literally “buttocks,” was perhaps most widely known in chess, in which it evokes the kind of stoic, patient endurance capable of winning games by making one plodding move after another, but you sometimes see it in other contexts as well. Just two weeks ago, Paul Joyce, a lecturer in German at Portsmouth University, was quoted in an article by the BBC: “It’s got a positive sense, [it] positively connotes a sense of endurance, reliability, not just flitting from one place to another, but it is also starting to be questioned as to whether it matches the experience of the modern world.” Which makes it all the more striking to hear it applied to Zuckerberg, whose life’s work has been the systematic construction of an online culture that makes such virtues seem obsolete.

The concept of sitzfleisch is popular among writers—Elizabeth Gilbert has a nice blog post on the subject—but it also has its detractors. A few months ago, I posted a quote from Twilight of the Idols in which Friedrich Nietzsche comes out strongly against the idea. Here’s the full passage, which appears in a section of short maxims and aphorisms:

On ne peut penser et écrire qu’assis (G. Flaubert). Now I’ve got you, you nihilist! Sitting still [sitzfleisch] is precisely the sin against the holy ghost. Only thoughts which come from walking have any value.

The line attributed to Flaubert, which can be translated as “One can think and write only when sitting down,” appears to come from a biographical sketch by Guy de Maupassant. When you read it in context, you can see why it irritated Nietzsche:

From his early infancy, the two distinctive traits of [Flaubert’s] nature were great ingenuousness and a dislike of physical action. All his life he remained ingenuous and sedentary. He could not see any one walking or moving about near him without becoming exasperated; and he would declare in his sharp voice, sonorous and always a little theatrical, that motion was not philosophical. “One can think and write only when seated,” he would say.

On some level, Nietzsche’s attack on sitzfleisch feels like a reaction against his own inescapable habits—he can hardly have written any of his books without the ability to sit in solitude for long periods of time. I’ve noted elsewhere that the creative life has to be conducted both while seated and while engaging in other activities, and that your course of action at any given moment can be guided by whether or not you happen to be sitting down. And it can be hard to strike the right balance. We have to spend time at a desk in order to write, but we often think better by walking, going outside, and pointedly not checking Facebook. In the recent book Nietzsche and Montaigne, the scholar Robert Miner writes:

Both Montaigne and Nietzsche strongly favor mobility over sedentariness. Montaigne is a “sworn enemy” of “assiduity (assiduité)” who goes “mostly on horseback, where my thoughts range most widely.” Nietzsche too finds that “assiduity (Sitzfleisch) is the sin against the Holy Spirit” but favors walking rather than riding. As Dahlkvist observes, Nietzsche may have been inspired by Beethoven’s habit of walking while composing, which he knew about from his reading of Henri Joly’s Psychologie des grand hommes.

That’s possible, but it also reflects the personal experience of any writer, who is often painfully aware of the contradiction of trying to say something about life while spending most of one’s time alone.

And Nietzsche’s choice of words is also revealing. In describing sitzfleisch as a sin against the Holy Ghost, he might have just been looking for a colorful phrase, or making a pun on a “sin of the flesh,” but I suspect that it went deeper. In Catholic dogma, a sin against the Holy Ghost is specifically one of “certain malice,” in which the sinner acts on purpose, repeatedly, and in full knowledge of his or her crime. Nietzsche, who was familiar with Thomas Aquinas, might have been thinking of what the Summa Theologica has to say on the subject:

Augustine, however…says that blasphemy or the sin against the Holy Ghost, is final impenitence when, namely, a man perseveres in mortal sin until death, and that it is not confined to utterance by word of mouth, but extends to words in thought and deed, not to one word only, but to many…Hence they say that when a man sins through weakness, it is a sin “against the Father”; that when he sins through ignorance, it is a sin “against the Son”; and that when he sins through certain malice, i.e. through the very choosing of evil…it is a sin “against the Holy Ghost.”

Sitzfleisch, in short, is the sin of those who should know better. It’s the special province of philosophers, who know exactly how badly they fall short of ordinary human standards, but who have no choice if they intend to publish “not one word only, but many.” Solitary work is unhealthy, even inhuman, but it can hardly be avoided if you want to write Twilight of the Idols. As Nietzsche notes elsewhere in the same book: “To live alone you must be an animal or a god—says Aristotle. He left out the third case: you must be both—a philosopher.”

A visit to the chainmaker

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In the landmark study The Symbolist Movement in Literature by the critic Arthur Symons, there’s a short chapter titled “A Note on Zola’s Method.” Even if you’ve never gotten around to reading Émile Zola—and I confess that I haven’t—it’s an essay that every writer should take to heart. After describing the research that Zola devoted to his novel L’Assommoir, Symons launches a brutal attack on the value of this kind of work:

[Zola] observes with immense persistence, but his observation, after all, is only that of the man in the street; it is simply carried into detail, deliberately…And so much of it all is purely unnecessary, has no interest in itself and no connection with the story: the precise details of Lorilleux’s chainmaking, bristling with technical terms…Goujet’s forge, and the machinery in the shed next door; and just how you cut out zinc with a large pair of scissors.

We’ve all read stories in which the writer feels obliged to include every last bit of research, and Symons’s judgment of this impulse is deservedly harsh:

To find out in a slang dictionary that a filthy idea can be expressed by an ingeniously filthy phrase…is not a great feat, or, on purely artistic grounds, altogether desirable. To go to a chainmaker and learn the trade name of the various kinds of chain which he manufactures, and of the instruments with which he manufactures them, is not an elaborate process, or one which can be said to pay you for the little trouble which it no doubt takes. And it is not well to be too certain after all that Zola is always perfectly accurate in his use of all this manifold knowledge.

And the most punishing comparison is yet to come: “My main contention is that Zola’s general use of words is, to be quite frank, somewhat ineffectual. He tries to do what Flaubert did, without Flaubert’s tools, and without the craftsman’s hand at the back of the tools. His fingers are too thick; they leave a blurred line. If you want merely weight, a certain kind of force, you get it; but no more.” It’s the difference, Symons observes, between the tedious accumulation of detail, in hopes that its sheer weight will somehow make the scene real, and the one perfect image that will ignite a reader’s imagination:

[Zola] cannot leave well alone; he cannot omit; he will not take the most obvious fact for granted…He tells us particularly that a room is composed of four walls, that a table stands on its four legs. And he does not appear to see the difference between doing that and doing as Flaubert does, namely, selecting precisely the detail out of all others which renders or consorts with the scene in hand, and giving that detail with an ingenious exactness.

By way of illustration, Symons quotes the moment in Madame Bovary in which Charles turns away at the exact moment that his first wife dies, which, he notes, “indicates to us, at the very opening of the book, just the character of the man about whom we are to read so much.” And he finishes with a devastating remark that deserves to be ranked alongside Mark Twain’s classic demolition of James Fenimore Cooper: “Zola would have taken at least two pages to say that, and, after all, he would not have said it.”

Flaubert, of course, is usually seen as the one shining example of a writer whose love of research enhanced his artistry, rather than diminishing it. In his takedown of a very different book, Allan Folsom’s thriller The Day After Tomorrow, the critic Anthony Lane cites one typical sentence—“Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt”—and adds:

When Flaubert studied ancient Carthage for Salammbô, or the particulars of medieval falconry for “The Legend of St. Julien Hospitalier,” he was furnishing and feathering a world that had already taken shape within his mind; when Allan Folsom looks at bus timetables, his book just gets a little longer.

Even Flaubert’s apparent mistakes, on closer examination, turn out to be controlled by an almost inhuman attentiveness. In his novel Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes quotes a line from the literary critic Enid Starkie: “Flaubert does not build up his characters, as did Balzac, by objective, external description; in fact, so careless is he of their outward appearance that on one occasion he gives Emma brown eyes; on another deep black eyes; and on another blue eyes.” When the narrator, who shouldn’t be confused with Barnes himself, goes back to the text, he finds that Flaubert, in fact, describes Emma’s eyes with meticulous precision. In their first appearance, he writes: “In so far as she was beautiful, this beauty lay in her eyes: although they were brown, they would appear black because of her lashes.” A little later on: “They were black when she was in shadow and dark blue in full daylight.” And just after her seduction, as Emma looks in the mirror: “Her eyes had never been so large, so black, nor contained such depth.” Barnes’s narrator concludes: “It would be interesting to compare the time spent by Flaubert making sure that his heroine had the rare and difficult eyes of a tragic adulteress with the time spent by Dr. Starkie in carelessly selling him short.”

This level of diligent observation is a universe apart from the mechanical gathering of detail, and there’s no question that writers should aim for one, not the other. But to some extent, we all pay visits to the chainmaker—that is, we conduct research aimed at furnishing our stories with material that we can’t get from personal experience. Sometimes we even get this information from books. (Tolstoy seems to have derived all of the information about the Freemasons in War and Peace from his reading, which scandalizes some critics, as if they’ve caught him in an embarrassing breach of etiquette.) If an author’s personality is strong enough, it can transmute it into something more. John Updike turned this into a calling card, moving methodically through a series of adulterous white male protagonists who were distinguished mostly by their different jobs. In U and I, Nicholson Baker tries to call this a flaw: “He gives each of his male characters a profession, and then he has him think in metaphors drawn from that profession. That’s not right.” But after approvingly quoting one of the metaphors that emerge from the process, Baker changes his mind:

Without Updike’s determination to get some measure of control over his constant instinct to fling outward with a simile by filtering his correspondences through the characters’ offstage fictional professions, he would probably not have come up with this nice little thing, dropped as it is into the middle of a paragraph.

I like that phrase “measure of control,” which gets at the real point of research. It isn’t to pad out the story, but to channel it along lines that wouldn’t have occurred to the author otherwise. Research can turn into a set of chains in itself. But after all the work is done, the writer should be able to say, like Dylan Thomas in “Fern Hill”: “I sang in my chains like the sea.”

The moderate novelist

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Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on November 6, 2012.

I never wanted to be a moderate. Growing up, and especially in college, I believed in coming down strongly on one side or the other of any particular issue, and was drawn to the people around me who embraced similar extremes. I didn’t know much, but I knew that I wanted to be a writer, which to my eyes represented a clear choice between the compromises of an ordinary existence and a willingness to risk everything for the life of art. My favorite classical hero was the Achilles of the Iliad, who might waver or sulk into prolonged inaction, but always saw the world around him in stark terms, with cosmic emotions that refused to be bound by the standards of the society in which he lived. And although I hadn’t read On the Road, I suspect that I might have agreed with Kerouac’s initially inspiring and then increasingly annoying insistence that the only true people were the ones who burn “like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

No one has ever compared a moderate to a roman candle, fabulous or otherwise. Yet as time went on, my views began to change. In many ways, this was just part of the process of growing up, which tends to nudge most of us toward the center, on the way to the natural conservatism of old age. But it also had something to do with the realities of becoming a writer. Writing for a living, at least on a daily basis, is less about staking out a bold claim into the unknown than about coming to terms with many small compromises. It’s tactical, not strategic, and encourages a natural pragmatism, at least for those of us who want to write more than a couple of novels. You learn to deal with problems as they occur, and a solution that works in a particular situation may no longer make sense when it comes up again. Above all else, as a writer, you need to figure out a way of life that is mostly free of hard external dislocations, which are murder on any kind of artistic productivity. Hence my favorite writing quote of all time, from Flaubert: “Be well-ordered in your life, and as ordinary as a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your work.”

All these things tend to encourage a kind of reasonable moderation, at least on the outside—there’s a reason why most writers have boring biographies. And in my own case, it also shapes the way I see the rest of the world. There aren’t a lot of clear answers in ethics or politics, and as much as we’d all like to be consistent, dealing with reality, like writing fiction, is more likely to impose a series of increasingly messy workarounds. A novel forces you to deal with issues of character, behavior, and society in a laboratory setting, and even when you control the terms of the experiment, the answers that you get are rarely the ones you set out to find. In a defense of moderate thinking in the New York Times, David Brooks once wrote: “This idea—that you base your agenda on your specific situation—may seem obvious, but immoderate people often know what their solutions are before they define the problems.” And this describes bad fiction as well as bad politics.

As a result, my own politics are sort of a hodgepodge, and like my fiction, they’ve been deeply shaped by the particulars of my life story. I’m a multicultural agnostic who has spent much of his life under the spell of various dead white males. Not surprisingly, my strongest political conviction remains that of the power of free speech, but I’ve also got a weird survivalist streak that once left me more neutral on issues like gun control—although I’ve since changed my mind about this. I spent years working in finance, and I mostly believe in the positive power of capitalism and free markets, but I also think that it leads to conditions of inequality that the government needs to address, for the good of the system as a whole. And I could go on. But the bottom line is that I’ve found that a writer, and maybe a citizen, needs to be less like Achilles than Odysseus: adaptable, pragmatic, capable of changing his plans when necessary, but always with an eye to finding his way home, even if it takes far longer than he hoped.

Written by nevalalee

January 19, 2017 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Portrait of Gustave Flaubert by Eugène Giraud

Great art is scientific and impersonal. One should, by an effort of the spirit, transport oneself into the characters, not draw them to oneself. That, at any rate, is the method.

Gustave Flaubert, in a letter to George Sand

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November 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

The first Madame Bovary

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Portrait of Gustave Flaubert by Eugène Giraud

The story or plot of a novel is of no interest to me. When I write a novel I have in mind rendering a color, a shade. For example, in my Carthaginian novel I want to do something purple. In Madame Bovary all I was after was to render a special tone, that color of the moldiness of a wood louse’s existence. The plot of the novel was so little a subject of concern to me that, a few days before beginning to write, I had still in mind a different character to the one I created. My first Madame Bovary was to have been set in the surroundings and painted in the tone I actually used, but she was to have been a chaste and devout old maid. And then I saw that this would be an impossible character.

Gustave Flaubert, as quoted by the Goncourts

Written by nevalalee

September 2, 2014 at 9:00 am

The moderate novelist

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I never wanted to be a moderate. Growing up, and especially in college, I believed in coming down strongly on one side or the other of any particular issue, and was drawn to the people around me who embraced similar extremes. I didn’t know much, but I knew that I wanted to be a writer, which to my eyes represented a clear choice between the compromises of an ordinary existence and a willingness to risk everything for the life of art. My classical hero was the Achilles of the Iliad, who might waver or sulk into prolonged inaction, but always saw the world around him in stark terms, with cosmic emotions that refused to be bound by the standards of the society in which he lived. And although I hadn’t read On the Road, I suspect that I might have agreed with Kerouac’s initially inspiring and then increasingly annoying insistence that the only true people were the ones who burn “like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

No one has ever compared a moderate to a roman candle, fabulous or otherwise. Yet as time went on, my views began to change. In many ways, this was just part of the process of growing up, which tends to nudge most of us toward the center, on the way to the natural conservatism of old age. But it also had something to do with the realities of becoming a writer. Writing for a living, at least on a daily basis, is less about staking out a bold claim into the unknown than about coming to terms with many small compromises. It’s tactical, not strategic, and encourages a natural pragmatism, at least for those of us who want to write more than a couple of novels. You learn to deal with problems as they occur, and a solution that works in a particular situation may no longer make sense when it comes up again. Above all else, as a writer, you need to figure out a way of life that is mostly free of hard external dislocations, which are murder on any kind of artistic productivity. Hence my favorite writing quote of all time, from Flaubert: “Be well-ordered in your life, and as ordinary as a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your work.”

All these things tend to encourage a kind of reasonable moderation, at least on the outside—there’s a reason why most writers have boring biographies. And in my own case, it also shapes the way I see the rest of the world. There aren’t a lot of clear answers in ethics or politics, and as much as we’d like to be consistent, dealing with reality, like writing fiction, is more likely to impose a series of increasingly messy workarounds. A novel forces you to deal with issues of character, behavior, and society in a laboratory setting, and even when you control the terms of the experiment, the answers you get are rarely the ones you set out to find. In his recent defense of moderate thinking in the New York Times, David Brooks writes: “This idea—that you base your agenda on your specific situation—may seem obvious, but immoderate people often know what their solutions are before they define the problems.” And this describes bad fiction as well as bad politics.

As a result, my own politics are sort of a hodgepodge, and like my fiction, they’ve been deeply shaped by the particulars of my life story. I’m a multicultural agnostic who has spent much of his life under the spell of various dead white males. Not surprisingly, my strongest political conviction is that of the power of free speech, but I’ve also got a weird survivalist streak that leaves me more neutral on issues like gun control. I spent years working in finance, and believe in the positive power of capitalism and free markets, but that it also leads to conditions of inequality that the government needs to address, for the good of the system as a whole. And I could go on—although I’ve long since realized the futility of trying to impose these beliefs on anyone else. But the bottom line is that I’ve found that a writer, and maybe a citizen and politician, needs to be less like Achilles than Odysseus: adaptable, pragmatic, capable of changing his plans when necessary, but always with an eye to finding his way home.

Written by nevalalee

November 6, 2012 at 10:16 am

“As Ethan spoke, Maddy studied him…”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-third installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 22. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Character is a mystery. In case it isn’t abundantly clear by now, I’m a left-brained, systematic, architectural novelist who loves his outlines and plans, but even I’m frequently surprised by the ways in which my characters evolve—although it’s important to qualify this. When E.M. Forster said that the characters in his novels often behaved in unexpected ways, Nabokov scoffed, saying that his characters were galley slaves. Of the two, I’m probably closer to Nabokov than Forster, and indeed, on a line by line basis, my characters’ actions are laid out meticulously, moving from one clear objective to another. When I stand back, however, I’m often amazed by the patterns that have appeared on a larger scale, almost as an emergent property of the text. As I discussed in yesterday’s post, themes tend to inevitably appear over the course of several novels without the author being aware of it, and character, too, is something that can’t be entirely planned. And as much as I try to keep the individual building blocks of the plot under control, there’s often something inexplicable slouching to be born in the background.

While writing The Icon Thief and its sequels, I’ve been repeatedly taken off guard by how my characters have grown, often by finding a small hint dropped in one book and expanding it in the next. The most obvious example, and one that won’t be fully clear until City of Exiles comes out in December, is that of Rachel Wolfe. Wolfe began essentially as a character of convenience, simply because Alan Powell, one of my three major protagonists, needed someone to talk to. Given the nature of the plot I had in mind, I knew this character would be an FBI agent, and the idea of making her a woman came fairly late in the game. Even after I wrote the first draft, Wolfe remained a fairly colorless character, and I vividly remember trying to figure out ways to make her more distinctive. For a while, I toyed with the prospect of making her Indian, which would later manifest itself in an important character in the second book. When it occurred to me that, instead, she could be a Mormon, the idea was immediately appealing, and at first, I saw it as a convenient way to flesh out her role with a few small character details. What I never could have anticipated is that this version of Wolfe would seize my imagination to the point where, incredibly, she became the lead character in City of Exiles, a book in which her Mormonism is central to the story. It seems inevitable now. But that certainly wasn’t the case at the time.

Characters, in short, tend to emerge from a combination of factors: they’re shaped by the demands of the plot, by inspirations from real life and fiction, by my own inner life, and by what I can only call moments of serendipity. Nowhere is this more clear than in the characters of Maddy and Ethan. They’d been knocking around in my brain for a long time, ever since my freshman year in college, when I wrote a fragment of a screenplay that began as a character study of two of my close friends, then evolved into a ridiculously ambitious script that would engage the two greatest American movies ever shot in Technicolor: Vertigo and The Searchers. Very little of this project has survived in the present book, although the characters still retain the names of their inspirations—the roles played by Kim Novak and John Wayne in their respective films. Later, I thought about reusing these characters in a very different storyline, inspired by a tragic pair of suicides that took place in the New York art world around the time I was conceiving the novel. This was a much stronger influence on the first draft, and it was later minimized in the revision in ways I’ll explain at the proper point. But the central idea—of two smart, attractive people joined in a kind of folie à deux—remains central to The Icon Thief.

Little if any of this is obvious to the casual reader, but these tangled origins invisibly influenced the final versions of these characters, and contributed, at least in my eyes, to the richness of the resulting story. Chapter 22 is when Maddy and Ethan really interact for the first time, after crossing paths more briefly as rival analysts at the art fund, and at first glance, it’s a simple chapter, consisting entirely of them talking at the party and exchanging dueling interpretations of Duchamp’s life and work. But there’s a lot going on under the surface—their mutual attraction, their recognition of the qualities they share, and the sense that until now they’ve misjudged each other—and it’s a direct result of the path that these characters have followed in my head over the last decade. Reading the chapter now, I can see how they’ve evolved by a process of accretion, like a coral reef, with aspects of their personalities that I conceived ten years ago overlapping with elements that I added much later, inspired by relationships I’ve witnessed, authors I’ve read, and the changes that take place in any writer’s life over a long period of time. I care about them more than the clockwork plot around them may suggest, and I’ve been especially glad to revisit them in the novel I’m writing now. I wouldn’t go so far as to say, as Flaubert did of Madame Bovary, that Maddy Blume is me. But although I didn’t plan it this way, it can’t be an accident that their initials are the same…

Written by nevalalee

October 25, 2012 at 10:13 am

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