Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Madame Bovary

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 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

“When Powell and Wolfe arrived at the club…”

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"When Powell and Wolfe arrived at the club..."

(Note: This post is the forty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 43. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In some ways, the novel is an unwieldy, slightly unnatural form of storytelling. A poem, short story, or play arises directly from the oral tradition: it can be told aloud in a few minutes or an hour, and listeners can easily remember most of the important plot points. Even epic poetry, which goes on for much longer, usually boils down to episodes that can be condensed or expanded according to the needs of the audience, strung together like beads on a string. (We can still see this structure of our surviving text of the Iliad, which preserves the full version of certain episodes while reducing others to only a few lines.) The average novel, by contrast, presents a story that is too complex to be held in the mind all at once, even by the author. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a structure that evolved from the physical characteristics of printed books themselves, which allow readers to turn pages both ways, so that elements introduced in the first chapter can return to play an important role near the end—a form of setup and payoff that doesn’t exist in the oral tradition. And although the novel seems natural now, it’s really a recent development in the history of how we tell stories.

That’s why it’s important to acknowledge its limitations as well as its strengths. On the one hand, a novel rarely achieves the kind of crystalline perfection that we see in poetry or short fiction, and when it does, it may seem artificial or unreal, as John Gardner observes of Madame Bovary. A novel, as Henry James said of Tolstoy, often ends up being a loose, baggy monster, and in order for it to feel like an accurate representation of life—as well as a pleasurable experience for the reader—it can’t pitch every page at the same level of intensity. Instead, it’s a series of convergences and divergences, of rising and falling action, and it requires time and patience for its full impact to be felt. On the other hand, its size and relative complexity allow it to achieve effects that aren’t possible in shorter forms. It can methodically establish themes, motifs, and story elements that will pay dividends at a later time, and when it works, the effect can be almost symphonic, as threads that have been independently established come together at last.

"He wants a meeting..."

This may seem like a roundabout way of getting to The Icon Thief, which even I’m willing to admit is a very modest example of the novel form. But like most first novels, it stands both as a story in itself and as a kind of laboratory in which a writer is figuring out his craft for the first time. When I wrote the first draft, I was in my late twenties, and although I’d written one unpublished novel already, I still had a lot to learn. As a result, the book sometimes feels like a sandbox in which I was testing out various approaches to telling this kind of extended story. Although the result is clearly a product of its genre, it also allowed me to think about narrative in a way that paid off when it came to my second and third books, as well as the ones I hope to write in the future. Suspense, in particular, seemed like a way to explore these tools in their purest state, as action foreshadowed, promised, and delivered. And one thing that fascinated me from the very beginning was how a novel can use its own intricacy of construction, which allows for more building blocks than other forms, so that the events of the plot are inextricable from the structure of the book itself.

As Chapter 43 begins, for instance, we’re entering a point in the novel where the structure of the story serves almost a character in itself. Three distinct groups of characters—Powell and his partners in law enforcement, Sharkovsky and his men, and Ilya himself—are converging on a common location, the club in Brighton Beach, that has already been established in detail, both within the narrative itself and in what amounted to a direct briefing to the reader. The next few chapters will narrate the ensuing developments from multiple perspectives, often moving back and forth slightly in time. This was both a technical solution to the problem of treating simultaneous action and a way of binding the scenes more closely together, and none of it would mean as much if the foundations hadn’t been laid much earlier. By now, if I’ve done my work properly, the reader knows something about Powell, Wolfe, Ilya, and all the others, and has some idea of how each character will react to the violent events that the structure itself implies. My one regret, which is also inherent to the novel form, is that the reader can tell that we aren’t quite at the real climax yet: we have well over one hundred pages to go. And there’s a lot still left to come…

Written by nevalalee

April 19, 2013 at 9:41 am

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