Henry James and “le mot juste”

nortonportraitI feel I owe Henry James a bit of an apology. In my previous post on The Portrait of a Lady I complained that his sentences were irritating. Yet, as several people commented at the time, they really aren’t, or, not much, not in Portrait. (Of course, it’s also possible that, as Dorian predicted, I have become accustomed to their cadence, but Portrait is early enough in his oeuvre that I think it is partly that the worst was yet to come — a theory which my memory of reading The Golden Bowl confirms.) Now that I’m back to the novel again, what I find myself making note of are not places where I tripped over stuttering syntax but moments where I let out a small sigh of satisfaction: that, yes, that word (or phrase or, especially, metaphor) exactly. A few samples:

A young gentlewoman without visible relations had always struck her as a flower without foliage.

To live in such a place was, for Isabel, to hold to her ear all day a shell of the sea of the past.

Every now and then Isabel heard the Countess, at something said by her companion, plunge into the latter’s lucidity as a poodle splashes after a thrown stick.

She mightn’t be inhaled as a rose, but she might be grasped as a nettle.

The flower of her youth had not faded, it only hung more quietly on its stem.

It’s Flaubert, of course, who’s most associated (as far as I know, anyway) with the relentless search for “let mot juste,” and Flaubert is the last writer I can remember reading who provoked this kind of appreciation for his thrillingly precise yet somehow unexpected details. James was a fan of Flaubert, whom he called “a novelist’s novelist,” and both are known as key figures in the aestheticization of fiction, so this similarity isn’t surprising.

Thinking of James and Flaubert together, both writers I can admire but don’t really like, makes me wonder if these marvelous details are symptoms of the problem — my problem, that is. In his essay “How Flaubert Changed Literature Forever,” James Wood discusses Flaubert’s comments on “the monstrous difficulty of writing a sentence. “Style had always been a battle for novelists,” Wood says, “but Flaubert, in his letters at least, turned it into a perpetual defeat.” His writing becomes a site of struggle for a particular kind of perfection, a struggle which is part of how the novel becomes self-consciously artistic and thus great. And yet, Wood proposes, “under Flaubert … the novel’s great expansion was perhaps an expansion into limit”:

When the nineteenth-century novel became madly ambitious to be everything, it began to chastise itself for failing to do everything. Taking everything as its only measure, it became afflicted with a sense of its failure, and began to throw off those ambitions, like a plane dumping fuel, until only one was left: its very essence, style itself. Until Flaubert, the novel had been mithridated in its own unself-consciousness, as an alcoholic thoughtlessly medicates himself; but Flaubert took away its sweet, ignorant poisons.

As so often with Wood, and with any generalization about “the” nineteenth-century novel, I am not entirely comfortable with this account of literary history. Certainly not every novelist threw off every ambition but style — only the novelists in whom Wood takes a particular interest. And Wood’s own metaphors are so hopelessly biased against the novelists who aren’t Flaubert-like in their repudiation of the “ignorant poisons” of everything besides style! I do like Wood’s phrase “an expansion into limit”: it’s just that for me, what he interprets as a sign of progress feels to me, as the reader I am, like a loss, a decline. There’s something claustrophobic about this highly-crafted prose that never rushes, that’s never excitable, that sculpts and places and polishes its pieces so perfectly. I don’t concede that other 19th-century novel(ist)s are formless, but their forms are not (or, not just) verbal, not just stylistic but also spatial, not singular but plural.

It’s absurd, of course, to call James’s prose a “decline,” and in any case I don’t actually want to fall into Wood’s habit of identifying a favorite kind of novel as the best kind: as James himself said (in his Preface to The Portrait of a Lady) “the house of fiction has not one window, but a million.”  I just find myself wishing James would open his window up a bit wider and let some air in! But if you’re that self-conscious, I suppose you can’t take a risk that an errant breeze will shuffle your papers or, worse, carry in some sweet but destructive — that is, distracting — poison. Is oxygen really too high a price to pay for le mot juste?

“Your novelistic language annoys us”: George Sand, Indiana

My intrepid book club, which followed up Madame Bovary with Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, decided that our next step would be something by George Sand. We settled on Indiana because it was the most readily available (there’s a nice Oxford World’s Classics edition, with a “new” [1994] translation and an introduction by eminent literary scholar Naomi Schor). We thought this would be an interesting choice because Sand is more or less the anti-Flaubert: sentimental where he is relentlessly not, idealist where he is realist, not much esteemed (or at least read) today–note, again, the date of that “new” translation. His name is a byword for literary seriousness: he is the Father of the Modern Novel. And George Sand is … something else.

Before reading Indiana I knew George Sand mostly from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets about her, which I routinely assign in my seminar on the Victorian ‘woman question.’ “Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man,” begins “To George Sand: A Desire”:

Self-called George Sand! whose soul, amid the lions
Of thy tumultuous senses, moans defiance
And answers roar for roar, as spirits can…

The sonnets celebrate the power of Sand’s voice and her defiance of convention, particularly her attempt to transcend the limits of her sex. “To George Sand: A Recognition” ends with a vision of her spirit finally set free of such limits:

Beat purer, heart, and higher,
Till God unsex thee on the heavenly shore
Where unincarnate spirits purely aspire

Yet even as the poem seems to reach in those lines towards an idealized androgyny, it also insists that her attempts to deny her “woman’s nature” are vain:

                                      that revolted cry
Is sobbed in by a woman’s voice forlorn,
Thy woman’s hair, my sister, all unshorn
Floats back dishevelled strength in agony,
Disproving thy man’s name…

Together, the sonnets are a moving tribute from one woman writer to another and a fascinating example of the complexity of working out the role of ‘woman writer’ at a time when gendered expectations shaped and limited women’s literary ambitions in so many ways.

Indiana is the only novel of Sand’s I’ve read, so I am in no position to generalize. However, based on this one example at least, EBB’s hyperbole suits her subject. Tumultuous senses, moaning defiance, aspiring spirits, revolted cries: this is the stuff of which Indiana is made. And I admit, though I chafed at Flaubert’s implacable objectivity, the rushing emotionalism of Indiana was even harder for me to take. I know enough to recognize that it belongs, self-consciously, to a tradition that includes its own most conspicuous intertextual reference, Paul et Virginie (which I read years ago for a graduate seminar), and which is not the tradition of either historical or social realism. And I learned from Schor’s boosterish introduction that there are terms for reading Indiana better than I was able to:

no analysis…of Sand’s work can proceed without taking account of her … idealistic aesthetics, without rethinking idealism, idealism being understood here both as the heightening of an essential characteristic (the pretty and the beautiful, but also the ugly and the stupid), and the promotion of a higher good (freedom, equality, spiritual love).

Schor suggests that the opening of the novel is a kind of feint in the direction of Balzacian realism but that the novel moves towards idealism and, more particularly, towards allegory: “each protagonist incarnates an abstraction”–and she has plenty of suggestions about how to read the allegory. With hindsight, I see that it makes sense to read the novel in this way, as a philosophical exercise as much as an aesthetic one. It does read that way, in fact, with both narrator and characters prone to long disquisitions and high-falutin’ pronouncements.

Now, any fan of Middlemarch is in no position to object to philosophical fiction or long disquisitions. And anyone who has complained that Flaubert is all head and no heart probably shouldn’t turn around and complain about a novel that oozes heartfelt emotion from every painfully sincere sentenceBut here I go: Indiana is pretty dreadful. (Alternatively, I did a dreadful job reading Indiana.) The construction was so clumsy I swear sometimes I could actually hear the plot creaking; the elements of that plot range from bizarre to absurd; the paragraphs just go on and on and on; and the characterizations are at once laboured and strangely insubstantial.

If Indiana is meant to be read as an allegory, of course, then complex characterization would be out of place–but that impulse towards realism in the opening of the novel persists throughout, so that while at times people sort of fall into place and what seems to matter is the pattern they make, at others the book gives off every impression of at least trying to be significantly believable. Trying…and failing. My most frequent marginalia is The Exclamation Mark of Disbelief, as in, I can’t believe what just happened, or I can’t believe someone just said that! The love scenes are tedious to the extreme, and a lot of the rest is (inadvertantly, I’m pretty sure) weirdly hilarious. At one point Indiana tests her lover’s faithfulness by giving him what she claims is a clump of her hair, except that it’s actually someone else’s–why does Indiana have a stash of someone else’s hair in a box in her room?  He fails to recognize it as the hair of Indiana’s maid, whom he seduced and then abandoned. “Don’t you recognize that hair, then?” Indiana demands;

Have you never admired it, never caressed it? Has the damp night air made it lose all its fragrance? Haven’t you one thought, one tear, for the girl who use to wear this ring?

Just possibly, the hair has lost its fragrance because its original owner has been dead for some time. But such practical details aside, who makes up a scene like this and gives it to us to read? A trial by hair? The lover is a manipulative jerk, but at this point I sympathized when he “shuddered from head to foot and fell to the floor in a faint.” I think it was his organ of plausibility that shorted out there. (There’s a  great deal of fainting in the novel, just by the way, by men and women alike. It’s because they really, really feel everything, very, very deeply. All that emotion makes it hard to stand up.)

The novel culminates in a a suicide pact which brings Indiana and her faithful swain (not the manipulative jerk, but the pathetic one who has mooned around in the background for the entire novel) literally to the brink. Once there (after a four-month sea voyage, which you’d think might give them time for second thoughts, but no…) they talk for about THREE HOURS and then [SPOILER ALERT! IF ANYONE IS ACTUALLY PLANNING TO READ INDIANA AND WOULD LIKE TO BE SURPRISED, STOP HERE!]  finally jump, much to my great delight. I thought they were never going to get around to it! Except that, quite inexplicably, they didn’t, and they turn up a few pages later living in contented isolation having somehow (!!!) MISSED THE CLIFF IN THE DARK. Or something–even the would-be jumpers aren’t entirely sure what happened. Maybe they got dizzy and “mistook the direction of the path,” or maybe an angel saved them. Whatever.

Like poor Emma, Indiana got her romantic ideas from novels and imagines that love is all you need–provided it’s true love, perfect love, romantic love. “A day will come when my life will be completely changed,” she gushes; “it will be a day when I shall be loved and I shall give my whole heart to the man who gives me his.” While she waits for love, she is literally dying for lack of it: “An unknown sickness was consuming her youth. . . . her silent broken heart was still seeking a young, generous heart to bring it back to life.” At least in Madame Bovary the author knows his character’s fantasies are just that, but Sand throws herself, or at least her novel, wholeheartedly behind Indiana’s dream, even though it makes her vulnerable to the wiles of the manipulative jerk and completely ineffectual at everything else in her life. Sand is also fine, apparently, with the real true love being a fraternal figure to Indiana who eventually admits to having coveted her since she was about seven. But don’t worry: he “didn’t commit the crime of hurrying on by a single day the peaceful course of [her] childhood.” Whew! He would just “bathe [her] little feet in the pure water of this lake,” watch her sleeping, and “lift up [her] fine, silky hair, and kiss it lovingly.” That’s OK, then.

I thought (because it says so on the cover blurb) that Indiana was going to be “a powerful plea for change in the inequitable French marriage laws of the time.” It’s true that Indiana’s husband is a jealous, controlling jerk, that their marriage has nothing to do with love, and that when he discovers in her journals and letters the truth about her (unconsummated) affair with the other jerk, he “grabbed her by the hair, threw her down, and kicked her on the forehead with the heel of his boot.” It’s not hard to put together a plea for change based on the ingredients of the novel–but I had a hard time reading it as being primarily about that. Indiana doesn’t really spend much time realistically trying to get out of her marriage, and periodically she defends her husband and seems willing to conform to expectations. After the kicking-in-the-head scene, the narrator tells us that the husband is “certainly not a bad-natured man” but has just acted rashly out of “the feeling of the moment.” Indiana is intermittently eloquent about her legal subordination:

The law of the land has made you my master. You can tie up my body, bind my hands, control my actions. You have the right of the stronger, and society confirms you in it. But over my will, Monsieur, you have no power. God alone can bend and subdue it. So look for a law, a dungeon, an instrument of torture that gives you a hold over me! It’s as if you wanted to touch the air and grasp space.

But it didn’t seem to me that political liberty is what she really wants. She’s pining for her dream of love, and resents marriage primarily as an obstacle to that imagined fulfillment, not as a contradiction to some more fundamental right. She comes across as someone in the grip of an adolescent delusion who is too ignorant and selfish to focus on anything except her own immediate impulses. Her political speechifying is opportunistic and incidental (to her–it is thematically tied to the novel’s critique of slavery and political oppression, so less peripheral at that level).

Sand seems to be appealing to a Rousseauian ideal of a state of nature in which such impulses can flourish uninhibited (the moral we are offered, at the end of the novel, is “respect [society’s] laws if they protect you; value its judgments if they are fair to you. But if some day it slanders and spurns you, have enough pride to be able to do without it”). But I’m afraid I didn’t want Indiana to flourish. She had no sense of duty, no sense of loyalty, no self-awareness–in short, she was no Maggie Tulliver. If Madame Bovary made me yearn for the balance of intellect and emotion, philosophy and art, that is Middlemarch, this tedious novel about a girl’s passionate and self-indulgent quest for the perfect love and the resulting clash between her and Society made me appreciate all the more the moral complexity (not to mention the artistry and humor) of The Mill on the Floss.

You know what other book it made me appreciate? Madame Bovary. Huh.

The Quality of Mercy: Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels

melrose“If I could imagine a mercy that was purely human, and not one that rested on the Greatest Story Ever Told, I might extend it to my father for being so unhappy.” — Patrick Melrose

This is the point at which I almost stopped reading Never Mind, the first of the four Patrick Melrose novels included in this collection:

During lunch David felt that he had perhaps pushed his disdain for middle-class prudery a little too far. Even at the bar of the Cavalry and Guards Club one couldn’t boast about homosexual, paedophiliac incest with any confidence of a favourable reception.

The rape itself is told, with harrowing obliqueness, from the point of view of David’s victim, his five-year old son Patrick. Patrick doesn’t know exactly what is happening to him, and he certainly doesn’t know why. He endures it by dissociating himself from his body:

He could hear his father wheezing, and the bedhead bumping against the wall. From behind the curtains with the green birds, he saw a gecko emerge and cling motionlessly to the corner of the wall beside the open window. Patrick lanced himself towards it. Tightening his fists and concentrating until his concentration was like a telephone wire stretched between them, Patrick disappeared into the lizard’s body.

It’s a scene unbearable to contemplate, and St. Aubyn presents it with clinical precision, not buffering the horror with euphemism, or with narrative intrusions to ventriloquize our shock and outrage. David’s afterthoughts (and indeed the whole of the novel) are handled the same way, with pitiless detachment, but even though I understand perfectly well that it’s David, not the novelist, being ironic here at the expense of a raped child, it’s still a sickening moment of levity. I didn’t know if I could bear another 600 pages in this company–not David’s company, as I knew he would be dead by the beginning of the second novel (though thanks to flashbacks this doesn’t altogether spare us his presence on the page, and of course his influence is pervasive) as the company of the novelist who could dedicate his conspicuous writerly gifts to creating such a bitterly unpleasant world.

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Madame Bovary II: The Doctors and Their Wives

It’s difficult to compare two books that are very, very good at what they do but that do very different things.

Must such a comparison be evaluative, hierarchical? Of course not. Does it often end up that way? Of course. We’re only human! We like different things, for reasons that often say more about us than about the objects of our inquiry. Is it a cheap dodge, though, to hide behind the unassailable (because ultimately indefensible) assertion of taste when you strongly prefer one great novel to another? Yes, probably. Maybe it’s better not to go there, then, but to stick with “these books do two very different things”–with the what, the fact of the matter, the precise depiction, and leave the rest unsaid, implicit.

It would be ironic for me to do that when comparing Madame Bovary and Middlemarch, though, because when I try to fix on what it is that I didn’t like about reading Madame Bovary, what I come up with is the way that novel is so relentlessly about the ‘what.’ There are a lot of things the novel just doesn’t do, things Flaubert just won’t do. To quote Lydia Davis’s introduction again, “his technique is to present the material without comment.” There’s nothing trivial or superficial about his “painstaking objective description,” which is often devastatingly perceptive, but “without comment,” it felt somehow unmoored to me. The ‘what’ is very meticulously rendered, but Madame Bovary is not a novel that deals very much in the ‘why?’ (broadly conceived), or the ‘what about it, then?’ Things and people in the novel are what they are in themselves: they are intensely specific, and it’s only indirectly, if at all, that the novel attaches them to anything general, from historical context to moral or philosophical ideas.

Middlemarch, by contrast, is fundamentally about connecting the specific to the general, about seeing the particular in as broad and varied a context as possible. Middlemarch “without comment” is all but inconceivable: how depleted, how deflated, it would be! The wisdom of Middlemarch–the excellence of Middlemarch–resides in its comments. The excellence of Madame Bovary lies (perforce) somewhere else: in its perfect realization of its own concept, perhaps? G. H. Lewes famously called Jane Austen “the greatest artist who ever lived” because she displayed, he thought, “the most perfect mastery over the means to her ends”: that seems true of Flaubert as well, at least in this case, and at least as far as I understand his ends and means. Where, though, is the wisdom of Madame Bovary? The novel itself makes this question seem foolish, misguided, naive. Nobody in the novel really learns anything, after all: “Since the events that are about to be recounted here, nothing … has changed in Yonville.” If you don’t think anybody can learn anything, no wonder you refrain from commenting. What would be the point? Middlemarch, in contrast, is profoundly pedagogical, and so its narrator balances wry awareness of her students’ inadequacies and limits with utter commitment to helping them understand and grow. This is not work that can be done by keeping out of the way.

Different means serving different ends: different visions, different aesthetics, different novels. And the reason it is so obvious how different the two novels are is that they have so much in common. There’s the basic premise: both are about ‘provincial life’ (and both, I think, see its limitations and defects in quite similar ways). Both also take a doctor and his discontented wife as main characters, a plot parallel that nicely sets me up to illustrate the authors’ contrasting approaches.

Doctoral Education

Charles Bovary

It would be impossible by now for any of us to recall a thing about him. He was a boy of even temperament, who played at recess, worked in study hall, listening in class, sleeping well in the dormitory, eating well in the dining hall. He had as local guardian a wholesale hardware dealer in the rue Ganterie, who would take him out once a month, on a Sunday, after his shop was closed, send him off to walk along the harbor looking at the boats, then return him to school by seven o’clock, before supper. In the evening, every Thursday, he would write a long letter to his mother, with red ink and three pats of sealing wax; then he would review his history notebooks or read an old volume of Anacharsis that was lying around in the study hall. Out walking, he would talk to the servant, who, like him, was from the country.

By dint of applying himself, he stayed somewhere in the middle of the class; once he even earned a first honorable mention in natural history. But at the end of his third year, his parents withdrew him from the school in order to have him study medicine, convinced that he would be able to go on alone to the baccalaureate. . . .

The curriculum, which he read on the notice board, made his head swim: a course in anatomy, a course in pathology, a course in physiology, a course in pharmacy, a course in chemistry, and one in botany, and one in clinical practice and one in therapeutics, not to mention hygiene and materia medica, names with unfamiliar etymologies that were like so many doors to sanctuaries filled with solemn shadows.

He understood none of it; though he listened, he did not grasp it. He worked, nonetheless, he possessed bound notebooks, he attended all the lectures, he never missed a hospital round. He accomplished his little daily task like a mill horse, which walks in circles with its eyes covered, not knowing what it is grinding. (Part I, Chapter  1)

Tertius Lydgate

He had been left an orphan when he was fresh from a public school. His father, a military man, had made but little provision for three children, and when the boy Tertius asked to have a medical education, it seemed easier to his guardians to grant his request by apprenticing him to a country practitioner than to make any objections on the score of family dignity. He was one of the rare lads who early get a decided bent and make up their minds that there is something particular in life which they would like to do for its own sake, and not because their fathers did it. Most of us who turn to any subject we love remember some morning or evening hour when we got on a high stool to reach down an untried volume, or sat with parted lips listening to a new talker, or for very lack of books began to listen to the voices within, as the first traceable beginning of our love. Something of that sort happened to Lydgate. . . . one vacation, a wet day sent him to the small home library to hunt once more for a book which might have some freshness for him: in vain! unless, indeed, he took down a dusty row of volumes with grey-paper backs and dingy-labels — the volumes of an old Cyclopaedia which he had never disturbed. It would at least be a novelty to disturb them. They were on the highest shelf, and he stood on a chair to get them down. But he opened the volume which he first took from the shelf: somehow, one is apt to read in a makeshift attitude, just where it might seem inconvenient to do so. The page he opened on was under the heading of Anatomy, and the first passage that drew his eyes was on the valves of the heart. He was not much acquainted with valves of any sort, but he knew that valvae were folding doors, and through this crevice came a sudden light startling him with his first vivid notion of finely adjusted mechanism in the human frame. A liberal education had of course left him free to read the indecent passages in the school classics, but beyond a general sense of secrecy and obscenity in connection with his internal structure, had left his imagination quite unbiassed, so that for anything he knew his brains lay in small bags at his temples, and he had no more thought of representing to himself how his blood circulated than how paper served instead of gold. But the moment of vocation had come, and before he got down from his chair, the world was made new to him by a presentiment of endless processes filling the vast spaces planked out of his sight by that wordy ignorance which he had supposed to be knowledge. From that hour Lydgate felt the growth of an intellectual passion.

We are not afraid of telling over and over again how a man comes to fall in love with a woman and be wedded to her, or else be fatally parted from her. Is it due to excess of poetry or of stupidity that we are never weary of describing what King James called a woman’s “makdon and her fairnesse”, never weary of listening to the twanging of the old Troubadour strings, and are comparatively uninterested in that other kind of “makdom and fairnesse” which must be wooed with industrious thought and patient renunciation of small desires? In the story of this passion, too, the development varies: sometimes it is the glorious marriage, sometimes frustration and final parting. And not seldom the catastrophe is bound up with the other passion, sung by the Troubadours. For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardour in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardour of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning they inhaled it unknowingly; you and I may have sent some of our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our conforming falsities or drew our silly conclusions: or perhaps it came with the vibrations from a woman’s glance. (Book II, Chapter 15)

Romantic Dreams

Emma Bovary

Then she recalled the heroines of the books she had read, and this lyrical throng of adulterous women began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her. She herself was in some way becoming an actual part of those imaginings and was fulfilling the long daydream of her youth, by seeing herself as this type of amorous woman she had so much envied. Besides, Emma was experiencing the satisfaction of revenge. Hadn’t she suffered enough? But now she was triumphing, and love, so long contained, was springing forth whole, with joyful effervescence. She savored it without remorse, without uneasiness, without distress. (Part II, Chapter 9)

Rosamond Lydgate

[T]his result, which she took to be a mutual impression, called falling in love, was just what Rosamond had contemplated beforehand. Ever since that important new arrival in Middlemarch she had woven a little future, of which something like this scene was the necessary beginning. Strangers, whether wrecked and clinging to a raft, or duly escorted and accompanied by portmanteaus, have always had a circumstantial fascination for the virgin mind, against which native merit has urged itself in vain. And a stranger was absolutely necessary to Rosamond’s social romance . . . . Now that she and the stranger had met, reality proved much more moving than anticipation, and Rosamond could not doubt that this was the great epoch of her life. She judged of her own symptoms as those of awakening love, and she held it still more natural that Mr. Lydgate should have fallen in love at first sight of her. These things happened so often at balls, and why not by the morning light, when the complexion showed all the better for it? (Book I, Chapter 12)

Desperate Housewives*

Emma Bovary

Meanwhile, acting upon theories that she believed to be sound, she kept trying to experience love. By moonlight, in the garden, she would recite all the passionate rhymes she knew by heart and would sing melancholy songs to him, with a sigh; but she would find that she was as calm afterward as she had been before, and Charles seemed neither more loving nor more deeply moved.

When in this way she had made some attempt to strike the tinder against her heart without causing a single spark to fly from it, incapable, in any case, of understanding something she was not experiencing herself, just as she was incapable of believing in anything that did not manifest itself in a conventional form, she easily persuaded herself that Charles’s passion was no longer extraordinary. (Part I, Chapter 7)

So now they were going to continue one after another like this, always the same, innumerable, bringing nothing! Other people’s lives, however dull they were, had at least the possibility that something would happen. A chance occurrence would sometimes lead to an infinite number of sudden shifts, and the setting would change. But for her, nothing happened. God had willed it! The future was a dark corridor, with the door at its end firmly closed. (Part I, Chapter 9)

Rosamond Lydgate

Poor Rosamund for months had begun to associate her husband with feelings of disappointment, and the terribly inflexible relation of marriage had lost its charm of encouraging delightful dreams. It had freed her from the disagreeables of her father’s house, but it had not given her everything that she had wished and hoped. The Lydgate with whom she had been in love had been a group of airy conditions for her, most of which had disappeared, while their place had been taken by everyday details which must be lived through slowly from hour to hour, not floated through with a rapid selection of favourable aspects. The habits of Lydgate’s profession, his home preoccupation with scientific subjects, which seemed to her almost like a morbid vampire’s taste, his peculiar views of things which had never entered into the dialogue of courtship — all these continually-alienating influences, even without the fact of his having placed himself at a disadvantage in the town, and without that first shock of revelation about Dover’s debt, would have made his presence dull to her. There was another presence which ever since the early days of her marriage, until four months ago, had been an agreeable excitement, but that was gone: Rosamond would not confess to herself how much the consequent blank had to do with her utter ennui. . . (Book VII, Chapter 64)

 [Will] would have made, she thought, a much more suitable husband for her than she had found in Lydgate. No notion could have been falser than this, for Rosamond’s discontent in her marriage was due to the conditions of marriage itself, to its demand for self-suppression and tolerance, and not to the nature of her husband; but the easy conception of an unreal Better had a sentimental charm which diverted her ennui. She constructed a little romance which was to vary the flatness of her life: Will Ladislaw was always to be a bachelor and live near her, always to be at her command, and have an understood though never fully expressed passion for her, which would be sending out lambent flames every now and then in interesting scenes. His departure had been a proportionate disappointment, and had sadly increased her weariness of Middlemarch; but at first she had the alternative dream of pleasures in store from her intercourse with the family at Quallingham. Since then the troubles of her married life had deepened, and the absence of other relief encouraged her regretful rumination over that thin romance which she had once fed on. Men and women make sad mistakes about their own symptoms, taking their vague uneasy longings, sometimes for genius, sometimes for religion, and oftener still for a mighty love. (Book VIII, Chapter 75)

These examples aren’t offered in a tendentious spirit. They all display, I think, mastery as Lewes defines it. Yet I can’t imagine ever loving one novel as I love the other. Sorry, Gustave: it’s not you, it’s me! But I’m looking forward to the discussion that I hope these juxtapositions provoke.

*Don’t blame me! If the blurb for the Davis translation can call Emma “the original desperate housewife,” how am I supposed to resist?

Madame Bovary I: “in all of Flaubert there is not a single beautiful metaphor”

It’s odd reading a very famous novel for the first time. It’s like meeting a celebrity in person (or so I imagine). It is intensely familiar and yet strange at the same time: it is exactly what it always appeared to be, and yet it is no longer an idea of something but the thing itself. And so it has been for me with Madame Bovary–it is exactly what I thought it would be, and yet it is more than that, and also, less than that.

What did I know about Madame Bovary before I read it? Well, the basic plot, of course. So, no surprises there. And that it is celebrated as the perfection of a very particular idea of what a novel should be. I’m tempted to say that the idea is for a novel to be nothing like Middlemarch, except that would be anachronistic, and also, much as Madame Bovary is not like Middlemarch, it is also very similar to Middlemarch (or at least to particular subplots in Middlemarch) in ways that inevitably provoke me to comparison. But I’m going to save that for my next post on Madame Bovary (provisionally entitled “The Doctors’ Wives”). Tonight I have a more modest agenda, which is simply to remark on and quote some of Flaubert’s metaphors. Overall, you see, I didn’t like Madame Bovary very much at all. The pending comparative post will go into my reasons for that, and it will all get very thorny. But I was delighted with Flaubert’s language. (I am relying on Lydia Davis’s translation of Flaubert, but, and I am sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong, details so concrete and specific seem likely to translate quite precisely.)

I should qualify that statement: I was delighted with Flaubert’s figurative language. “Flaubert’s aim,” Davis writes in her introduction, “was to write the novel ‘objectively,’ leaving the author out of it. . . . his technique is to present the material without comment, though occasionally a comment does slip in. To report the facts objectively, to give a painstaking objective description . . . should be comment enough.” Davis goes on to note that “in keeping with his plain, almost clinical approach to the material, he schooled himself to be very sparing with his metaphors,” and indeed he is. Davis cites Proust regretting the consequences and complaining “that in all of Flaubert there is not a single beautiful metaphor”–which Davis promptly rebuts with a very beautiful metaphor indeed. There’s not much beautiful about Madame Bovary or its language most of the time, though: Flaubert is both unsentimental and unsparing. “They had to lift her head a little,” he tells us, as the women dress Emma’s corpse for her funeral, “and at that a stream of black liquid ran out of her mouth like vomit.” An extreme example? Maybe, but it epitomizes Flaubert’s ruthlessness. (The entire death scene, in fact, is unrelentingly awful, and then as if the bile isn’t bad enough, Homais punctures her temples several times while cutting Bovary a lock of her hair. That detail, surely, is gratuitous! It’s a cruel book, to us as well as to its characters.)

Apparently, though, for Flaubert, part of being painstakingly objective is finding just the right metaphor to make sure we see (or feel, or hear) the novel’s details exactly. “Beautiful metaphors” are not really the point: his metaphors aren’t decorative but informative. But they are also little spaces for Flaubert to have some fun, to play. Davis tells us Flaubert had a “tendency to wax lyrical and effusive” and that in writing Madame Bovary he very deliberately wrote “against his own natural inclinations.” It is certainly an astonishingly controlled book, claustrophobic and oppressive (qualities that not only suit his aesthetic agenda but reflect his social critique). I think that’s why it was such a relief every time he let loose just a little bit. Sometimes his images are ironic, sometimes poetic, sometimes comical, sometimes just so apt they induce a tiny shiver of appreciation. They tend to reflect the tone or attitude of a particular character, as Flaubert (like George Eliot, though to different ends) relies heavily on free indirect discourse. Emma, unsurprisingly, tends to think in the romantic clichés of sentimental fiction.

A few examples:

he would ride along ruminating on his happiness, like a man continuing to chew, after dinner, the taste of the truffles he is digesting.

the incendiary glow that had reddened her pale sky was covered over in shadow and by degrees faded away . . . her passion burned itself to ashes . . . and she remained lost in a terrible, piercing cold.

It was the first time Emma had heard such things said to her; and her pride, like a person relaxing in a steam bath, stretched out languidly in the warmth of the words.

She recalled all her natural fondness for luxury, all the privations of her soul, the sordid details of marriage, housekeeping, her dreams falling in the mud like wounded swallows . . .

Emma was like all other mistresses; and the charm of novelty, slipping off gradually like a piece of clothing, revealed in its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always assumes the same forms and uses the same language.

Hers was a sort of idiotic attachment full of admiration for him, of sensual pleasure for her, a bliss that numbed her; and her soul sank into this intoxication and drowned in it, shriveled like the Duke of Clarence in his butt of malmsey.

She would undress roughly, tearing the thin string of her corset, which would whistle around her hips like a slithering snake.

All that her mind contained of memories and thoughts was pouring out at once, in a single burst, like the thousand parts of a firework.