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May 2006

Writing Well

Installment Four

More Comments and Queries About Style

I am looking at a page of the manuscript of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary.  

The handwriting is small and precise but slants up and to the right so that each succeeding   paragraph seems to take on a steeper list to port. The left margin is very wide. The upper half of the written page consists of two paragraphs in which he has drawn heavy lines through more than half of the words and sentences. The last two long sentences in the first long paragraph have been completely lined out and he has written a substitute sentence in the left margin but then blotted out many of the words in it and rewritten it as well. The bottom third of the page has been totally lined-through and x'ed out but then Flaubert has gone through again and struck the entire second half of the page.

He then wrote a substitute paragraph in the broad left margin, put lines through some of the words and phrases there, then scratched all of it out as well. In the middle of the left margin, above the first rewrite attempt, he then scribbled yet another substitute paragraph, which he showed by lines and arrows where it should be inserted into the original text.

Happy are they who don't doubt themselves and whose pens fly across the page,” he wrote to a friend. “I myself hesitate. I falter. I become angry and fearful, my drive diminishes as my taste improves, and I brood more over an ill-suited word than I rejoice over a well-proportioned paragraph.”

Even in personal letters, Flaubert would be offended by some of his less-than-perfect word choices, but rather than change them there he would disassociate himself from them by underlining the offending words like a schoolmaster pointing out errors to the schoolboy that was himself.

“The more I study style,” Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet, “the more ignorant I perceive myself to be.”

All the more interesting then—and perhaps all the more inevitable—that his Madame Bovary has been chosen by many authors and academics around the world as perhaps the most perfect novel ever written…and for Flaubert to be chosen by many readers and writers as perhaps the ultimate stylist.

What can we learn from it and from him?

Should We Even Try?

I'll insert here my awareness that on this web site's forum and in classes I've taught to adults wishing to be writers, there always arises the question—Why should we be comparing ourselves to the most famous writers in history? I don't pretend I will ever be able to write as well as Mark Twain, Henry James, Jane Austen, or the other writers discussed here…nor would I want to write like them. Why can't we, or shouldn't we, just set our sights lower and hope to write as well as [ and here insert the name of some favorite SF, horror, mystery, current literary, or bestseller author] ?”

The answer to this is simple—suit yourself. But what I'm sharing in these Writing Well installments are certain secrets of professional writers—the great ones and the lesser known ones—and one of those absolute secrets is that all of the great successful writers aimed very high, choosing, as Hemingway suggested we all should, “only the best literary models.”

Perhaps the best analogy here is the public schools. If “minimum competency” is your goal and benchmark, then never expect anything better than minimum competency. (And be prepared to receive much below that minimum.)

The rest of us will look to excellence to see what tips and insights we might glean.

Why Should Writers Study Flaubert and Madame Bovary ?

For the best answer to that question, we might read The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and “Madame Bovary” (1986) by Mario Vargas Llosa, but for a shorter answer we can turn to Sven Birkerts in his 1987 Boston Review essay “The Leaning Umbrella: A Reflection on Flaubert.”

“Madame Bovary is more than just a supremely crafted novel or a harrowing narrative of a fate unfolding. It is, if I may adopt the fashionable phraseology, fiction in its purest state of fictionality. Unlike certain contemporary texts, however, which remind the reader of their status through the various kinds of authorial subversion (I'm thinking of self-consuming artifacts like Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler and John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman ), Flaubert achieves this effect through the sheer perfection of design. Every scene, every sentence, every word has been set into place with tweezer precision; there is not a superfluous syllable in the book. The author's ideal was the creation of a self-sustaining fictional world, one that would be functional down to the smallest cogwheel. To achieve this, he absented himself entirely: at no point can we say, 'This is Flaubert speaking.' ('The artist,' he wrote in a famous letter, 'must be seen in his work like God…everywhere felt, but never seen.') Madame Bovary manifests a complete relational integrity. Its elaborate invented world exerts on the reader the full pressure of necessity; the least of its actions is at once a cause and an effect. Naturalistic illusionism—and fictionality—can be taken no further. After Flaubert, the novel as form could only decline, or change.

These are powerful claims and tough words. Many of us writers—regretfully, jealously—tend to agree with them.

The message here (and in the stunning triumph that is Madame Bovary )   for students and seekers of style are manifold:

That style is not merely “the sound words make on paper” as was earlier suggested in this series, but is also a direct function of content.

That style derives from the tone of narration and from the choice of point-of-view.

That style arises from the care of plotting and intricacy of overall design.

That the most visible and powerful effects of style may come from the author's invisibility in the text.

That real style is damned hard to create.

As Flaubert wrote to the ever-listening Louise Colet—

What a beastly thing prose is! It's never finished; there is always something to do over. A good prose sentence must be like a good line of verse, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous. That at least is my ambition (there is one thing I'm certain of: there's no one who has ever had in mind a more perfect type of prose than I have; but as for the execution, what weaknesses, good Lord, what weaknesses!)”

Flaubert's ambition was nothing less than absolute elimination of the separation between form and content, between words and the world itself. He not only believed that this almost quantum connection existed between words and the world, but that any and every thought or sensation had its precise linguistic equivalent. If this theory was correct, Flaubert gambled, then Madame Bovary's triumph of style would also be a holistic triumph of content, design, narrative, characters, and plotting.

We can argue whether Flaubert fully succeeded in his hubristic goal, but there has to be something unique about a single novel from the 1850's that separated the history of novels into two categories—Before Madame Bovary and After Madame Bovary—in much the same way that the birth of Christ was said to have split time asunder.

A Different Sort of Workshopping:

Years before he attempted Madame Bovary , in September of 1849, 28-year-old Gustave Flaubert invited two of his closest friends, Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet—both young literary men themselves—to his home at Croisset and proceeded to read his first full adult work, La Tentation de Saint Antoine to them.

The reading took four days at the rate of eight hours per day, from noon to four each day and then from eight to midnight. Flaubert did not allow interruptions or comments on the book during the days and nights he was reading it to them.

When Flaubert was finished, the two friends conferred. They then advised Gustave to throw the manuscript in the fire.

Flaubert was shaken.

“You proceed by expansion,” Du Camp told the suddenly and uncharacteristically silent Flaubert. “One subject sweeps toward another, and you end up forgetting your point of departure. A droplet becomes a torrent, the torrent a river, the river a lake, the lake an ocean, the ocean a tidal wave. You drown, you drown your characters, you drown the event, you drown the reader, and your work is drowned.”

Bouilhet, a very shy man and a loyal friend except in regards to things literary, diagnosed the entire botch of a book as a case of “misplaced industry” and just repeated that it should be burned.

Du Camp elaborated on why the cosmic scale of La Tentation de Saint Antoine, filled as it was with epic characters, saints, gods, and goddesses, as well as constant authorial commentary on religion and society, was wrong for the expansive, opinionated, didactic, romantic, larger-than-life voice that was Flaubert's—

You must choose a subject in which lyricism would be so unseemly as to compel you to abstain from it,” Du Camp later said he told Flaubert.   He urged the young writer to follow the smaller, tighter realism of Balzac rather than the gigantic scope of Hugo. “Choose a down-to-earth subject, one of those incidents in which bourgeois life abounds, something like La Cousine Bette or La Cousin Pons, and force yourself to treat it…without those divagrations that, albeit beautiful in themselves, hinder the development of your scheme.”

Flaubert did not burn the manuscript. (As is true of most writers, he'd rather plead guilty to being a hoarder than an arsonist.) Nor did he fall into a deep depression, as was his wont, since he and Du Camp were shortly to embark on a two-year trip through the Levant—Egypt, North Africa, the Holy Land, Turkey, etc.—that would satisfy both Flaubert's hunger for the exotic and his need for real sexual debauchery. His literary ambitions could wait.

When he did settle on the subject matter of Madame Bovary years later—the absurd (and fatal) romantic ambitions and affairs of a freckle-faced (but large-breasted) bourgeois doctor's wife in the very provincial province of Normandy—it performed exactly the subduing of overexorbitant style that Du Camp had advised. All of his life, Gustave Flaubert despised the bourgeoisie—the banality and smallness of bourgeois ambitions and daily life—and by bringing the full force of his novelist's attentions to the details and frustrations and absurdities of that life, he was able—indeed, forced—to contain the tsunami of his style and tame it to his own literary goals. The result was brilliance.

We can easily name 20 th Century authors whose authorial intrusion into their own narrative is part of the energetic charm and attraction of their style—Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, Harlan Ellison are only a few examples from a long list—but Flaubert harnessed that nuclear fire of authorial energy in a different way: by being, like God, everywhere present but nowhere visible (or audible) in his book.

(We should note that Flaubert's next huge novel after Madame Bovary, titled   Salammbô—  a sort of all-stops-out Conan the Destroyer Attacks Carthage historical romance , little read today but prized even above La Bovary by many while Flaubert was alive—did return to the “more is more” philosophy of authorial aggression.)

Writing Madame Bovary—essentially by taming his vaunting instincts and by living in a bourgeois world he had struggled to avoid his entire life—was not easy for Flaubert. At one point he wrote—“Writing this book I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles.

His occasional mistress but full-time interlocutor during this period, Louise Colet (who received 160 letters chronicling Flaubert's progress or lack of progress on the novel), received this note in March of 1852—

I have sketched, botched, slogged, groped. Perhaps I'm on the right track now. Oh, what a rascally thing is style. I don't believe you have any idea what kind of book this one is. I'm trying to be as buttoned-up in it as I was unbuttoned in the others and to follow a geometrically straight line. No lyricism, no reflections, the personality of the author absent. It won't be fun to read.”

He didn't believe that. Flaubert's goal of making the world materially present through language would make his book about the boring bourgeoisie—he knew in his heart—as exciting as anything ever penned. In January, Louise Colet received this note from him—

What strikes me as beautiful, what I would like to create is a book about nothing, a book without external attachments held aloft by the internal voice of its own style, as the earth stays aloft on its own, a book that would have almost no subject or at least in which the subject would, if possible, evaporate. The most beautiful works are those that have the least matter; the closer expression hugs thought, the more words cleave to it and disappear, the more beautiful it is. Therein lies the future of Art. As it grows, it grows more ethereal, from the Egyptian pylons to Gothic lancet windows, from Hindu poems twenty thousand lines long to Byron's ejaculations.

Flaubert held it as axiomatic that beauty and ugliness resided not in the subjects—not in the things themselves—but only in style. Style was, unto itself, “an absolute way of seeing things.”

Emma Bovary's great curse, of course, was that she could never see things—or want things—as they were. Trapped in the banality of provincial daily life and a marriage with a plodding rural doctor of limited means (and more limited imagination and passion) she dreamt of and lived for dramatic epiphanies. Eventually those epiphanies took the form of love affairs with bounders and cads, but even the banality of these liaisons took on a filtered Romantic glow through Emma's self-distorting lenses. Flaubert's genius was his realization that we all live life through the filter of such lenses—some like Emma Bovary's, others even more self-destructive and illusory, a few less distorting but also less exciting—and that our fates are always tied to our self-imposed illusions.

An Example of Style:

It's time to look at an actual example of Flaubert's writing.

The following passage was written late on the night of 23 December, 1853. In his notes for the novel and in various letters, Flaubert tenderly referred to this scene as La Basaide—the Big Fuck—and although when writing to his male buddies Flaubert could be as crude in his depiction of sexual matters as any modern pornographer, he had promised that in Madame Bovary there would be—“no crude details, no licentious images; the lasciviousness has to be in the emotions.

Here is part of the La Basaide scene where Emma Bovary, having finally consummated her romantic longings with the handsome cad Rodolphe and perhaps having realized a true orgasm for the first time, views the forest glen and world around her with new eyes—

The evening shadows were falling, the sun on the horizon, passing through the branches, dazzled her eyes. Here and there, all around her, among the leaves or on the earth, patches of light were trembling, just as if hummingbirds, in flight, had scattered their feathers. Silence everywhere; strange tenderness coming from the trees; she felt her heart, as it began to beat again, and the blood flowing in her body like a river of milk. And she heard in the distance, beyond the wood, on the far hills, a vague and lingering cry, a murmuring voice, and she listened to it in silence, melting like music into the last fading vibrations of her tingling nerves. Rodolphe, a cigar between his teeth, was mending one of the two broken reins with his little knife.

(An irrelevant note here—If some of you, like me, always wonder if and how some fine novelistic passage can be converted into its cinematic equivalent, you don't have to wonder about this one: director David Lean shot this scene for his 1970 epic “Ryan's Daughter.” Robert Bolt, the screenwriter who'd worked with Lean a few years earlier on “Lawrence of Arabia,” had wanted to adapt Madame Bovary and submitted a screenplay to Lean, but the director preferred something set in Ireland during the Uprising. So Madame Bovary becomes Rosie Ryan, married to a boring Irish schoolteacher played by Robert Mitchum, and this scene sees her first passionate tryst with a shellshocked and limping young British officer (played by the pretty, glowering, and equally lame Christopher Jones). The cinematography is staggeringly beautiful—the pale bodies in the green grass, the sun occluded between tall trees rocked by wind, a dandelion giving seed as the breeze comes up—all true to the feeling of Flaubert's paragraph above. The only problem with it in the movie is that none of the surroundings—the forest glen, the tall trees, the high grass, the flowers—have the slightest connection to the bare grasslands and high tundra around Dingle Bay shown in the rest of the film. It's as if young Rosie Ryan momentarily teleported out of 1916 Ireland and suddenly found herself in a French forest.)

At any rate, before we begin leaping at this excerpt with our own microscopes and analytical scalpels, let's read what Flaubert himself thought about the passage. It was after 2 a.m. when he finished writing that day, but that did not prevent him from dashing off a letter to Louise Colet—

“I've reached the Big Fuck, I'm right in the middle of it. We are in a sweat and our heart is nearly in our mouth. This has been one of the rare days of my life which I have spent in a state of complete Enchantment, from beginning to end. Just now, around six o'clock, at the moment when I wrote the phrase 'nervous attack' [note from Dan—he later removed that passage], I was so carried away, I was making such a racket, and feeling so intensely what my little woman was feeling that I began to fear I was about to have one myself. I stood up from my writing table and I opened the window to calm myself down. My head was spinning [. . .]. I am like   man who has just come too much (if you will forgive me the expression) I mean a sort of lassitude which is full of exhilaration [. . .] as a man and as a woman, as lover and mistress both, I have been out riding in a forest on an autumn afternoon, and it was the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words that they spoke to each other and the red sunlight that made them half-close their eyes, eyes that were brimming with love.”

This is not the only time that Flaubert had written so eloquently about being carried away by and within the emotions of his characters—of having both their orgasms, so to speak—and it gives the lie to his admonitions to write coldly, with poise, and to never surrender to the passions of the scene or moment.

It may well be the truest post-orgasm paragraph in literature, (at least as written by a male), with the possible exception of three words in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls when Robert Jordan asked Maria what the previous night had been like for her and she replied—“The earth moved.”

Emma's excised “nervous attack” lines, by the by, which were set before the consummation on the glen, read—“It was not the walk or the weight of her coat that made her pant, but   strange anxiety, an anguish of her whole being, as if she were about to have a nervous attack. ” Perhaps Flaubert—an epileptic since early adulthood—simply did not want the connection between sex and his frequent “episodes” to be assigned to Emma here, but he had written to a friend not long before that there might be a 'physiology of style'—“Just as the pearl is the oyster's affliction, so style is perhaps the discharge from a deeper wound.”

Uncharacteristically, Flaubert never explored this idea. Perhaps he realized that some metaphors were better left alone.

T-unit Analysis:

When analyzing elementary, middle-school, high-school, or college-bound students' “writing samples,” one tool of comparison I've used (and taught) is the so-called T-unit analysis.

This is just choosing what appears to be a typical paragraph of the student's writing and counting the number of words in each sentence, then finding an average. The “T-unit” stands for “thought-unit,” and more than just educational doubletalk to sound professional, it's used because many kids of all ages may not know how to mark their sentences with periods at the end, capital letters at the beginning, but the evaluator can still see the complete “thought unit” (de facto sentence) and find the length of them.

Here in the WRITING WELL installments and in later forum discussions, we've all commented on how longer sentences are not necessarily better ones, and also on how the most skilled writers tend to vary their sentence lengths for effect, often inserting two- or three-word sentences amidst longer ones for the punch such shorter statements make. But the fact remains that research shows that people of all ages with more advanced psycholinguistic abilities tend to use longer sentences on average.

We'll do a T-unit analysis of Flaubert's paragraph of description above not to see if his psycholinguistic abilities are advanced—we'll assume they are—but to get a sense of the length and cadence of his formalized thoughts in such an important scene. (And before you protest—please know that I know that this little experiment is useless here because I am looking at an English translation of Flaubert's French novel…but my friend and translator Jean-Daniel is on vacation right now in Nancy, so I can't call him in to provide and corroborate precisely the same text in the original language. Also, beyond simple menus, I don't read French.)

Anyway, here is my T-unit analysis (read “word count”)—

Sentence #1—16 words

Sentence #2—28 words

Sentence #3—30 words

Sentence #4—40 words

Sentence #5—18 words

My count was hasty and may have been off, but we're fairly close to the mark here.

What does this prove? (Besides the fact that it proves nothing but the translator's preference for sentence length?)

We see that Flaubert began this very important paragraph with the shortest sentence and ended it with one only two words longer, allowing the more lyrical and lingering sentences—those with the semicolons, subordinate clauses set off by commas, and other elements of cadence—to fill the center.

Some simple arithmetic shows us that Flaubert's average sentence length in this important paragraph in his Big Fuck scene—132 words divided by 5 sentences—is 26.4 words long. (Don't try T-unit analysis with Proust, by the way, or you'll break something.)

Length of sentences is ameliorated and moderated by punctuation, and in this translation, the first sentence had three commas; the second sentence had five commas; the third sentence had two semicolons and two commas; the fourth sentence had six commas; the fifth and final sentence had two commas.

We could count the number of words in each subordinate clause, whether set off by commas or semicolons, but suffice it to say that in his longest, most lyrical sentences here, Flaubert tended to revert to short phrases of five to eight words (such as “and she listened to it in silence”).

There is a reason for this.

We remember the amusing, almost absurd image of Flaubert reading aloud his first novel to his friends, sitting in a little pavilion outside his large home at Croissett, with them listening eight hours a day for four days—actually, the full reading took almost 36 hours, so one of those days involved overtime for his listeners. But Flaubert, in all of his novels, hitched his style to the proper cadence of a tale that was being read aloud and listened to.

In a real sense, the length and cadence components of Flaubert's brilliant style resulted from what could be read gracefully without running out of wind in the lungs or having to gasp for air. (Proust must never have read his sentences aloud. He would not have survived.)

Friends and critics of his confirmed this guess. Jules de Goncourt wrote—

“We chat about the difficulty of writing a sentence and giving it rhythm. We take great care with rhythm, a quality we value [in prose]; but in Flaubert's case, it borders on idolatry. For him a book is to be judged by reading it aloud: 'It has no rhythm!' If its pauses don't accord with the natural play of human lungs, it's worthless.”

Those of us who love novels, both modern and older, become aware that the rhythm (thus “style”) of many of our favorite books from the 19 th and 18 th Centuries seems less in tune with the rhythm of breath in the lungs, and more dependent upon how many words could be written by a pen (or quill) before the nib had to be dipped in ink again. A scene in the novel and movie The English Patient has a wonderful moment where the dying patient lectures the Indian sapper who is reading aloud to him from Kim on the dip-pause- and-write, dip-pause-and-write cadence of such old books. This real-world determiner of style has disappeared with the advent of the typewriter and now the computer (as have many other wonderful elements of writing.)

I confess to not following Flaubert's (and other writers whom I respect) wonderful advice of reading each page and sentence aloud, multiple times, before deciding it is good enough to remain in one's novel. My mental reading voice does pour over each sentence, sounding it out, reading it and listening to it simultaneously to see if has the rhythm I want, but a mental voice rarely runs out of wind. The result is that often I do not find small infelicities until I am on book tour, reading a favorite passage to audiences. Invariably I then make small changes in my published text for myself—a comma here, a word change there—so that the readings go more smoothly, the rhythm works better.

Too late! Too late!

Another problem with creating and maintaining one's style today is the publisher.   More specifically—it's the editor, proofreader, copyeditor, and the publisher's “House Style” that will stamp their mark on your own attempts at punctuation-controlled cadence and rhythm. (And once cadence and rhythm are destroyed in a sentence or paragraph or on a page, the entire novel takes a stutter-step and threatens to collapse. And since cadence depends upon length—of words, of the sentence, of the paragraph, of the page, of the novel itself—it rarely helps that the editor's primary goal in life is to shorten everything.)

Preserving rhythm and cadence in my own prose has been the primary fight during my professional career. Every casual change by a low-level “proofreader” to bring something into compliance with House Style or to “streamline” a sentence or paragraph or to “eliminate repetition” throws off the rhythm I work so hard to create and spavines the cadence I prefer—or at least creates a style that is not my own. Seventy-five years after Flaubert fought these battles, William Faulkner was writing to his publisher, Boni & Liveright, in 1927—“…smooth the printer's fur, cajole him, some way. He's been punctuating my stuff to death; giving me gratis quotation marks and premiums of commas that I dont (sic) need.”

Madame Bovary was published, in serial form, in La Revue de Paris, edited by old friend Du Camp and Laurent-Pinchant, and Du Camp's opening editorial remarks were enough to send a chill down any author's spine—“A warm recommendation was the only comment I made when I gave Laurent your book. We independently reached for the same saw to shorten it…My deep-seated conviction is that if you don't do as I say, you will compromise yourself seriously and launch your literary career with a tangled work whose style will not suffice to retain interest. Be brave, close your eyes during the operation, and trust us, not necessarily for our talent but for the experience we have acquired in such matters and our affection for you. You buried your novel beneath a heap of things, all handsome but all superfluous.”

Since Flaubert was the son of a famous surgeon and the brother of a famous surgeon, and since one of the most wrenching and terrible scenes in all of literature is from Madame Bovary in which Emma's doctor-husband Charles, goaded on by Emma (in the hope of fame), performs a stupid and botched operation on an otherwise happy clubfooted fellow in the village—not only crippling him for life and eventually killing him, but emasculating him in the process—it's doubtful if Flaubert was reassured by this advice for him to shut his eyes while they reached for the saw.

Here is one scene they found it necessary to cut. Emma and Charles are waking up not long after their marriage, and we get an understanding not only of the varying colors one can perceive in the mercurial Emma's eyes, but also of Charles's deep love for her—

“Mornings, lying face-to-face, he'd watch the sunlight play over the golden down on her cheeks, partly covered by the scallops of her nightcap. Seen from so close, her eyes loomed large, especially when she fluttered her lids upon awakening. Black in the shade and dark blue in broad daylight, it's as if their color were layered in depth, more opaque toward the back but brightening as it approached the enameled surface. His own eye got lost in these depths, where he saw himself from the shoulders up, a miniature bust with a silk scarf wrapped around his head and his nightshirt open.”

Why cut such a scene? Was the mere mention of the couple in bed too intimate?

After first trying to accommodate his editors—who love cutting simply because they can—Flaubert soon learned to dig in and fight. By Dec. 7 of that year, he was writing—“In my opinion I have already given up a lot and the Revue would have me concede even more. Now understand, I will do nothing. I will make no corrections, I will delete nothing, not even a comma, nothing, nothing! . .   If the Revue de Paris feels that I am compromising it, if it's afraid, simply stop Madame Bovary . I couldn't care less. ”

When fighting for content or style, for a difficult ending or controversial scene, for the soul of the novel itself, every writer worth his or her salt has to discover what Flaubert quickly did—i.e. to save your book from being emasculated and edited into arhythmic mulch, you have to be prepared to abandon it completely—to refuse to have it published. Sometimes you really do have to burn down the village in order to save it.

Emma Bovary's Eyes:

In Julian Barnes's wonderful novel Flaubert's Parrot—in which a nameless older narrator has suffered an equally non-specific loss of his wife and become obsessed with Flaubert (and his stuffed parrot encountered in a museum)—there arises the “problem” of Madame Bovary's eyes.

From Chapter 6 of Flaubert's Parrot—

“Let me tell you why I hate critics. Not for the normal reasons; that they're failed creators (they usually aren't; they may be failed critics, but that's another matter); or that they're by nature carping, jealous and vain (they usually aren't; if anything, they might better be accused of over-generosity, of upgrading the second-rate so that their own fine discriminations thereby appear the rarer). No, the reason I hate critics—well, some of the time—is that they write sentences like this:

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 (14); on another deep black eyes (15); and on another blue eyes (16).

“This precise and disheartening indictment was drawn up by the late Dr. Enid Starkie, Reader Emeritus in French Literature at the University of Oxford, and Flaubert's most exhaustive British biographer. The numbers in her text refer to footnotes in which she spears the novelist with chapter and verse.”

Now, although I'm too lazy to go look it up (even via Google, which is the ultimate Lazy Man's Reference Book), I have to assume that Dr. Enid Starkie is a figment of Julian Barnes's imagination. Or, rather, she is a truthful and accurate composite of all those jealous and sullen academics and biographers, those midgets whose lives and careers are spent feasting on the carcasses of literary giants, who really think they can bring the giant down by hamstringing him with such pissant objections.

But the narrator in Flaubert's Parrot , a man who has read Madame Bovary many, many times, is sobered by the fact that he hasn't noticed something so obvious as Emma's rainbow eyes. Has his reading been that careless? Has his hero—that debauched mass of appetites once named Gustave Flaubert—really been that careless?

The answer, of course, is no. Rereading just for this one purpose, the narrator finds six specific references to Emma's eye color (the second one taken from the originally excised passage above) and they are all wonderfully consistent in saying that Emma's eyes are, in neutral light, a dark brown, but in some extremes of candlelight or full daylight (as listed above), appear to the besotted viewer as either black or even blue. They “seemed to contain layer upon layer of colours, which were thicker in hue deep down, and became lighter towards the enamel-like surface.”

The narrator has gone to a lecture by Dr. Enid Starkie, Reader Emeritus in French Literature at Oxford, and has this to say about her eyes—

“I was too far away to observe what colour Enid Starkie's eyes were; all I remember of her is that she dressed like a matelot, walked like a scrum-half, and had an atrocious French accent.”

After rereading Madame Bovary to confirm that Flaubert's care with Emma's eye-color had been as careful as his care with language itself, the narrator concludes—

“How did the critic put it? 'Flaubert did not build up characters, as did Balzac, by objective, external description; in fact, so careless is he of their outward appearance that…' 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.”

Actually, as Barnes's narrator and other scholars have discovered, there is another confirmation of Emma's fascinating eye color(s).

Flaubert's friend Maxime Du Camp in his Souvenirs literraires (1882-83) describes in great detail the woman on whom Emma Bovary was based. She was, Du Camp tells us, the second wife of a medical officer from Bon-Lecours, near Rouen:

“This second wife was not beautiful; she was small, had dull yellow hair, and a face covered with freckles. She was full of pretension, and despised by her husband, whom she considered a fool. Round and fair in person, her small bones were well-covered, and in her carriage and her general bearing there were flexible, undulating movements, like those of an eel. Her voice, vulgarised by its Lower Normandy accent, was full of caressing tones, and her eyes, of uncertain colour, green, grey, or blue, according to the light, had a pleading expression, which never left them.”

“Now do you understand,” writes the sad narrator of Flaubert's Parrot, “why I hate critics? I could try and describe to you the expression in my eyes at this moment; but they are far too discoloured with rage.”

Another Definition of Style:

I once promised a writing workshop of adults that I would show them their style during the next session. There was some anticipation. That next day I brought in a full-length mirror and we took turns standing in front of it. After we inspected our faded jeans, grubby sneakers, t-shirts, Dockers chinos, polo shirts, denim skirts, polyester pants, and J.C. Penney blouses, we decided that we really didn't have much style.

Of course, in the Random House College Dictionary this sort of “style” fits the 4 th definition—“a mode of fashion, as in dress” but that's next to the 5 th meaning—“the mode of expressing thought in writing.”

What the hell…we decided we dressed for comfort. But the uncomfortable corollary to that discovery was our decision that all to often we wrote for comfort as well—or at least stayed within our “comfort zone.” Our attempts at style tended to be the literary equivalent of the jeans and sneakers and t-shirts we wore. Rather than attempt difficult piano pieces with lead weights attached to our knuckles, we were banging out “Chopsticks” and feeling comfortable about it. (Note: some of the prospective writers protested to the contrary, talking constantly of the “thirty-five rewrites” they'd done for every final page produced. Unfortunately, and far too often, even a cursory glance by a writer at these much-labored-over texts showed the reason for all the pain and discomfort and endless successive approximations—the would-be author had no talent. It turns out, alas, that perspiration is no guarantee of excellence: the only thing it absolutely assures is sweat stains.)

Then conversation turned to the fact that many of the writers whom we'd been discussing—especially the males—did have visible or unusual sartorial style:

Emily Dickinson in her white dress, a ghost at the window even before she died.

Mark Twain in his summer white suit, worn year round in an era of dark suits.

Tom Wolfe in his white suit, looking like some time traveler from the Edwardian era, even more uncomfortable-looking in his high-collar bespoke shirts. And he says that he writes his novels dressed like this.

Ernest Hemingway in his safari shirts and shorts and long-billed fishing caps. His third wife, Martha Gellhorn, more or less summed up his sartorial style—“You stink, Ernest. You stink of sweat and fish guts.”

William Faulkner dressing like a World War I flying ace after he came home to Mississippi   from Canada (he never saw action in that war, but he pretended he had) and then, in his later years, in the riding trousers and ride-to-the-hounds red coat of the Virginia gentleman that he certainly was not.

Ezra Pound in artist's cape and high collars with his flowing mane of hair, looking like a Parisian painter generations after that style went out of style.

The list goes on…

What can we surmise from this, other than many writers who are great stylists also tend to remain little boys (or girls) who like to play dress-up?

Gustave Flaubert always dressed flamboyantly. During his and Du Camp's 1849-1850 voyage to the “Orient,” Flaubert went more native than the natives. He shaved his head except for one lock of hair—which the local Muslims left for the convenience of the angel of resurrection to pull them out of their graves—sported a red tarboosh, wore a djellaba in the desert, wrapped his shaven head in turbans and kaffiyahs, rode camels everywhere, screwed anything that wore rouge or a veil, dined with pashas, and slept outside in the moonshadows of the great pillars of the half-sand-buried Temples of Karnac.

Parting Words:

His mating with the desert did not end upon his return to France. Always there was the metaphor of the camel or the pyramid or the multi-veiled dancing girl. When a friend doubted his loyalty he replied, “With me, friendship is like a camel: once started, there is no way of stopping it.”

When critics later tried to savage him, he explained, “Books aren't made in the way that babies are: they are made like pyramids. There's some long-pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it's back-breaking, sweaty, time consuming work. And all to no purpose! It just stands there in the desert! But it towers over it prodigiously. Jackals piss at the base of it, and bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc. Continue this comparison.”

Beyond the Oriental images, spikes and thorns and prickly things were favorite metaphors. He compared himself as a writer to a hedgehog, to a porcupine turned inside out, and wrote in 1852—“I love my work with a frantic and perverted love, as an ascetic loves the hair-shirt which scratches his belly. ”

When Louise Colet whined too much in their copious correspondence, asking for love returned for all the vows of love she had sent him, or perhaps just some flowers now and then, Flaubert whipped back (shortly before he abandoned her forever)—“You ask for love, you complain that I don't send you flowers? Flowers, indeed! If that's what you want, find yourself some wet-eared boy stuffed with fine manners and all the right ideas. I'm like the tiger, which has bristles of hair at the end of its cock, with which it lacerates the female.”

Perhaps his decision to say goodbye to Louise Colet was due to more than fatigue at her constant attempts at emotional blackmail. To a male friend he later confessed—“I am like a cigar: you have to suck on the end to get me going. ”

Twenty years after Madame Bovary , a few years after he published another masterpiece—L'Education sentimentale—he downplayed his life's vocation and deepest passion—“I still carry on turning out my sentences, like a bourgeois turning out napkin rings on a lathe in his attic. It gives me something to do, and it affords me some private pleasure.”

Gustave Flaubert died in 1880, but by 1872 he could describe the world, his life, and his literary struggle in these terms—“Never have things of the spirit counted for so little. Never has hatred for everything great been so manifest—disdain for Beauty, execration of literature. I have always been tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.”

Flaubert died as most great writers die or want to die—in harness, writing through pain and infirmity and the loss of friends that “have turned my heart into a necropolis,” and trying to finish his next book, trying to beat both his self-imposed deadline and death itself. Shortly before his death he wrote  —“When will the book be finished?That's the question. If it is to appear next winter, I haven't a minute to lose between now and then. But there are moments when I'm so tired that I feel I'm liquefying like an old Camembert.”

Reader, hopeful Writer, does all this help you in your quest for style? Do these aphorisms and crude quotes and stylistic excerpts from a dead French writer aid you in any way?

Who's to know? If you want to know your style, look in a mirror. Then read the last page of fiction you wrote. Read it aloud. Then read any page of any manuscript that a writer like Gustave Flaubert wrote. You don't want to be him; you don't want to write like him; but you'd damn well better be aware of what he did to and for the form of the novel, what he did to literature. He may not be your literary model, but he's your competition. Great writers' flesh may liquefy like old Camembert, but their oh-so-solid works remain.

One biography of Flaubert ( Flaubert: A Life by Geoffrey Wall, 2001) ends thusly—

"At Flaubert's request there were no speeches at the graveside. Charles Lapierre, a friend and editor of a local newspaper, said a few words. Flaubert's coffin, too big to fit into the grave, had to be left stuck at an angle, headfirst, and only half way into the earth."

(Note: Between installments of WRITING WELL, visitors to this web site interested in discussing writing issues can talk to each other and to me on the new ON WRITING WELL strand in the Dan Simmons Forum. While I will answer questions there from time to time, my hope is that these Writing Well installments might serve – at least partially – as a template for discussion so that we can move more slowly toward the usual huge questions of “How do I write a masterpiece and where can I get it published?”)

 >>click here to go to the Forum and On Writing Well thread


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