From Bellow to Beckett?

James Wood suggests that contemporary novelists of all stripes owe their styles — and their preoccupation with them — largely to Flaubert.

He began writing “Madame Bovary” in September 1851, and delivered the manuscript in 1856, when he was 35. [Biographer Frederick] Brown is especially vivid in his recreation of Flaubert’s work habits at this time. He lived with his widowed mother in the large family home in Croisset, a few miles down the Seine from Rouen. He rose late and worked from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m., in gray thickets of pipe smoke. Sentences were laid as carefully as fuses. Progress was excruciatingly slow. In six weeks, he wrote to Louise Colet, he had produced only 25 pages. He fretted that all he had were sentences, “a series of well-turned paragraphs that don’t flow into one another.” In the beautiful letters he wrote to Colet, his temperamental contradictions are palpable. He diligently researched scenes like the famous agricultural fair, in which, while Rodolphe seduces Emma in an upstairs room, the crowd outside the window talk about feed and manure — he wanted to get such details exactly right. He dreamed with his characters and suffered with them, claiming in later life that when Emma took arsenic he himself suffered from sympathetic stomach pains. But he complained of loathing his little bourgeois creations, of feeling imprisoned in his chosen world. The romantic in him wanted to soar above it all, to write a book of pure music, “a book about nothing,” a book held together only by the “internal force of its style.”

Thus “style” was born: this was Flaubert’s second gift to novelists, and one they are as likely to curse him for as to thank him. Of course, writers before Flaubert had agonized about style: don’t we feel that Jane Austen was a ruthless censor of superfluity? But no novelist agonized as much or as publicly, no novelist fetishized the poetry of the sentence in the same way, no novelist pushed to such an extreme the potential alienation of form and content (a book “about nothing”). And no novelist reflected as self-consciously on questions of technique. One Flaubert scholar rightly says that with Flaubert literature became “essentially problematic.” Or just modern? Flaubert himself affected a nostalgia for the great unselfconscious writers who came before him, the beasts of instinct who just got on with it, like Molière and Cervantes; they, said Flaubert, were great because they “had no techniques.” He, on the other hand, was betrothed to “atrocious labor” and “fanaticism.” In different ways, we are all shadowed by that labor. The rich stylist — a Bellow, an Updike — is made newly self-conscious about his richness; but the plainer stylist — Hemingway, for example — has also become self-conscious about his plainness, itself now resembling a form of highly controlled richness. The realist feels Flaubert breathing over her shoulder: is it well written enough? But the formalist or postmodernist is also indebted to Flaubert for the dream of a book about nothing, a book flying high on style alone; Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute, practitioners of the nouveau roman, were explicit about crediting Flaubert as their great precursor. The links between the comically questing clerks of Flaubert’s last work, “Bouvard and Pècuchet,” and Beckett’s tramps and travelers, engaged in fruitless and convoluted tasks, are obvious; Beckett’s novel “Mercier and Camier” is named in tribute.


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