Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Holy Trinity of Modernist Prose

Have finished the Douglas Parmée translation of A Sentimental Education. A lot to assimilate, the contribution of this book to what we think of as "realism." With a few qualifications, I think I was not so far off in my post on Madame Bovery.

Frédéric and Emma pursue impossible romantic dreams. It would be an inexcusable romantic gesture
to elevate their characters, to hoist them on a pedestal beside Werther. But what happens to that driving passion, brought down from the clouds and injected into Flaubert's flawed, middlebrow characters? Is the fault in the education? In the escapist novels Emma mistook for reality? Or in the characters he choose, like a Greek god who takes it into his head to experiment--to grant a gift to mortals too great for them to bear? In how many ways can they fail the gift?

If the object and goal is "love" --the answer would be: as many ways as there are people on earth. Had fate granted Moreau an early death for Arnoux, and he and Madame Arnoux had married... there would have come the time when, letting down her white hair, he would have been repelled, as he was in the end... but probably a lot sooner, and without the "Platonic" distance to shield him from the realization.

Which leaves me with an impression of Flaubert, not strictly as a realist--but an idealist, a conflicted idealist whose realism sees through the romantic delusions, but clings to, and drives his idealism to an even higher level, incapable of realization... but one that nonetheless, persists. Unattainable, at least, when tied to animal passions: love, politics. But left open for other possibilities? Other outlets... writing great novels, perhaps?

I normally resist reading the author into the work, but hard not to think of Flaubert's hopelessly romantic mother and practical, scientifically minded father fighting for his allegiance. If he wrote as though channeling his father's mind, it may only have been to hush the beating of his mother's heart.

‘Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we are wishing to move the stars to pity.’
— Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Have begun Musil's The Man Without Qualities. This may take the better part of the summer!

Fifty pages and I'm enthralled. What a wonderful complement and contrast to the other two great prolix modernists--Joyce and Proust.

Someday, someone will come along equal to the task--to compare the three. In generations to come, I have no doubt they will be read as a co-equal trinity of early 20th Century fiction.


  1. Dear Jacob,

    It has come to my attention that comments attributed to me are being received by various bloggers in our universe. They are a hoax. I didn't write them. The perpetrator is one Derek Catermole who has been harassing me and my site for about a year now...he is a troll of the lowest order.

    If you happen to receive anything from me that makes some sort of mea culpa statement about plagiarism, I'd be grateful if you'd remove it from your site.

    Thanks very much. Sorry for the inconvenience.

    Yours sincerely,
    Nigel Beale

  2. I'll let you know of anything that seems suspicious.

    Sorry you have to deal with this...

    What seems to have attracted this troll?

  3. I adore Flaubert, but can only ever read him in small doses. I strongly recommend the Trois Contes (three stories) as I think they are the most revealing and paradoxically the most opaque of his writings. And they are brilliant. But I think a lot of his angst resides in his relationship to language. It just won't do what he wants it to (hence that amazing quote and his own sense of never being a great writer). Frederic is a case in point, when Flaubert describes him walking in the opening sections. It's a cliche, but could it be that a cliche is also the truth? Flaubert couldn't get over the thought that no matter how you tried, you always ended up encapsulating life in (realism's) well-rehearsed phrases. Love and politics are particularly prone to this. But violence, he found, wasn't. And I think it's interesting that when he describes Emma's death, all the irony evaporates and he writes with pure, cold power. Sorry - going on too long, but I do love him so. I can thoroughly recommend Christopher Prendergast's The Order of Mimesis on Flaubert, and Balzac and Zola.