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How Flaubert Changed Literature Forever

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This piece originally appeared at The New Republic on January 18, 1999.

It is hard not to resent Flaubert for making fictional prose stylish—for making style a problem for the first time in fiction. After Flaubert, and in particular after Flaubert's letters, style is always mirrored, always self-conscious, always a trapped decision. Style became religious with Flaubert, at the same moment that religion became a kind of literary style, a poetry, with Renan. Flaubert himself admired Rabelais, Cervantes, and Molière as if they were beasts of mere instinct: "they are great… because they have no techniques." Such writers "achieve their effects, regardless of Art," he wrote to his lover Louise Colet in 1853. But Flaubert could not be free as those writers: "One achieves style only by atrocious labour, a fanatic and dedicated stubbornness." He was imprisoned in scruple, and he imprisoned his successors in scruple. He is the novelist from whom the Modern, with all its narrow freedoms, flows.

Style had always been a battle for novelists, but Flaubert, in his letters at least, turned it into a perpetual defeat. Indeed, fiction itself was felt as a kind of defeat by Flaubert, it became a vessel defined by what it could not hold. Those letters, now available in a fine new translation by Geoffrey Wall, speak again and again of squeezed hours at his mother's house at Croisset, of how little he has written, of the monstrous difficulty of writing a sentence. It is at first surprising that this new consciousness of limit was born in the apparently limitless heyday of the novel, at the moment when the novel began to have a formal sense of how it should be conducting itself—the moment of European "realism." Flaubert was beholden to realism, but he also detested it. He was torn into two sensibilities, he wrote to Louise Colet: "In me, when it comes to literature, there are two quite-distinct creatures: one who is very taken with being a loudmouth, with lyricism, with soaring like an eagle with all sonorities of phrase and loftinesses of idea; the other who digs and delves into the truth as far as he can, who loves to represent the little detail as powerfully as the other kind, who would like to make you feel almost materially the objects he describes."

Yet the romantic was stronger than the realist in Flaubert. His first major literary effort was the wildly lyrical The Temptation of St. Antony, a book that he partially abandoned in 1849 after reading it aloud (over four days) to his friends Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet. They told him, in effect, that it was a lush failure, that he must thin his wardrobe of luxuries, and discipline his style, and choose a nice bourgeois subject. He chose Emma Bovary's provincial adulteries. (Madame Bovary appeared in 1857.) But he returned again and again to his beloved Temptation, eventually publishing it in 1874. In this curious failure. St. Antony is tempted by sumptuous sensuality (the Queen of Sheba in flowing robes), by visions of power offered by the Devil, and by heresy. The book, which is written out in the form of a play, is silkily, weightlessly fantastical. Yet Flaubert's letters reveal that this book was the marriage of his life, and the others were merely affairs.

It is too simple to say that Flaubert romanticized realism. Still, his obsession with the sentence represents an attempt to turn prose into lines of consecutive verse, "to impart to prose the rhythm of verse (leaving it still prose and very prosey)," as he put it in 1853. Certainly, Flaubert's self-consciousness in this regard represents the collision of realism and romanticism, of the ordinary and the exotic, rather as strange forms of etiquette emerge when an old epoch falls into economic distress. The novel was triumphant at the middle of the century, and there is a sense in which Melville, Flaubert, and Gogol, all of them wilting roughly contemporaneously, were poets who wanted to make the novel a genre that could consume all others and then perform all their functions at once—a stomach of genres, digesting satire, poetry, epic, the historical novel, realism, and fable. (Moby-Dick, Dead Souls, and Madame Bovary are all prose-poems of a kind, and were all called this on publication.) Flaubert was forever restless, telling his correspondents that he would write a fairy-tale, or a fantasy, or an historical epic, or his celebrated dictionary of stupidities; his gargantuan reading seems an ingestive response to this borderless hunger.

Under Flaubert, however, the novel's great expansion was perhaps an expansion into limit. Flaubert was marched by his army of ambitions into a war of literary possibilities, only to be overwhelmed by sheer option. The novel discovered all that it could do, all that it then had to do, and it collapsed out of fatigue into style, into the one thing any writer must do—not immediately, of course, not for a century, not perhaps until the nouveau roman, whose leading representative, Nathalie Sarraute, rightly asked in 1965: "How can it be doubted that Flaubert is the precursor?" Alain Robbe-Grillet, in his manifesto For A New Novel (1963), used Balzacian realism as his enemy, and pronounced Flaubert as the writer who changed the old order: "But then, with Flaubert, everything begins to vacillate. A hundred years later, the whole system is no more than a memory." For Robbe-Grillet, an evolution from Flaubert could be plotted along these lines (though Robbe-Grillet's list is rather meaningless): "Flaubert, Dostoevski, Proust, Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, Beckett… Far from making a tabula rasa of the past, we have most readily reached an agreement on the names of our predecessors; and our ambition is merely to continue them."

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.

Style was a trapped decision for Flaubert, as it is for all his successors, because we are always in a relationship with style; indifference to style is no longer possible, and it is therefore converted into dilemma. Today, those writers who write "plainly" (the quotation marks register our self-consciousness), who leave style alone, must trudge along the plains looking at the mountains that they have chosen not to climb. And then, of course, the plainest writers now become "stylists" too, stylists of renunciation. Flaubert gave birth to Nabokov on one side and to Hemingway on the other. In short, Flaubert made the novel a painterly activity, and perhaps in so doing he threatened the novel with the danger of irrelevance. He aspired to write "a book about nothing, a book with no external attachment…. The most beautiful books are those with the least matter," he wrote in 1852; and in the same letter he wrote that "from the point of view of Art, there is no such thing as a subject, style being solely in itself an absolute way of seeing things."

From the present day, when novels "about nothing" abound, Flaubert's words seem ominous. For "an absolute way of seeing things becomes too easily an obsession with the way of seeing; the important things disappear. Thus it is that Georges Perec's tedious book Things: A Story of the Sixties, which attempts heavily to log the impedimenta of a decade (the clothes, the fabrics, the styles), is actually a novel that sees negligible things, but that prides itself on its way of seeing things. And the way of seeing things turns out again and again to be only swing, or the pictorial. From Flaubert comes that fetishizing of the visual for which Nabokov is always praised and which is actually his deepest limitation.

This is hardly to deny that Flaubert is a great writer, or that his talent for visual detail is a joy, one of the deep textures of his writing, whether it is the smoke of a moving railway engine, "stretched out in a horizontal line, like a gigantic ostrich feather whose lip kept blowing away," or this lovely tableau from Sentimental Education: "The proprietor and his wife were having supper with the waiter in the corner by the kitchen; and Regimbart, with his hat on, was sharing their meal, and indeed getting in the way of the waiter, who was forced to turn slightly to one side at every mouthful." This is beautiful, with that gently ridiculous comedy that Flaubert often produces.

Yet the danger of Flaubert's heavily pictorial details is that they flatter the seen over the unseen, the external over the interior (and Flaubert is not actually a great novelist of interiority), that writing becomes primarily, and in some cases only, a way of making us feel "almost materially the objects [it] describes." In addition to the tyranny of the visual, moreover, there comes the tyranny of the detail. Valéry, who did not care for Flaubert's fiction, commented sourly in a notebook of 1924: "Another vice of this style—there's always room for one more detail." Flaubert gave birth to the orthodoxy that the finest style of writing is a procession of strung details, a necklace of sensualities. We see this today in Updike, but above all we see it in Nabokov, who, in his story "First Love," describes a man whose head is twisted rather as Regimbart's was in the café in Sentimental Education: "On the promenade near the casino, an elderly flower-girl, with carbon eyebrows and a painted smile, nimbly slipped the plump torus of a carnation into the buttonhole of an intercepted stroller whose left jowl accentuated its royal fold as he glanced down sideways an the coy insertion of the flower."

This description sounds more like a logic-puzzle than a sentence, a kind of anagram of detail appealing for decoding. In Nabokov especially, the anxiety with which Flaubert surrounds detail becomes a kind of terror, an inability to draw away from detail; and a concomitant paralysis, a static cult of the local; a frieze. Similarly, Updike's ridiculous mysticism of detail—"the miraculous knit of his jockey shorts"—is a logical perversion of Flaubertian style.

Flaubert—more often, it is true, the Flaubert of the letters than the Flaubert of the novels, who often surgingly overcomes his own programs—established for us our idea of realism: a pressure of detail; a poised, deliberate chosenness. In Flaubert, the monstrous chosenness of detail is revealed through reticence. The pressure of the prose is the pressure of the thought that preceded it but that does not lie on the page. The great descriptions in Flaubert—the great ball at La Vaubyessard in Madame Bovary, or the agricultural show in the same novel, or the Parisian barricades of 1848 in Sentimental Education—are surrounded by the ghost of avoidance, by everything that was rejected to produce this style, by the careful hiatus, by the intelligent starvation.

It is the idea of paint, of depiction rather than thought or commentary: the very speck of the real. Contemporary writing—Robert Stone is an obvious example—takes Flaubert's controlled visual sweep, shaves off some of its richness, and merely cinematizes it. How would a town square in Italy or Brazil, be described nowadays? I will parody the style: "In the north-east corner, a woman threw out her bucket of water, the contents of which briefly yellowed the large, red slabs of the town square. On the other side, a priest, who had been reading the excitable morning paper, looked up and smiled, apparently to himself. His paper rustled in the small, hot breeze like fire. A piano could be heard; Miss Dupont was giving her first lesson of the day." This kind of thing is the staple not only of realism, but also of magical realism and of thriller writing. And there is a good reason for the influence of this ideal, because precisely observed detail is the food of any decent fiction. But Flaubert surely institutionalized this way of writing, canonized it into orthodoxy. That is, he made it into a style: "A breeze from the window ruffled the cloth on the table, and down in the square the peasant women's big bonnets lifted up, fluttering like white butterflies' wings."

In particular, Flaubert licensed the idea that writing does not comment on itself. It presents and withdraws, like a good footman. Flaubert is famous for his desire for impersonality. He wanted the author to look down from above. "When will all the farts be written from the point of view of a superior farce, that's to say, as the good God sees them, from on high?" he asked Colet in 1852. From this flows Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway, the ideal of highly stylized reporting. Indeed, in some respects. Flaubert's descriptions of revolutionary urban violence in Sentimental Education might be said to have influenced war-writing and the way novelists write about war. "Frédéric felt something soft under his foot; it was the hand of a sergeant in a grey overcoat who was lying face down in the gutter." When Roque fires into a crowd of prisoners and shoots someone, Flaubert marshals that cold discipline we think of as a twentieth-century invention: "There was a tremendous howl, then nothing. Something white remained on the edge of the grating." His prose, like a good doctor, does not get emotionally involved; it refuses to follow the anarchy of its subject-matter—and thus, in one respect, denies its own subject-matter, acts as if the subject is not there.

One recalls Flaubert's dream of writing a book about nothing, that would contain "the least matter." Flaubert is able to achieve his two contradictory ambitions, to write fiction that is densely detailed, densely involved with matter and fiction without matter, because his style refuses the pull of matter, asserts itself over matter. His prose will not register emotionally what it depicts visually. Again, there are excellent literary reasons for Flaubert's strictness in this regard, and in his letters he gives them: the avoidance of sentimentality is the chief advantage. Yet the legacy of Flaubert's rigour of denial is, nowadays, too often a dumbness, an unthoughtful and undemonstrative literature preening itself on its inability (rather than its unwillingness) to feel, and broken into units of hard sensation, and merely swiping at life.

From Flaubert, then, come the two main strands of contemporary writing: the aestheticism of style, or books "about nothing" (the nouveau roman, the avant-garde, and so on); and the silence of fact, or books simply strung on detail, or on nuggets of bard, empirical observation (which can mean a wide range of fiction, from the more worked writing of Hemingway and Perec to the plainness of Carver and Robert Stone). Philosophically, the legacy can be put thus: Flaubert is the father of aestheticism and symbolism; and he is the father of literary positivism. He reveals that these two kinds of writing have something in common: neither can ever be innocent about the primacy of style, and thus each is a form of aestheticism. Flaubert invented both hard aestheticism and soft aestheticism, as it were. And in doing so, of course, he became a great writer, for when he is at his greatest he is simultaneously an aesthete and a positivist, a magus of the sentence and a novelist of thingy paragraphs and chapters—as is Joyce, Flaubert's greatest student.


Flaubert insisted that fiction should not judge. Like Chekhov, he felt that the writer should resist conclusion, should only ask the right questions. "Stupidity consists in wanting to reach conclusions. We are a thread, and we want to know the whole design." A novel, he wrote, is to be "without love or hate for any of the characters." His dream of impersonality was in part a desire to withdraw from judgment: "one must accept everything, resigned to not concluding." Yet Flaubert did in fact judge, and he did conclude—being "resigned to not concluding" is a form of conclusion, is a resignation. He was bearishly fatalistic: "I deny individual freedom."

Thus one detects in Flaubert the mid-nineteenth-century aestheticizing of religious attitudes that also afflicted Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold. "What attracts me above all else is religion," he wrote in 1857. "I mean all religions, no one more than another. Each dogma in particular is repulsive to me, but I consider the feeling that invented them as the most natural and poetic of humanity." He wrote often of "aesthetic mysticism." To my mind, the true poet is a priest." His life was a monkish sequestration: "Great achievements always require fanaticism. Fanaticism is religion … In Art as well, it is Art-fanaticism which is the artistic feeling."

Flaubert aestheticized religion—but he retained the old judgmental habits of Christianity, the renunciatory disgust, the penance of being alive. He is distinctly medieval. "A man is no more than a flea," he complained in August 1853. "How nothingness encroaches on us!" After a visit to the dentist, in December 1846, he exclaimed that "during our lives we are merely corruption and putrefaction, in succession and alternation." Seven days later, again to Colet, he elaborated: "What can it be that made me so old as I left my cradle, gave me such a distaste for happiness before I had even tasted it? Everything to do with life is repellent to me. … I have within me, deep down, a radical, intimate, bitter, incessant vexation which stops me enjoying everything and fills my heart to bursting."

Yet Flaubert was not a religious believer, and so religious judgment had lost all grandeur for him, and had become metaphysically null. Judgment surrendered its holy prestige and became a kind of secular mid-nineteenth-century whining—irritation, boredom, disgust, a perpetual "vexation" at the "ridiculousness" of humanity. Compared to religious judgment, this judgment exists in a demoted metaphysical space. It is almost a kind of bourgeois pettiness, and Flaubert, who abhorred the bourgeois but who recognized his own bourgeois traits, probably sensed the littleness of his complaint, its non-tragic nature. One suspects that Flaubert was bored by his boredom, and disgusted at his disgust. He could not help evacuating religions judgment of the religious.

So it is not really that Flaubert withdraws from his books to become God, for God does not exist. No, he withdraws only to the place that God would occupy if God existed. This strange, vacated metaphysics is reflected in the fiction. The insistent thrust of Flaubert's fiction is towards nullification. He looks upon his fictional world like an angry God who no longer exists. He lays waste to his people; he is disappointed in them. Henry James, who admired Flaubert, rightly complained that Frédéric, the young hero of Sentimental Education, is an uninteresting blank, and that the novel is thus something of an "empty epic." The only burning question of Sentimental Education is whether Frédéric is going to have sex with his various lovers. Frédéric has no other apparent preoccupation.

Perhaps Flaubert wanted to create a character so foolishly vain and empty that he would wander through Paris during the 1848 revolution and nullify the excitements around him. And that he does; bin then the novel also nullifies them, and rather nullifies itself, despite its many ravishments. (It is certainly a great novel.) If Frédéric is something of a dud, St. Antony, in the Temptation, as Valéry complained, "hardly exists." Temptations swirl around him, but they seem largely an opportunity for Flaubert to aerate his style.

The psychology of desire interests Flaubert not at all. Emma Bovary is a beautiful creation, yet one feels that the truest, most vivid Flaubertian character is Homais, the vain and pompous chemist in that novel, a character straight out of Molière. Flaubert's characters seem like mistakes; his disgust is felt on every page. Madame Bovary ends on a note of disgust at the continuance of these mistakes: "He [Homais] has just been awarded the Legion of Honour" is its famous, sour last sentence. Flaubert complained that it was a great effort to write Madame Bovary because "I find them [the characters] deeply repulsive."

Realism was a kind of penance. During the early, youthful writing of the Temptation, he had felt full and voluptuous. But now "I have to spend every minute living under the skins of people that I cannot stand. For six months I have been making love platonically and at the moment I am most catholically exalted at the sound of church-bells." One notes the writer's italicization of "skins"; he feels realism as a religious mortification, a lashing of his own skin in order that he might inhabit that of others.

A comparison might usefully be made with Chekhov. Although Chekhov agreed with Flaubert that literature should not draw obvious conclusions, these writers differed in revealing ways. Flaubert did in fact draw conclusions, resignedly; and so did Chekhov, but rebelliously. In contrast to Flaubert's disgust at his characters, or even to Flaubert's advice that one should neither love nor hate them, Chekhov told Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik, "Love your characters—but not aloud!" Thus it is that we feel that Flaubert's characters are doomed, while Chekhov's are only imprisoned. This is best seen in the way both writers use a technique which might be called alternation—the alternation of high and low, of the serious and comic, the sublime and the ridiculous. Alternation is the large principle of both writers: while Paris importantly burns, Frédéric thinks trivially only about sex; and when poor Gusev dies in Chekhov's story of the same name, he is wrapped in sailcloth, and looks like a radish, broad at the top and narrow at the bottom. It is also the local stylistic principle of both writers.

A famous example occurs in Madame Bovary, when Rodolphe seduces Emma in the town hall. The couple sit at the window and watch the doltish agricultural show below. An especially pompous prefect's deputy is addressing the villagers about agricultural techniques, while upstairs, the cynical Rodolphe is filling Emma's susceptible ear with high-minded words about "fate" and "love" and "beauty." The passions, says Rodolphe, who means not a word of it, are "the source of all heroism and enthusiasm, poetry, music, everything." Meanwhile, the speech downstairs has moved onto flax, cabbage, and manure. Flaubert intercuts these two speeches, running them like lines of alternating verse:

"And I've stayed with you, because I couldn't tear myself away, though I've tried a hundred times."

This is a much-admired scene, yet it seems vicious, the ironies suffocating and deterministic, the technique somewhat crudely insistent. What would seem an accidental alternation in Chekhov—the two lovers have just happened to find themselves at the foolish fair—seems a deliberate juxtaposition in Flaubert. He tells us, in effect, that both spectacles, both speeches, are idiotic, and that Emma will never escape this idiocy: both her prison and her escape are stupid.

Chekhov's great story, "The Lady With The Dog," is instructive by comparison. In Madame Bovary, a woman foolishly begins an affair in high hopes of escape, and finds herself doomed. In Chekhov's story, the structural "alternation" of the story proceeds in exactly the opposite direction: a man cynically begins an affair with no hope except for a dalliance, is surprised by its power, and finds himself imprisoned. Fearfully, but joyfully, he and his lover plot to escape their imprisonment. In Chekhov, alternation is not used to nullify, as Flaubert uses it, but to intensify the desire for escape. Very beautifully, alternation allows Chekhov to show his characters both the prison and the key to that prison in the same moment.

In "The Lady With The Dog," the adulterers meet at the theatre, and snatch a kiss on the stairs to the circle. From above, in a detail that Nabokov admired, two schoolboys watch them, while smoking cigarettes. The schoolboys have an arbitrary, careless presence that Flaubert would not have allowed. But more than that, they are both prison and release. They represent the watchful society that oppresses the adulterers and makes their affair so impossible—yet they are only schoolboys, without real judgment, and in some ways they represent a world beyond concern.

Similarly in "The Russian Master," the provincial teacher feels suffocated by the kind of small-town littleness that Flaubert drew so finely in Madame Bovary. The teacher is haunted by a single recrimination uttered by a colleague: "Have you never read Lessing?" As Flaubert alternates Emma's romances with Homais's pomposities, Chekhov uses the sentence about Lessing as an alternating refrain in the story. But where Homais is nothing more than Emma's prison-warder, and one who outlives both her and Charles Bovary to end the novel in obtuse prosperity, Lessing is both prison and key to the teacher. The question oppresses the teacher, yet Lessing, the German philosopher, represents a world of reading and knowledge that exists beyond the small town.

There is a sense in which Chekhov—without meaning to, and in a very different aesthetic and political context—"solved" all the desperate literary dilemmas that rifled Flaubert. If, as Stephen Heath put it in his fine book about Flaubert, "it is with [Flaubert] that literature becomes essentially problematic," then it was with Chekhov that it became again essentially unproblematic (in the aesthetic sense that Heath intends). If realism was a stylistic agony for Flaubert, it was a moral necessity for Chekhov. If Flaubert retained and aestheticized religious judgment, Chekhov paganized life. If Flaubert disliked his characters from afar, Chekhov loved his closely. If Flaubert's people are all mistakes, Chekhov's people, even the fools, are always forgiven. If Flaubert turned style into a monkish fetish, Chekhov made of it a worldly devotion. Where Flaubert judges his characters' fantasies, Chekhov indulges them.

And yet in the last hundred pages of Madame Bovary, as all readers have surely encountered, something beautifully Chekhovian begins to happen. The novelist who found realism such a penance begins to be aroused by his own mortification. The hairshirt prickles suggestively. St. Gustave is tempted—tempted into love. Emma begins to live, she pulls away from Flaubert's earlier disapproval. Flaubert seems to forgive her for the tawdry escapism of her dreams. He begins to sympathize with her. Something heroic stirs in the folds of her a scanty soul. The novel, eerily, finds a momentum of its own, as if it had crested itself. It is utterly mysterious, this transformation, and only shows what a great writer Flaubert, despite his failures, really was. It is certainly a kind of "aesthetic mysticism," worthy of our entirely unmystical reverence.