Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Flaubert's Four Pages in Four Weeks

Last night in class we discussed Madame Bovary, specifically the scene when Emma goes to the curé for spiritual sustenance or steadying when she is feeling herself slip. The curé only half pays attention to her; he is too busy trying to round up the wayward boys for their catechism class to notice the subtlety of her distress. It is a beautiful little scene told with Flaubert's careful description and to the point dialogue.

We then read a letter Flaubert wrote to his lover and muse, Louise Colet, about his composition of the scene.
"Finally I am beginning to see a little light in my accursed dialogue with the curé. But frankly, there are moments when I almost feel like vomiting physically the whole thing is so low. I want to express the following situation. My little lady, in an excess of religiosity, goes to church; at the door she finds the curé who in a dialogue shows himself to be so stupid, inept, sordid that she goes away disgusted and undevout. ... This must have 6 or 7 pages at most and must contain no comment, no analysis; it will all be direct dialogue. .... So: you are initiated into the torture I have been undergoing for a fortnight. By the end of next week, I hope I will have it off my hands."

I have edited the letter to the salient parts--those that show how fully aware he was of his intention, and that reveal how long it took him to get this little scene right. A fortnight already, now the week he is in, and his guess that it will take him another week. I count somewhere between three and four weeks. The final version has the feeling of inevitability of all great literature. It is simple, clear, and completely alive. This vivid inevitability takes deep thinking and a lot of work. I love Flaubert's letters for many reasons, one of which is that he reveals how long he spends on certain scenes and sections--and he was writing over long, uninterrupted days. He has a plan, always. He knows exactly what scene he needs to write, what must happen, who's present, how it must feel to the reader, how long it should be. His worldly ambitions--he was determined to be famous--enhance the quality of his thinking; he knows what he has to do, how much focus he needs to do it, that he has to give up Paris to write his book.

For the past ten days I have had a toothache, a root canal, and pain in its aftermath. Returning to Flaubert and his anguish over his recalcitrant scenes has been so soothing. Such an angry young man, so determined to be famous. I have the feeling he'd write to Louise about the annoyance of his toothache but he'd still be laying down the tracks of description.


  1. Oh, may you heal.
    I know you can describe.

  2. This is marvelous. I'm going to send the link to my grad students -- and add you to my favorites. (You've been a favorite for years, of course ... now you're a virtual one as well.) More, more!

  3. Thank you for this--I need it for myself and have passed it on to my students. Looking forward to reading your blog!

  4. "This vivid inevitability takes deep thinking and a lot of work." So true that the best artists often make it look easy: unbidden, spontaneous. When we know that it's anything but.

    And I love the way you yoke Flaubert's psychic pain to your toothache pain. Did you ever read Eula Biss's"The Pain Scale?" I think she'd say that the two kinds of pain are of a piece, indistinguishable from one another.

  5. Beth, thank you.
    Christina and Angela, you are kind to pass it on. I am going to talk a lot more about Flaubert; he's a touchstone.
    Paul, I haven't read that essay, but I certainly know what you mean about that continuum. And the inevitability--we do know it's anything but, yet don't we forget over and over? Otherwise how could we lose ourselves in the dream? I always feel as though the whole story is just sitting on a branch slightly higher than I can jump today, but tomorrow...