Industrial Worker Book Reveiw: 8 Hours to Work, 8 Hours to Sleep, 8 Hours to Read

We Are Nothing Beneath Flaubert: Madame Bovary and the Art of Description

William Hastings, editor, The Industrial Worker Book Review

Works Cited:
     Flaubert, Gustave.Madame Bovary.  Translated by Mildred Marmur. Penguin Books. New York, New York; 1964.
     Cavafy, C.P. The Complete Poems of Cavafy.  Translated by Rae Dalven. Harcourt. New York, New York; 1989.      

I was twenty-two. I was going to write. It was as simple as that. I had decided and so it was going to be. Along with two friends, I packed my bags, left my hometown behind and drove across the country to Boulder to begin a new life.

I was going to write.

Or rather, as hubris would have said: I was going to make it as a writer more quickly than any one else who had made the attempt.

What I found out rather harshly in those beer-sodden and poverty stricken Colorado days was that writing, real writing as I felt it, took far more than expounding one's self on the page, even if that self was veiled in fiction. In the hours that I spent sitting unemployed and starving in parks, parking lots, mountaintops and nighttime streets, I began to see and read fiction for the first time in my life in terms of craft. How it is that they did that. I had read widely before that, but never with an ear tuned to the cadences of sentences, the structure of plot, the fine beauty that happens when the right combination makes your guts smile. It was a lesson that I learned from Nelson Algren. He taught me to slow my reading down. He taught me what lay beneath a line. And so as I read and as I wrote I began to see what my writing lacked. It dawned on me early on that part of that lacking was in description. In order to help train my eye and ear to link images to phrases, or images to metaphor as poetry was teaching me, I began attempting to describe in my mind everything that I saw. A sunset or a park bench. The deep creases of a homeless man's cheeks like so many ravines, like permanent loss. The gold-yellow fluttering of aspen leaves as they spun loose cylinder patterns on a fall breeze. The best teacher of them all though, were those sunsets. Climbing Flagstaff Mountain to sit on a rock outcropping, I would keep my mind focused on attempting to write the sunset, to actually write what I saw so that others could see it. That's still one of the best and toughest writing exercises I know of.

My time in the outdoors as a child and teenager were paying off. It had taught me to see. Now, I was learning how to craft what I saw.

I wish I had read Flaubert then.

Gustave Flaubert's use of description in "Madame Bovary" goes beyond scene setting or as a delivery vehicle for characterization. Flaubert's use of description is no less than the novel itself; an exacting technique used to render the world in the finest actuality. His descriptive technique is much like the sculptor's art, where what one removes is what is important, so that when the final fleck of granite is chipped away from the work, the clear and smooth form is viewed as a whole.

Take for example Flaubert's surgical opening of Leon's boredom with Emma: "Now he was bored when Emma would suddenly sob on his chest; and his heart, like people who can stand only a certain amount of music, languished with indifference amid the stridency of love whose subtleties left him cold" (272). A lesser writer would simply have left it at the opening of this sentence: Leon was bored when Emma cried on his chest. It would not be a bad statement and in a way, leaving the sentence as such, would still move the narrative on. Other writers would handle this idea through dialogue or perhaps a scene that involves silent gaps between the lovers, crushed cigars and empty chairs. Flaubert however, accomplishes what a scene and dialogue could do in a single sentence. He does this by extending his description of the boredom within Leon's heart to metaphor, then past metaphor to a precise leveling of the effect of that metaphor on Leon. Looking at modern literature this is a technique used often. Nabokov, Algren and Tayeb Saleh come to mind, but it would be fair to argue that their ability to do so stems directly from Flaubert. What is remarkable about Flaubert's sentence is the sheer precision of the words. He looks at people, but more importantly, "people who can only stand a certain amount of music" and then extends the image to a single word-- "indifference."  The people are now isolated within themselves as others attempt to speak to them. Thus, it is not simple indifference, it is the indifference "amid the stridency of love."  Music, an act of creation, is love. Just like the love that Madame Bovary is attempting to create, that Leon is falsifying and casting off, and so the sentence operates on multiple levels. It signifies Leon's state as well as Emma's, but extends that state further to those of us who cannot feel music as it is played to us. In a larger sense this sentence would then serve to move the narrative along. It gives us Leon's feelings to Emma, while portraying Emma's frail state. By excavating Leon's now shifting heart, the reader is given a clue as to where the relationship is headed. Flaubert in a single sentence has been the seismograph of two human hearts, illuminated the nature of certain types of humans, made commentary on the nature of the creative act as well as love and forwarded the plot.

That level of precision in description is used repeatedly throughout the novel for similar effects. Yes, Flaubert hated repetition and pursued his craft doggedly to avoid any sense of it. But his technique, while being extremely precise, allows much room to do multiple things on a host of levels without ever seeming like he is repeating either himself or convention. Again, what is important is how he used description. And he used it not only to set scene and character but to actually be the story itself, to be the plot. Emma sits in her room, surrounded with Parisian magazines, and daydreams the fantasies that will ultimately destroy her. Flaubert writes that "in the private rooms of restaurants where you dine after midnight, the motley crowd of men of letters and actresses laughed in candlelight. That world was prodigal as kings, full of ideals, ambitions, and fantastic dreams. It was an existence above the others, between heaven and earth, in the midst of the elements, something sublime. As for the rest of the world it was lost, shadowy, and ill-defined, as if it did not exist" (75-76). This is ultimately Emma's daydream, a fantastic daydream that will kill her. She attempts to reach for the sublime to avoid the shadow. She fails to realize however, what Cavafy warned when he wrote that "as you have destroyed your life here / in this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world" (27). Flaubert's language is heightened to match Emma's dream-pitch of the world beyond her reach. He does not use the short sentences he does elsewhere in the novel to make the image concrete and hard. Instead, he lets the cadence of the line carry the succession of images and sounds along to the period, as if he were lulling you into a dream state in the way Emma lulled herself. The period serves to break the dream. Then, the final sentence serves to illuminate the hard and dull aspects of Emma's fear. The world she runs from takes up a short, clipped sentence. Her dream world rolls on, to continue into other worlds. It is ultimately Emma's failure in not stopping at the period and looking at the hard and dull world around her with anything other than daydream eyes that kills her. And it is Flaubert's precision in detailing the world to which she aspires in the clearest words possible that serves to act as both foreshadowing and plot delivery. What is interesting here are the words Flaubert uses: "ideals," "ambitions," "dreams," and "heaven."  The words are at once both concrete, they represent exactly what that world holds in her mind, and extremely vague. What are ideals, dreams, ambitions and heaven after all?  It is that level of amorphousness that kills Emma, since she herself cannot define those terms for herself outside of anything but vague sentiment. While Flaubert describes the workaday world as "shadowy" and "ill-defined" it is actually that world that is clearest to the reader and to Emma. She can fear it. It is her fear after all, that is the sharpest guiding principle to Emma. We know what she does not want and we see how she flees from it at every possible chance.  

It would be easy for a writer to attempt this level of description by simply writing longer sentences, attempting to pack as much into each line as possible. Obviously this would leave the reader with nothing. What is remarkable about Flaubert's technique is that he can achieve the same level of precision in shorter sentences and in dialogue. Take for example the scene in which Emma has learned of Rodolphe's desertion and then has to eat Rodolphe's apricot gift with Charles. The entire scene is written with short sentences and is carried mostly through a dialogue exchange between Emma and Charles. Yet, you are left feeling laughter, horror, revulsion and sorrow simultaneously because of Flaubert's control of delivery. By the end of the scene, when Flaubert writes that "he was spitting the apricot pits into his hand and then placing them on his plate" (202), you cannot help but see Emma's failure as open and raw as an exposed apricot pit on a bare white palm. What a writer learns from reading "Madame Bovary" is that it is not necessarily the length of the sentence that guides the best description, but rather it is how carefully description needs to be used to take writing toward the arena of total effect. Description isn't listing things a character sees or cataloging how a seashore looks.

When I woke up in my Boulder apartment the first thing I saw was a sign I had taped onto the ceiling. It read: You could die tomorrow. It told me to not waste time, to write like a fiend today. What I knew in a way then, is what I have clarified in my mind now, after having finished "Madame Bovary": that writing, at its core, is simply one human being attempting to communicate with another through the use of imperfect idea cages: words. But it is how well we use those words, how well we can line them up to sing and describe actually what it is that we see, that separates one writer from another. And it is Flaubert, ravenously seeking le mot juste, that provides the rest of us the watermark we need to reach for. And then move beyond.   

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