Flaubert was rubbish

I can’t resist this. If you’ve read more than one of these blogs, you’ll know that I often mention Flaubert. Well, I recently read Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale. It’s a fascinating read about adulterous goings-on (or maybe not) in Victorian England. I was reading it on my Kindle and seemed to be getting to the end but was a bit puzzled to see that the percentage showed that I was barely half way through it. (I wish they had a way of doing pages instead.) Anyway, the reason for this was that the second half of the book is a reproduction of the famous translation of Madame Bovary by Eleanor Aveling-Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl. The reason for including it was that Emma Bovary was also an adulterous Victorian wife. But then, so was Eleanor.

Anyway, I read a few passages of the text and the translation’s not great. This is no surprise because it’s very, very difficult to convey the complexity of Flaubert’s style. In fact, Eleanor herself wrote: ‘Certainly no critic can be more painfully aware than I am of the weaknesses, the failures, the shortcomings of my work’. But a passage very near the beginning reminded me of just how much more you get out of the text than the story. There’s all sorts of stuff going on.

When the book starts, for example, the narrator is a classmate of Charles Bovary. ‘We were in class, studying,’ writes Flaubert, ‘when the headmaster came in, followed by a “new fellow”’. That’s the opening sentence, the ‘new fellow’ is Bovary, so right away, there’s a challenge for the reader. The narrator’s also a character in the story. He then goes into minute detail of what Charles looked like, what he did, how his father and mother met, what their marriage was like, and yet, after a few pages of this, he writes ‘It would be impossible now for any of us to remember anything about him’.

What? After all that detail? And with a few hundred pages more to come about the intimacies of Emma’s life, with all her adventures, thoughts, dreams and shattered illusions? And all this from one of the boys in Charles’s class?

Clearly, Flaubert was a rubbish writer. He obviously hadn’t been to any creative writing classes and learned about narrative arcs, head-hopping and all those other essentials you need to understand in order to write. And yet he’d taken five years to write the book, walking up and down his ‘shoutery’ in the garden reading the words out loud to get the rhythms exactly right, and spending days agonising over punctuation and searching for ‘le mot juste’. He’s the guy who, later in the book, writes ‘human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars’ which, when you read it aloud in the original French, is itself like a piece of music.

No, he obviously knew what he was doing, so why did he make such obvious ‘mistakes’? He’s supposed to be a stylist par excellence so where does that linguistic clumsiness come from? Well, the passage near the beginning I mentioned helps to show what was going on. But this blog’s already long enough, so I’ll put that in another one..


  1. Ah, the times, they were very different from today.
    We of the sound bite generation(s), subject to ADD and other disorders conjured to excuse an unwillingness to pay attention for more than a microsecond, have no use for ‘detail’. Rather we opt for the ‘big picture’ and let the devil handle the rest.
    In days gone by, the family/genealogy mattered because it was the road map to a social structure content in its rigidity. To those capable of keeping track (aka gossips) such minutiae were the stuff of public and private discourse, chits to use and abuse when opportunity and self-aggrandizement dictated. Forgetting could be tolerated … not knowing was inexcusable.

    1. Changed days indeed, Diane. We’re lucky enough to benefit from both approaches – indulging ourselves in books and movies which give us pace, excitement, interest and the big picture but also, if we can find a space in the rushing about, the luxury of dwelling on something to appreciate textures, depths, nuances and the rest. Maybe the difference is that nowadays there’s no time to realise that each moment is potentially full of riches. On the other hand, there’s no time to notice that everything’s absurd, which is comforting.

  2. Ah oui, moi et Flobbert, that’s how we were, exactement (writes Coco). I did find le mot juste on the one occasion, but regrettablement, buried it dans le jardin, and now…

  3. Excerpts from Coco’s nouvelle, “Rue de Remarques” apart, it’s fascinating to get this kind of insight into a literature that might appear to be remote from our time and culture and yet turns out to be entirely relevant. More please.

  4. Ah, les fameuses ‘Remarques’ – Coco’s work has languished too long unnoticed in the Kinellar Shed.
    As for Flaubert’s relevance, I couldn’t agree more, Donnie. And what about the parallels between Stendhal’s Julien Sorel in ‘Scarlet and Black’ and Jesus, not to mention the resemblance between him and Camus’s Meursault? Hmmm, substance for blogs to come maybe.

  5. One of the joys of old(-ish) age is being able to return to books one read as a Callow Youth, and after a lifetime during which one turned into a Callow But Grumpy Vieux, commencer enfin les comprendre. Yes, parallels and relevance, what a cracking Kirton blog those topics would make.
    Another interesting subject might be the relevance of an author’s character to our appreciation of his or her work. Do we think less of GF because his sexual mores were, by today’s standards, somewhat peculiar? Well of course, he was French… Yet it’s true I can’t look at anything by Eric Gill without remembering his reprehensible and catastrophic involvement with his daughters, and Wagner’s racism gives me the creeps even though his music is sublime (mostly, interjects Coco). Supposing Jimmy Savile had been a wonderful artist in some medium or other, maybe it would take a century or so before we could separate the author from the work?

  6. Yes, this is the classic argument about separating the artist from his work. It seems to go in phases. When I was a student (yes, printing had been invented then), there was a series on French literature called ‘L’Homme et l’Oeuvre’ which, if I remember correctly, tried to link the two closely together, showing how each impacted on the other. Another series was called ‘XXXX par lui-même’, which used the works to establish the writer’s character. My own PhD sort of took that line, too, but nowadays I much prefer to look at the text and its mechanics. If that then reflects somehow on who the writer was/is, so much the better.

  7. I see what you mean about the translation. However, I took a rapid scan through a few pages in semi-English followed by a read of the same section in the French edition, and, testimony to the excellence of French teaching when I were a lad, I can make out a fair bit. Quite exciting. (Coco says he’s Flaubert-gasted)

  8. Jadzoox inquit XoXo me bin-rubbish try-on scribble tricky-stuff so long Joe, strength as good not Wen-Mei bovver. No Wadda-Mein, Bill?

    1. (Pssst, Coco. Check the label on that medication DrDx is feeding you. I think the stirrings of literary/linguistic envy may be affecting his judgement.)

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