Another reason for me to dislike Flaubert

I read French pretty well, but for a long time I only read nonfiction, poetry, scholarly writing, and occasional internet posts, never fiction. In my experience fiction was slow going because it required too much vocabulary and too much time with the dictionary.

Then I ordered the Goncourt’s Germinie Lacerteux on the internet, forgetting that the the title of the translation is the same as the title of the original French version, and the French version was what I got.  I went ahead and started to read it, and it wasn’t bad at all. So where’d I get the idea that I couldn’t read French well enough to read novels?

Madame Bovary, that’s where. Decades ago I decided to take a shot at French fiction by reading what in those days was regarded as the best French novel of all time.  But on approximately page two of the book you get this paragraph:

C’était une de ces coiffures d’ordre composite, où l’on retrouve les éléments du bonnet à poil, du chapska, du chapeau rond, de la casquette de loutre et du bonnet de coton, une de ces pauvres choses, enfin, dont la laideur muette a des profondeurs d’expression comme le visage d’un imbécile. Ovoïde et renflée de baleines, elle commençait par trois boudins circulaires; puis s’alternaient, séparés par une bande rouge, des losanges de velours et de poils de lapin; venait ensuite une façon de sac qui se terminait par un polygone cartonné, couvert d’une broderie en soutache compliquée, et d’où pendait, au bout d’un long cordon trop mince, un petit croisillon de fils d’or, en manière de gland. Elle était neuve; la visière brillait.

In order to read a single goddamn paragraph about Charles Bovary’s goddamn hat I had to look up “casquette”,  “bonnet à poil”,  “chapska”, “chapeau rond”, “casquette de loutre”,  “bonnet de coton”, “boudins circulaires”, “polygone cartonné”, “broderie en soutache”, “croisillon”, and “gland”,  and half the English definitions were useless. “Otter hat”? “Polish hat?” — I still couldn’t visualize the stupid thing. But for Flaubert, it was “une de ces pauvres choses, enfin, dont la laideur muette a des profondeurs d’expression comme le visage d’un imbécile”. The hat pretty much clinched the case against poor Charles, who was now doomed for all eternity.

In the meantime I’ve studied Chinese, Anglo-Saxon, Portuguese, Mongol, and what not, but I’ve skipped the French fiction. Maybe it was just as well. All those guys — Realists, Naturalists, Parnassians, Decadents, the whole boatload — devoutly believed that the accumulation of visual detail, plus mysterious intuition, gives direct  access to deep reality. That was what Charles’ hat was all about. But to me it just  looks like the effective literary projection of Flaubert’s social prejudices (with a lot of extra-credit vocabulary words thrown in as a bonus).

Published in: on July 31, 2012 at 8:53 pm  Comments (3)  

How come no one ever mentions the meconium of liberating violence, or the lochia?

“And, for me, the lesson of Iraq is quite simple: You can’t go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes — a war of all against all — unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America. ” — Tom Friedman

“There is only one means to shorten, simplify and concentrate the murderous death throes of the old society and the bloody birth pangs of the new, only one means – revolutionary terrorism”. — Karl Marx

Published in: on July 27, 2012 at 9:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

To encourage the authors

“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” — Samuel Johnson

Dans ce pay-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres — Voltaire

People are always saying that the arts don’t do well under censorship, but actually art and literature flourished under the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs and under the Czars. That was even true under Russian Communism — I have friends who read Russian and they’re always discovering great new Russian authors.

By contrast, under conditions of freedom most American literature is crap. The obvious solution would be to kill an American author every once in awhile. I have a few names in mind.

Just to answer the inevitable questions: No, I don’t know anything about contemporary American literature. I don’t read it. Why should I? It’s all crap. And don’t get any weird ideas. We should be thinking of well-known authors handled by reputable publishers, not self-published unknowns like me.

Published in: on July 6, 2012 at 6:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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