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)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “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 this passage looks more like the very effective literary projection of Flaubert’s social prejudices, with a lot of extra-credit vocabulary words as a bonus.”

    Could explain why Bourdieu happened to be French.

  2. So you are saying that he did not actually implement his literary program and succumb to his prejudices instead? Or do I misunderstand you?
    Being German and knowing that you also read (or at least used to read) German, I cannot quite accept what I (perhaps erroneously) take to be part of your claim here. Maybe I am wrong, but you seem to imply that the degree of translatability (or its inverse) is somehow correlated to an author’s relevance (or irrelevance). Well, I am pretty sure that I could translate Klaus Mann into English, but I would not dream of trying to translate Thomas. That doesn’t make Klaus a better writer than his father, though.

  3. I’m initially complaining that Flaubert’s excessive use of factual detail and specific vocabulary (which I also noticed in Sentimental Education and Bouvard and Pecuchet) made him harder to read, with the result that I didn’t read other French novels which are not like his. Secondarily, I think that that kind of detailed realism-naturalism is delusional and stupid, and that writers of that type trust their intuitions too much. Third, I think that Flaubert, like most of his contemporaries, was an intolerable snob.


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