Suspend Your Disbelief

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Present Everywhere, Visible Nowhere: Flaubert’s Eye for Detail

"What a bitch of a thing prose is!" Gustave Flaubert wrote in a letter to his lover Louise Colet in 1852. "It's never finished; there's always something to redo. Yet I think one can give it the consistency of verse. A good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous." In this essay, contributing editor Travis Holland meditates on Flaubert's influence and legacy in fiction.

240px-Gustave_Flaubert_youngA gentle rain was falling onto the river at Croisset. From the parlor, the voices of Liline and her governess, Isabel Hutton, could be heard softly reciting their English lesson. Are you going to Paris? No, this year we are going to Etretat. Are the summers beautiful in Etretat? Yes, they are very beautiful. And what might one see in Etretat? So many things. To old Narcisse, drowsing in a spindle-backed chair by the enormous kitchen window, a feather duster enfolded in his long arms, their voices sounded like the singing of some marvelous species of bird. The watery white afternoon light lay like glazing on the thick knuckles of the valet’s hands where they loosely clasped the blue feather duster, and on Narcisse’s wrinkled, papery eyelids, which trembled ever so slightly as he slipped closer toward sleep, or as close to sleep as his various duties allowed, even on a day as unsprung, as timeless, as this. High on its wall-mount behind him, on a tongue of thin black metal Narcisse had overheard M’sieu Gustave alternatively describe as resembling a butterfly’s coiled proboscis or a clockspring, the bell-pull was for the moment silent. Hours might pass without it ringing. M’sieu Gustave, upstairs in his study, would be hunched over the green desk now, goose quill in hand, enwreathed in clouds of blue pipe smoke and the strong sweet scent of hair tonic—lemon and vanilla. Every morning Narcisse loyally assisted in the generous application of this hair tonic, which M’sieu Gustave hoped against hope might miraculously restore his once lustrous but now fast-receding hair, and every afternoon, after the lightest of lunches with his mother and Uncle Parain and his beloved niece Liline, M’sieu Gustave would close the study door, fill his pipe with tobacco, dip quill into inkwell—a porcelain frog, which amused old Narcisse to no end—and write. On the table beside the window, bathed in rain-light, the golden Buddha smiled. Over the whole of the manor house then a deep quiet descended.

“What a bitch of a thing prose is!” Gustave Flaubert wrote in a letter to his lover Louise Colet in 1852. “It’s never finished; there’s always something to redo. Yet I think one can give it the consistency of verse. A good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.”1

For nearly a year, Flaubert—“M’sieu Gustave,” to his valet Narcisse, napping under that bell-pull in Croisset—had been hard at work on a novel that would, upon its serial publication in the autumn of 1856 in the journal La Revue de Paris, ignite a firestorm of moral indignation, eventually landing Flaubert (and editor Laurent-Pichat, along with the journal’s printer, Auguste Pillet) in a Paris courtroom, charged with endangering public morality. That novel, Madame Bovary(this essay refers to the Lydia Davis translation, Viking 2010), would become the first masterpiece of so-called “realist” fiction—a label Flaubert himself resisted—in which the author essentially disappears behind what Flaubert called a smooth wall of apparently impersonal prose.

Emma Bovary, the novel’s putative heroine—or anti-heroine, depending upon one’s sympathies—seduced as much by her own romantic illusions as she is by the callow, calculating Rodolphe Boulanger, strolls arm-in-arm with the reader to the very edge of the abyss, and then over that abyss. Without authorial judgment, without moralizing, in meticulously, beautifully turned prose, Flaubert vividly describes her fall.  “Novelists,” writes the critic James Wood, “should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him.” But in 1857, few were thanking Flaubert, least of all Ernest Pinard, the imperial prosecutor who sought to have Madame Bovary banned:

“Who in this book can condemn this woman?” Pinard argued, readily answering himself: “No one.” Admirable though the book was, at least in terms of Flaubert’s considerable artistic talent, Pinard pronounced the author’s apparent lack of morality “execrable,” declaring: “Monsieur Flaubert can embellish his paintings with all the resources of art but with none of its caution; there is in this work no gauze, no veils—it shows nature in the raw.”

And how exactly did Flaubert go about his dangerous art in Madame Bovary? What does “nature in the raw” even look like, as far as fiction is concerned? Take this passage, fairly early in the novel, in which Emma and her husband Charles are invited to a ball at the opulent château of the Marquis d’Andervilliers, in La Vaubyessard:

It was very lofty, paved with marble flagstones, and the sounds of footsteps and voices echoed through it as in a church. Opposite rose a straight staircase, and to the left a gallery that looked out on the garden led to the billiards room, from which one could hear, at the door, the caroming of the ivory balls. As she was passing through it on her way to the drawing room, Emma saw men with serious faces standing around the game, their chins resting on their high cravats, all of them decorated, smiling silently as they made their shots. Against the dark woodwork of the wainscoting, large gilded frames bore, along their lower edges, names written in black letters. She read: “Jean-Antoine d’Andervilliers d’Yverbonville, Comte de La Vaubyessard and Baron de La Fresnaye, killed at the Battle of Coutras, October 20, 1587.” And on another : “Jean-Antoine-Henry-Guy d’Andervilliers de La Vaubyessard, Admiral of France and Knight of the Order of Saint Michael, wounded in combat at La Hougue-Saint-Vaast, May 29, 1692, died at La Vaubyessard, January 23, 1693.” Then one could barely make out those that came after, because the light from the lamps, directed down onto the green cloth of the billiards table, left the room floating in shadow. Burnishing the horizontal canvases, it broke over them in fine crests, following the cracks in the varnish; and from all those great black squares bordered in gold there would emerge, here and there, some lighter part of the paint, a pale forehead, a pair of eyes looking at you, wigs uncoiling over the powdery shoulders of red coats, or the buckle of a garter high on a plump calf.

Here we have the subtlest of seductions, without gauze or veils. To Emma, through whose eyes we witness this scene, and into whom Flaubert has all but vanished, it is all so romantic, so beguiling. The lofty entrance hall, echoing like a church, and those serious, smiling, “decorated” men standing around the green-clothed billiards table, making their shots. And of course the decorated men hanging on the wall, the noble dead, burnished in their martial (and one suspects amorous) triumphs by the light from the lamps hanging over the billiards table. This is Flaubert at his soft-pedaled best, “present everywhere and visible nowhere,” as he famously put it in a letter in 1852, allowing each deliberately chosen detail to speak for itself, without comment. Where once these decorated men might have hacked at each other with swords, thus earning themselves some measure of glory (an attenuated, rather silly glory, we can almost hear Flaubert murmuring), now they can only knock little ivory balls around a billiards table. Later, as dawn approaches, with the music of the dance “still humming in her ears,” Emma stands looking up at the windows of the château, imagining the guests in their rooms. “She would have liked to know what their lives were like, to enter into them, to become part of them.” Windows, one soon finds, are a returning motif in Madame Bovary; and no wonder, since the novel is itself a window, clear as glass, into Emma Bovary’s soul.

It was this very idea of fiction as a crystal clear window that Pinard was railing against. By what moral compass was the reader to navigate the world illuminated by this novel and its “execrable” creator? Up until the publication of Madame Bovary, authors were more than happy to be that compass. But not Flaubert, apparently. Pinard was not only arguing against this one novel but against the extraordinary vanishing act Flaubert had performed. This is the spring Flaubert in no small way ushered in. This is his gift to us.


But had Flaubert really disappeared? How exactly can an author be both, as Flaubert himself put it, present everywhere and visible nowhere in fiction?

How Fiction WorksIn How Fiction Works, James Wood counters the occasionally heard criticism that realism, as form, is not really so realistic after all, contriving as it does to compose what is and always has been a rather messy world into a daisy-chain of scenes which invariably (one hopes) build, through conflict and rising action, to a moment of epiphany or change. “Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or life-sameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry.” In other words, the author hasn’t simply become a camera, mindlessly clicking on one image after another.  The author is still and always with us, quietly, deliberately pointing the way. It’s helpful to remember that Flaubert was wary of being labeled a realist, and rightfully so. Perhaps it is better to imagine him at Croisset, at the window of his second-floor study with its big white bearskin rug and green-clothed writing table and gilded Buddha, and yes, even that little porcelain frog inkwell, looking out past the tulip tree and yew hedges to the Seine. “I have sketched, botched, slogged, groped,” Flaubert had written with no small amount of frustration in 1852. “Oh, what a rascally thing style is. I don’t believe you have any idea what kind of book this one is. I’m trying to be as buttoned-up in it as I was unbuttoned in the others and to follow a geometrically straight line. No lyricism, no reflections, the personality of the author absent.” Absent but nonetheless present everywhere, like God and the Devil, in the details.

And this is precisely how Flaubert could be both present and nowhere at once in that billiards room with Emma Bovary—in the very details he’s given us. Again, these details aren’t merely photographic; they’re not a simple accretion of seemingly random props present only to fill a scene: footsteps and voices in a marble-flagged entrance hall, a billiards table, the light-burnished portraits fading into shadow. I’m talking about fiction at its best now, fiction which is artistically capable of keeping any number of plates spinning in the air. In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and in much of the finest literature that has followed, from Chekhov to Babel, Welty to Bellows to Munro, those details we encounter in scene are details the author has scrupulously and deliberately chosen (or instinctively, blessedly stumbled upon) that go beyond the mere surface of things. Yes, they paint a vivid scene, often beautifully, but look a little closer and you’ll discover that the solid ground you’re standing on is in fact ice. And under that ice, in the dim green light, another story is being told.

Take this marvelous passage from John Banville’s novel The Infinities, in which young Adam Godley is waiting for a train to deliver a somewhat unwelcomed guest:

He stands on the platform in the shade. Why is it, he wonders, that railway tracks always give off a smell of kitchen gas? He looks about. Nothing has changed here since he was a child, so far as he can see. The metal canopy overhead is painted yellow and edged with a wrought-iron filigree and must have been put up a century ago or more. The station is lovingly kept. There are pots of geraniums on the window-sills of the waiting room, the benches set at intervals along the platform are freshly varnished, and on the wall a stylised hand pointing the way to the lavatories is painted in bright-red lacquer with a shiny, thick black outline. But where is the station master, where is the cross-eyed porter with the black hoop thing that porters carry on their shoulders, who used to be a fixture of the place? The emptiness is eerie. He paces for a while, then sits down on one of the benches; the new varnish with the sun on it is hot and gummy to the touch. Beyond the tracks the grass is sere and ticks faintly in the heat. Beyond that again the broad reach of the river is a whitish-blue drift throwing off fish-scales of platinum light. The silence buzzes. Down on the track a ragged grey crow hops jerkily from sleeper to sleeper, looking for something, does not find it, gives a disgruntled croak and flaps away. The surge of heedless happiness that rose in him as he drove along the lanes has all subsided now. He has shattered the sunlit surface of the day, like a clumsy gardener putting his foot through a vegetable frame to the humid tangle of things beneath. He gets up from the bench and paces anew, more agitatedly this time.

Notice how quietly Banville introduces a note of unease into this sunlit idyll with that rotten-egg “smell of kitchen gas.” It’s a lovely detail, unexpected and strange, and delicately rich with menace. Immediately Adam looks around, as if knocked slightly off balance, and sees everything is as it should be, as it’s always been, “so far as he can see.” In other words, the visible surface of the morning is still intact. The old iron-edged roof, the pots of geraniums and varnished benches, that painted hand pointing to the bathrooms. But where is everyone? Unnerved, Adam paces, then sits on one of the sticky benches to wait. The dead grass “ticks in the heat”—another marvelous, sly tightening of the screw of disquiet, as is the ragged crow down on the tracks, “looking for something” it does not find. A shift has occurred, as surely as if a cloud had crossed over the sun. “The surge of heedless happiness that rose in him as he drove along the lanes has all subsided now. He has shattered the sunlight surface of the day…” and abruptly gets up to pace again, “more agitatedly this time.”

With its rigorous, poetic attention to rhythm and sound, it’s a passage one could well imagine James Joyce or even Flaubert writing, and yet Banville’s book was published in 2010. Call it what you will—realism or lifeness, or simply the artist quietly, attentively at work, whispering in our ear: we are there with Adam, waiting uneasily on that hot, sun-beaten platform, with the faint smell of kitchen gas in the shimmering air and the dry grass ticking beyond the tracks.

Another example of this attentiveness to telling detail is Pat Barker’s deeply affecting 1995 novel, The Ghost Road, in which we witness the death of the British poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed in the final months of the First World War while trying to cross a canal under machine gun fire. Here, only moments after the battle, we come upon the terrible scene:

On the edge of the canal the Manchesters lie, eyes still open, limbs not yet decently arranged, for the stretcher-bearers have departed with the last of the wounded, and the dead are left alone. The battle has withdrawn from them; the bridge they succeeded in building was destroyed by a single shell. Further down the canal another and more successful crossing is being attempted, but the cries and shouts come faintly here.

The sun has risen. The first shaft strikes the water and creeps toward them along the bank, discovering here the back of a hand, there the side of a neck, lending a rosy glow to skin from which the blood has fled, and then, finding nothing here that can respond to it, the shaft of light passes over them and begins to probe the distant fields.

It is a scene Barker renders with both pathos and restraint, with this image of the dead sprawled along the canal after the storm has passed, their “limbs not yet decently arranged.” These young men have quite literally been left behind, not only by the battle still raging in the distance but by time itself. Already, one senses, the world is moving on. The rising sun, creeping near, discovers them, just as we have discovered them. Briefly, in that rosy glow that rises on the hands and necks and faces of these young men who in death have suddenly ceased to be themselves and are now simply the scattered, anonymous dead—in this glow we see the last flickering echo of life. The shaft of sunlight lingers on them, just as our eye might for a moment linger over a black-and-white war photograph in a book, before turning to the next page. It is not only Wilfred Owen then who has been effaced here by this Flaubertian-smooth wall of apparently impersonal prose. Barker too has vanished, or at least faded, right before our eyes.


Within a year of Flaubert’s death in 1879, Croisset was gone. The white-walled villa where he had written Madame Bovary, which for decades had served Flaubert so well as an island of domestic tranquility and peace, was sold to a consortium of investors and promptly gutted to the rafters. In its place they erected an enormous red-brick distillery, to which barges regularly delivered loads of coal and grain, docking down by the water’s edge. Where once eel fisherman had cast their nets, now a huge factory pipe poured an endless stream of reeking white foamy runoff into the river, while tall brick stacks, lit by the ugly light of softly hissing gas lanterns, spewed smoke into the air round the clock. Gone was the garden with its flower beds and yew hedges and glorious tulip tree, where M’sieu Gustave, when he was not laboring away at his desk upstairs, was often seen by the neighborhood children lounging on sunny afternoons, contentedly smoking his pipe. Years later, one of those children, now grown to adulthood, remembered that time at Croisset:

For me, he was a being like no other, exotic and fantastic, a mysterious personality whom I regarded in a confusion of wonder and respect. I never believed he was Norman. He was Persian or Turkish, Chinese or Hindu, I couldn’t decide which, but for sure he came from some distant place and had a distinctive nature. The fabulous accoutrements made me think he might well be a prince… When my nanny wanted to treat me, she’d walk me past his front gate, where I’d gaze at him smoking his pipe, slouched in a large armchair. I’ll always remember with tender emotion his pink and white striped culottes and his house robes, the floral design of which were pure poetry.

In life and in fiction, detail is everything.


Bouvard et PecuchetFrom his study earlier, Flaubert had watched his greyhound Julio swim out to greet the boatman paddling past. A glittering golden-silver thread sketched itself on the brown river behind the dog as the slow current carried them along, and where the boatman’s oars dashed the water’s calm surface, the sunlight seemed to shatter like little glass globes. Standing there in his flowered Bokharan robe, a gift from his good friend Turgenev, with the mess of his great, unruly manuscript behind him on the green-clothed table—Bouvard et Pécuchet, on which he had labored now for three long years and saw no end to—Flaubert had felt the bones in his right hand throbbing, a deep smoldering ache that, along with the rheumatism in his knees and the pain in his swollen feet, rarely went away these days. Along with the pills Flaubert took for epilepsy and gout and his wretched, rotting teeth, his physician Fortin had prescribed a daily walk, but it was the garden with its weedy flower beds that had finally drawn him away from his writing this afternoon. Crouching painfully now, he pulled clump after clump of spiky dandelion. If only old Narcisse were here to help. But Narcisse, half blind with age, had returned to the bosom of his family years ago. Gone too was Flaubert’s mother, buried in Rouen, and Uncle Parain, and dear Liline, along with her English governess. A bumble bee, emerging from the soft purple throat of a lily, its black legs furred with pollen, lit for a second on the long sleeve of his robe, circled the bright red embroidered flower there, then buzzed away. Asleep on the warm flagstones, Julio’s paws twitched, a little ripple flowing up and down the muscles of his slender legs. The greyhound was dreaming, but of what? That boatman perhaps, his round red face, the oars creaking on the gunnels. What a little fool you are! Go back! Swim home before you drown! The long sun-emblazoned thread unfurling behind Julio as he swam toward shore. His beating heart.

EDITOR’S NOTE: All biographical information has been drawn from Frederick Brown’s “Flaubert: A Biography’ (Little Brown & Co., 2006). The translation of Madame Bovary is from Lydia Davis’ 2010 edition (Viking).

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