Sunday, March 29, 2009

Flaubert & Modern Realism

In my last posting, I showed you a remarkable analysis of some lines from Madame Bovary. It is the work of the great German philologist, Erich Auerbach, who goes on to characterize Flaubert's style--a style that he, Flaubert, invented precisely to serve the purposes of modern realism--in the following paragraph:

In Stendhal and Balzac we frequently and indeed almost constantly hear what the writer thinks of his characters and events; sometimes Balzac accompanies his narrative with a running commentary--emotional or ironic or ethical or historical or economic. We also frequently what the characters themselves think and feel, and often in such a manner that, in the passage concerned, the writer identifies himself with the character. Both these things are almost wholly absent from Flaubert’s work. His opinion of his characters and events remains unspoken; and when the characters express themselves it is never in such a manner that the writer identifies himself with their opinion, or seeks to make the reader identify himself with it. We hear the writer speak; but he expresses no opinion and makes no comment. His role is limited to selecting the events and translating them into language; and this is done in the conviction that every event, if one is able to express it purely and completely, interprets itself and the persons involved in it far better and more completely than any opinion or judgment appended to it could do. Upon this conviction--that is, upon a profound faith in the truth of language responsibly, candidly, and carefully employed--Flaubert’s artistic practice rests.

You can't write that way without imposing on yourself the strictest discipline. Flaubert showed the way, and some of the finest writers of the 20th century followed him: T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway, for instance.

In Preludes and The Wasteland, for instance, the poet disappears, becomes an invisible presence. Things, places, events seem to speak for themselves. That is an achievement of style.

1 comment:

  1. Eliot begin "The Wasteland" with the words "April is the cruellest month." He ends it with "Shantih shantih shantih." He ends "The Hollow Men" with the words "This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper." The lines are great, but the poet's presence, invisible or not, is very much a part of the poetry.