Anticipating Madame Bovary

I’m participating in Nonsuch Book’s Madame Bovary ‘Group Read’ starting on 14 October. It’s been twenty years since I last read the novel, which I considered one of my favourites at the time. My sense of anticipation is fuelled by this first rate article about the new translation:

Perfect translation, in the common-sense fantasy of one-to-one correspondence, is of course impossible. Even the simplest message, moved from one language to another, inevitably gets warped: It loses its music, its cultural resonance, and the special pace at which it surrenders its information. This warpage is magnified, by a factor of roughly 10 million, in the case of Madame Bovary.

Mostly Bellow, Some Roth

Saul Bellow disappeared off the edge of my literary radar. Perhaps he caught the tailwind of my growing disenchantment with the novels of Philip Roth. Gabriel Josipovici’s brilliant essay on Saul Bellow, in his 1977 collection The Lessons of Modernism, has reinvigorated a neglected passion. This year sees the publication of a collection of Bellow’s letters and a third volume of The Library of America series. Both of which I look forward to reading.

The essay on Bellow recalls that unique tone of voice, that combines “the utmost formality with the utmost desperation.” He goes on to say:

Bellow has been described as a great realist; as a follower of Dreiser and the American urban naturalist tradition; as a great fantasist, especially in Henderson the Rain King; and as the last of the Yiddish storytellers. But these are ways of shrugging of the demands of that voice, of avoiding its implications by placing it safely in a literary or historical context. Bellow is too important a writer to have this done to him.

“Just as,” continues Josipovici, “according to Proust, all Dostoevsky’s novels could well be called Crime and Punishment and all Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, so all Bellow’s could be called Dangling Man.”

It is with Dangling Man I will start my Bellow immersion in the autumn. Inspired by Bibliographing’s Melville project, my intention is to read the fifteen novels, short stories, essay collection and Bellow’s memoir.

What I’ve termed my disenchantment with Philip Roth is, I hope, merely a phase. I can only endorse the suggestion of starting to read Roth with The Ghost Writer, an exceptional novel. The Library of America recently issued a sixth volume in the Roth series, and a new novel is due.

Wordsworth’s ‘A Night Piece’

I’m making slow progress, intentionally, through Gabriel Josipovoci’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?. It is so thrilling to read a book packed chock full of so much insight. Between scribbling notes and pausing to reread passages, it will be an enjoyable week’s reading.

In parallel I am reading Heinrich Von Kleist’s The Marquise of O- and Other Stories. In the Penguin Classics edition the first story, which I read in the garden drinking breakfast tea, is The Earthquake in Chile: the denouement is inevitable and yet so chilling. I’ve wanted to read The Marquise of O- for a long time. This edition includes Michael Kohlhaas, which Josipovici names, with Madame Bovary and The Devils as the greatest nineteenth century novels.

Back to Josipovici’s latest: in the current chapter he is juxtaposing one of my favourite poets with a similarly favoured painter Caspar David Friedrich. In doing so he cites one of my most cherished of Wordsworth’s shorter poems, A Night Piece:

The sky is overcast
With a continuous cloud of texture close,
Heavy and wan, all whitened by the Moon,
Which through that veil is indistinctly seen,
A dull, contracted circle, yielding light
So feebly spread, that not a shadow falls,
Chequering the ground – from rock, plant, tree, or tower.
At length a pleasant instantaneous gleam
Startles the pensive traveller while he treads
His lonesome path, with unobserving eye
Bent earthwards; he looks up – the clouds are split
Asunder, – and above his head he sees
The clear Moon, and the glory of the heavens.
There, in a black-blue vault she sails along,
Followed by multitudes of stars, that, small
And sharp, and bright, along the dark abyss
Drive as she drives: how fast they wheel away,
Yet vanish not! – the wind is in the tree,
But they are silent; – still they roll along
Immeasurably distant; and the vault,
Built round by those white clouds, enormous clouds,
Still deepens its unfathomable depth.
At length the Vision closes; and the mind,
Not undisturbed by the delight it feels,
Which slowly settles into peaceful calm,
Is left to muse upon the solemn scene.

The Mechanics of Lyrical Realism

James Wood is E. M. Forster’s heir. Take this analysis of the mechanics of lyrical realism, as practised since Flaubert and Balzac:

By grammar, I mean the rather lazy stock-in-trade of mainstream realist fiction: the cinematic sweep, followed by the selection of small, telling details (“It was a large room, filled almost entirely by rows of antique computers; there was an odd smell of aftershave and bacon”); the careful mixing of dynamic and habitual detail (“At one of the computers, a man was unhurriedly eating a spring roll; traffic noise pierced the thick, sealed windows; an ambulance yelped by”); the preference for the concrete over the abstract (“She was twenty-nine, but still went home every evening to her mom’s ground-floor apartment in Queens, which doubled by day as a yoga studio”); vivid brevity of character-sketching (“Bob wore a bright-yellow T-shirt that read ‘Got Beer?,’ and had a small mole on his upper lip”); plenty of homely “filler” (“She ordered a beer and a sandwich, sat down at the table, and opened her computer”); more or less orderly access to consciousness and memory (“He lay on the bed and thought with shame of everything that had happened that day”); lucid but allowably lyrical sentences (“From the window, he watched the streetlights flicker on, in amber hesitations”). And this does not even touch on the small change of fictional narrative: how strange it is, when you think about it, that thousands of novels are published every year, in which characters all have different names (whereas, in real life, doesn’t one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?), or in which characters quizzically “raise an eyebrow,” and angrily “knit their brows,” or just express themselves in quotation marks and single adverbs (“ ‘You know that’s not fair,’ he said, whiningly”). At this level of convention, there is a shorter distance than one would imagine between, say, “Harriet the Spy” and “Disgrace.”

A Losing Battle

It is difficult to admit to a flaw in Flaubert, any lapse in late Cézanne, or to say that Schoenberg had perhaps not found the right way, or that certain magisterial albeit monotonous and soporific works of our Modern Movement were a mistake, a mistake worse than dreadful – merely dreary. It is difficult because the enemy is still out there, growing stronger with every so-called advance in the media, in the scoop-up profit of its enterprise and the passivity of the experience it provides, growing more Philistine, more commercial, more hopelessly “pop” during every advertising break, through every sappy sitcom minute.

– William H. Gass, Finding a Form – Ezra Pound