“The particular power and readability of Madame Bovary, when it appeared in 1857, were its great and novel attractions, and these were achieved by a thousand technical devices contrived by a mature genius — economical profusion of detail, controlled style, constant shifting of scene, focus, and angle of view, dramatization of confrontations, and a host of others, from the most obvious to the amazingly subtle. Most of them have been used or attempted, or deliberately eschewed, by writers of novels ever since. It has often been said that with Madame Bovary, Flaubert ‘invented’ the modern novel.”
What an admirable job our boy Francis does of capturing some of the key elements of Gustave Flaubert’s elegant, transparent style! This comment comes from his Introduction to November, Flaubert’s little-known early novel. I happened upon it in my local library and, since Madame Bovary is among my favorite novels, I decided to check it out.
Gustave penned November when he was just twenty or so — and while he never disowned it, he was quick to point out its flaws later in his career. After reading it, I can see why. Its self-absorbed narrator is given to florid descriptions and relentless bouts of melancholy. The book also has no plot: the first half flows turgidly and the second half seems pasted onto it with gushy glue.
And yet, hidden like gems within the sometimes painful prose, are flashes of insight, beautifully turned phrases, and a glimpse into the yearning, discontented soul that will eventually find its way into Emma Bovary. It’s amazing to see that in this very early novel, Flaubert was already playing with some of the themes he would probe so artfully in his masterpiece, Madame Bovary.
Here’s something I’ve found can be very instructive: Reading the earliest novels, short stories or plays of an author whose gifts you truly admire. It’s incredible how much you can learn from doing this. First and foremost, you realize that early in their career they often wrote heavy handed prose and were lousy at plotting. But they kept writing and gained experience and hard-won skills. Second, you can often see the seeds of their style and the bare-boned mechanics of their emerging technique. And finally, you can admire and take inspiration from their persistence and grit. Somehow, they managed to survive their first forays into writing and go on to pen masterful, enduring stories. If they did it, then so can we. So let’s write on!