“Generally,” writes Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction, “a novelist retains his liberty to draw upon any of his resources as he chooses, now this one and now that, using drama where drama gives him all he needs, using pictorial description where the turn of the story demands it.” Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, from a craft perspective, is a study in how to expertly use these two methods and expertly shift between them.
It is more than that, of course. For one, it is a quiet, wry satire in which Flaubert pulls off commenting on characters who nonetheless have a certain dignity. He strikes this balance by making the blame for foolishness lie not on the character herself, but on her circumstances and surroundings. Emma doesn’t choose to build the lofty, sentimental, and romantic thoughts that will ultimately be her downfall, but the books she reads during her convent education are placed in her hands without any guidance as to how to balance the real and the ideal. The book is also a vividly painted portrait of provincial life—a picture so life-like that descriptions never feel laborious.
But back to craft: if you read my Eugenie Grandet posting, you know that I am actively trying to redress the imbalance of an education that stressed the dramatic over the pictorial when writing fiction. And while I read Grandet specifically to observe the picture-making technique, I read Bovary to observe how to move between the two modes. Bovary is as seamless and skillfully done as Lubbock promises it to be—high praise from Lubbock, considering the first part of his book is spent examining how War and Peace, though great in many ways, is actually heavily flawed. He contends that Tolstoy couldn’t have told you the subject of his book, and in fact, the two major subjects (passing generations vs. the national/historical movement of war and peace) end up harming one another in that neither gets fully developed. Flaubert, on the other hand, knew his subject precisely and, with en eye fixed on it at all time, was able to more expertly manipulate scene and panorama to achieve his desired effect.
As I begin writing my second novel, I am aware that my starting point is slightly different than it was for my first novel. The idea for my first novel came to me in a relatively complete way—by which I mean, the trajectory of the story was clear to me from the beginning; I just had to figure out what scenes needed to be there to tell that story. Now, of course, there were surprises along the way; I will never forget the day I stumbled upon the idea for what turned out to be a subplot of major importance. I had an immediate sense that my plot had just “thickened,” though I wasn’t sure at the time how that subplot would ultimately intersect the main plot. Still, the movement of the main plot—and it is a relatively classical movement of conflict, rising action, climax, and denoument—was in my mind from the get go.
My second novel came to me as a premise that fascinates me, but I’m not at all clear on that larger trajectory. Of course I’ve been thinking about it and taking notes and playing with it in my mind. But I still have a much stronger feeling of chasing after something significantly more unknown. I have faith it will work out, and if not in the first draft, then in the shaping of revision. But Lubbock’s contention that Flaubert knew his precise subject—and that this knowledge allowed him a more expert, artistic handling of his material—haunts me. I suppose the premise I have for novel 2 is it’s subject, and as long as I don’t lose sight of that initial concern from which the novel will arise, I should be in decent shape. But I can also see that without that sense of trajectory, I’m at increased risk for having my head turned as I write and ending up with fragments of various thematic concerns, as poor Tolstoy did in Lubbock’s estimation. I know many writers and writing teachers who would argue such a fixed idea is a dangerous starting point because it eliminates a sense of surprise and freshness as you move along. But I think—and probably they would agree—that in the murky waters of inspiration, it’s not really up to you what ideas come or how your mind moves through the novel-writing process. You just have to be thankful you have something to go on.
This reminds me of a fascinating New Yorker article from 2008, “The Eureka Hunt” by Jonah Lehrer, that explores the phenomenon of insight. I remembered (and, thanks to internet searches, could quickly locate knowing only the phrase “boarding a bus”) the example of Henri Poincare, whose flash of insight to Euclidian geometry came while he was stepping onto a bus. The article makes the point that insights notoriously come when the thinker is side-tracked: Newton sitting under a tree when the apple fell, Archimedes seeing his bathwater rise. In fact, trying to force an insight, according to the article, usually prevents them. Perhaps I flatter myself in claiming a similar sense of insight when these novel ideas come to me, but for both novels, I can pinpoint a moment when the idea seemed to come all at once. Craft, then, is the intentional part that follows an unintentional incipience. In other words, it’s the work. Lubbock might have titled his book The Hard Part.
So, what do I want you to take from this blog post? First of all, that Madame Bovary is a classic worthy of all the praise you’ve ever heard about it and therefore a must-read. It is not only a feat of craft—a book with the kind of brilliant, lyrical economy I’ve only encountered in one other book, The Great Gatsby—but an important portrayal of a theme relevant to us all: how do we balance the real and the ideal? It’s a theme I’ve had in mind for my second novel, and a theme I think naturally interests artists, who deal in the ideal and who must, like all of us, live in the real. And finally, I hope I’ve given you just a little insight into a novelist’s process so that when you do sit down to read Madame Bovary, you’ll have a fuller appreciation of Flaubert’s purpose—to portray the manner in which certain lives are lived (see Lubbock for more details)—and his masterful way of achieving it.