The Art of Writing
As an ardent lover of the written expression, I have always asked myself what differentiates a piece of literature from another piece of work. Is it the content? The style? The subconscious strategy of the writer?
After reading Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, I think I may be on the path to answering that question. It is debatable whether or not the requisite analysis of Flaubert’s every nuance affected my interpretation of his work (after all, we’re reading his book in school), but I still firmly stand behind the stance that the greatest authors are geniuses. And here’s why.
(Note: any characterizations of the book as mentioned below are of my own interpretation.)
Set against the backdrop of provincial French life, Madame Bovary is a story about a woman named Emma who is absolutely tired of her own reality. It is undoubtable that many writers have explored this theme of restlessness and personal adventure, but what differentiates Flaubert is his implicit criticism of the pettiness that surrounds small-town societies and the motive that rests behind it.
This is the first thing I admire about Flaubert and his works: we only have so many words in this world, and he decided to use a fair share to create a commentary of his own surroundings. They say the pen is mightier than the sword; it is thanks to writers that we are able to cogently describe our own settings, romanticize them, vilify them, and settle once and for all, artistically, linguistically, and viscerally, what it means to be part of a community. Thanks to writers, our realities cannot be conceived as ‘banal’ but rather as works of literature just waiting to be written.
What also particularly strikes me about Flaubert is his fastidious love of words. Whilst doing a little background research on the author, I discovered that he was the type of writer who spent hours in agony simply trying to find the best possible word in any given context. Unfortunately, I was unable to savour the full textures and tastes of Flaubert’s native French, but the translation in itself – done beautifully by Geoffrey Wall – stunned me with the vibrancy of its imagery. To achieve a character as dramatically charged as Emma Bovary is nothing short of a tough job; but when I read of her ‘summits of sentiment’ and the ‘blue immensity of her love’ – images that provoked scenes of the grandiose, infinite sort – Emma, in one instant, came alive.
But what convinces me most of Flaubert’s ingenuity is how he so artfully utilizes what we as readers often see as ‘marginal’ to create an experience. Throughout the novel, the narration undergoes subtle switches thanks to Flaubert’s expert use of discours indirect libre (free indirect speech). In each moment he lends a spotlight to a certain character, it is through their lens that we see Emma’s world. Yet, the narrator is still very much in charge of orchestrating the grand scheme of events. What is interesting about these nuances is their influence on how the reader views the characters: when Emma was given the spotlight, I always viewed Charles, her husband, with contempt; but by the end of the book (alas, I do not wish to spoil anything!) Charles evoked in me nothing but pity and – god forbid – even some semblance of liking. Such is the way Flaubert coaxes the reader to undergo a series of changes without explicitly making it happen, and Flaubert uses such a technique to also convey the sentiments that lie at the crux of the story.
This may be a short post, but after finishing the full extent of Madame Bovary I was too tempted to extol the geniuses of our greatest writers. I can only hope that one day, I too will be able to create something as wonderfully intricate as the tapestry of Gustave Flaubert.