Prose is like Hair.

Jun 23, 2022

Julian Barnes has a piece in the new LRB called Flaubert at Two Hundred (archived); it’s a series of more or less random observations done with Barnes’s patented panache, and I’ll quote some bits that seem to belong at LH:


Flaubert is a writer who, more than most, can provoke obsessive devotion and obsessive behaviour. One of the more arcane items of Flaubertiana is Ambroise Perrin’s Madame Bovary dans l’ordre (2012). Perrin is a member of Oulipo, and his project is very Oulipian: it lists, in alphabetical order, every single word, number and punctuation mark that occurs in the 1873 Charpentier edition of the novel. And by ‘list’, I mean list: the book has six vertical columns to a page, and prints out the word each time it occurs. So the word et, which features 2812 times in the novel, is printed out 2812 times, occupying almost nine full pages. La occurs 3585 times, le 2366 and les 2276, elle 2129 and lui a meagre 806 – from which you might perhaps deduce the sexual slant of the novel. Or not. In the same way, you could look up the names of Emma Bovary’s two lovers, Rodolphe and Léon, and discover that Léon’s name occurs 140 times and Rodolphe’s a mere ten fewer.

It is all vaguely witty, yet mind-numbingly useless. For instance, it can tell us that the word ecchymoses (bruises) and the date 1835 each occur a single time in Madame Bovary, but it doesn’t tell us where they, or any other word, occur. For that you have to go to the Flaubert website run by the University of Rouen.

Misremembering (1)

In the years before digitisation, it could be a hazy business noticing and remembering how often a word occurs in a particular book. And the misremembering of books can be as radical as the misremembering of our own lives. For instance, I believed, for a number of years, that Flaubert had been tremendously cunning in his use – or rather non-use – of the word ‘adultery’ (adultère) in Madame Bovary. At first I was sure he hadn’t used it at all, later that the first appearance of the word was in a non-sexual sense: as in the adulteration of foodstuffs, or milk, or grain, or some other staple of mid 19th-century provincial life. Here, on p.296 of my Garnier edition, bought in 1967, my knowing annotation of the phrase ‘le souvenir de ses adultères et de ses calamités’ reads ‘not just of milk …’ My best defence of this false remembering is that I was rewriting the novel, increasing Flaubert’s brilliance, making the surface of the prose even more super-subtle. But the brute fact, as Ambroise Perrin’s word list makes clear, is that adultère occurs eight times in the singular, and three in the plural, very much in places where you would expect it to appear. There is nothing super-subtle in Flaubert’s usage; the word always occurs in a sexual context, and is never once used in a metaphorical or allusive sense, in reference to milk or any other foodstuff.


A Single Word …

changes everything. In Perrin’s lexicon there are 834 uses of the possessive article son, and 817 of du. In Part III, Chapter 6, Flaubert wrote one of the most desolate lines in the novel. Emma is coming to the end of her affair with Léon: ‘She was as disgusted by him as he was tired of her. Emma was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.’ This is harsh and terrifying news for both the adulterous and the loyally married – and the more so when discovered by one formed, as Emma has been, by romantic delusions. When Flaubert and the Revue de Paris were put on trial in 1857, the prosecutor, Ernest Pinard, leaped on this sentence: ‘The platitudes of marriage versus the poetry of adultery! On the one hand there is the soiling of marriage, on the other the platitudes, but also always the poetry of adultery. Such, gentlemen, are the situations which M. Flaubert loves to paint, and unfortunately he paints them only too well.’

So when it came to book publication later that year, Flaubert was persuaded to soften the phrase to ‘all the platitudes of her marriage’. Du becomes son, and the desolation is confined only to Emma. Proper married folk might console themselves that this Normandy adulteress is suffering remorse proper to a sinner: she can be doubly condemned as one bad at both marriage and adultery. The world can proceed as it always has, and the vice of adultery is safely contained. Revising the novel in 1862, Flaubert tried to restore the du, to the alarm of his friend Louis Bouilhet, who judged it imprudent: ‘You are attacking society in one of its fundamental structures.’ So the son was retained, as it was in the edition of 1869. But Flaubert was nothing if not stubborn, and in 1873 reverted to du, making Emma’s bleak condition universal once again.


A Novelist’s View of His Own Work

Novelists are famously unreliable when judging their own work. Critical reception has an effect on their judgment, as does simple perversity; and they may affect to love the most overlooked of their progeny. Thus Evelyn Waugh used to claim that his favourite novel was Helena. Though Salammbô was a greater financial and social success than Madame Bovary – it became a meme, and the inspiration for ballgowns – most knew that Flaubert’s first novel was his best, and always would be. At times he resented this, once expressing the view that he would like to buy up every copy of the book and burn them all.

A more phlegmatic response to the Famous First Book dilemma was that of Kingsley Amis, who in later years was asked if Lucky Jim hadn’t been a bit of an albatross around his neck. ‘It’s better than having no albatross at all,’ he replied.



Flaubert had a lordly view of the writer-publisher relationship. He believed that the publisher’s job was simply to pay, and to print. He was appalled by the idea that his publisher might actually read his manuscript; still worse was the impertinent notion that he might express an opinion about it. A condition of his sale of Salammbô was that its publisher, Michel Lévy, would not read the manuscript beforehand.

There was a different balance between writer and publisher at that time. There were no laws of copyright, and you sold your book outright for a single payment. In exceptional circumstances, if the book did extraordinarily well, the publisher might give you another chunk of money out of the goodness of his heart. In December 1856, Michel Lévy had bought Madame Bovary for 800 francs; ten years later Flaubert wrote that the publisher ‘suffered so much remorse that without any demand on my part he gave me an extra 500 francs’. To put the figures in context, in 1862 Lévy paid 10,000 francs for Salammbô. So the remorseful gesture felt more like a lordly tip. And it was only right to be lordly in return.


Advice, literary

‘You don’t make art out of good intentions.’ […] ‘Prose is like hair: it shines with combing.’ […]

Anent that last bit of advice, Barnes adds:

At public events, I have many times quoted Flaubert’s line about prose being like hair, and it usually goes down well. However, a few years ago a woman in the audience pointed out that what makes hair shine is not combing, but brushing.

And this section particularly enraged me:


French literary life has always been more politicised than its British equivalent; and political memory runs longer there than here. When I first used to go to Paris on lit-biz, I was surprised to find that a writer would be characterised as much by politics as by quality. I would be asked about my favourite 20th-century French novelists and would sometimes mention François Mauriac. ‘But he was a Gaullist,’ would come the ritually disappointed reply; or sometimes, ‘But he was a Catholic.’ That he was, or might be, a great writer was made to seem secondary. Engagement was all; but engagement on the correct side of the correct party.

When I was first starting my lifetime’s reading of Flaubert, his reputation was probably at its lowest point since his death. Just as the new filmmakers of the 1960s were reacting against what they termed le cinéma de Papa, so the new novelists were reacting against le roman de Papa. And on top of this, there were the politics. Consider one of Sartre’s more monumentally fatuous statements, in Situations II (1948): ‘I hold Flaubert and Goncourt responsible for the repression which followed the Commune, because they did not write a line which might have prevented it.’ A piece of virtue-signalling eighty years after the event. Victor Hugo – vocal, visible and on the right side – was approved of; but not these two. The notion that anything the reactionary aesthete Edmond de Goncourt might have said could have caused anyone to think again about minimising post-Commune repression is fantastical. As for Flaubert, he never made a public political statement in his life. This was not how he viewed the writer’s task. Nor was he a reactionary like Goncourt; he described himself correctly as ‘an enraged liberal’. He also liked the idea of societies and civilisations coming to an end, because it meant ‘that something new was being born’. And his fundamental literary belief was this: ‘You cannot change humanity, you can only know it.’

Though it is not as simple, or as depressing, as this. By knowing humanity, and describing it with truth, you may change the way it sees itself.

I don’t think I could be civil to someone who said in my presence “But he was a Gaullist [or whatever].” I agree with Barnes’s take on it, and with the final sentence I quoted.

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