Saturday, June 17, 2006

And in the NYTBR letters section

James Wood offers an interesting defense/clarification of his recent piece on Flaubert:

In their letters to the editor of the Book Review, James Walling (April 30) and Morris Dickstein (May 7) are right to enter their qualifications about my review of Frederick Brown's biography of Flaubert (April 16), but I think a demonstrable case can still be made for Flaubert as a founder of the modern novel - and, as I added in my review, of many kinds of modern narrative. Our indebtedness, whether we like it or not, extends to, among other things: the fetishizing of visual detail; the inverted relation between background and foreground detail (or habitual and dynamic detail); the sacralization of art; the privileging of the music of style over the recalcitrance of 'unmusical' subject matter (Flaubert's famous desire to write a book about nothing); the agonizing over aesthetic labor - all this looks pretty new, and different in many ways from Balzac's great achievements and solutions, not least because these new Flaubertian anxieties cannot be solutions. You might say that Flaubert founds realism and simultaneously destroys it, by making it so aesthetic: fiction is real and artificial at once. And I could have added two other elements of modernity: the refinement of 'free indirect style'; and the relative plotlessness of Flaubert's novels. All this is why different writers - realists, modernists and postmodernists - from Stephen Crane to Ian McEwan, from Kafka to Nabokov to Robbe-Grillet, all owe so much to Flaubert, and have been so keen to lay claim to different novels of his.

I don't at all disagree with Dickstein's caveat that Flaubert's obsession with form, rhythm and 'the sentence' inaugurates a potentially sterile aestheticism; I once wrote an essay, 'Half Against Flaubert,' in which I said exactly that. I also agree that there are wonderfully messy writers like Dreiser and Hardy who, by Flaubertian standards, are beyond the aesthetic pale, and shouldn't be. My claim for Flaubert's primacy wasn't evaluative but factual: personally, I'm of two minds, or two hearts, about Flaubert. Henry James's devoted recoil from Flaubert's aestheticism (the devotion of an aesthete, the recoil of a moralist) seems the right response.

(I will take the opportunity here to say that one thing I learned this year is that my next academic book is almost certainly going to be about realism and the particular detail, so I read this with particular interest: I've got kind of a thing for Flaubert, he's pretty high up on my reread list once I get done with this summer's work....)

1 comment:

  1. James Wood has some very interesting things to say about realism in particular, and all sorts of literary concerns in general, here in this interview:

    No matter what you think of Woods, his mind is always worth engaging with.

    (Link thanks to Maud Newton)