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Archive for the ‘flaubert’ Category

what is realism, 1

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Lydia Davis in her foreword to the new collection of Lucia Berlin’s short stories:

A description can start out romantic – “the parroquia in Veracruz, palm trees, lanterns in the moonlight” – but the romanticism is cut, as in real life, by the realistic Flaubertian detail, so sharply observed by her: “dogs and cats among the dancers’ polished shoes.” A writer’s embrace of the world is all the more evident when she sees the ordinary along with the extraordinary, the commonplace or the ugly along with the beautiful.

Berlin’s animals seem to me to be more a matter of painterly than “Flaubertian” realism. Think of all the animals going about their animal-business at the feet of the humans involved in climactic events in Renaissance paintings.

Jean Gossart, active 1508; died 1532 The Adoration of the Kings 1510-15 Oil on oak, 179.8 × 163.2 cm Bought with a special grant and contributions from The Art Fund, Lord Glenconner, Lord Iveagh and Alfred de Rothschild, 1911 NG2790

But I do like Davis’s general notion as a starting place: realism is that which undercuts the romantic, the lyrical, the sensational. It’s the worry that you’ve left the kettle on during the climactic meeting, the crying child in the buggy during the hushed but pivotal marital conversation, the iPhone buzzing in the middle of fantastic sex.

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September 27, 2015 at 2:01 pm

Posted in flaubert, realism

peripheral omniscience 1: ballardian moments

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Two sentences from Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station:

In the distance airliners made their way to Barajas, lights flashing slowly on the wing, the contrails vaguely pink until it was completely dark. I imagined the passengers could see me, imagined I was a passenger that could see me looking up at myself looking down.

I think of moments such as these as “Ballardian moments.” Certainly Ballard wasn’t the first to turn at the crossroads of subjective reflexivity and locational relativity like this, but it is a move highly emblematic of his work. For instance, perhaps the best example, from Chapter 11 of Crash:

Waiting for Catherine to leave for her flying lesson, I drove my car towards the motorway, and within a few minutes had trapped myself in a traffic jam. The lines of stalled vehicles reached to the horizon, where they joined the clogged causeways of the motor routes to the west and south of London. As I edged forward, my own apartment house came into sight. Above the rails of the sitting-room balcony I could actually see Catherine moving about on some complex errand, making two or three telephone calls and scribbling away on a pad. In an unexpected way she seemed to be playing at being myself – already I knew that I would be back in the apartment the moment she left, taking up my convalescent position on that exposed balcony. For the first time I realized that sitting there, halfway up that empty apartment face, I had been visible to tens of thousands of waiting motorists, many of whom must have speculated about the identity of this bandaged figure. In their eyes I must have appeared like some kind of nightmarish totem, a domestic idiot suffering from the irreversible brain damage of a motorway accident and now put out each morning to view the scene of his own cerebral death.

We’ve already stood with Crash‘s narrator-protagonist on his balcony overlooking the motorways approaching Heathrow many times, and we’ve overheard him speculating about all of the micro-narratives that are playing out, barely discernibly or only implicitly below. For instance, from Chapter 4.

I gazed down at this immense motion sculpture, whose traffic deck seemed almost higher than the balcony rail against which I leaned. I began to orientate myself again round its reassuring bulk, its familiar perspectives of speed, purpose and direction. The houses of our friends, the wine store where I bought our liquor, the small art-cinema where Catherine and I saw American avant-garde films and German sex-instruction movies, together realigned themselves around the palisades of the motorway. I realized that the human inhabitants of this technological landscape no longer provided its sharpest pointers, its keys to the borderzones of identity. The amiable saunter of Frances Waring, bored wife of my partner, through the turnstiles of the local supermarket, thedomestic wrangles of our well-to-do neighbours in our apartment house, all the hopes and fancies of this placid suburban enclave, drenched in a thousand infidelities, faltered before the solid reality of the motorway embankments, with their constant and unswerving geometry, and before the finite areas of the car-park aprons.

We have here – and at so many other places in Crash – an intimation, if a fleeting one, of another sort of novel – a novel whose action would be comprised of all of the micro-activity, the infra-events, that take place in a certain place at a certain time… in this case, the non-neighbourhood on the periphery of the airport run-up. This is interesting enough, but what’s even more interesting is when – in passages such as the one above from Chapter 11 or the sentences from Lerner’s novel – the micro-narratives of the denizens of the Westway or the passengers on the planes into Barajas are imagined in turn into micro-perspectives on the protagonist himself. From one, many; or, from many, one.

Tao Lin’s Taipei likewise has a similar preoccupation with such perspectival shifts, this time borrowed from the visual aesthetic of Google Maps and its gods-eye perspective. “He visualized the vibrating, squiggling, looping, arcing line representing the three-dimensional movement, plotted in a cubic grid, of the dot of himself, accounting for the different speed and direction of each vessel of which he was a passenger – taxi, Earth, solar system, Milky Way, etc.”

Of course, it’s always been possible to conceive of the novel in terms of movements on the map from on high. Franco Moretti’s work, for instance, has long embraced this aerial perpendicularity. But it goes back far further than that – as is visible, for instance, in Nabokov’s famous cartographical rendering of Ulysses. 


But it is something a bit different when the works themselves perform or at least hint at the possibility of arranging themselves in this way. Moments such as those above – with Ballard’s characteristically long before the technological media that has clearly been so suggestive to later writers – are intimations of the possibility of new configurations of the matrix of personality and perspective within novels that otherwise remain enfolded in relatively conventional models of narrative construction. But at the same time, these new configurations can also been seen as developments compatible with the foundational conceptions of modernist literary art. To slightly edit one of the touchstone statements from early in the development of modernist prose technique, in these moments we start to see literature lean towards a new maxim, though one not all that different from the old ones:

An author in his book must be like Google’s algorithms in their processors, or Instragram’s archives in the Cloud, present everywhere, and visible nowhere.



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May 8, 2014 at 11:11 am

notes on the novel, genre, woolwich

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What else does the novel, by the very nature of its elemental form, teach us than that there is some relation, or at least should be, between our internal subjective states and the world in which we move. Foreground / background. Protagonist / context. Romance / history. The family / the city. Wires run between the one to the other, from the outside in and back again. Almost every name of a novelistic subgenre or period movement (realism, naturalism, modernism, postmodernism, to name just a few of the recent ones) names a different mode of wiring. Shifts in genre represent new ideas about how to write the machine. How tangled or untangled it is, how many wires run hither and how many yon, what buttons there are to push to control the voltage and wattage of the link up, how much bandwidth in total is carried.


Has there ever been a “terrorist attack” as uncanny as the one that happened yesterday in Woolwich? And uncanny is the right word – utterly familiar (tropes of beheading, tropes of “bringing the fight back to the oppressor,” the visibility of violence) yet at the same time utterly not (the refusal of both escape or self-immolative martyrdom, the implicit invocation of the laws of war when it comes to “innocent bystanders,” the further refusal to “let the event speak for itself,” or be spoken for by leadership organisations far away and ex post facto, or through pre-recorded statements aired after the event,  and the immediate extinguishing of the fear of further attacks, at least by the same actors, as per Boston). With this one, we seem to slip from the genre called “terrorism” to something else: a gruesome morality play about the calculus of war, the algebra of carnage. Street theatre allegory that trades the fake blood for the real.

So was it the “genre shift” that explains the strange reactions of the bystanders who observed the attack and its aftermath? Women reportedly ran over, in the course of the attack itself, to attempt to help the dying or dead soldier, thinking that the three actors in this play were rehearsing an all-too-common everyday scene we call “a car accident.” Who was it, and why was it, that someone stayed to film a man whose arms were drenched in blood, who carried a knife and a cleaver in his left hand, while he delivered his final soliloquy? What to make of these recorded conversations between the killers and their audience?

Is there a better answer than that a genre had been disrupted or reinvented, and thus the rules that normal apply (murders try to escape, bystanders flee, etc) were unavailable for consultation?


Genre is also another name for myth. While it sometimes postures as science, it has far more in common with superstition. Throw salt over your shoulder, and lucky will occur. One character says something, the other, naturally, touches wood. We now, in our pharmacologically-lexiconed period, are far more likely to call superstitious practices the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. One has to check, and check again, that the water’s not running in the bathroom before one leaves the flat. Push hard three times on the front door to make sure it’s locked… or else another storyline will ensue, the one that has an evening return to a gaping door, the laptop gone, the bedroom drawers dumped. This is literally it – some sort of chemical depletion or superfluity occurs, some traumatic event takes place, and then an almost mystical belief in certain irrational storylines takes over. To disobey the mandates of genre is to open oneself to an unhappy ending.

Last night: this news-story. On television and especially on the web. Fraught conversations about the arithmetic of death. And then a phone call. Bad news of the sort that late night phone calls usually bring. The trope of the middle-aged son and the ailing parent. The novel teaches us to think of the one thing as related, if complex, to the other. At least metaphorically, or even just formally. What is happening out there of course is a prelude to what is about to happen right in here, in the space of the family home and especially the skulls (and bodies) of those that inhabit it.

Think of the script. The call in the night in the movie. The early middle-aged son who ignores the call momentarily, caught up as he is in an argument about the gruesome news on television. The politics of violence, the physics of the world system. The cigarette whose space allows a second thought, a second glance at the mobile phone. Ominous – we can imagine what will happen next. The film that will play out from its start in a graphic sequence of news images morphs into a dark family drama. How does one cope when the worst comes home to roost?


A fallacy (a word quite close to “myth” and “superstition”) that doesn’t have a name, one that is hardwired into the DNA of the novel as a form. I’ve tried to name it in things that I’ve written, in seminars that I’ve led. Sometimes it seems to have more to do with temporality. What happens after what, or at the same times as each other. We could call it presumptive fallacy. Retro-prospective fallacy. The fallacy of coincidence. Sometimes it’s simply about the structural mandate that the foreground be read in the light of the background and vice versa. Contextual fallacy? Flaubert, disrupter through over-fulfilment of so many genre mandates, so early in the game, was aware of the problem. Think of Frédéric waiting for Madame Arnoux while the revolution kicks off a few blocks away in L’Éducation sentimentale.  The New Critics liked to label fallacies on the part of the reader. I am more interested in the fallacies inherent in artistic forms themselves, even though obviously these can turn into the former and often do through the sort of training that novels provide. 


But of course, myths are also true in a very serious sense. I don’t simply mean that what we believe we are. What we think is the only thing there is. Although that may well be true. In this case, it is also useful to think of myth or superstition or even fallacy as a customary practice, a mode of operation, running orders against confusion. The world, as we know, lives out the demands of its many operative genres every single day. Perhaps now as much as ever. A myth is habitus, generated by practice, an operating manual written and re-written each time we act.

The novel makes us stupid in one sense, solipsistic, tends to make us look for our angle on things, what does this mean to us? What were the attackers yesterday, in both his words and deeds, and deeds both during and after the attack, trying to say to me? Or at least us? There is a counter-instinct, for those disciplined a certain way, to try to climb up the ladder of transcendent wisdom, to disavow the inwrought narcissism of our conditioned response. To gasp and yell when the news commentators reduce a global to a local question, an a serious question to a matter of insanity or unanchored spite. They might think what they want, but they have no right to act it out here. To force us into these stringent attempts to adjust the genre back to something we’re comfortable with. 

But the attempt to climb out of the fray of self-interest, however complex, however Wallace-ianly convoluted and self-reflexive, is of course a trope in yet another sort of story, another sort of myth, one that – we need to remind ourselves – has the deepest affinities with an imperial mindset, one that takes the world panoptically, one for whom impersonality is a transferable skill.

What retards political development – and really contemporary thought as a whole – more right now than an inability to come to terms with the relationship between the self, located wherever it might be, and the world-system as a whole? At least here where we are? What are we, sequestered in the posh uptowns and suburbs of the global system, meant to think or say when we are in the wrong jurisdiction? We know not to fall into the ethical mode, charity is of no use, but there may be an exitless cloverleaf, a highway cul de sac, ahead if

Despite all the complicities of the novel, these generic demands and the demands of its sub-genres, the promise remains that the bad faith strictures themselves make space for revelatory manipulation, clarifying detournage. They even, potentially, lead us toward the formulation of simpler questions, question more pressing in their semi-solipsistic simplicity. Like this one, that with the little revision, some shifts in seemingly inevitable consequence, the script I outlined above could be made to ask:

Who has to die in the prime of life, and who is afforded the luxury of death that comes at an actuarially appropriate stage? 

the tapeworm

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One of a series of stories that (if I follow) Lydia Davis wrote using language borrowed from Flaubert’s letters to his lover Louise Colet:

The Coachman and the Worm

A former servant of ours, a pathetic fellow, is now the driver of a hackney cab—you’ll probably remember how he married the daughter of that porter who was awarded a prestigious prize at the same time that his wife was being sentenced to penal servitude for theft, whereas he, the porter, was actually the thief. In any case, this unfortunate man Tolet, our former servant, has, or thinks he has, a tapeworm inside him. He talks about it as though it were a living person who communicates with him and tells him what it wants, and when Tolet is talking to you, the word he always refers to this creature inside him. Sometimes Tolet has a sudden urge and attributes it to the tapeworm: “He wants it,” he says—and right away Tolet obeys. Lately he wanted to eat some fresh white rolls; another time he had to have some white wine, but the next day he was outraged because he wasn’t given red.

The poor man has by now lowered himself, in his own eyes, to the same level as the tapeworm; they are equals waging a fierce battle for dominance. He said to my sister-in-law lately, “That creature has it in for me; it’s a battle of wills, you see; he’s forcing me to do what he likes. But I’ll have my revenge. Only one of us will be left alive.” Well, the man is the one who will be left alive, or, rather, not for long, because, in order to kill the worm and be rid of it, he recently swallowed a bottle of vitriol and is at this very moment dying. I wonder if you can see the true depths of this story.

What a strange thing it is—the human brain!

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May 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Posted in flaubert

revolution and repetition (Flaubertian crusty)

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A guy on the barricades during the first pages of the third section of Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale:

J’ai fait mon devoir partout, en 1830, en 32, en 34, en 39. Aujourdhui on se bat! Il faut que je me bat!”


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March 21, 2011 at 1:18 pm

what is difficult

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Flaubert to Colet, 28 June 1853:

it’s so easy to chatter on about the beautiful but to say in good style “close the door” or “he wanted to sleep” requires more genius than giving all the literature courses in the world.

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March 21, 2011 at 1:59 am

Posted in flaubert, simplicity

carte / territoire, italics / normal text

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Wonky, this, but spent an enjoyable bit of time this morning playing with this website which allows you to examine and compare various drafts and manuscripts of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary… Makes me feel I should start leaving the laptop home and write on paper instead.

The reason I looked the page above up was to check that Lydia Davis’s decision to put her translation of the words felicité, passion, and ivresse into quotation marks rather than italics, as is the convention with the words that Flaubert underlines in his manuscript, really is as strange as it seems. The novel is absolutely full of italicizations, which he used to pound on particularly cliché language…. And it’s a strange gesture on Flaubert’s part, given his infamous “impersonality” – the presumption would be that the idées reçues should stand up on their own, or at least invite readerly entanglement and complicity in their very “naturalness.”

Another way to think about it: the italics say to the reader these words are typed, even though they are thought. They are typed already and even still in the moment of the character’s thinking them. But then again, it would seem to me that just about every word in the novel is meant to say that, so you see the interesting conundrum here.

Relatedly, check this out: from Adrian Tahourdin’s review of Houllebecq’s La Carte et le Territoire in the TLS (not online):

The publication of a novel by Houellebecq is rarely free from controversy. On this occassion, while the book received high praise, the website accused the author of plagiarizing Wikipedia. He brushed off the accusations – “If these people really think that, they haven’t got the first notion of what literature is…. This is part of my method… muddling real documents and fiction. The resulting precision can be strangely compelling: as Jed waits at Charles de Gaulle airport for his flight to Shannon, we learn that “Le Sushi Warehouse de Roissy 2E proposait un choix exceptionnel d’eaux minérales norvégiennes. Jed se décida pour la Husqvarna, plutôt une eay du centre de la Norvège, qui pétillait avec discrétion.The prose is a pleasure to read (apart from the over-liberal use of italics) and there are some good jokes, but the book feels underpowered. (italics, erm, mine – Ads)

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November 13, 2010 at 1:00 pm


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Just in case you missed it:

Exciting stuff there on the lower right, no?

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October 26, 2010 at 9:39 am

Posted in flaubert, porn

planned obsolescence: lydia davis’s new translation of bovary

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The Times (the UK one) has put up a paywall, so you can’t read this article in its entirety unless you pay a pound or have a subscription, but this is from a feature piece on Lydia Davis from Saturday’s paper.

In late November Penguin Classics will publish Davis’s translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Why a new translation? There are many — Davis has counted more than 15. “I’ve found that the ones that are written with some flair and some life to them are not all that close to the original; the ones that are more faithful may be kind of clunky. So what I’m trying to do is what I think hasn’t been done, which is to create a well-written translation that’s also very close, very faithful to the French. The conventional wisdom is that we should bring to a translation what English has, and one of the things it has is these wonderful Anglo-Saxon words; but I tend to keep it more Latinate and closer to the French, and not draw on all those resources because I think they are very characteristic of English — but not of French.” It’s a remark of characteristic precision, and it’s clear she found the task, which took her three years, engaging. But then she says something that amazes me.

“I was asked to do the Flaubert,” she says, “and it was hard to say no to another great book — so-called,” she arches an eyebrow. “I didn’t actually like Madame Bovary.”

Really? I ask. Have you changed your mind? “Not really,” she says coolly. “I find what he does with the language really interesting; but I wouldn’t say that I warm to it as a book. I know a lot about his attitude too; he despised everybody in the book, and he despised their way of life and he had a horrible time writing it, because it wasn’t the kind of book he wanted to write. And I like a heroine who thinks and feels … well, I don’t find Emma Bovary admirable or likable — but Flaubert didn’t either.” She shrugs. “I do a lot of things that people don’t think a translator does. They think: ‘She loves Madame Bovary, she’s read it three times in French, she’s always wanted to translate it and she’s urging publishers to do another translation, and she’s done all this background reading . . .’ but none of that is true.”

This, my friends, is some upsetting bullshit. Now I like Lydia Davis’s work well enough (though I liked her more before I read the above paragraphs) and even prefer her translation of Proust to the Moncrieff. But the current Penguin edition of Madame BovaryGeoffrey Wall’s – is an absolute masterpiece. I have taught with it for years, and it’s absolutely astounding how little corrective work I need to do to bring even the most sophisticated issues from the original text to a class reading (close reading!) the thing in English. The fact that I was brought up on this edition as an undergraduate before I had good enough French to master the original is one of those small inflective miracles of academic life – as the very start of my life’s work as a critic owes itself to things that I found – and could only have found – in Wall’s translation of the novel. I simply can’t imagine what Davis is going to do – what she needs to do – to improve on it. And in light of this I can’t help but think – actually, I know – that this is simply one of those cynical retranslations bent on fucking up the used-text market. That is, hundreds of lecturers in the future will be forced to say to their classes “No, I want you to have the current Davis translation, not that old one you found used on Amazon or at Oxfam.”

I’m not even going to go into Davis’s whole “I hate Bovary” thing except to say that her words are suggestive of someone who has read the book, well, without the requisite amount of subtlety – say the amount requisite amount to pass muster in my MA seminars. But to each his or her own, I guess. Still, doesn’t give a lot of confidence regarding the quality of the forthcoming translation, does it? (Just a bit more snark. I remember buying Davis’s Samuel Johnson is Indignant when it came out with high expectations, reading bit of it, and then returning it to the store where I bought it under the claim that I’d bought it as a birthday present for someone who already had it. I’ve only done this sort of move two or three times – it takes a certain special antipathy to make me not simply consign it to the “maybe later this year” pile rather than actually asking for my money back…)

But just to let the people at Penguin know right now: Once I get a chance this summer I will a) walk into a Waterstones and b) purchase a new, unmarked copy of Wall’s Bovary and c) return to the department office and d) fire-up the fancy pdf-generating photocopier and then finally e) scan the entirety of Wall’s translation into a pdf which f) in future years I will distribute to my graduate seminars. I just basically can’t see teaching this novel without it, and I’m here claiming some sort of pedagogical mandate as a justification. If, nay when I do so, I will take up a collection at the end of the seminars and send the proceeds to Wall.

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August 1, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Posted in fiction, flaubert

bookkeepers in delirium!

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Gustave Flaubert to Madame Roger des Genettes, summer 1864:

In a little while I’ll be able to teach a course on socialism; at least I know all about its spirit and its meaning. I have just been swallowing Lamennais, Saint-Simon, and Fourier, and I am rereading Proudhon from beginning to end…. There is one fundamental thing they all have in common: the hatred of liberty, the hatred of the French Revolution and of philosophy. All those fellows belong to the Middle Ages; their minds are stuck in the past. And what pedants! What schoolmasters! Seminarians on a spree, bookkeepers in delirium!

Am reading right now, or trying to with limited resources, what Flaubert was reading. His an odd but interesting reaction to the line of thought in question. I’d put things differently, were I to write a paragraph about socialist work today, but not all that differently…

More to come… Have added 500 words per day on this to the 2000 words per day on that. Oh and by the way, for an interesting shiver, compare the image above of Fourier’s Phalanstère to an aerial view of the place where I am sitting right this minute. Would help if you could invert one or the other….

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July 7, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Posted in flaubert, socialism

repetition, repression, modernism

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The first story in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, “The Good Anna,” is a something like a translation of Flaubert’s “Un coeur simple” adjusted for the advent of the discipline of psychology. Instead of saying once “Elle avait eu, comme une autre, son histoire d’amour,” it says it again and again and again and again, establishing its version of the  phrase (“The widow Mrs. Lehntman was the romance in Anna’s life” and variations thereupon) as an index of psychological blockage rather than literary irony. In Flaubert’s case, it follows, the phrase registers low bovarisme – the pathetic or bathetic implication of life in literary models. In Stein’s case, the phrase registers tautological euphemism, when we keep saying the same thing for lack of ability to say the next thing, the true thing.

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February 7, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Posted in flaubert, stein

un perroquet in my pigeon hole

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This is a week for seriously, seriously getting some serious work done on the book. Seriously. But nice things keep happening today and you know when nice things happen you have to photograph them so that your blog-readers can participate vicariously in the niceness.

For instance.

BOOM! This wasn’t supposed to be out until 3 Septmember, but I took a quick stroll through W’stones on the way in and there it was, weirdly positioned way down at the bottom of the new arrivals section. Flipped through for references to the period that I’m most interested in, the period just before the start of what this one deals with (1972-1975) and couldn’t find any. I’m so over readerly joy, at this point of my life and work, but ever so rarely something like this comes along and I’m tempted to blow off the day’s work and plow through…

So I’m all set to work. Just a quick check of the pigeon hole (they laugh here when you say mailbox, I don’t know why, but I do know that the pigeon thing gets me confused sometimes and so I say things like cubby hole and then people laugh even harder…) and lo and behold another surprise!

BOOM! I’ve been waiting for someone to go to Rouen so that they could a) visit the Musee Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Medecine (ha!) and b) pick me up the postcard that can only be called Loulou Hits the Mirror Stage for so long now. (Loulou is a parrot featured, fucking amazingly I think you’ll agree, in Flaubert’s “Un coeur simple,” which you should read right now if you haven’t…) I had one from my visit in 1998 and stupidly put in on my office door at the last place. Some souvenir-hunting student came along when I was running my European Fiction course and stole my bird. Really depressing – there’s not all that much stuff in the world that I have a sentimental attachment to, but this was one. And so I noticed that Anglofille was heading to Normandy, and long story short, she hooked me up! And not only did she hook me up, but she got me the last damn one – the display model as it were! I can’t even imagine what sort of interlingual awkwardness that required – I assuredly would have bailed…

It’s a bit strange to think that likely I gestured at this one, the one that’s now sitting on my desk, in order to indicate which one I wanted back in 1998. You know, I could write a pomo sort of novel about this, one that makes a bit of a mystery of whether this parrot is the right parrot, that gradually discovers that there are more than 50 Loulou’s in Rouen, and I could call it something like Gustave’s Parrot or Flaubert’s Bird or….

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August 18, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Posted in distraction, flaubert

hell 8: david foster wallace in hell

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Via the Rumpus, Tim Martin on David Foster Wallace’s forthcoming posthumous novel:

There is also much unpublished work. For at least 10 years before his death, Wallace was working on a long novel that he called The Pale King. Set in a branch of the US Internal Revenue Service, it aimed to articulate the hard-won thesis of mindfulness that Wallace had come to after years of depression and treatment: “Bliss – a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.”

Wallace threw himself into the research. “He was taking accounting classes from 1998 onwards,” remembers Bonnie Nadell. “We found these syllabuses from accounting classes as well as books you can’t even imagine, books that if you were locked up and forced to read them you would die of boredom. You can’t imagine anyone writing a book about it that would be entertaining, but of course this is David, and it is wonderful.”

Michael Pietsch, who is piecing together the many drafts of The Pale King in collaboration with Nadell and Wallace’s widow, Karen Green, agrees. “The thrust of it,” he says, “is an attempt to look at the dark matter of tedium and boredom and repetition and familiarity that life is made of, and through that to find a path to joy and art and everything that matters. Wallace has set himself the task of making a moving and joyful book out of the matter of life that most writers veer away from as hard as they can. And what he left of it is heartbreakingly full and beautiful and deep. He was looking at how one survives.”

As I was saying before, there is a temporality that’s essential to the novel as a form and against which authors can only ever really tweak and vary. The sunniest it gets is purgatorial dullglow; generally, though, it reverts to the infernal on a low-setting. It is something to mark the historical progression of the form and its affectual expectations: we run from Emma Bovary’s (and her author’s) scandalous discovery that all of these heightened moments and blissful intervals advertised by novels were at the whim of repetitive, reiterative time’s erosive power all the way to this: a sense that after years and years of boredom one might, if one is lucky and DFW was not wrong or lying, find one’s way somehow to a narrow window of pleasure drip, measured in seconds, and grounded in nothing more tumultous than a sense that it is on-balance good to be alive.

Of course, this steady slide into bleakness – the reversal of the axes of happiness and the boredom that it costs – is driven in part by the internal logic of a form running its course, a sort of intrinsic tendency for the rate of profit from generic trope to fall as the genre is refined toward fulfilment. But it’s also hard not to take this intensification of the problem, as it runs from Flaubert to David Foster Wallace’s Flaubertianism, as a particularly bleak if also complex index of something that’s gone a bit wrong with the world and our collective and individual daydreams about it.

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August 14, 2009 at 11:11 am

“you all have the same terrifying and tedious depths”

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JPS getting Flaubert profoundly right in an interview in the New Left Review from 1969:

Yet one cannot say that Flaubert did not have, at the very height of his activity, a comprehension of the most obscure origins of his own history. He once wrote a remarkable sentence: ‘You are doubtless like myself, you all have the same terrifying and tedious depths’—les mêmes profondeurs terribles et ennuyeuses. What could be a better formula for the whole world of psychoanalysis, in which one makes terrifying discoveries, yet which always tediously come to the same thing? His awareness of these depths was not an intellectual one. He later wrote that he often had fulgurating intuitions, akin to a dazzling bolt of lightning in which one simultaneously sees nothing and sees everything. Each time they went out, he tried to retrace the paths revealed to him by this blinding light, stumbling and falling in the subsequent darkness.

Beautiful, this. We all know, have long heard, that the literary novel is bent (historically, commercially, formally) upon encouraging us toward the cultivation of a full technicolor self, a vivid autonomous owness that, of course, is infinitely susceptable to the comeons of international capitalism as it tries to clear its inventories of various consumer products of all stripes. So the literary novel is bad, bad, bad. We know.

But on the other hand, and really this is honestly the only thing that interests me about the form, but it’s a big enough thing as to make for a piechunk of lifeswork, just as soon as the literary novel self-constitutes as a genre, round about 1850, it starts this grand game of diving ever deeper in only to expose the ineluctable externality of what it finds in all the grey knotted stuff. Just per Sartre’s description.

Of course this process can end up as simply a more complex version of the same crisis of bourgeois interiority that it would seem to have set out to resist.  I am flat, I am a cardboard character, there is nothing unique about me, but perhaps, given the arrival of cash or literary work or a pretty woman who truly loves me, then, only then, might I escape the fatal trap of the déjà lu and the déjà veçu etc etc. The panic that comes of a glimpse of the whateverness of the self, the fact that the ownmost is just a particularly tight inflection point of the generalized Gerede that goes around is after all, a yawp that we are long familiar with and that we know leads nowhere. See, for instance, DeLillo’s White Noise or sure anythign by Ian McEwan. But facing up to this danger might also be a risk that one has to take if one would puncture the bubble or illuminate the potentialities of the one-day open city of the self.

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July 20, 2009 at 10:16 pm

flaubert vs. socialism

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A passage from one of Flaubert’s letters written during the composition of Madame Bovary, transcribed in Francis Steegmuller’s (quite wonderful, if a bit wacky) Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait:

I am turning toward a kind of aesthetic mysticism…. When there is no encouragement to be derived from one’s fellows, when the exterior world is disgusting, enervating, corruptive, and brutalizing, honest and sensitive people are forced to seek somewhere within themselves a more suitable place to live. If society continues on its present path I believe we shall see the return of such mystics as have existed in all the dark ages of the world. The soul, unable to overflow, will be concentrated in itself. The time is not far off when we shall see the return of world-sicknesses – beliefs in the Last Day, expectation of a Messiah, etc. But all this enthusiasm will be ignorant of its own nature, and, the age being what it is, can have no theological foundation: what will be its basis? Some will seek it in the flesh, others in the ancient religions, others in art; humanity, like the Jewish tribes in the desert, will adore all kinds of idols. We were born a little too early: in twenty-five years the points of intersection of these quests will provide superb subjects for masters. Then prose (prose especially, the youngest form) will be able to play a magnificent humanitarian symphony. Books like the Satyricon and the Golden Ass will be written once more, containing on the intellectual plane all the lush excesses which those books have on the sensual. That is what all the socialists in the world have not been willing to see, with their eternal materialistic preachings. They have denied pain, they have blasphemed three-quarters of modern poetry, the blood of Christ that quickens within us. If the feeling of human insufficiency, of the nothingness of life, were to perish (the logical consequence of their hypothesis), we should be more stupid than the birds… Perhaps beauty will become a feeling useless to humanity, and art something half-way between algebra and music.

Steegmuller doesn’t indicate (part of the wackiness of the book…), but I think this is from 1852 or so. Since part of the subtext (and, really, it will remain only subtext, samizdat) of my book is to transform Flaubert into the father of a (subtextually – my my I’m careful!) socialist literary modernism in a slightly roundabout but perhaps longrun fruitful way, passages like these are, um, problematic to say the least.

But despite Flaubert’s anti-humanism, that is to say real misanthropy (he’s not kidding with the stuff at the top of the quote), there’s a way that this passage from a letter self-deconstructs in the long run and in view of the novel that he was writing at the same time. No one is more preoccupied and convinced by the already present stupidity that comes of modernity than Flaubert. And the Satyricon and Golden Ass‘s intellectualization of sensual pleasure is just what he’s in the process of purging in his narrative work, work that is getting him over the hubristic collapse of Saint Antoine. And most importantly the algebraicifcation of art is something that other letters from the period suggest he believes that he himself is up to: “When literature achieves the accuracy of an exact science, that’s something!”

This isn’t the heart of my argument; this is only the dressing. The heart of the argument perhaps goes something like this: that modernism (and proto-modernism such as Flaubert’s) attempted to write (or even just think) a literature that wasn’t dependent upon the event, and that in attempting to write or to think such a thing, these modernists  (inadvertently, unconsciously, or not…) implicitly criticized the revolutionary event as itself a construct fully consummate with the temporality of life under capitalism. Even more complicated than how this happen is why this happened, and that is what I am tapping away, coffeehouse by coffeehouse, at now.

Ooooof. Poor W. Benjamin, caught in the messianically-inflected anxiety of influence trap vis a vis Flaubert. (Check the indicies… There’s the plagiarized passage from Lukács in “The Storyteller,” but look out for other references in the Collected Works. But do you really think he wasn’t worried about Flaubert, given his other interests?)

I may, in the course of everything else to do and under the influence of fast-typers, queue up a quick thing on Flaubert and socialism in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, you’ll none of you see that if I do. Fucking pseudoblog!

(Special to Pollian: did you see the bit about “half-way between algebra and music”? That’s not bad for you and your thing, eh? There’s a lot for you in Flaubert’s letters, I think. Was praising somewhat enviously your thing, btw, to a friend today….)

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June 23, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Posted in benjamin, flaubert