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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