This week I shall make three posts on the art of prose fiction; Gustave Flaubert seems to have been the first to develop an explicit theory of how to create this kind of art. Pierre-Marc de Biasi (2002) describes how Flaubert proposed that style cannot be separated from content, that it is a way of seeing things, and that a line of prose should be like a line of verse, incapable of being paraphrased. In 1850, Flaubert began work on his masterpiece Madame Bovary, which took him five years to write. He thought the genre of the novel had only just been born, and was awaiting its Homer, perhaps himself.
For Flaubert, the style of this new form:
… would be as rhythmical as verse, as precise as the language of science, and with the undulations, the humming of a cello, the plumes of fire, a style that would enter your mind like a rapier thrust, and on which finally your thoughts would slide as if over a smooth surface …” (Tony Williams, 2004, p. 167).Flaubert problematized meaning, so that readers were encouraged to think, and he emphasized the need for the writer to remain impersonal: one should not write oneself. He thought his notes and drafts would show “the complicated machinery [he used] to make a sentence” (Williams, p. 166). De Biasi explains that the machinery consisted of five phases.
• First, came what Flaubert called the “old plan,” which would change as the project developed. In this stage, Flaubert would daydream around his subject, imagine his characters and their psychology, imagine key scenes, choose locations, and perhaps do some research such as reading, visiting places, interviewing. He continued until he could see the story in his mind’s eye.
• Second, Flaubert wrote what he called scenarios, which contained main lines of the narrative but in a very unfinished fashion, with semi-formed phrases, and with names and places signified by x, y, z. In this way he explored vast territories and created, as it were, a set of signposts.
• Flaubert’s third stage was to write expanded drafts. Sentences and paragraphs started to take shape as he explored many possibilities of the narrative. The pages of these drafts were thick with corrections and insertions between the lines and in the margins. At this stage he might do more location work, less to check for accuracy than to see scenes through the eyes of each of his characters.
• In the fourth stage, the labor of style began. In a series of drafts, elimination occurred: a page might be reduced to a phrase, and large parts of the expansive drafts were deleted. At this stage also, the text was subjected to the test of reading aloud. Further drafting occurred until everything fitted together, like a musical score, to be heard by an imagined reader.
• Fifth, a final draft was produced, with no further corrections.
Flaubert described how he thought the artist recapitulates human history during the phases of creation:
At first, confusion, a general view, aspirations, bedazzlement, everything is mixed up (the barbarian epoch); then analysis, doubt, method, the arrangement of the parts, the scientific era—finally he returns to the initial synthesis executed more broadly (Williams, p. 167).(This passage is taken from Oatley and Djikic, 2008; about which we will write a research bulletin at a later date.)
Pierre-Marc de Biasi (2002). Flaubert: The labor of writing. In A.-M. Christin (Ed.), A history of writing (pp. 340-341). Paris: Flammarion.
Gustave Flaubert (1857). Madame Bovary (with an introduction by Mary McCarthy, M. Marmur, Trans.). New York: New American Library (current edition 1964).
Keith Oatley & Maja Djikic (2008). Writing as thinking. Review of General Psychology, 12, 9-27.
Tony Williams (2004). The writing process: scenarios, sketches and rough drafts. In T. Unwin (Ed.), The Cambridge companion to Flaubert (pp. 165-179). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Today I read and greatly enjoyed your little piece on the Five Stages of Flaubertian composition. The fourth stage, if I recollect, is the one where the prose is tested by reading aloud. Flaubert talks about putting the text to the test of his "gueuloir"; and I recall being somewhat humiliated, when we learned about this in high school, when I discovered that his "gueuloir" was simply his mouth, and not, as I had imagined, a long echoing gallery in a large house in which he would shout ("gueuler") each sentence.
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