Wednesday 18 February 2009

The Art of Prose Fiction II: Flaubert & de Maupassant

In the February 26 issue of the New York Review of Books there is a review by Graham Robb of Guy de Maupassant's Afloat, translated and with an introduction by Douglas Parmée. In his review, Robb extends Parmée's introduction. A matter to which both Robb and Parmée draw attention—fascinating for the psychology of fiction—is the relationship between the young Guy de Maupassant, who became arguably the greatest writer of short stories in French, and Gustave Flaubert, who formulated the principles of writing prose fiction (see Monday's post, below). For seven years de Maupassant sent Flaubert everything he wrote. On the Sunday after each manuscript had been sent they would discuss it over lunch.

One piece of Flaubert's advice was recorded by de Maupassant in the preface to his novel, Pierre et Jean. Here it is (from Parlée's introduction to Afloat, p. xvi):
When you pass a grocer sitting in front of his door, a concierge smoking his pipe, or a cab rank, show me that grocer, that concierge, their attitude, their physical appearance and by the skill of the picture you draw of them, their whole moral nature as well and do this in such a way that I cannot confuse them with any other grocer or concierge; and with a single word show me how one cab horse is different from the fifty others ahead or behind it.
Flaubert stressed the importance of originality. "If you have any originality," Flaubert said, "you must first dig it out. If you don't have any you must get some." So Flaubert set de Maupassant exercises like the one above. He thought that even common things contain some element that has not been noticed by anyone else, "because we are accustomed to seeing things only through the memory of what others have said about them" (p. 34). Robb goes on to discuss some of Flaubert's other precepts, for instance, from Flaubert's introduction to Bouilhet's Dernières chansons.
Art should neither "teach, correct, nor moralize ... denouements are not conclusions; no general inferences can be drawn from a particular case ... Prose, like verse, must be written so that it can be read out loud. Poorly written sentences never pass the test: they tighten the chest and impede the beating of the heart ... style goes straight to the point and leaves no impression of the author himself: the word disappears in the clarity of the thought, or rather, by sticking so closely to the thought, leaves it entirely unhampered" (Robb, p. 34).
Another aspect of Flaubert's syllabus was lifestyle. Here, Flaubert was severe on his young friend.
"You must—do you hear me, young man?—you must work harder," Flaubert told him in 1878. "Too many whores! Too much boating! Too much exercise! Yes, that's right: a civilized man does not require as much locomotion as doctors would have us believe ... For an artist there is only one [principle]: sacrifice everything to art. Life should be treated as a means to an end, and nothing more” (Robb, p. 33).
In this respect, apparently, de Maupassant was not such an apt student.

I had read some of de Maupassant's short stories—wonderful—but I had not heard of Afloat. It is a novella disguised as autobiography, in which the narrator alternately admires nature and grumbles about humanity as he cruises in his sailing boat, Bel-Ami, along the south coast of France. I immediately went out and bought it. I am enjoying it quite a bit.

Guy de Maupassant (2008). Afloat (D. Parmée, Trans.). New York: New York Review Books (originally published 1888).

Graham Robb (2009). Cruising with genius. New York Review of Books, 56 Feb 26, pp. 33-35.

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