Eliot vs Flaubert

After having read Search, I believe I am not alone in saying that it is difficult to read Jean Santeuil, despite its moments of brilliance. The themes and characters of the two novels have much in common, but the voice of the earlier novel lacks the singularly distinctive tone of the latter. Reading Robert Frazier’s essay (in Bloom’s Marcel Proust) has allowed me to understand better the nature of that difference. The mature Proustian style could be called his unique synthesis of the realist styles of George Eliot and Gustave Flaubert.

Proust was attracted to Eliot’s style of realism and it is plainly evident in his first novel:

The taste for Dutch seventeenth-century painting is something she shared with Proust, whose essay on Rembrandt emphasizes his solidity, his respect for the physical world, his discovery of beauty in ordinary circumstances. This sublime ordinariness, this tactility in transcendence, he found too in Chardin, the objects in whose rooms seemed to him to conspire in mutual acts of affinity, rendering the mundane timeless.

They are also qualities he thought essential to Eliot. In 1954 a set of transcript notes on her work was published, left behind by Proust at his death. They open: ‘What strikes me in Adam Bede is the painting–attentive, minute, respectful and sympathetic–of the humblest, most industrious life. To keep one’s kitchen clean is an essential duty, an almost religious duty and one full of charm.’ One remembers the kitchen grange at Combray, full of gleaming objects, calmness and industrious peace, a poetry of the domestic. One remembers too, in Jean Santeuil, the night-time range over which the maid Ernestine presides, offered as something to be appreciated ‘because it exists’:

Often at such a moment, opening on tip-toes the kitchen door at the end of a dingy corridor, Jean was rewarded by a vision of the night unexpectedly raised at the far end, as if mysteriously supported by the darkness and the gleaming tiles of the range, like a balcony at the corner of an already dark street lit up by the fading sun. Just above it drifted a pink vaporous cloud, sustained to all appearances over a pan by an invisible bed of steam; and, like sea ripples made diaphanous in the sunset, the quivering exhalation of a simmering casserole was as though shot through with flame. On its broad and shining chest the pot bore a bright impression of the fiery realms beneath, seen by it though invisible to Jean. Her eye steady in the night which with its red constellations had already engulfed her kitchen, Ernestine stood at her post, sagely ruling the fire with her rod of iron, moving the casserole, hither and thither, momentarily prodding with her wooden spoon, replacing the lid of the stove, seeing that all was well. (JS) (45-46)

By the time he writes Search, Proust has come to appreciate Flaubert’s stripping subjectivity and overt moral judgment from the narrative voice, something very different from Eliot’s narrative voice.

The Flaubertian realism he interprets as consisting in stylistic elimination from the sentence of any taint of subjectivity, its reduction to the status of observed fact, leaving the onus of interpretation upon reader. What specifically are eliminated are the personality and views of the author—we never discover directly, for example, what Flaubert thinks of the adultery of Emma Bovary—and the volition of the characters, whose actions are observed without their wished being stated. The characters, whose actions are observed without their wished being stated. The characteristic Flaubertian sentence is thus one in which the physical object, the res, and the externally observed pattern of behavior assume the status of subjects:

Where an action occurs whose various phases of which another writer would extrude from the motive behind them, we get a picture the various parts of which no more betray an intention than if he was describing a sunset. Madame Bovary wishes to warm herself at the fire. Here is how it is described: ‘Madam Bovary (nowhere has it been mentioned that she was cold) approached the fireplace…’ (Contre Saint-Beuve)

For the apprentice Proust there were thus two alternative varieties of literary realism, almost contemporary though products of different linguistic cultures. Both were attractive, and both dependent as much on what they rejected as what they proposed: in Eliot, an ethereality that lost contact with the gritty essence of things; in Flaubert, a subjectivity that proposed the artist as unique observer, the coil of motive and maze of the soul. The single largest difference between them lay in their articulation of ethical judgment, which in Flaubert was held in reserve. There was even for Proust a certain delicious barbarity in this reticence, as with meticulous excision the author’s sensibility edited itself out. Falling short of the impersonal—as the bee-mouth sipped, a certain pollen of subjectivity was left on the facts—the result was none the less a discipline of truthfulness without comment, the neutral imposition of the actual. (47)


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