The ascendancy of the novel as the prime literary genre in France was established, by no means accidentally, during the reign of the so-called Bourgeois King, Louis-Philippe (r. 1830-1848). The shifting patterns of population and of economic status had made the middle class dominant, especially in that cradle of culture, Paris; it was perhaps no more than normal that the kind of reading the bourgeoisie preferred—the novel—should in that era have become what the nation as a whole preferred. The key factor in the novel’s development to ascendancy, during the years 1830 to 1850, was that Honoré de Balzac, with his visionary ideal of the novel as society’s true reflection and record, had imposed on the reading public, by his creative energy and example, his private conception of what a good novel should be: an accurate portrayal of some aspect of the contemporary world. By the start of Napoleon III’s Second Empire in 1851, it could be said that, from an exercise in imagination, the serious French novel had become an exercise in observation. The novel had turned decisively realistic. Unhappily, however, the Second Empire, which owed its existence to the violent repression of revolt, was a sternly restrictive regime that alienated writers by its policy of censorship. After Napoleon seized dictatorial powers in the coup d’état of 1851, artists and intellectuals tended to withdraw into silence, concerning themselves with abstract theory rather than with the concrete, observable world around them.
Not surprisingly, the span of the Second Empire (1842-1870) was not a richly productive period for the French novel, or indeed for any of the literary arts. Accurate observation of reality was a risky business under such a regime, unless the reality being observed was inconsequential. On the basis of such reasoning, a literary school took shape in the 1850’s that called itself Le Réalisme, publishing its own journal and offering readers novels exemplifying the aesthetic. Writers of this school avoided the attention of the state censor simply by defining realism as the art of depicting the ordinary, everyday life of humble citizens, arguing that literature had too long neglected the commonplace activities that were reality for the greatest number of French citizens. The novels produced by this school were, by and large, flat and pedestrian and did not sell; their authors had misunderstood the nature and purpose of Honoré de Balzac’s insistence on the principle of realism in the novel.
Only one writer of that period really understood what Balzac meant—Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), a brilliant recluse and a great admirer of Balzac’s work, who managed to revolutionize the course of the modern novel with his first publication, the celebrated Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886). Flaubert recognized that Balzac’s ingenious notion of the novel as a record of what exists was focused on the need to be accurate, to avoid distorting reality, rather than on a specific definition of which aspect of reality merited attention from the novelist. Balzac was interested not only in the common person but also in all of society, which is why his novel Le Père Goriot (1834-1835; Daddy Goriot, 1860; also known as Père Goriot) offered a microcosm of Parisian society, from top to bottom, in the cast of characters associated with Madame Vauquer’s boardinghouse. Flaubert’s dismissive comment on the theories of the réalistes of the 1850’s (Jules Champfleury, Louis-Émile-Edmond Duranty, and Ernest-Aimé Feydeau were the best known) was to note, dryly, that “Henri Monnier [author of a comic novel about a bourgeois who thinks and speaks in clichés] is not more real than Racine.”
For Flaubert, the term “realism” as used by his contemporaries had no valid literary meaning, since it was restricted to but one corner of the observable world. Accordingly, he always rejected the label of “realist” whenever it was applied to him. Yet Flaubert fully embraced Balzac’s insistence on fidelity to the real, for that was a matter of being true to the facts, which to Flaubert was not only a writer’s obligation but also an aesthetic necessity; Flaubert was a firm believer in Plato’s conception of beauty, according to which the preconditions for any object to be beautiful were that the object be true and good. Since the only worthy objective for a writer, Flaubert thought, was to create something beautiful, he argued that the writer’s first task is to render the truth—faire vrai was his expression. If the writer’s words faithfully render the truth, they will necessarily be morally good, for the truth cannot be evil, and if the words are both true and good, they meet the Platonic standard of beauty. From that reasoning, Flaubert derived the logic of his own practice as a novelist: Research the facts meticulously to be sure that what was written was true. Since the aesthetic value of what he produced depended wholly, according to his theory, on his fidelity to the truth, he took elaborate pains to get everything correct. Documentary research and recorded observations were indeed part of his method, as he readily acknowledged, but he refused to call that effort “realism,” for that word distorted his literary purpose. The problem he saw with “reality” was that it can be whatever anyone decides it to be, whereas the truth is never merely a matter of opinion.
There was a good deal more to truth, as Flaubert saw it, than merely rendering the facts. To convey truth, words must be chosen and arranged properly, providing all the necessary nuances and distinctions and bearing the imprint of natural human speech. The mode of expression—which is to say, the style—is an implicit element in the truth of any assertion. A sentence or paragraph that is unnatural or artificial in its rhythm, sound, or vocabulary, Flaubert believed, was ipso facto false. For that reason, Flaubert devoted much of his time to rewriting, recasting his sentences over and over again, in search of the perfect arrangement that would “ring true” and pass the test of being read aloud. A sentence that could not be read aloud comfortably, without forcing the reader to breathe abnormally, was to Flaubert unacceptable and in need of revision. That kind of truth, both factual and stylistic, is a difficult standard to meet and explains why Flaubert took so long to complete each of his compositions and why his correspondence is filled with epic lamentations about the suffering he endured for the sake of his art—what he called les affres du style, or the tortures of style. There can indeed have been few writers for whom writing was a slower or more painful process than it was for Flaubert. Yet this strangely excruciating torture to which he subjected himself had a coherent rationale that points clearly to the nature of the revolution that Flaubert effected in the modern novel and...
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