All Things Are Possible: Mario Vargas Llosa on the Eternal Youth of Flaubert’s Writing
"If we are to be honest, the true creator of the modern novel was Flaubert."
Translated by Charlotte Whittle
At some point in the last century, I arrived in Paris and that very day bought a copy of Madame Bovary in a bookstore called Joie de Vivre in the Latin Quarter. I stayed up nearly all night reading it and by dawn I knew what kind of writer I wanted to be. Thanks to Flaubert, I was starting to get familiar with all the secrets of the art of the novel.
No one did more to further the genre of the novel than the Hermit from Croisset. He discovered that the narrator was the most important character the novelist created, and that the latter could be an all-knowing, God-like, impersonal narrator, or a narrator who was also a character, that there could be several, and that they could varied. This is how Flaubert created the modern novel and laid the foundation for what, years later, would be the infinite devices and techniques that James Joyce invented with which to supply the genre and differentiate it from the past and its classic iteration.
But the novelist who took the greatest advantage of Joyce’s inventions wasn’t a European but rather a North American lost in the region of the Mississippi, in whose hands the genre attained a flexibility in time and space that made room for all kinds of excess: William Faulkner. The most extraordinary thing about Faulkner, though, wasn’t the terrific audacity that allowed him to write novels like As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, the most difficult ever written, but his trickery of the journalists to whom he presented himself as a horse-loving farmer, refusing to discuss novelistic technique because, according to him, he didn’t know anything about it. Thanks to Flaubert, Joyce, and Faulkner the modern novel would be a new and uniquely distinct reality from the classical one.
In Flaubert’s case, his preoccupation with the novel’s structure shows in the nightly letters he wrote to his lover Louise Colet, during a large part of the five years it took him to write Madame Bovary. A considerable time therefore passed before these letters could be collected into a book, perhaps the most important that has been written to set the parameters of the modern novel as a perfectly established form, distinct from all that had gone before it in the form of a few stories that would come to bear the name “novel.”
This was a flagrant yet mysterious break with the past. It consisted of explaining that the ordering element of a story can be an imitation of an all-knowing God, or simply a character who can know no more than what ordinary people like us know about others, with all the fallibility that knowledge implies. In a novel, as in Madame Bovary, there can be a godlike, omniscient narrator and various character-narrators, as long as the limits of each are respected.
At the level of prose, Flaubert always believed that the excellence of a phrase depended on its music and that one out-of-tune syllable was enough for the musical perfection of the phrase—to which Flaubert attributed incantatory qualities—to be lost. The five years he spent writing Madame Bovary were the richest and most creative from the point of view of the structure of the novel. If we are to be honest, the true creator of the modern novel was Flaubert.
The story of Emma Bovary and the author’s almost daily letters to Louise Colet laid the foundations of the modern novel, though it took some time for this to be acknowledged. The invisible narrator is Flaubert’s most important creation: here is a figure who knows everything about the story he tells, not as a presence but rather an absence, who knows everything that happens but does not reveal himself, in fact concealing his presence by feigning impersonality, always interrupted by the other characters in the story, to whom he is allowed to reveal himself, feeling a limited presence and existence as long as he doesn’t go beyond what a person should or can know.
The angle of the focus is always the work of the godlike narrator, who distributes the appearances and disappearances of the characters according to the different fluctuations of the story. Within this framework, everything can be known and told, even the wise silences the narrator imposes in the course of the narrative.
The “new novel” that Flaubert invented in Madame Bovary allows everything, up to a certain point. For example, the creation of a briefly collective character, like the class into which the new student, Charles Bovary, bursts at the beginning of the novel when the professor introduces him to the auditorium. This auditorium is a single character who will break into distinct figures as the students in the class recover their personalities and become differentiated from one another. Within the schema created by Flaubert, all things are possible and coherent, as long as the novelist respects the rules and doesn’t get distracted, causing an accident to happen and the whole rigorous framework of the novel to collapse.The “new novel” that Flaubert invented in Madame Bovary allows everything, up to a certain point.
It wasn’t easy for Flaubert to become that person who could take five years of his life to write Madame Bovary from morning to night, seven days a week. First, he had to come up with an illness convincing enough for his father the doctor, who logically wished for his son Gustave to follow in his footsteps and pursue a career. Critics and doctors have thoroughly debated Gustave Flaubert’s famous illness, those crises that took hold of him and made him collapse to the floor, seeing stars.
I believe that he invented this illness to be able to work in peace, dedicating all his time to writing, which by no means meant that he didn’t sometimes fall to the floor and see strange lights, and vomit, and so on. Thank goodness his letters to Louise Colet were preserved. She kept them, blessed be her memory. The letters from Louise Colet to Flaubert, on the other hand, were burned by a villainous niece for being too pornographic, for which she won the hatred of all Flaubertians (myself included, needless to say).
Did Flaubert have any idea of the revolution he would unleash with Madame Bovary? We cannot be sure. During those five years, he believed he was working on Madame Bovary, and probably wasn’t aware of the extraordinary dissemination his discovery would achieve, or the revolution of the invisible, total narrator, which would occasion a caesura between the new novel and the old—the classical, in other words. This isn’t the only time in literary history that someone, as if by chance, has discovered a new narrative system and caused a revolution with it (Borges in his short stories, for example).
I have always admired and felt affection for Flaubert, as if for an uncle or a grandfather. I’ve lost count of all the times I’ve been to Croisset to relive the strolls he took, crying out in the “yelling place” where he would go to test the perfection of his rhythmic phrases, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve taken flowers to that cemetery packed with tombs and crosses. I have even visited the hospital that employed his father, the doctor whom he forced to provide for him while he worked on his river of a novel.
Two hundred years have passed since his birth, and the style of writing novels that he invented remains ever alive and young. I have a feeling that in the next two hundred years, his way of writing will remain vigorous, in a state of eternal youth.