‘What a bitch of a thing prose is!’ Flaubert complained in a letter to Louise Colet while at work on Madame Bovary. ‘It is never finished; there is always something to be done over.’ Fanatical in his search for a style that, as he put it in another letter, was as ‘rhythmic as verse, precise as the language of the sciences, undulant, deep-voiced as a cello, tipped with a flame’, Flaubert devised a method for purging his sentences of unwanted repetitions. What he called the gueuloir (from gueuler, ‘to bellow’) was his practice of yelling prose at the top of his lungs until he felt it had been condensed to its sonic core. During one particularly savage gueulade he told the Goncourt brothers he felt he was going to spit blood.
But why then, Michael Fried asks, is Madame Bovary positively teeming with assonances, alliterations and repetitions? How is it that after the acid bath of the gueuloir the novel is ‘shot through with precisely the sorts of phonemic effects Flaubert claimed he wished to eliminate’? The coexistence in Madame Bovary of antithetical elements is for Fried not a mere curiosity but the novel’s ‘defining feature’. Despite Flaubert’s assertion that content was incidental (he dreamed of a book ‘about nothing’), Madame Bovary’s status as an event in the history of the novel hinges in part on its perfect symmetry of style and subject. A woman of extravagant self-conception doomed to mediocrity in the banlieue of Yonville – someone, as Lydia Davis put it, ‘whose character fatally determined the course of her life’ – is mirrored in a prose in which intention and automatism, will and fate, are themselves indissociable.
The question of authorial intent has always preoccupied Fried. In his classic (and still provocative) 1967 essay ‘Art and Objecthood’, Fried took up Clement Greenberg’s definition of modernism as being driven by the need for artists to discover effects ‘peculiar and exclusive’ to their medium. In the case of painting, the irreducible conventions were ‘flatness and the delimitation of flatness’, a claim that led Greenberg to the logical conclusion that ‘a stretched or tacked up canvas already exists as a picture – though not necessarily as a successful one.’ Fried rejected Greenberg’s essentialism (he revised the line to say that a bare canvas could ‘not conceivably’ be seen as a successful picture), but remained resolutely pro-modernist. ‘Art and Objecthood’ was about the difference between new works that compelled conviction as paintings and those that took the modernist reduction to theatrical extremes. The essay attacked the latter kind of work, at the time called minimalism, and which Fried puckishly labelled ‘literalism’ (it took too literally the pruning of conventions). He went on to write a series of tough-minded books showing that the difference between artworks understood as structures of intention and objects that theatrically solicit the viewer’s involvement was the faultline running under the prehistory of modernism. In 1980 there was Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot; in 1990, Courbet’s Realism; in 1996, Manet’s Modernism: or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s. More recently, Fried has brought versions of the argument to large-scale photography in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (2008), and to video art in Four Honest Outlaws: Sala, Ray, Marioni, Gordon (2011). He is prolific to say the least. Flaubert’s ‘Gueuloir’ is, by my count, his 15th book (including three volumes of poetry).
Fried’s way of thinking about modernism – as interesting and ambitious as any of the last fifty years – becomes even more interesting when he contrasts his own approach to Madame Bovary with that of the nouveau romancier Jean Ricardou. In a paper given at a 1974 colloquium on Flaubert, Ricardou claimed to have found in the novel a network of ‘c’ and ‘b’ words, starting from Charles Bovary announcing his name on his first day of school, heard as ‘Charbovari’ and becoming ‘charivari’, a synonym for the vacarme (tumult) that follows among his classmates. The pattern continues up to the description of Charles’s preposterously ornate hat, built around what Ricardou calls a ‘tendential pangrammaticism’ of ‘b’s (boudins, bande, broderie) and ‘c’s (circulaire, cartonné, cordon). In the Q&A that followed the talk, Roger Bismut, in what could be seen as either wild-eyed bait-taking or mocking overextension of Ricardou’s décryptage, unveiled a series of veau (veal) allusions he claimed were also running through the novel. To Bismut’s intervention Ricardou approvingly replied: ‘Madame Boeuf, c’est moi!’
For Fried, the exchange illustrates a tendency to treat phonemic effects as evidence of a linguistic automatism somehow at war with Flaubert’s intentions (Ricardou’s paper was called ‘Belligérance du texte’). As an alternative to this approach Fried turns to Félix Ravaisson’s 1838 treatise De l’habitude, where habit is described as a ‘middle term between will and nature’. Hinting at, but not banking on, the fact that Ravaisson’s work was in the air while Flaubert was working on Madame Bovary, Fried says that Ravaisson’s point about the continuity of will with nature ‘exactly corresponds’ to the coexistence in Flaubert’s prose of intention and automatism. In a preface he wrote for his late friend Louis Bouilhet’s Dernières Chansons, Flaubert seems to echo this Ravaissonian insight, saying that ‘badly written sentences’ do not survive the test of the gueuloir, since ‘they constrict the chest, impede the beating of the heart.’ If for Flaubert good prose can be related to bodily processes like breathing and heartbeat, then the gueuloir becomes a way of co-ordinating the rhythms of nature with the selection of le mot juste.
Fried devotes a second essay to the novel that came after Madame Bovary, the exotic and brutal dream vision of ancient Carthage, Salammbô (1862). The claim here is that the later book resolves the tension at the centre of the earlier one by being a ‘triumph of will over automatism’. From the invented name ‘Salammbô’, with its strange circumflex (not to mention ‘Zaïmph’, the sacred veil stolen from the temple of the goddess Tanit), to the harsh and relentless exactitude of its scenery, the novel is for Fried a monument of wilfulness. Appearing as it did at the height of the art for art’s sake Parnassianism inspired by the poetry and criticism of Théophile Gautier, Salammbô is entirely of its moment. Gautier, whom Flaubert called ‘master’, and to whom Baudelaire dedicated Les Fleurs du mal, exemplified in his verse collection Emaux et camées a diamond-hard classicism designed to negate the lachrymose effusions of the previous generation’s romanticism. Arthur Symons said of Gautier’s poems that they showed how ‘words could build as strongly as stones’, and wilfulness here carries the sense of chiselling designs out of uncut blocks, a description that captures something of Flaubert’s yelling out sounds until he’d found the shapes of his sentences.
For Fried, Salammbô is an entirely willed work, partly due to the punishing regime of study that went into its composition. Flaubert claimed to have read more than a hundred books on ancient Carthage before even sitting down to write (Henry James had the sense while reading the novel that there were ‘libraries of books behind his most innocent sentences’). The novel’s air of erudition led a young curator in the Louvre’s Department of Antiquities, Wilhelm Fröhner, to question its historical accuracy in a letter to the Revue Contemporaine, to which Flaubert, somewhat uncharacteristically, replied. When Froehner wondered whether Hanno had in fact been crucified, a miffed-sounding Flaubert directs his interlocutor to ‘Polybius, Book 1, Chapter XVII’. Both Froehner and Sainte-Beuve held up for special ridicule Flaubert’s inclusion among the treasures stashed in Hamilcar’s vault a carbuncle made from the urine of a lynx. (Flaubert insists there was such a stone: see Pliny, Book VIII, Chapter LVII.) Even Flaubert’s friends the Goncourts, after listening to him chant from Salammbô for five hours over dinner one night, wearily concluded that he ‘sees the Orient of antiquity in the guise of an Algerian bazaar’. And they were disturbed by the novel’s cruelty: half-burned apes falling out of charred trees, rows of crucified lions, slaves flayed alive, an elephant with an arrow in its eye.
Violence in the novel is for Fried itself a figure for the fierce deliberateness that went into its making. Those invented names with their weird orthographical marks? They express, according to Fried, ‘nothing so much as a certain authorial will’. Flaubert’s determination to subject the reader to his every compositional whim, from the names to the airlessly perfect sentences, to the rooms full of filigreed knick-knacks which reviewers of the time referred to as carthachinoiserie, amounts in the end to what Jacques Neefs describes as a ‘series of blows’. The idea is made most explicit in the novel’s fastidiously choreographed battle scenes, where stylistic wilfulness merges with the exhaustive (and often tedious) inventories of military plans and formations. Here Sainte-Beuve seems to get the last word, noting how he felt while working through Salammbô: ‘all the pain that went into writing it Flaubert passes on to us.’
There is something inherently tricky in Fried’s thesis about intention and automatism. A stray fluke of internal rhyme or even a sentence in which nine of the words start with ‘p’ (one of Fried’s examples) is not going to support the idea that such phonemic effects are the ‘defining feature’ of Madame Bovary. But a novel packed from front to back with alliteration and assonance might make his case, though it would require what Fried calls a ‘certain force of demonstration’: i.e. a ton of examples given in the original French and in English translation (done for this book by Nils Schott), heaped up in page after page of quotations. The concern with scholarly evidence is not unrelated to questions of will, and sometimes Fried’s arguments in support of the conviction that he has discovered something in Madame Bovary can themselves feel a little wilful. As with Flaubert’s worry that in Salammbô the pedestal was too big for the statue, Fried’s edifice of cited evidence seems sometimes to dwarf his claim about will and fate.
James said of Flaubert that he had a talent for ‘the description – minute, incisive, exhaustive – of material objects, and it must be admitted that he has carried that very far’. That minuteness is everywhere in Madame Bovary: Emma dabbing her tongue into the bottom of a glass; traces of wax on satin shoes; the green silk lining of a discarded cigar case; cardboard berries on a bridal bouquet bursting into flame; black liquid spilling from Emma’s dead mouth. Descriptions like these seem always on the verge of turning into the bristling panels of La Tentation de Saint Antoine, Salammbô and ‘Hérodias’. This is especially the case when the descriptions are of what Fried calls ‘hyperbolic and impossible’ objects: not only Charles’s infamous casquette, but the Bovarys’ wedding cake, with its rococo tiers, lakes of jam, its Cupid perched on a chocolate swing, or Emma’s triple coffin. Such passages have a hallucinatory vividness that can be found flaring up in modernisms as different as Raymond Chandler’s and Raymond Roussel’s. (There is a clear line from Flaubert’s ‘impossible’ objects to the elaborate machines found in Roussel’s novels Locus Solus and Impressions d’Afrique.) Might this be another of the ways Flaubert works out the tension between will and automatism – as an effort to freeze narrative movement in the petrified fixity of a tableau?