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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Flaubert’s Sweat

My God, this novel makes me break out in a cold sweat! Do you know how much I’ve written in five months, since the end of August? Sixty-five pages! Each paragraph is good in itself and there are some pages that are perfect. I feel certain. But just because of this, it isn’t getting on. It’s a series of well-turned, ordered paragraphs which do not flow on from each other. I shall have to unscrew them, loosen the joints, as one does with the masts of a ship when one wants the sail to take more wind.

Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert wrote this in 1853 when he was working on Madame Bovary. He was, of course, a notorious perfectionist and is well known for insisting on exactly the right word in the right place. But in this particular draft of the novel things were not going well. He was churning out about ten pages a month.

He’d written sixty-five pages, good paragraphs, good scenes well described and some pages that were perfect, but just because of this it isn’t getting on.

Most people who have written a novel will know and understand what he is talking about here. Flaubert is aware of the stiffness of the thing, that he has too much of a guiding hand over it. Perhaps he is aware, also, that this is to be his masterpiece, if he can get it right.

It deals, after all, with classic and mighty themes and he feels certain that it already works perfectly in part.

His answer is to loosen the joints, to stand back a little and give the thing its head. He wants and needs to allow space in and around his well-turned, ordered paragraphs so that his unconscious can begin to work on the development of the narrative.

Perhaps this is what Dylan Thomas meant when he said:

The best craftmanship always leaves holes and gaps . . . so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.

5 Responses to “Flaubert’s Sweat”

  1. polaris says:

    “Loosen the joints” is such an evocative way to describe Flaubert’s problem. To me, the statement by Dylan Thomas seems to refer more to our response to the craftsman’s gap-filled work, i.e., we may interpret something that was not originally intended by the craftsman, and that may somehow make the experience magical. Perhaps the context might clear things up.

    I wonder how much torture it must have been for Flaubert to rework the draft. It does feel quite rotten when one writes what looks like a perfect sentence, and then has to modify it to accommodate other things.

    jb says: I got the impression that the sentences, even the paragraphs worked, some of them perfectly, but that they didn’t work together. I’ve certainly experienced something very similar. But perhaps a more common problem for novelists is to get their characters to work together.

  2. patry says:

    Could it have been that the writing was good, the plot steaming along, but the voice hadn’t kicked in?

    jb says: It could have been with anyone else. But Flaubert was aiming for a stylistic perfection and with that novel did a great deal for the development of the objective narrative voice. While writing Madame Bovary, Flaubert wrote regularly to the poet, Louise Colet, his muse and mistress and his letters closely document the laborious development of the novel.

    In one of the letters he tells her: An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere. 

  3. Dean says:

    Great post, John. I know a writer for whom this applies. He’d kill me if I mentioned his name but I feel that your connection to Dylan Thomas is on the right track. Nice one!

    jb says: Hi Dean, thanks for the comment. And I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. Pearl says:

    How wonderful that that record exists that we can see the work from the end product and the process end.

    jb says: Yes, I think it’s wonderful, too. Steinbeck also traced the development of East of Eden while he was writing it. Among his accounts of self-doubt and the ups and downs of his days, this is partly what he had to report in Journal of a Novel:
    • Eleven years of mental gestation
    • One year of uninterrupted writing
    • 25 dozen pencils
    • Approximately three dozen reams of paper
    • 350,000 words (before cutting)
    • About 75,000 words in his work-in-progress journal
    • And a rock-hard callus on the middle finger of the writer’s right hand.

  5. Pearl says:

    That’s an admirable obsession with recording accountability.

    jb says: (well, nothing really. just a smile).