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.
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.