Pages

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Delete! Remove! Leave out!- Sentimental Education vs Adam Bede

For aspiring writers, Flaubert's a perfect model. Now I can see why he's been called a novelist's novelist.
He is detached and concise. The discussions on art, women, politics... are described objectively- Flaubert may not be invisible as he wants to, we can notice the irony and hear some mockery, we can feel his presence somewhere behind the narrator and the free indirect speech, but Flaubert doesn't jump out and ruin the narrative. An author like George Eliot would, at least she has done that, lots of times, in Adam Bede.
Take this passage in Sentimental Education:
"... And [Sénécal] went on to talk about a well-known lithograph which showed the entire royal family engaged in edifying occupations [...] This picture, which was entitled 'A Good Family', had been a source of delight to the middle classes, but the despair of the patriots. Pellerin, speaking in an offended tone as if he had drawn the picture himself, remarked that everybody was entitled to his own opinion. Sénécal objected to this. Art should aim exclusively at raising the moral standards of the masses. The only subjects that should be reproduced were those which incited people to virtuous actions; all the rest were harmful:
'But that depends on the execution!' cried Pellerin. 'I might produce masterpieces!'
'So much the worse for you, then. You haven't any right...'
'What's that?'
'No, Monsieur, you haven't any right to interest me in matters of which I disapprove. What need have we of elaborate trifles from which it is impossible to derive any benefit- those Venuses, for instance, in all your landscapes? I can see no instructions for the common people there. Show us the hardship of the masses instead. Rouse our enthusiasm for their sacrifices. Good God, there's no lack of subjects; the farm, the workshop...'
Pellerin, stammering with indignation and thinking that he has found an argument, said:
'What about Molière? Do you accept him?'
'Certainly!' said Sénécal. 'I admire him as a precursor of the French revolution!'
'Oh, the Revolution! What art! There's never been a more pitiful period!'
'There's never been a greater, Monsieur!'
Pellerin folded his arm, and, looking him straight in the face, said:
'You talk just like a member of the National Guard.'
His opponent, who was used to arguing, retorted:
'I'm not 1 of them, and I hate them as much as you do. But principles like that corrupt the masses. Besides, that sort of thing is just what the Government wants. It wouldn't be so powerful if it hadn't the support of a lot of rogues like Arnoux.'..."
I'm tempted to copy here chapter 17 of Adam Bede, where George Eliot refers to Dutch paintings and states that she means to present people as they are instead of idealising them. But I won't. Instead, I'll give you another passage from it: 
"After all, I believe the wisest of us must be beguiled in this way sometimes, and must think both better and worse of people than they deserve. Nature has her language, and she is not unveracious; but we don't know all the intricacies of her syntax just yet, and in a hasty reading we may happen to extract the very opposite of her real meaning. Long dark eyelashes, now—what can be more exquisite? I find it impossible not to expect some depth of soul behind a deep grey eye with a long dark eyelash, in spite of an experience which has shown me that they may go along with deceit, peculation, and stupidity. But if, in the reaction of disgust, I have betaken myself to a fishy eye, there has been a surprising similarity of result. One begins to suspect at length that there is no direct correlation between eyelashes and morals; or else, that the eyelashes express the disposition of the fair one's grandmother, which is on the whole less important to us.
No eyelashes could be more beautiful than Hetty's; and now, while she walks with her pigeon-like stateliness along the room and looks down on her shoulders bordered by the old black lace, the dark fringe shows to perfection on her pink cheek. They are but dim ill-defined pictures that her narrow bit of an imagination can make of the future; but of every picture she is the central figure in fine clothes; Captain Donnithorne is very close to her, putting his arm round her, perhaps kissing her, and everybody else is admiring and envying her—especially Mary Burge, whose new print dress looks very contemptible by the side of Hetty's resplendent toilette. Does any sweet or sad memory mingle with this dream of the future—any loving thought of her second parents—of the children she had helped to tend—of any youthful companion, any pet animal, any relic of her own childhood even? Not one. There are some plants that have hardly any roots: you may tear them from their native nook of rock or wall, and just lay them over your ornamental flower-pot, and they blossom none the worse. Hetty could have cast all her past life behind her and never cared to be reminded of it again. I think she had no feeling at all towards the old house, and did not like the Jacob's Ladder and the long row of hollyhocks in the garden better than other flowers—perhaps not so well. It was wonderful how little she seemed to care about waiting on her uncle, who had been a good father to her—she hardly ever remembered to reach him his pipe at the right time without being told, unless a visitor happened to be there, who would have a better opportunity of seeing her as she walked across the hearth. Hetty did not understand how anybody could be very fond of middle-aged people. And as for those tiresome children, Marty and Tommy and Totty, they had been the very nuisance of her life—as bad as buzzing insects that will come teasing you on a hot day when you want to be quiet..."
Sénécal is a philistine, but Pellerin is also described as dreaming big and creating nothing- Flaubert depicts them objectively, without commenting, even if his objectivity is charged with irritability. In the Sentimental Education passage, if you read it without knowing anything about Flaubert's view, you're not likely to know whether he sides with Pellerin or Sénécal. In the Adam Bede passage, in contrast, George Eliot doesn't only interrupt the flow with her lengthy comments, but also directs the reader's emotions. How can anyone read it and like Hetty? 
Now, another passage from Sentimental Education
"... To conceal his agitation, Frédéric walked up and down the room. Stumbling against a chair, he knocked down a parasol which was lying across it; the ivory handle broke.
'Oh, dear!' he exclaimed. 'I'm terribly sorry, I've broken Madame Arnoux's parasol.'
At this remark, the dealer looked up and gave a peculiar smile..." 
Later, on her name day, Frédéric comes and brings a new parasol as a present. 
"She thanked him warmly for it. Then he said:
'But... it's almost a debt! I was so upset.'
'What about?' she asked. 'I don't understand.'
'Dinner's ready!' said Arnoux, seizing Frédéric by the arm.
Then, in his ear:
'You're not very bright, are you?'
Nothing could have been more delightful than the dining room with its sea-green walls..." 
The last sentence can feel abrupt, but I include there to show that at that point Flaubert moves on to describe something else. That scene is enough. He adds nothing, explains nothing, and doesn't need to. 
Let's look at a passage from Adam Bede
"He could see there was a large basket at the end of the row: Hetty would not be far off, and Adam already felt as if she were looking at him. Yet when he turned the corner she was standing with her back towards him, and stooping to gather the low-hanging fruit. Strange that she had not heard him coming! Perhaps it was because she was making the leaves rustle. She started when she became conscious that some one was near—started so violently that she dropped the basin with the currants in it, and then, when she saw it was Adam, she turned from pale to deep red. That blush made his heart beat with a new happiness. Hetty had never blushed at seeing him before.
[...]
Not a word more was spoken as they gathered the currants. Adam's heart was too full to speak, and he thought Hetty knew all that was in it. She was not indifferent to his presence after all; she had blushed when she saw him, and then there was that touch of sadness about her which must surely mean love, since it was the opposite of her usual manner, which had often impressed him as indifference. And he could glance at her continually as she bent over the fruit, while the level evening sunbeams stole through the thick apple-tree boughs, and rested on her round cheek and neck as if they too were in love with her. It was to Adam the time that a man can least forget in after-life, the time when he believes that the first woman he has ever loved betrays by a slight something—a word, a tone, a glance, the quivering of a lip or an eyelid—that she is at least beginning to love him in return. The sign is so slight, it is scarcely perceptible to the ear or eye—he could describe it to no one—it is a mere feather-touch, yet it seems to have changed his whole being, to have merged an uneasy yearning into a delicious unconsciousness of everything but the present moment. So much of our early gladness vanishes utterly from our memory: we can never recall the joy with which we laid our heads on our mother's bosom or rode on our father's back in childhood. Doubtless that joy is wrought up into our nature, as the sunlight of long-past mornings is wrought up in the soft mellowness of the apricot, but it is gone for ever from our imagination, and we can only believe in the joy of childhood. But the first glad moment in our first love is a vision which returns to us to the last, and brings with it a thrill of feeling intense and special as the recurrent sensation of a sweet odour breathed in a far-off hour of happiness. It is a memory that gives a more exquisite touch to tenderness, that feeds the madness of jealousy and adds the last keenness to the agony of despair.
Hetty bending over the red bunches, the level rays piercing the screen of apple-tree boughs, the length of bushy garden beyond, his own emotion as he looked at her and believed that she was thinking of him, and that there was no need for them to talk—Adam remembered it all to the last moment of his life.
And Hetty? You know quite well that Adam was mistaken about her. Like many other men, he thought the signs of love for another were signs of love towards himself. When Adam was approaching unseen by her, she was absorbed as usual in thinking and wondering about Arthur's possible return. The sound of any man's footstep would have affected her just in the same way—she would have felt it might be Arthur before she had time to see, and the blood that forsook her cheek in the agitation of that momentary feeling would have rushed back again at the sight of any one else just as much as at the sight of Adam. He was not wrong in thinking that a change had come over Hetty: the anxieties and fears of a first passion, with which she was trembling, had become stronger than vanity, had given her for the first time that sense of helpless dependence on another's feeling which awakens the clinging deprecating womanhood even in the shallowest girl that can ever experience it, and creates in her a sensibility to kindness which found her quite hard before. For the first time Hetty felt that there was something soothing to her in Adam's timid yet manly tenderness. She wanted to be treated lovingly—oh, it was very hard to bear this blank of absence, silence, apparent indifference, after those moments of glowing love! She was not afraid that Adam would tease her with love-making and flattering speeches like her other admirers; he had always been so reserved to her; she could enjoy without any fear the sense that this strong brave man loved her and was near her. It never entered into her mind that Adam was pitiable too—that Adam too must suffer one day.
Hetty, we know, was not the first woman that had behaved more gently to the man who loved her in vain because she had herself begun to love another. It was a very old story, but Adam knew nothing about it, so he drank in the sweet delusion..." 
Does Hetty's blush need to be explained? I don't think so. Flaubert would stop there or only add a few sentences; so would Fitzgerald, Salinger, Nabokov, Jane Austen, Turgenev... Tolstoy might write as much, but he would describe, not "explain". George Eliot gives the impression of explaining, clarifying the blush, while constantly addressing the reader with "you know" and "we know". The passage is superfluous and clumsy, especially the last line. 

Does this mean I think Flaubert's the greater writer? No. Does this mean that I dismiss George Eliot's writing abilities? No. Greatness isn't equivalent to perfection- vision, imagination and psychological insight certainly outweigh faults such as this, and this post only touches a tiny aspect in 1 book by George Eliot and 1 book by Gustave Flaubert. All I'm saying here is that, at the sentence/ paragraph level, Flaubert's the better model. 

No comments:

Post a Comment