The Man Behind Bovary

From The New York Times:Bovary_1

Novelists should thank Gustave Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it begins again with him. He is the originator of the modern novel. Take the following passage, in which Frédéric Moreau, the hero of “Sentimental Education,” wanders through the Latin Quarter, alive to the sights and sounds of Paris: “At the back of deserted cafes, women behind the bars yawned between their untouched bottles; the newspapers lay unopened on the reading-room tables; in the laundresses’ workshops the washing quivered in the warm draughts. Every now and then he stopped at a bookseller’s stall; an omnibus, coming down the street and grazing the pavement, made him turn round; and when he reached the Luxembourg he retraced his steps.” This was published in 1869, but might have appeared in 1969; many, perhaps most, novelists still sound essentially the same. Flaubert scans the streets indifferently, it seems, like a camera. Just as when we watch a film we no longer notice what has been excluded, so we no longer notice what Flaubert chooses not to notice. And we no longer notice that what he has selected is not of course casually scanned but quite savagely chosen, that each detail is almost frozen in its gel of chosenness. How superb and magnificently isolate the details are — the women yawning, the unopened newspapers, the washing quivering in the warm air. Flaubert is the greatest exponent of a technique that is essential to realist narration: the confusing of the habitual with the dynamic.

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