The cracked kettle of Flaubert

Eric Ormsby in The New Criterion:

In the summer of 1930, Willa Cather chanced to form a brief friendship with an elderly lady at the Grand Hôtel d’Aix in Aix-les-Bains. As they chatted, Cather realized that her companion was Caroline Commanville, Flaubert’s beloved niece, then in her eighties. At one of their meetings, the novelist mentioned how much she admired “the splendid final sentence of Hérodias” which Caroline then recited from memory, “Comme elle était très lourde, ils la portaient al-ter-na-tive-ment,” drawing out that final adverb which, in Cather’s words, “is so suggestive of the hurrying footsteps of John’s disciples, carrying away with them their prophet’s severed head.” In English this would become something like “as it was very heavy, they took turns carrying it,” and the effect, which in the original accentuates the dead weight of the grisly relic, would be lost.

The anecdote is illuminating, not only because it demonstrates the reverence of ear which sophisticated French readers once brought to cherished texts—and Caroline was far from unique in her attentiveness to such cadences—but because it furnishes an apt example of what the French call “la mélodie de la phrase,” the music of a sentence.

More here.