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Archive for November 6th, 2008

November 6th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Fowler attacks Flaubert in Dictionary


This is perplexing. Surpisingly polemic, considering that it is from the definition of the word ‘Prose’ in Roger Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms:

Prose, like the Homeric epic, becomes formulaic if it aims at fixity and crystallization. Flaubert, for example, in attempting to refine it, eventually subjects it to a near-monolithic discipline, an impoverishment of language to a finite, recurring range of devices, not unrelated perhaps to the formulaic meagreness of memoranda and scientific discourses. His prose can often be read only one way: many of his ternary sentences are so clear in structure and cadence, so controlled in meaning, that the alert reader’s initial experience of them can scarcelyavoid being total; this excludes any search for alternative groupings or of word or idea, and presents us with a bareness where language, throught and character lie unrelievedly open to our merciless gaze. Indeed, one resource of prose, which makes it an eminently suitable vehicle for realism, is the relative looseness of its context, its refusal to presuppose the inevitability of complex pattern, its ability to acknowledge the right of something to exist as itself and not some other thing, as a self-sufficient detail which may be absorbed only slowly into an organized perception."

This could quite easily have been written by Zadie Smith; in line with her criticism of Netherland as too perfect an image of what we have been ‘taught’ to value in fiction. 

Flaubert’s intention was to affect his readers by conveying and having them experience, as precisely as possible,  his reality.  To my mind he succeeded magnificently, for example, in replicating the heartache of love gone wrong. That his prose leaves little room for alternate meaning is reason for praise, not criticism. Here’s what he had to say on good prose sentences: ‘ [they] should be like a good line of peotry – unchangeable- just as rhythmic, just as sonarous.’ And ‘ sentences in a book must quiver like leaves in a forest – all dissimilar in their similarity.’ Some impoverished formula.