A Simple Soul (2)

Yesterday evening, in the backyard, elbow-deep in the Mexican sage and yellow daylilies, this sentence returns to me:

She arose at daybreak, in order to attend mass, and she worked without interruption, until night; then, when dinner was over, the dishes cleared away and the door securely locked, she would bury the log under the ashes and fall asleep in front of the hearth with a rosary in her hand.

Besides its grace and effortlessness, there’s another aspect worth considering, namely, what it doesn’t represent. Flaubert says nothing at all about Felicite striding down a path or a street to church, yet we perceptive readers, see her gliding through town, as if Flaubert describes the cobblestone street upon which she walks. He says nothing at all about Felicite stepping smartly through the house, first taking care of this chore, then that. Yet we insightful readers see her boiling water, snapping sheets, and sweeping floors, as if Flaubert were penning verbs for the giddy pleasure of it. And he says nothing at all about the hearth, yet we richly imaginative readers, with eyes behind our eyes, know it’s sootlessly and spotlessly clean — I wager my parrot on it! Now, I know that “realism” has many different meanings. But under at least one conception, Flaubert, the great modern realist, is still wholly subject to Georgia O’Keefe’s motto.

Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only be selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.

5 Responses to A Simple Soul (2)

  1. Boy is this right. I’ve never seen now the word “realism” gets us anywhere with Flaubert. As a contrast to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it’s a useful word, but otherwise?

  2. Colleen says:

    Even before I read your commentary on the details Flaubert doesn’t provide but which we can so easily imagine, I was imagining the sun shining lazily, as it sunk, through tree branches gently waving the gardening gloves on your hands and the sounds of neighbourhood children playing nearby but seemingly in another world. It’s funny how the mind automatically fills in imaginative details. But at what point is there simply insufficient information – or is it always sufficient?

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      I often liken fictional realities to music that thunders in the silence of one’s head while reading, say, the notation for A Sentimental Education. If this metaphor isn’t entirely mistaken, then maybe insufficient information becomes a problem at precisely the point when the mind can’t translate or convert words, like baton movements, into pleasant, coherent scenes. Just a thunk. Cheers, K

    • But at what point is there simply insufficient information – or is it always sufficient?

      Now there we have one of the great mysteries of fiction! Every great writer comes up with a different answer, and they’re all right.

      Lesser writers do the same thing, and are wrong.

      It makes no sense.

      Sometimes – Flaubert is a good example – Kevin’s conductor metaphor works really well. The smallest flick of the wrist calls in the timpani or trombones. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, occasionally seems to lose his baton, or wander off his stand. So, actually, the conductor metaphor still works.

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