Sunday, November 24, 2013

In Which I Dabble in Great Novels

Over the past month, I read Sophie's Choice, by William Styron, and Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert. The former is considered an important novel of the 20th century, the latter an important novel of the Western canon. Both were compulsively readable, and I felt a mix of relief and satisfaction when I finished each, and I find it really weird that I happened to read them back-to-back like that. They have almost nothing in common aside from prominence, and even in that fashion they are known for different reasons and qualities. But they are both Great Novels.

Sophie's Choice was obviously written with this term in mind. (BTW, who the hell sets out to write a Great Novel about the Holocaust without a serious overabundance of hubris?) Although I found it misogynistic in places and unnecessarily vulgar in others, the book still tugged me along from one page to the next fluidly, and it still shook and wrecked me with regard to the atrocities therein. Ultimately I'd have to call Styron's intentions fulfilled.

But what a flawed Great Novel it is. My copy is a (sort of hilarious-looking) mass market paperback from the early 1980s, and the tagline above the title is "A Novel for Everyone." I can attest that this is not so. If you are African American, or female, or perhaps even Jewish, this novel will insult the hell out of you at some point.

To the left, Tom Servo, apparently unmoved by Sophie's woes

I'm not at all sure how I might have felt about the book if I hadn't seen the movie first. Meryl Streep brought Sophie to life so perfectly that I barely noticed how inconsistent the novel-character is (something Goodreaders pointed out). Plus, the movie makes certain aspects of the last third of the book much clearer, and much more profound. The movie only takes us into Auschwitz twice: once for a fairly long, detailed stay, and once for a sharp stab at the gut. By contrast, the book weaves narratives of Auschwitz and occupied Poland &etc pretty evenly with the summer of 1947 in Brooklyn, giving us more or less equal time in each place. It's structured so beautifully, so skillfully. The thing's built like a model ship, with control of mood and tone that's almost supernatural. But I don't know that I would have appreciated this, nor the characters, without Streep and Kevin Kline and even Peter MacNicol in my mind.

It's a long book, and gawd is it obsessed with sex, and it's written with an unbelievably fancy lexicon (lots of two-dollar words), so I can't really recommend it wholeheartedly. But I loved diving way deep into a good long book, and I kind of loved all the excessive vocabulary even as I rolled my eyes at it, and overall I'm really glad I read it.

I read Madame Bovary back in my high school years, probably over the same summer that I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Slaughterhouse-Five and a bunch of other classics that I read dutifully in youth and didn't understand or didn't like, and now I have to reread them all. I specifically remember why I didn't like Bovary: it had such an excess of detail that I considered superfluous that it bored the hell out of me. Even fifteen years later I remembered that there was a description of a wedding feast that went on and on and on, well beyond my interest in the topic.

Flaubert is one of those writers who comes up over and over in articles that use exemplars of prose to make a point, or in interviews with writers about how they learned to write. I think of these figures as writers' secret writers - the ones who are a lot more famous among writers than they are among the public. Like Alice Munro (well, not anymore) or Raymond Carver. Most writers serious about their craft will hear these names repeatedly, while the average person can get entirely through life without hearing of them at all. I didn't really get why Flaubert belonged to this club, because I thought Bovary was so damn boring, and I especially didn't get why English-speaking writers held his language and style in such high esteem when he wrote in French. So I read Bovary sort-of-again to try and figure out why. After doing a smidge of research, I chose Lydia Davis's translation, published in 2010, which all but the snobbiest of snobs said was the best one yet.

On this read, I still didn't love all the detail. Some of it really did feel superfluous (the wedding feast even did, this time around), even knowing a heckuva lot more now than I did then about how to build a story. But there was definitely, absolutely a black-hole moment, a single page where I was suddenly locked in and I wanted to keep reading until the book was over. Soon enough I found myself talking aloud to the characters about what fools or jerks they were, which is always a strong sign of whether a book's any good. I was fascinated by Flaubert's choice to make this woman the center of this novel, what with her transparent awfulness. And everyone was right about the style. I love his too-long, comma-ridden sentences.

Thing is, Bovary is one of those rare Citizen Kane-type pieces of art: the proto-art, the 1.0 model. It's the item which sets the standard for all which will come after, evolving the form ever further, making the proto-art look clumsy and ordinary in retrospect. I recognized in it the stirrings of 20th century literature, the shift over into an oblique and indifferent manner of storytelling rather than the silly romanticism and buttinsky authorial voice of earlier novels. And it was really a great reading experience, in general, even if it was occasionally less than interesting. I understood better - but not perfectly - why Flaubert is The Shit according to so many writers.

So those were my two dips into Great Novels in the recent past. Right now I'm reading Barry Hannah's Airships (he's another writers' secret writer) and it is preposterously good. One of those voices with such command and skill that I wonder why I bother writing at all.

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