Virginia Euwer Wolff: Considering Flaubert

by Vir­ginia Euw­er Wolff

Flaubert photo
Gus­tave Flaubert

For years I’ve tak­en prim­i­tive com­fort in Gus­tave Flaubert’s mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry remark in a let­ter to a friend: “Last week I spent five days writ­ing one page.”

And Gar­ri­son Keil­lor’s Writer’s Almanac remind­ed us (Dec. 12, 2014) that Flaubert often put in a com­ma one day and took it out the next. Yes, sure, fine, yeah, we all do that, and we can tell the key­board, or the cat, who­ev­er keeps us com­pa­ny, that in these inser­tions and dele­tions we’re hon­or­ing Flaubert and the noble tra­di­tion. But these hours of wifty inde­ci­sive­ness may instead illus­trate my own inabil­i­ty to per­ceive accu­rate­ly, rather than Flaubert’s lofty aesthetic.

In this same Writer’s Almanac we hear that Flaubert said this (trans­lat­ed from the French):

It is a deli­cious thing to write, to be no longer your­self but to move in an entire     uni­verse of your own cre­at­ing. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mis­tress, I rode in a for­est on an autumn after­noon under the yel­low leaves, and I  was also the hors­es, the leaves, the wind, the words my peo­ple uttered, even the red  sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.

We’ve all been told: Write what you know. Some of us have rolled our eyes when we hear it. A cou­ple of decades ago, Win­nie Mor­ris  was the first author I heard say this to that: “Instead of writ­ing what I know, I work at writ­ing what I want to find out about.”

Ah, yes. Did Jean Craig­head George know how she her­self would live with wolves when she sat down to begin Julie of the Wolves? Did Tol­stoy know how Kutu­zov brood­ed? Had Jer­ry Pinkney ever been a majes­tic Serengeti lion in vio­lent dis­tress? We can bet that J.K. Rowl­ing did­n’t even know the Quid­ditch rules when she began.

My hunch: Gus­tave Flaubert, that man of scan­dalous­ly racy mind, knew not a whit or a jot about actu­al­ly being a horse or a leaf. I’m will­ing to guess that instead he paid scrupu­lous atten­tion to things, cul­ti­vat­ing a vis­cer­al sense of life in motion, an immer­sion in the drift of pas­sion­ate giv­ing and tak­ing, using and being used, of hope, sor­row, envy, greed, kind­li­ness, faith and faith­less­ness, of the plucky pulse of plan­et earth breath­ing. How else could he know about “love-drowned eyes”? And those things he had to learn about includ­ed horse and leaf. And he helped him­self to them.

I think that must have been how he was able to force me to the front of my chair and cause me to plead, “Oh, no, Emma! Not him! Please, no!” Just as I want to leap from my seat and shout at Romeo in the tomb: “No! Don’t!” And to cheer Win­nie Fos­ter on as she makes her choice not to drink the water at Tree­gap. And every time I write “for deposit only” on a check, Dicey Tiller­man comes to mind, and I thank Cyn­thia Voigt for let­ting me into that big story.

We set out to make a nar­ra­tive nobody else has writ­ten. Of course it’s scary in there, that room or that cave we enter, alone, not know­ing if those sounds are the voic­es of our sto­ry or of the forces that don’t want us to write it. As an arti­cle of faith, we pay atten­tion. We exam­ine the drip­ping walls of that cave, we find it’s the cave of our uncon­scious, and every­thing lives there: love and hate and envy and devo­tion and betray­al and exu­ber­ance and grief and uproar­i­ous laugh­ter at what mar­velous­ly var­i­ous fools we mor­tals be.

woodpecker photoJust now a female downy wood­peck­er is scoot­ing up a pine tree out­side my win­dow. She does­n’t find an insect in every hole. She keeps hunt­ing, hop­ping about, doing her work, going where she may nev­er have been. I don’t expect ever to be her, but I cer­tain­ly learn lessons from her tenac­i­ty, her rou­tine of scoot­ing, scam­per­ing, soaring.

As I’m con­sid­er­ing Flaubert and wrestling with a recal­ci­trant man­u­script, I’m remind­ed that Mau­rice Rav­el took a year to com­pose the three and a half minute “Bac­cha­nale,” the lush com­mo­tion that con­cludes his Daph­nis et Chloé bal­let. A year to move from the periph­ery, where it may have seemed easy, into the invit­ing and defi­ant heart of the matter.

Some faint melody, some shad­owy sto­ry is wait­ing, just over there. Of course it’s been made before, and by wis­er minds than mine. But maybe I can do it with a dif­fer­ence. Maybe. Make it an eighth-note just there. No, no, wait a minute: Make it two six­teenths. Yes, that’s it, exact­ly. No, I was wrong. Back to the eighth-note. Yes. I think.



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