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Sunday, 23 January 2011

DH Lawrence: Odour of Chrysanthemums

A DH Lawrence story might not survive a writer’s workshop. Many texts don’t, and not always for the right reasons. Paradise Lost might eventually be hacked to the length of a short narrative poem as, for example, its opening lines:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast

Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat…

are met with the kindly-meant questions? ‘John, why tell us what your story means before it has even begun? Surely these lines can go? I like ‘fruit’ and ‘tree’, but, otherwise, isn’t all a little too abstract? And is that how you spell “taste”?’[1]

Editing, too often, means hacking. And often hacking is what might be required, but it was not required of Paradise Lost because Milton’s intention was to write in a grand style, to write an epic poem, to use the English language to create a work that equaled in scope what Homer’s Greek did with The Iliad and The Odyssey, what Virgil did with Latin in The Aeneid, what Dante did in Italian with The Divine Comedy.

Understanding what a writer intends should always be at the forefront of your mind when looking at the work of others. Helping the writer to realise that intention is the true work of the editor.

The most controversial editing of recent times centres around the work of Raymond Carver.

At an early stage in his writing life, Carver came under the aegis of Gordon Lish. No one can question that Carver’s influential style – as pervasive in its influence as Hemingway’s, which it only seems to resemble – was the result of Lish’s interventions.

One only needs – and one should – read ‘Beginners’, the original draft of ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’[2] with its published version.[3]

It is impossible to read both versions without falling into debate. Which is better? Which is truer? Are all Lish’s edits wise? Does the story become Lish’s? Why did Carver accept them – although he was deeply troubled by them? Is his widow wise to release the original versions?

The story of Carver and Lish has become something akin to the short story world’s version of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath: the argument has become a soap opera, the relationship more discussed than the work itself.

What can be said is that Carver’s original is a kinder, more Chekhovian work, intent on sympathy and understanding; Lish’s version takes the heart out of Carver’s draft, but this creates so heartless a prose that it shocks even now as something starkly bold and new. It is not the story as Carver originally intended. It is, however, Carveresque in a way that ‘Beginners’ is not: with ‘Beginners’, Carver wrote a fine story and, in editing it, Lish created a brand.

Imagine DH Lawrence Lished.

Consider the second page of ‘The Odour of Chrysanthemums’, written in 1909, and published in Lawrence’s first collection, A Prussian Officer, so it’s a work that, like Carver’s story comes early in Lawrence’s career. Page 2 is where, I imagine, Lish would have had Lawrence begin the story.

Do we really need all that cumbersome scene-setting?

The edits are in strikethrough and additions to the text underscored/in red.

“John!” There was no answer. She waited, and then said distinctly: “Where are you?”

“Here!” replied a child’s sulky voice from among the bushes.

The woman looked piercingly through the dusk.

“Are you at that brook?” she asked sternly.

For answer the child showed himself before the raspberry-canes that rose like whips. He was a small, sturdy boy of five. He stood quite still, defiantly.

“Oh!” said the mother, conciliated. “I thought you were down at that wet brook — and you remember what I told you —”

The boy did not move or answer.

“Come, come on in,” she said more gently, “it’s getting dark. There’s your grandfather’s engine coming down the line!”

The lad advanced slowly, with resentful, taciturn movement. He was dressed in trousers and waistcoat of cloth that was too thick and hard for the size of the garments. They were his clothes evidently cut down from a man’s clothes.

As they went slowly towards the house He tore at the ragged wisps of chrysanthemums and dropped the petals in handfuls along the path.

“Don’t do that — it does looks nasty,” said his mother. He refrained, and she, suddenly pitiful, She broke off a twig with three or four wan flowers and held them it against her face. When mother and son reached the yard her hand hesitated, and instead of laying the flower aside, she and then pushed it in her apron-band. The mother and son stood at the foot of the three steps looking across the bay of lines at the passing home of the miners. The trundle of

A small train was imminent. Its engine loomed past the house and came to a stop opposite the gate.

The engine-driver, a short man with round grey beard, leaned out of the cab high above the woman.

“Have you got a cup of tea?” he said in a cheery, hearty fashion. It was her father. She went in, saying she would mash. Directly, she returned. “I didn’t come to see you on Sunday.began the little grey-bearded man.

“I didn’t expect you,” said his daughter.

The engine-driver winced; then, reassuming his cheery, airy manner, he said:

“Oh, have you heard then? Well, and what do you think —?”

“I think it is soon enough.she replied.

At her brief censure the little man made an impatient gesture, and said coaxingly, yet with dangerous coldness:

Well, what’s a man to do? It’s no sort of life for a man of my years, to sit at my own hearth like a stranger. And If I’m going to marry again it may as well be soon as late — what does it matter to anybody?”

The woman did not reply, but turned and went into the house,. The man in the engine-cab stood assertive, till she returneding with a cup of tea and a piece of bread and butter on a plate. She went up the steps and stood near the footplate of the hissing engine.

What’s gained by this bareness?

The pace increases. The spareness of the writing, the deliberate paucity of detail, explanation, qualification, and the blank setting make the characters more alienated from each other, their exchanges more hostile and the tone more heartless.

What’s lost?

The dusk in which the boy hides, the darkness the woman looks piercingly through – and, remember, the story ends in a meditation on death and how it divides us, with a woman attempting to pierce an even greater darkness. The raspberry canes like ‘whips’ that are of a piece with the first paragraph’s depiction of a world that is essentially cruel. The boy’s hostility and distance from the mother – the ripping of the flowers, the throwing away of the petals so that the mother’s holding of the flowers to her face is both a riposte that shows her essential gentleness and love of beauty as the boy apes the manners of the men in this world. Even excising the position of her father, high in his cab or ‘standing assertive’ while the woman looks up, we lose another detail that evoke this world where women fetch and carry. The details are no longer there to catch in the reader’s mind; meanings are made blunter, less resonant or are just lost.

If you think this is just an exercise, then – for less severe but still telling revisions – study the University of Nottingham site: Odour of Chrysanthemums: A Text in Process, where one can compare Lawrence’s original version with the corrected proofs from The English Review, the magazine that first published the story in 1910[4] and the story as it appeared when published in A Prussian Officer in 1914. You can click on each page and compare what has been excised, amended and rewritten at each stage, (highlighted in yellow, blue and red). The cuts are far less severe than those incurred by Lish in Carver’s original story, but they still intrigue:

For example, in Lawrence’s original, we have:

"Here!" replied a child's sulky voice from among the bushes that crowded darkly on the bank of the brook. The woman looked piercingly through the dusk.

The highlighted phrase is excised for the magazine version of the story and for its published version too. The edits to the story in the magazine version were imposed on Lawrence –– but the version we read today is the one that appears in 1914, the one in The Prussian Officer.

Lawrence sent the original manuscript of ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ to the English Review on 9 December 1909; it seems likely that the magazine’s editor Ford Madox Hueffer, who first suggested that Lawrence should write a story drawing upon the working-class colliery life that he knew so well.

Lawrence corrected the proofs in March, and he was asked to reduce the length of the story by five pages. In March 1911, Austin Harrison - now the magazine’s editor - asked for more changes. Lawrence heavily revised the old page proofs, but this time added eight manuscript pages to contain his new corrections (see Corrected proofs); his fiancée, Louie Burrows, wrote out a fair copy, which was sent to the English Review and the story was published in June 1911 (see English Review (1911)).

In July 1914, for the volume publication, Lawrence inserted additional material into the text and rewrote the ending yet again; in October, he corrected the proofs heavily. The story in its final form appeared in The Prussian Officer in November 1914 (see The Prussian Officer and Other Stories (1914)).

None of the edits caused him the heartache that Lish’s edits were said to cause Carver’s, but, as was Lawrence’s situation, Lish had insisted that the story would not be published without the cuts and so Carver said yes, no matter how deep, complicated and lingering his regret.

Lawrence’s editors were people like Ford Maddox Heuffer, Colin Duckworth and Edward Garnett - it is through his wife, Constance Garnett, and her translations that most of us know Chekhov – but Carver was also fortunate in that Iowa his tutors were John Cheever and John Gardner.

In John Cheever, Carver met a fellow-drinker and short story writer and, although different in class and kind as men and writers, it is curious how, after death, their names are often mentioned in conjunction[5]. But it is John Gardner who is most relevant to this discussion. Less well-known now as a novelist, through his books, The Art of Fiction and Becoming a Novelist and others, he has become a major influence on the way Creative Writing is taught in universities. The two books are testy, sometimes, dense, often dogmatic, but genuinely helpful books on the craft of writing, and in the first, he writes of an exercise that returns us to ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’, and that page I completely Lished.

John Gardner in The Art of Fiction describes an exercise in which students are asked to describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not, he insists, mention the son or the war or death.

If worked or hard enough, a wonderful image will be evoked, a real barn would stand before us but one filled with mysterious meaning.

Another variant has a woman who has just given birth looking out of a window at a tree. Her child may be well and hale, sickly or stillborn, but we will only know from the way the writer describes the tree[6].

Written long before Gardner suggested the exercise, the first page of ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ – in fact, every page Lawrence ever wrote – exemplifies the practice. It is soaked in the author’s intention, every word choice, verb or noun, adjective or adverb, and the syntax itself. If Lish made Carver monochrome, taciturn and skeletal, Lawrence is purple, full-throated and generously made, but he is just as purposeful in his writing.

The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston — with seven full wagons. It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed, but the colt that it startled from among the gorse, which still flickered indistinctly in the raw afternoon, outdistanced it at a canter. A woman, walking up the railway line to Underwood, drew back into the hedge, held her basket aside, and watched the footplate of the engine advancing. The trucks thumped heavily past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped between the jolting black wagons and the hedge; then they curved away towards the coppice where the withered oak leaves dropped noiselessly, while the birds, pulling at the scarlet hips beside the track, made off into the dusk that had already crept into the spinney. In the open, the smoke from the engine sank and cleaved to the rough grass. The fields were dreary and forsaken, and in the marshy strip that led to the whimsey, a reedy pit-pond, the fowls had already abandoned their run among the alders, to roost in the tarred fowl-house. The pit-bank loomed up beyond the pond, flames like red sores licking its ashy sides, in the afternoon’s stagnant light. Just beyond rose the tapering chimneys and the clumsy black head-stocks of Brinsley Colliery. The two wheels were spinning fast up against the sky, and the winding-engine rapped out its little spasms. The miners were being turned up.

The engine whistled as it came into the wide bay of railway lines beside the colliery, where rows of trucks stood in harbour.

Miners, single, trailing and in groups, passed like shadows diverging home. At the edge of the ribbed level of sidings squat a low cottage, three steps down from the cinder track. A large bony vine clutched at the house, as if to claw down the tiled roof. Round the bricked yard grew a few wintry primroses. Beyond, the long garden sloped down to a bush-covered brook course. There were some twiggy apple trees, winter-crack trees, and ragged cabbages. Beside the path hung disheveled pink chrysanthemums, like pink cloths hung on bushes. A woman came stooping out of the felt-covered fowl-house, half-way down the garden. She closed and padlocked the door, then drew herself erect, having brushed some bits from her white apron.

That first sentence, before any character is introduced – before any character can be introduced – gives us the locomotive engine clanking, stumbling, and loaded full of coal. Whatever human struggles the story will tell, the setting is given first because setting determines what happens here: the price of those full wagons is paid by the lives of the people who live and work in this environment, necessary, discordant, rapacious.

Its loud threats of speed startle the colt and the woman must draw back into the hedge at its advent as it thumps heavily past, slow and inevitable, while she crouches, insignificant and trapped.

Here the oak leaves are withered and birds make off into the dusk: a deadly land where the smoke sinks and – such an animate verb - cleaves to the grass.

The pit looms up, flames like red sores licking its ashy sides. The wheels spinning against a sky stagnant with light, the chimneys, the head-stocks, the winding engine in spasms as it pulls the miners – appropriately the last sentence of this darkly majestic paragraph – out of the bowels of the earth (where at the end one of them will be returned) to pass like shadows diverging home in the next. [7]

The editor of The English Review, Ford Maddox Heuffer who accepted the story in its entirety – the edits made were done by another, less impressed editor and total some five pages - said of this story:

…this man knows. He knows how to open a story with a sentence of the right cadence for holding the attention. He knows how to construct a paragraph. He knows the life he is writing about in a landscape just sufficiently contrasted with a casual word here and there. You can trust him for the rest. [8]

A contemporary editor might quarrel with so heavily adjectival a piece of writing. A workshop might quarrel with ‘still flickered indistinctly’ – how distinct is a flicker – and a workshop might question ‘thumped heavily’ – aren’t thumps generally taken to be heavy unless distinguished as light? Individually, one might argue each choice – and if you were its writer, you should, and we should witness only the results of that quarrel – but the general effect is to create a world imbued by thought, by spirit, a world in which this story can happen fully and resonantly.

It is full-blooded writing because the approach is full-blooded. This is fine writing, and never before had such attention been lavished on subjects like this. Lawrence is writing here of characters, of a class, a region that went either under-represented or unrepresented both in his time and before it – certainly not represented in this fulsome manner.

His aim is not political – except that might be one of its effects[9] – but moral, psychological, even spiritual. The language he develops gives these characters the dignity, the depth, the importance of aristocrats. The world they inhabit, the world that crushes them to death or into ignominious living and thwarted relationships, is evoked in full seriousness.

I have the impression with Lawrence – and with other writers not otherwise or immediately comparable such John Keats, Colette or Whitman – that, when he was at his desk, he just sat more deeply in his chair, that he more deeply inhabited his body as he wrote. Whatever the thread he span his webs from, it came from deeper within than most other writers. There isn’t a page of Lawrence, from his novels, his short stories, his poems, his essays, his plays, his letters – that feels like writing that isn’t aimed at reaching a deeper level of understanding or a more sustained apprehension of the physical world and how it works on us and how we exist within it, no matter that, at times, he is maverick, wrong-headed or perverse - although the wonder is how often he is none of these things, as here in ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums.’ So much of what he is was doing – and he did so much in a life that was a restless pilgrimage complicated by poverty, sickness and controversy – he was doing for the first time, doing it alone, and against the will of the world.

I have concentrated on the opening pages of this story, but a study of the final pages is yields riches, its meanings multiple and eloquently made[10]. The uncorrected proofs show a more contracted ending that comes to be amplified in the magazine version and re-addressed significantly for the book version. The original version of the story is rich with a mothers contempt of her spendthrift alcoholic husband; Lawrence described it as “full of my childhood’s atmosphere”’[11]; and his novel, Sons and Lovers, is the best expression of this, but in the final version of this story, the one we read, there is a fuller understanding of both husband and wife, and the world made both of them.

[1] This not being a patch on Billy Collins’ ‘Workshop’: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=176048

[2] http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2007/12/24/071224fi_fiction_carver?printable=true

[3] http://www.newyorker.com/online/2007/12/24/071224on_onlineonly_carver?printable=true

[4] He was paid £10: see, p93, DH Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider, John Worthen, Penguin, 2006

[5] For example, David Means, a peerless short story writer from this generation, who discusses both writers before reading a Carver story. ‘Chef’s House’, for this New Yorker podcast: http://www.newyorker.com/online/2010/10/18/101018on_audio_means

[6] This is only tangentially related but it allows me to mention a favourite poem: ‘The Transparent Man’ by Anthony Hecht: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-transparent-man/

[7] The uncorrected proof of the story does not have so swift a transition between the miners rising up from the earth to pass like shadows diverging home but a more detailed description of their manner and appearance, albeit in the same register as the rest of the paragraph.

[8] p67 , Worthen. Ford Maddox Heuffer, later and now better known as Ford Maddox Ford, knew something about how to write a paragraph, too, and ‘how to open a story with a sentence of the right cadence for holding the attention: Here is the opening of his peerless and perfect novel, The Good Soldier:

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy—or, rather with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove's with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them. This is, I believe, a state of things only possible with English people of whom, till today, when I sit down to puzzle out what I know of this sad affair, I knew nothing whatever. Six months ago I had never been to England, and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.

[9] Ford was particularly welcoming of a writer from Lawrence’s background and the editing of the magazine version - made by anther editor - emphasises the social commentary more than the original and the final published version: Lawrence was not keen on being so pigeonholed.

[10] The Nottingham site has four related essays on the manuscripts of the story that address all the key changes and shifts in emphases http://odour.nottingham.ac.uk/critical.asp

[11]quoted p11 Worthen

Friday, 21 January 2011

Flaubert's 'A Simple Heart' and Chekhov's 'The Darling'

Tolstoy recognised Chekhov’s particular genius with a modesty and insight that does not always characterise his literary judgements: for example, Shakespeare he considered ‘ordinary’ and Maupassant, at his worst, was no more ‘moral filth’ but:

…as an artist Chekhov cannot even be compared with the old Russian writers— Turgenev, Dostoevsky, or myself. Chekhov has his own manner, like the Impressionists. You see a man daubing on whatever paint happens to be near at hand, apparently without selection, and it seems as though these paints bear no relation to one another. But if you step back a certain distance and look again, you will get a complete, over-all impression. Before you there is a vivid, unchallengeable picture of nature.[1]

Tolstoy characterises Chekhov as a writer who saw differently from his peers, his work only appearing to be a series of glances, but, in truth, the product of a sustained and original gaze.

Chekhov's ‘The Darling’ was a particular favourite among Chekhov’s stories and Maxim Gorky recalls Tolstoy speaking of it with rapture to a group of listeners, one of whom was Chekhov:

‘It is like lace,’ he said, ‘made by a chaste young girl. There were such lace makers in olden times who used to depict all their lives, all their dreams of happiness in the pattern. They dreamed in designs of all that was dear to them, wove all their pure, uncertain love into their lace.’[2]

It is a tender evocation of a story that is not, in itself, wholly tender. Tolstoy even wrote an essay[3] on ‘The Darling’ in which he claimed that Chekhov may have written the story with the intention of satirising Olenka and all such women who unthinkingly devote their lives to men, but, Tolstoy asserted, Chekhov achieved, instead, a story that was a riposte to all who proposed women should be the equal or independent of men:

(Chekhov) intended to curse, but the god of poetry forbade him, and commanded him to bless. And he did bless, and unconsciously clothed this sweet creature in such an exquisite radiance that she will always remain a type of what a woman can be in order to be happy herself, and to make the happiness of those with whom destiny throws her.

This, he claimed, was the effect of the story and, proving that ‘what makes the story so excellent is that the effect is unintentional’ Tolstoy recalled how.

I learnt to ride a bicycle in a hall large enough to drill a division of soldiers. At the other end of the hall a lady was learning. I thought I must be careful to avoid getting into her way, and began looking at her. And as I looked at her I began unconsciously getting nearer and nearer to her, and in spite of the fact that, noticing the danger, she hastened to retreat, I rode down upon her and knocked her down -- that is, I did the very opposite of what I wanted to do, simply because I concentrated my attention upon her. The same thing has happened to Chekhov, but in an inverse sense: he wanted to knock the Darling down, and, concentrating upon her the close attention of the poet, he raised her up.[4]

Tolstoy is misguided in believing that, despite himself, Chekhov wrote a hymn to the submissive woman, but right in considering that creating her was an act of attention by Chekhov, a sustained and rigorous gaze, but it strives neither to be judgmental nor definitive. Tolstoy, most especially in his latter days, felt art should have a moral thrust. Its business was to answer the question of how one should live, and the art he admired was an art that shared and expressed his own moral certainty.[5] For Chekhov, famously, there were no answers: one’s efforts went into framing the question, and not supplying the answer. In Tolstoy’s later work the moralist intrudes, but never in Chekhov’s. Chekhov, in this regard, is like Flaubert, who declared:

The artist must be in his work as God is in creation, invisible and all-powerful; one must sense him everywhere but never see him.

Maupassant, for Chekhov, was an inspiration – the first modern writer, one who seemed to Maupassant without a moral agenda, a writer intent on looking and not judging. Maupassant, too, equated good writing with skilled observation.

There is an unexpected side to everything; the smallest thing has something unknown in it; we must find it.[6]

Maupassant took lessons in looking, and he took them from Flaubert. Maupassant was well placed enough in his associations as a younger writer to come under the tutelage of Louis Bouilhet and Gustave Flaubert. Bouilhet was a poet and head librarian in Rouen and Flaubert had been a close friend of Maupassant’s late uncle. The two men put the youthful Maupassant through what was something of a Creative Writing course.

For seven years, the young Maupassant did not attempt to publish his work but sent everything he wrote to Flaubert, and, the following Sunday over lunch, Flaubert

…little by little, hammered into me two or three precepts that summed up his long and patient teachings. One of these precepts was to be original: 'If you have any originality, you must first dig it out. If you don’t have any, you must get some.[7]

Originality, for Flaubert, was a question of attention. He regularly set Maupassant the task of describing something ordinary and familiar – ‘a blazing fire or a tree in a plain' – but, to describe it successfully, Maupassant had to search for the ‘unexplored’ element in it because, Flaubert believed,

we are accustomed to seeing things only through the memory of what others have said about them.

Next, Maupassant recalled:

…he forced me to describe, in a few phrases, a creature or an object so that it was clearly distinguishable from all other creatures or objects of the same race or species.

The creature or object might be a grocer on his doorstep, a concierge smoking his pipe, or a cab-horse in a row of cabs. The challenge was, ‘with a single word,’ to show how that particular grocer, concierge, or cab-horse resembled no other.[8] This was the search for le mot juste: the exact word, the precise word – verb, noun, adjective – that would recreate the creature or object for the reader:

One should never be content with approximation; one should never try to avoid the difficulty by resorting to subterfuge - even if it fools the reader—or to linguistic trickery.[9]

This is how Maupassant described his writing course in ‘The Novel’, one of the few texts in which he discussed his own techniques, but it has been suggested that some of the other lessons he was given can be deduced from Flaubert’s introduction to Bouilhet’s Dernières Chansons (1872). Here, Flaubert declared, art should neither:

…teach, correct, nor moralise…dénouements are not conclusions; no general inferences can be drawn from a particular case…Prose, like verse, must be written so that it can be read out loud. Poorly written sentences never pass the test: they tighten the chest and impede the beating of the heart…style goes straight to the point and leaves no impression of the author himself: the word disappears in the clarity of the thought, or rather, by sticking so closely to the thought, leaves it entirely unhampered.[10]

In Flaubert’s work, in Maupassant’s and in Chekhov’s, we witness the result of such principles in the clarity and specificity of the prose, the seamless and fluent style, and the complicated symbolism of the Felicité’s parrot – is Flaubert mocking piety or celebrating it as a human need? If Olenka is a fool, where do we find Chekhov saying this outright – if at all?

The tutoring came to an end when Maupassant wrote his first great short story, ‘Boule de Suif.’[11] Flaubert edited the story, considered the completed tale ‘a masterpiece’ and died three weeks later. Maupassant helped prepare his body for burial,

…bathing it in eau de Cologne, dressing it in silk underwear and a suit, complete with waistcoat, cravat and skin gloves, and brushing the famous moustache.[12]

In this description of preparing the body, it is the number of details - the careful accounting of them – the attention to detail - the 'silk' underwear, the 'skin gloves' and, especially, the brushing of the ‘famous moustache’ that evoke Flaubert's lingering presence, Maupassant's tenderness and the debt to be honoured. These are the details that make a funereal moment blush into life.

Maupassant learned his lessons well.[13]

Three years before this – and while those lessons were in progress – Flaubert wrote Three Tales, of which ‘A Simple Heart’ is the first. ‘A Simple Heart’ exemplifies the writerly craft he so effectively instilled in Maupassant.

There is much to say about Three Tales and the sense in which the small book is the culmination of all his pre-occupations as a writer, but the focus here is ‘A Simple Heart’ and its relation to Chekhov’s ‘The Darling’.

Both are accounts of women. Both deny themselves complicated plots. Both, in short forms, take the long view of a life, and both concern themselves with love, love both with and without an object.

‘A Simple Heart’ opens with a cameo of Felicité and the context in which she exists. From the start there is a wonderful and noticeable specificity:

For a hundred francs a year, she cooked and did the housework, washed, ironed, mended, harnessed the horse, fattened the poultry, made the butter and remained faithful to her mistress--although the latter was by no means an agreeable person…Summer and winter she wore a dimity kerchief fastened in the back with a pin, a cap which concealed her hair, a red skirt, grey stockings, and an apron with a bib like those worn by hospital nurses. Her face was thin and her voice shrill. When she was twenty-five, she looked forty. After she had passed fifty, nobody could tell her age; erect and silent always, she resembled a wooden figure working automatically.[14]

It is a detailed summary of the character, but it seems to end with a dismissal: is this our heroine? What will animate this wooden figure?

Abused and unregarded since birth, Felicité is presented as a victim, one with a tendency, that later becomes a habit, for reverence: this, in itself, might be the definition of a martyr, but Felicité is no simple victim. After being abandoned by Theodore, her first love, she is in great distress but quickly recovers her equanimity

The poor girl's sorrow was frightful. She threw herself on the ground, she cried and called on the Lord, and wandered around desolately until sunrise. Then she went back to the farm, declared her intention of leaving, and at the end of the month, after she had received her wages, she packed all her belongings in a handkerchief and started for Pont-l'Eveque.

This is the first of several instances when she shows a vigour and resourcefulness that surprises others, but of which she seems unaware such as the episode when she fends off the bull, or the incredible long walk overnight taken to see her nephew leave port, or the way she chases and catches up with the carriage taking Mme Aubain to the dying Virginie.

In both the protagonists of ‘The Darling’ and ‘A Simple Heart’, there is a lack of awareness, a lack of self-image. In ‘The Darling’, when Olenka is left bereft by two dead husbands and an unreliable lover, she vanishes even to herself. Olenka is made human, is made purposeful, by her love. She is nothing unless he loves. In love, she parrots her lover’s words. Felicité, too, is nothing to herself. She, too, is a parrot:

And Felicité worshipped devoutly, while enjoying the coolness and the stillness of the church. As for the dogma, she could not understand it and did not even try. The priest discoursed, the children recited, and she went to sleep, only to awaken with a start when they were leaving the church and their wooden shoes clattered on the stone pavement. In this way, she learned her catechism, her religious education having been neglected in her youth; and thenceforth she imitated all Virginia's religious practices, fasted when she did, and went to confession with her. At the Corpus-Christi Day they both decorated an

When Virginia's turn came, Felicité leaned forward to watch her, and through that imagination which springs from true affection, she at once became the child, whose face and dress became hers, whose heart beat in her bosom, and when Virginia opened her mouth and closed her lids, she did likewise and came very near fainting.

The following day, she presented herself early at the church so as to receive communion from the cure. She took it with the proper feeling, but did not experience the same delight as on the previous day.

There is always the temptation to go inward when investigating character, to ignore the externals of a life and dig up the secret within. In both texts, the inner lives of the characters are narrow. There is, seemingly, little booty to be had. Not every character is a Hamlet or a Mrs Dalloway. They seem to offer less, but it is a matter of looking and not of judging.

Flaubert’s story covers the long arc of Felicité’s outwardly undramatic and unremarkable life and one of the signs of Flaubert’s immense skill as a fiction writer is the way in which he conveys the passing of time. He does not plod in his account of the passing years or appear to skip from incident to incident.

His ability to create a scene is evident – Virginie’s first communion, the horses in the sky, the procession that coincides with Felicité’s death are just a few examples of when the writer lingers and carefully showcases a significant moment, event or exchange, but the technique most vital to Flaubert’s handling of time is the rendering of a habitual action as if it, too, were a dramatic scene.

Take the ‘Horses in the Sky’ passage in ‘A Simple Heart’

When she reached the Calvary, instead of turning to the right, she turned to the left and lost herself in coal-yards; she had to retrace her steps; some people she spoke to advised her to hasten. She walked helplessly around the harbour filled with vessels, and knocked against hawsers. Presently the ground sloped abruptly, lights flittered to and fro, and she thought all at once that she had gone mad when she saw some horses in the sky.

Others, on the edge of the dock, neighed at the sight of the ocean. A derrick pulled them up in the air and dumped them into a boat, where passengers were bustling about among barrels of cider, baskets of cheese and bags of meal; chickens cackled, the captain swore and a cabin boy rested on the railing, apparently indifferent to his surroundings. Felicité, who did not recognise him, kept shouting: "Victor!" He suddenly raised his eyes, but while she was preparing to rush up to him, they withdrew the gangplank.

The packet, towed by singing women, glided out of the harbour. Her hull squeaked and the heavy waves beat up against her sides. The sail had turned and nobody was visible; —and on the ocean, silvered by the light of the moon, the vessel formed a black spot that grew dimmer and dimmer, and finally disappeared.

This is a scene. It is rendered with the simplicity and visual clarity one might expect of a film script: one could, with only slightest changes, turn it into one, and, remember, a film can only be made of scenes, not summary:


Long shot: FELICITÉ reaches the Calvary outside the town, looks right and left, turns right.


Mid shot: FELICITÉ stands in the empty street, looks left and right, turns left.


Mid shot: FELICITÉ stands in another empty street, looks left and right, and then walks on.


Long shot: FELICITÉ surrounded by the black slack heaps of the coal yard, dwarfed by them.


Long shot: moonlit, a harbour filled with vessels.


Close up: a boat knock against hawsers.

Pull back to midshot and Felicité’s feet as she walks past and we follow her as the path slopes abruptly and then, from behind her, we pan round to see the harbour, its lights flittering to and fro. Close up of FELICITÉ, searching the skyline. Offscreen, the sudden scream and braying of several horses. FELICITÉ, terrified, looks up. Silhouetted against the moon, several horses suspended against the sky, manes flaring, legs galloping on air, the screams increased etc…

This is a scene that Flaubert presents in detail. We are ‘in the moment’, so to speak. A scene is where the writer attends to the actual moment, dramatises it.

Summary is an account of more than one moment – or when the moment described is given only cursory attention. Summary is where in your stories patient tutors scrawl in angry capital letters: Show, don’t tell.

Summary (or telling) accelerates a narrative – events are being compressed. Summary, by its very nature, condenses time. One can summarise a novel in a sentence or even a title – War and Peace? But with this speed comes distance and detachment. It is much harder to make summary as vivid or immediate to a reader.

Making a scene or dramatising an event (showing) decelerates a narrative. The narrative slows down for dialogue, for the description of a room or a gesture. Detail gives weight, and suggests to the reader that this moment or this exchange is significant.

Too much scene-making, however, and the pace can be meandering or static. The story eventually stalls. This is why most fiction shifts between these two modes.

In Flaubert and Chekhov, however, telling is a showing; they render summary as if it were a scene, as here, from ‘The Darling.’

Now she was completely alone. Her father had long been dead, and his armchair lay in the attic covered with dust and minus one leg. She got thin and homely, and the people who met her on the street no longer looked at her as they had used to, nor smiled at her. Evidently her best years were over, past and gone, and a new, dubious life was to begin which it were better not to think about.

In the evening Olenka sat on the steps and heard the music playing and the rockets bursting in the Tivoli; but it no longer aroused any response in her. She looked listlessly into the yard, thought of nothing, wanted nothing, and when night came on, she went to bed and dreamed of nothing but the empty yard. She ate and drank as though by compulsion.

…Gradually the town grew up all around. The Gypsy Road had become a street, and where the Tivoli and the lumber-yard had been, there were now houses and a row of side streets. How quickly time flies! Olenka's house turned gloomy, the roof rusty, the shed slanting. Dock and thistles overgrew the yard. Olenka herself had aged and grown homely. In the summer she sat on the steps, and her soul was empty and dreary and bitter. When she caught the breath of spring, or when the wind wafted the chime of the cathedral bells, a sudden flood of memories would pour over her, her heart would expand with a tender warmth, and the tears would stream down her cheeks. But that lasted only a moment. Then would come emptiness again, and the feeling, What is the use of living? The black kitten Bryska rubbed up against her and purred softly, but the little creature's caresses left Olenka untouched. That was not what she needed. What she needed was a love that would absorb her whole being, her reason, her whole soul, that would give her ideas, an object in life, that would warm her aging blood. And she shook the black kitten off her skirt angrily, saying:

‘Go away! What are you doing here?’

And so day after day, year after year not a single joy, not a single opinion.[15]

Notice how seamlessly that summary of actions and events – the passage of time - melted into the scene with the cat: a moment in that passage of time. Flaubert covers the months and years in the same way – with the specificity of detail a writer often only gives a scene:

Each morning, out of habit, Felicité entered Virginia's room and gazed at the walls. She missed combing her hair, lacing her shoes, tucking her in her bed, and the bright face and little hand when they used to go out for a walk. In order to occupy herself she tried to make lace. But her clumsy fingers broke the threads; she had no heart for anything, lost her sleep and ‘wasted away,’ as she put it.

In order to have some distraction, she asked leave to receive the visits of her nephew Victor.

He would come on Sunday, after church, with ruddy cheeks and bared chest, bringing with him the scent of the country. She would set the table and they would sit down opposite each other, and eat their dinner; she ate as little as possible, herself, to avoid any extra expense, but would stuff him so with food that he would finally go to sleep. At the first stroke of vespers, she would wake him up, brush his trousers, tie his cravat and walk to church with him, leaning on his arm with maternal pride.

His parents always told him to get something out of her, either a package of brown sugar, or soap, or brandy, and sometimes even money. He brought her his clothes to mend, and she accepted the task gladly, because it meant another visit from him.

We have a habit of thinking the short story is about a moment, intensely observed, a moment of change, of the chance for change or revelation. Here are two stories that take account of years with characters that decay with time but do not, in essence, change although one is granted what seems, to her at least a revelation.

But whether a story covers an hour or a century, a short story writer always handling time and Chekhov and Flaubert more vividly exemplify this.

The passage of time is there in the way Flaubert and Chekhov depicts its effects. In her youth, the sight of Olenka’s plumply naked shoulder reduces her first husband to a sigh. By the story’s end, she is old and stout, embarrassingly chasing the callow youth she has elected to love, a youth who even in his dreams shouts at her and fends her off. And there is a falling off in the quality of objects of her love: the theatre owner and then the timber merchant who marry her, the Vet who does not, the vet’s son who repulses her as he grows older, curses her in his dreams.

Time in both stories is a record of decline.

The sturdy Felicité who can outpace a horse and carriage in her prime and outface an angry bull grows deaf, lame and blind. Her mistress loses her daughter, her money, and her status. Even the minor characters that thread the story are marked by time, such as Bourais

Monsieur Bourais, a retired lawyer. His bald head and white cravat, the ruffling of his shirt, his flowing brown coat, the special way he bent his elbows when taking snuff, his whole person, in fact, produced in her the kind of awe one feels in the presence of a great man

A counsellor to Mme Aubain, a respected authority, there comes a point in the story when he seems suddenly to slip from his prestigious position when Loulou enters the story

Bourais' face must have appeared very funny to Loulou. As soon as he saw him he would begin to roar. His voice re-echoed in the yard, and the neighbours would come to the windows and begin to laugh, too; and in order that the parrot might not see him, Monsieur Bourais edged along the wall, pushed his hat over his eyes to hide his profile, and entered by the garden door, and the looks he gave the bird lacked affection.

The slip in respectability is not sudden. It has simply been unnoticed, unattended, by the characters, except the parrot.[16] The parrot sees before anyone else – because the parrot truly sees him, having no investment in Bourais, no agenda: in this Loulou is an artist – that Bourais is sham. Towards the story’s close, they and we learn:

…of Monsieur Bourais' death in an inn. There were rumours of suicide, which were confirmed; doubts concerning his integrity arose. Madame Aubain looked over her accounts and soon discovered his numerous embezzlements; sales of wood which had been concealed from her, false receipts, etc. Furthermore, he had an illegitimate child, and entertained a friendship for ‘a person in Dozule.’

In Flaubert, the body withers, reputations crumble, and so do objects

Virginie's frocks were hung under a shelf where there were three dolls, some hoops, a doll-house, and a basin which she had made. Felicité and Madame Aubain also took out the skirts, the handkerchiefs, and the stockings and spread them on the beds, before putting them away again. The sun fell on the piteous things, disclosing their spots and the creases formed by the motions of the body. The atmosphere was warm and blue, and a blackbird trilled in the garden; everything seemed to live in happiness. They found a little hat of soft brown plush, but it was entirely moth-eaten. Felicité asked for it. Their eyes met and filled with tears; at last the mistress opened her arms and the servant threw herself against her breast and they hugged each other and giving vent to their grief in a kiss that equalised them for a moment.

Think, too, of Mme Aubain’s house, so lovingly itemised in the story’s first page and monitor how it changes throughout the story, how the furniture is moved from room to room, then sold off, how the house empties and falls asunder, the roof rots, the shutters no longer open.

And, of course, there is Loulou, the parrot. At first sight:

His body was green, his head blue, the tips of his wings were pink and his breast was golden.

After death, he is stuffed

…screwed into a mahogany pedestal, with his foot in the air, his head on one side, and in his beak a nut, which the naturalist, from love of the sumptuous, had gilded.

And then

Although he was not a corpse, he was eaten up by worms; one of his wings was broken and the wadding was coming out of his body…Sometimes the sun fell through the window on his glass eye, and lighted a spark in it which sent Felicité into ecstasy.

The parrot an object of veneration not just to Felicité but also it becomes one in the service that ends the story when it stands upon an altar - although only its skull is visible on the altar:

…hidden beneath roses, showed nothing but his blue head, which looked like a piece of lapis lazuli.

In the introduction to the Penguin edition of Three Tales, Geoffrey wall comments on the tales:

…each portray a certain religious experience, but they do so in (a) contemporary idiom…the sacred survives, oddly disguised, even in the century of wide-awake bourgeois techno-miracles.[17]

Wall goes on to quote from one of Flaubert’s letters in which he writes:

I do not know (nobody knows) the meaning of body and soul, where one begins and the other begins. We feel the play of energy and that is all.

It is this play of energy that complicates the details that Flaubert deploys in ‘A Simple Heart.’ Loulou is a parrot, a dead parrot, a stuffed parrot, but not to Felicité: it is the object of her love; it is the Holy Spirit. Trace the references in the story to birds, to the sky, to those horses hoisted into the air, to the Loulou, living and resurrected only to rot again.

One of the markers of time in ‘A Simple Heart’ is the Feats of Corpus Christi, a Catholic celebration of the Eucharist in which a wafer of bread becomes the body of Christ while remaining a wafer of bread. In such a way, Loulou is both parrot and Holy Spirit because that is how Felicité attends to it.

As Felicité ages, as her eyesight fails, as her hearing diminishes, her world narrows. Everything passes her by. The parrot is all she sees and even seems to hear. Like a saint intent on decreation, her attention on the world concentrates upon the parrot and she sees through it, through its reality, to some supernatural dimension,

Pay enough attention to a thing – to anything- and even the tooth of a dog will glow, and a parrot will not only partakes of God’s grace, but also become it – and still be a parrot.

[1] http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/smmnsej/tolstoy/chap8.htm. Tolstoy’s opinions seem dismissive when given in such a summary, but, at length, they reveal a great deal about his own purposes as an artist. One of the best reflections on Tolstoy’s literary judgements is George Orwell’s ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’: http://orwell.ru/library/essays/lear/english/e_ltf This site also carries Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’ http://orwell.ru/library/essays/wiw/ and the highly influential ‘Politics and the English Language’ http://orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/ . For those of you whose experience of Orwell includes ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ the breadth, incisiveness and accessibility of Orwell’s essays will be a particular pleasure.

[2] ibid

[3] http://www.submissivewife.org/publicresources/tolstoy_darling.html


[5] That said, in the work of his prime, what distinguishes Tolstoy is his almost complete understanding of what it is to be human and contradictory. The anecdote about the bicycle might more especially apply to his own original intentions in writing of adultery in Anna Karenina, a novel that may have began as a critique of an adulterous woman but that resulted in a work with a rich, generous and varied presentation of what family and marriage involve as well as a comprehensive understanding of the question of ‘how one should live’; in that novel and in War and Peace, he arrives at ‘a complete, overall impression.’ As a critic and thinker, he was a dogmatic: as an artist, he was incapable of being so, which is why, perhaps, he came to disown the novel as a means of pursuing his philosophy.

[6] See ‘The Novel’, G. de Maupassant, Pierre and Jean, Penguin, 2006.

[7] As well as de Maupassant’s essay, the relationship is also covered in Graham Robb’s review of Maupassant’s Afloat: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/feb/26/cruising-with-genius

[8] Quite simply, to see this in practice, note how each of the characters in ‘A Simple Heart’ and ‘The Darling’ is introduced, not just the main characters, but also especially those who pass by, appear for just a sentence. Each could set off to become the protagonist in a story of his or her own.

[9] Ibid

[10] ibid

[11] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3090/3090-h/3090-h.htm#2H_4_0003

[12] Ibid

[13] Tolstoy, who was repelled by Maupassant’s tales of lesbians and prostitutes, came to admire the ‘moral relation’ of the author to his subject, and (no doubt remembering Maupassant’s account of Flaubert’s lesson in the introduction to Pierre et Jean) ‘that peculiar, strained attention, directed upon an object, in consequence of which the author sees entirely new features in the life which he is describing.’ Robb: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/feb/26/cruising-with-genius/?page=2

[14] Quotations from ‘A Simple Heart’ are taken from http://www.fullbooks.com/A-Simple-Soul.html. Roger Waterhouse’s translation, Three Tales, Penguin, 2005, offers a more eloquent version as well as introduction by Flaubert biographer, Geoffrey Wall.

[15] Quotations from ‘The Darling’ are from http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Darling. The translation is by Constance Garnett, among the very first to translate Chekhov and other great Russian writers into English, and, while others are said to be more accurate, it is in Garnett’s translations that Chekhov is most widely known by English readers.

[16] If one were to look for a crucial difference between Chekhov and Flaubert – possibly Chekhov and any writer before him – it might lie in VS Pritchett’s remark that in Chekhov the ‘sights and sounds are heard’ as if by the characters.

[17] p. Xiii, Flaubert, G. Three Tales, translated by Roger Whitehouse and, with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Wall, Penguin, 2005