On May 24, 1846, at three o'clock in the morning, Flaubert began the first version of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a theme, the struggle with the devil, which had preoccupied him from the age of 13. He finished his enormous manuscript "on Wednesday, September 12, 1849, at 4 o'clock in the afternoon; the weather was sunny and windy," he noted, as if the day were historic. He immediately summoned his two friends, Louis Bouilhet and Maxime Du Camp (the first man to have photographed the Sphinx in Egypt). For four days, eight hours a day, he reads them his text, certain of his triumph. But "Throw all this into the fire," said Bouilhet, disgusted, "and never speak of it again." In order to cure Flaubert of his lyrical extravagances, of his romanticism, Bouilhet imposed on him a story the press had featured at length, the Delamarre affair, a most banal story: A provincial adultery.
On his return from the Middle East, Flaubert, with death in his soul, accepted this challenge; this bourgeois subject was a chore that he found boring, exhausting, and disgusting. To write Madame Bovary, he imposed on himself a discipline, almost an asceticism, which “cured” him of his dithyrambic style. As he worked out the plan for this novel and sketched out his characters and the setting, he forged a new aesthetic: To convey truth does not seem to him essential. To aim for Beauty, to make impersonal art, was the primary goal. "In the ideal I have of art," he wrote, "I believe that one should show nothing of the artist’s feelings, and that he should appear no more in his work than God in nature. As for revealing my personal opinion of those I put on center stage, no, no, a thousand times no.”
It is this invention of the invisible narrator, of the writer absent from his work, and that of the indirect style, which make Madame Bovary the first modern literary novel. "Art is a representation, we must think only to represent, the important thing is to have clear images, and to give the illusion of reality.” But, he added, “for a book to give off the whiff of truth, the author must be up to his ears in his subject." To write Bouvard and Pécuchet, Flaubert read more than 1500 books, and his notes covered 2000 sheets. For Salammbo, he studied everything historians wrote about the Punic period, from archeology to the art of war, clothing, and the minute details of everyday life. Anxious not to make the slightest mistake, he went to Carthage, visited Tunisia and Algeria, steeped himself in the spirit of the place, the light, the lay of the land. To describe Loulou, the parrot of Félicité, in "A Simple Heart," he studied the anatomy, life and death of these birds, their manners and their diseases (including epilepsy). "For a month, I have had a stuffed parrot on my table, to paint it from nature; I’m starting to get tired of its presence."
Flaubert would say, of Madame Bovary: "It is a novel of anatomy."
With the documentation completed, he spent months drawing up his plan. "Everything is in the design, if the plan is good, I will answer for the rest," he said.
Then began the infinite time required for the writing. According to Borges, Flaubert is the first Adam of a new kind, that of the man of letters as a priest, as an ascetic, and as a martyr to art and beauty.
This Christ of literature agonized over every sentence. He wanted to give prose the strength and stature of poetry: "Good prose must be like a good verse, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.” To find the right word, the only one that expresses the idea and whose sonority harmonizes with the sentence, with the paragraph, this precise word becomes his obsession. No author has been more tortured by the pleasures of style; his thirst for perfection, his cries of anguish, his sweat of agony are legendary. All writers work, but this one literally worked himself to death.
In almost every letter of his correspondence, four volumes, Flaubert proclaimed his fatigue, his despair, as he worked "18 hours a day, like a convict, like 35,000 negroes." Suspended between the double abyss of lyricism and the vulgar, he gnawed at his own body and soul; he shouted his sentences as many times as necessary to banish hiatuses, assonances, relative pronouns, the whys, the whos, the howevers...
Towards the end of his life, he wrote: "The task that I undertake will be carried out by another, I would have put someone better on the path." Among those who would align themselves with him, Proust and Kafka were perhaps the most gifted. Kafka read L'Education sentimentale countless times, he knew entire chapters by heart, he dreamt of giving a public reading, in one go, in as many days and nights as necessary, and in French, of course.
"Live like a bourgeois, think like a demigod; be settled in your life in order to be violent and original in your works; describe the ordinary life of ordinary people. Neither monsters nor heroes," advocated Flaubert.
Kafka’s drama was that he didn’t live as a bourgeois, but as an office worker, eternally frustrated. He had only his nights to write, a few hours wrested from sleep. One finds in his work a multitude of fragments, some of which have only a few lines and stop in the middle of a word. Fragments written on the tram, at the table, in cafes, between two files...
But he thought like a demigod. In his image, he created an impenetrable, enigmatic world, without concessions, without charity, without pity, without hope; everything was determined in advance and no one could break free from its limits. This world challenged society, the relationship with others, the hierarchy of powers, the bureaucracy, and the absolute power of the Law. For this world has a meaning, that of the Law. A law that would be difficult to define. Its dense shadow, terribly present and invisible, weighs without respite on all the characters, and plunges them into a permanent anguish, but which at no time leads to a gesture of revolt.
Terrifying power of the law. We shall never see the Emperor of China, nor the President of the Tribunal, nor the Lord of The Castle. K., when he presents himself to the village, explains his appearance as the result of a summons which he would have received as an official land surveyor. Yet, in no office is there is a trace of this summons, which does not mean, they say, that he was free not to come. There may have been an official summons. He is, therefore, night and day subjected to police surveillance. Placed in the double bind of refusing the Law and of satisfying it, since he does not know it and can never know it, he is forced to meet an inexorable condemnation. This dialectic--affirmation, negation--underlies all of Kafka’s work.
No one was as impersonal and timeless as Kafka. The site where the action takes place is never mentioned, neither is the time. The description of the landscapes or setting is scarcely sketched. As for the characters, they have no face, their name is usually reduced to a letter: K.; Or Joseph K. “In the Penal Colony,” written in 1914, the characters are called The Traveler, The Officer, The Commandant, The Condemned; and the narrator is so invisible that we know almost nothing of their origin, nor of what his life was before he entered the scene.
Kafka’s style, hyperrealist, devoid of all sentimentalism, reduced to the essential, is so stripped down that it borders on abstraction. The images remain, but they are enclosed in a network of propositions borrowing their terrible neutrality from the police regulations or the texts of laws. Kafka, a jurist, proceeds by analysis, a demystifying and intrepid analysis. It is by his style, which does not seek to please, that Kafka distinguishes himself completely from the literature of his time.
Kafka, whose life was exaggeratedly conventional and routine is, in his texts, especially in “In the Penal Colony,” violent, and of a sometimes unbearable cruelty. The death of his heroes is even more tragic than that of Emma Bovary. They do not commit suicide by arsenic, they do not have that freedom. Despite the large number of lawyers around him, the hero of The Trial cannot know what he is accused of, or even who his accuser might be. And still less who condemns him. At the moment when the executioner plunges a knife into his heart, and returns it twice, the court has not yet heard his case.
Love is almost absent from Kafka's novels, or it is transformed into an instrument of suffering. In all his work, there is only one love scene: A half page of The Castle. It is Frieda, the servant of a bar, who offers herself to K., hidden under the counter. They hug each other amidst "the puddles of beer whose smell causes migraines, and other dirt with which the floor was covered."
Translated from the French by Diane Joy Charney.