Sunday, October 08, 2006

Experience Only Words

Hugh Kenner, in his introduction to his A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett, providing some background to the idea that Beckett, in his prose fiction, "became our time's inheritor from Flaubert.":
The Flaubertian Revolution was, we know, a matter of style, of the nuanced cadence and le most juste. It was also a revolution of theme, for after Madame Bovary the theme of fiction after fiction proved to be illusion. Madame Bovary is about Emma Bovary's notion that successive men--Charles, Leon, Rodolphe--offer the vast emotional opportunities to which she feels entitled. She acquired her sense of entitlement from such sources as novels, so Flaubert's novel is like the novels she has read, from the marriage and the obligatory adulteries to the theatrical death; like them, but written as they are not; composed, sentence by sentence, with a double vision, a simultaneous awareness of her illusion and of the realities, barely perceived by her, out of which the illusion is spun. That is why the style is so important; each sentence must walk that tightrope, making Leon simultaneously the not unusual young clerk, in our vision, and the sensitive lover, in hers. Thereafter we encounter a whole fictional tradition of people who live inside stories. Joyce, in Dubliners, presents person after person enclosed in some received fiction, the men and women around them virtually transformed into figments. When Gretta Conroy, in the [sic] 'The Dead', says of the young man who died, 'I think he died for me', she is placing him inside a story that shall obliterate the commonplace fact that he died of having stood in the rain, and that ficiton of hers has more power over her passions than has the living husband from whom she turns away.

The novels of the Flaubertian tradition have tempted playwrights and film-makers, but have never made successful plays or films. The Great Gatsby for instance--how shall Jay Gatsby be impersonated by some actor? For he is incarnate illusion, the collective dream of all the other characters. Such a being abides in fiction, where he is created by figures of consummate rhetoric in a medium whose very condition must be that we shall see nothing, shall experience only words.

So fiction, since Flaubert created the fiction of solipsism, has turned away from the visible and the palpable: from the stage, from the film...

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