Swann in Love
We know now how inadequately we have been served by the traditional metaphor for the novel: that it “holds a mirror up to nature.” The metaphor does not fail because there is no nature, no reality out there to mirror. It fails because the novel offers us words, not the direct visual images that a mirror reflects. The reality those words reveal is both there and not there. On the basis of widely shared cues and conventions each reader’s mind must to a large extent project and create that imaginary reality. Thus literature may be both the most abstract and the most personal of the arts.
When Flaubert heard of plans to issue an illustrated edition of one of his novels, a kind of reading aid, he exploded.
Never, as long as I live, shall I allow anyone to illustrate me, because: the most beautiful literary description is eaten up by the most wretched drawing. As soon as a figure [type] is fixed by the pencil, it loses that character of generality, that harmony with a thousand known objects which make the reader say: “I’ve seen that” or “That must be so.” A woman in a drawing looks like one woman, that’s all. The idea is closed, complete, and every sentence becomes useless, whereas a written woman makes one dream of a thousand women. Therefore, since this is a question of aesthetics, I absolutely refuse any kind of illustration.
(To Ernest Duplan, June 12, 1862)
In 1874 Flaubert did finally permit an illustrated edition of Madame Bovary, but to his niece he wrote deprecatingly that the illustrations had as much to do with the book as with the moon. He was not objecting to their poor quality; he felt in his bones the contaminating, paralyzing effect that any particularized image can have on the suggestiveness of the word. An image short-circuits the reader’s imagination and prevents him from conjuring up a character or a scene out of his own associations and fantasies. Flaubert’s outburst insists that the novel mirrors not nature but words—words that in turn evoke a special universe of virtual entities and events. He provides a needed gloss on Conrad’s words in the preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”: “My task…is before all to make you see.” A novel presents something deeper than visual images; it assembles laminations and overlappings and dissociations of thought that do not coincide with any simple sensation of sight or sound.
Eisenstein opened his essay, “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today” by quoting the first sentence of Dickens’s The Cricket on the Hearth: “The kettle began it!” And four pages later: “Certainly this kettle is a typical Griffith-esque close-up.” Flaubert knew better. A picture—even a movingpicture—of a kettle fixes our attention on its concrete existence and can convey nothing of the swift-running thought in the rest of that brief sentence. No reverse dolly shot or shift of focus or trick editing can translate the inexhaustible abstraction contained in the…
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