Writing a novel is one of the world’s best occupations, I think. It is what I have spent the last four years doing. And now that my novel, Made a Few Mistakes, is finished (and I am in the true hell of trying to find an agent), my days are brightened by the prospect of writing another novel – in fact, I’ve embarked. I sit here in the ideal circumstances: the quiet of an apartment in Paris, the sun shining in the little ruelle outside our terrace, a coffee cup (natch) on the table, and my fingers a little worn with the hundreds of thousands of letters they’ve run through still playing their old tune, like some band of ancient geezers kicking it up on my laptop keyboard.
What’s not to like?
Of course, this isn’t an opinion that is endorsed by all the best and brightest. Flaubert, whose letters are unsurpassable when it comes to all around bitching, generally viewed writing as a form of crucifixion, with himself playing the role of nail-er and nail-ee. Here, at random, is Flaubert telling a correspondent about his latest production:
“You can not imagine my fatigue, my anguishes, my tedium. As for the rest that you advice me to take, it is impossible. I can no longer re-commence. And besides, how am I supposed to rest, and what am I supposed to do during? As I advance, my doubts on the whole of it augment, and I perceive mistakes in the work, irremediable mistakes, which I don’t get rid of, a boil being worth more than a scar.”
That is Flaubert on Salambo, which might have been his most read work in his lifetime, and is now certainly his least read. We have, of course, the invaluable correspondence on Madame Bovary, which is a sort of novel about the novel.
During the composition of L’education sentimentale, Flaubert wrote this to George Sand:
“My novel has been going pretty badly for a quarter of an hour. … You don’t know, you, what it is to sit for a whole day with your head in your hands trying to pressure your poor brain into finding one word. The idea flows from you largely, incessantly, like a river. For me, it is a little thread of water. I need a really large work of art in order to obtain a cascade. Oh, I have known them all, the torments of style.”
Generally, posterity has sided with Flaubert in valuing his little thread of water, and has looked down on those writers who flow largely. And I’ll admit, I haven’t really read George Sand’s novels. But myself, I am not one of those people who press my brain to find a word – saving of course those premonitory moments of Alzheimers, when I forget the names of everything. I suppose I am more the child of Bouvard and Pecuchet – it is the words of others that I am always trying to catch. My own words I save for, well, writing my little chronicle of my time, as sieved through my brain. And even there - I'm not sure these are my own words at all.