Michael Fried is a professor of humanities and the history of art at Johns Hopkins University. He’s best known as a singularly influential art critic and historian, especially for his controversial 1967 Artforum essay “Art and Objecthood,” and for his trilogy tracing the genealogy of modern art back through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: Absorption and Theatricality (1980), Courbet’s Realism (1990), and Manet’s Modernism (1996). He’s also written prolifically on photography and is a poet. In his newest work, Flaubert’s “Gueuloir,” the critic turns his attention to Flaubert’s first two novels, Madame Bovary and Salammbô. Bookforum recently contacted Fried to ask him about his study of the French prose master, discussing the the ways in which Flaubert is untranslatable, the role that habit and will played in his writing, what Proust had to say about his style, and the importance of Flaubert’s relatively little-known second novel.
Bookforum: We should preface our interview by noting that the observations you make in your new book are of Flaubert’s prose in French. Early on, you write that perhaps Madame Bovary “only exists as itself in French.” Can you talk a bit about what English versions—such as the recent, meticulous translation by Lydia Davis’s—don’t convey?
Michael Fried: I don’t mean this at all as a criticism of the existing translations and certainly not of Lydia Davis’s, which as you say is as meticulous as can be. My point is rather that any translation of Madame Bovary into another language will necessarily sacrifice what might be called the “phonemic” level of Flaubert’s prose—the actual play of words, syllables, and phonemes, of assonance, consonance, alliteration, repetition of all kinds—in which (I want to claim) much of the essential character, the internal action, of his writing consists. There’s a certain irony here: My own command of French is far from impeccable, but reading and rereading Madame Bovary in the original over the years I came to feel that there was a dynamic at work in his prose in that novel that no one had quite brought to light, and I decided to give that a try.
Bookforum: In pursuit of this perfect prose style, Flaubert practiced what he called the “Gueuloir”—by reading his sentences in a loud voice—as a way of expunging various sorts of flaws from his writing (gueuler means to yell or shout). How did he describe this technique’s aims?
Michael Fried: The idea seems to have been that by forcing every sentence to undergo the test of the “Gueuloir,” Flaubert would become almost physically conscious of a range of imperfections—assonances and the like—and would then proceed to eliminate them in the process of rewriting, with the aim of achieving a wholly new ideal of stylistic perfection for prose. We have various descriptions of this by Maupassant (who knew him well) and others, as well as by Flaubert himself in his marvelous letters.
Bookforum: And yet, in your book, you point out many passages that seem unlikely to have passed his “Gueuloir” test unnoticed: repetitions, assonances, consonances. As these examples are thoroughly documented in the book, it becomes clear that they are not stray examples, but substantive ones. What did these discoveries suggest to you?
Michael Fried: I’m not for a moment suggesting that the passages in question didn’t undergo the “Gueuloir” test; the fascinating point, the observation that led to my writing the first chapter in my book, is that despite the fact that they undoubtedly did, so many imperfections (if we can call them that) remain, and the question I then felt needed to be addressed was: What are we to make of that state of affairs? How are we to understand the relation of that undeniable and not at all inconspicuous feature of his prose to the relentless pursuit of stylistic perfection as Flaubert repeatedly described it?
Bookforum: Right, especially since, as you write, Flaubert’s writing is often lauded for precisely his perfect style by authors like Julian Barnes: “This is French prose whose every syllable has been tested aloud again and again.”
Michael Fried: As I show in the Madame Bovary essay, there has been a lot of extremely acute critical attention directed toward his prose in that book, with the result that all sorts of discoveries have been made suggesting certain “hidden” intentions: for example, an entire network of names and words keyed to the word veau (young bull, a play on “Bovary”), another network based on the notion of an apparent competition with Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, plus scattered observations suggesting an implied association between “Charbovari” (Charles’s stammering pronunciation of his name in chapter one) and the word charivari (which doesn’t appear in the text). But I think it is fair to say that no one has quite tried to think about these in connection with other sorts of repetitions and associations, many on a phonemic level, many apparently non-intentional, in an attempt to work out a coherent account of the internal dynamic of Flaubert’s prose in his breakthrough novel.
Bookforum: Along the way, you bring in several writers and painters to help you develop your argument. One of the most striking of these is the philosopher Félix Ravaisson, whose short treatise “De l’habitude” (“Of Habit”), published in 1838, seems particularly relevant to what you see going on in Flaubert’s writing.
Michael Fried: Yes, that’s right. At bottom, my reading of Flaubert’s prose in Madame Bovary turns on the notion of something like the total interpenetration everywhere in the text of intention (or will, volonté), and habit or automatism, with the result that at every instant—whatever paragraph or sentence one chooses for analysis—both can be seen to be in force to varying degrees. This turns out to be entirely consistent with Ravaisson’s vision of habit as a principle of continuity between inanimate nature and the fullest degree of consciousness, which is to say that “De l’habitude” gives us a philosophical work of immense sophistication that belongs to the same culture and time-frame as Madame Bovary and that I read as offering a kind of parallel account of the issues in question. I’m not saying Flaubert was familiar with it (though he may have been), but the conjunction of the two is suggestive, to say the least.
Bookforum: Proust plays a part here as well. What do you think are some of the best points Proust made in his analysis of Flaubert’s style? You mention another suggestive point: How Proust picked up on some of the key “hidden” features of Madame Bovary’s text—as discussed in your book—when he wrote a pastiche of Flaubert.
Michael Fried: Proust! What a genius of a critic he was. In a stunning essay of 1920 on Flaubert’s style he makes certain observations that I take as reinforcing my case (there isn’t really the room to go into them in detail, though I would love to). This is also true of a brilliant essay by another critic of that moment, Charles Du Bos. Let’s say that both of them stress what might be called the phonemic density of the writing, with Proust describing Flaubert’s style as akin to the mechanical operations of an earth-moving machine (which I associate with the “Gueuloir”) and Du Bos going so far as to say that Flaubert’s prose lacks “air,” and that the blanks between the words are only nominal, not effective. As for Proust’s pastiche of Flaubert, what I find encouraging is that it offers a condensed (also a comic) version of the kinds of phonemic relationships I foreground in my book. What it comes down is that I feel Proust and Du Bos have my back.
Bookforum: There’s also a turn back to your 1990 study Courbet’s Realism—indeed, throughout the book there’s discussion of Flaubert’s two novels as they relate to the paintings of his contemporaries. There’s too much back story to get into here, but is there anything you’d like to briefly mention on the subject of Courbet and Flaubert?
Michael Fried: As you know, in the last chapter of Courbet’s Realism there are several pages on Flaubert, whom I see as a comparable figure to Courbet in crucial respects, and I also suggest that Ravaisson’s metaphysics of continuity is relevant to what I show takes place in Courbet’s paintings. I develop both points in the first essay, which in fact concludes with an extended comparison between Courbet’s monumental 1849-50 canvas, A Burial at Ornans, and Emma’s funeral toward the end of Madame Bovary. I’m absolutely certain Flaubert thought of himself as competing with Courbet’s Realist masterpiece in those pages.
Bookforum: The second part of your book is a consideration of Salammbô, a less-well-known historical novel Flaubert wrote soon after finishing Madame Bovary. You write that after finishing your study of Madame Bovary, you were compelled to turn your attention to this novel, where you’ve found that “a different stylistic regime is in force.” How does Salammbô relate to your argument about Madame Bovary?
Michael Fried: I wish we had more space to talk about Salammbô, an astonishing tour de force that deserves to be much better known. In a word: I read Salammbô as an unprecedented attempt, in the immediate wake of his campaign in Madame Bovary, to write a novel that stylistically and in other respects as well would be entirely under the sign of will—that would make the reader conscious of being subjected to the writer’s will from the first sentence to the last. That’s a truly hyperbolic ideal and one that only Flaubert, that titan of will, could even have imagined.
Bookforum: Lastly, over the past few years, you’ve written on a wide range of subjects: photography since the '70s (Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before and Four Honest Outlaws: Sala, Ray, Marioni, Gordon), as well as a book on Caravaggio (The Moment of Caravaggio). With Flaubert’s “Gueuloir,” you return to literary criticism. What are you working on now?
Michael Fried: Thanks for asking. I’ve just sent off the MS of a new book, a collection of essays on various moments in the antitheatrical tradition I’ve been tracking for a long time now, to Gillian Malpass, my wonderful editor at Yale (London). I start with later David, go on to Géricault, Caillebotte, and Roger Fry, and conclude with Douglas Gordon’s movie k.364 (2010) and Thomas Demand’s stop-motion film Pacific Sun (2011). Also, this December an essay on Conrad’s The Secret Agent was published in the journal ELH—eventually that will be part of a much longer book on Literary Impressionism, going on from my 1987 Stephen Crane essay in Realism, Writing, Disfiguration. Plus there is a new collection of poems, which so far doesn’t have a publisher—perhaps someone will be interested.