July 30, 2015

The Art of the Novella challenge 35: A Simple Heart


a-simple-heartTitle: A Simple Heart

Author: Gustave Flaubert

First published: 1877

Page count: 62

First line: For half a century, the housewives of Pont-l’Évêque had envied Madame Aubain her servant, Félicité.

It seems natural to step from Tolstoy to Flaubert, these two of their two novellas published a year apart, though it was the death that directed me, Ivan Ilych’s terminal revelations reminding me of Félicité, breathing her last and seeing, hovering above her head, the figure of a gigantic parrot.

I’ll cut to the chase. I’m worried that, with the parrot, Flaubert is taking the piss. Or rather, that he’s misjudged the dose of irony, as a doctor might misjudge the dose of opioids to a dying patient. Flaubert, famously, wanted to do save realism from being a kind of sociological Meccano kit in the hands of Balzac and Zola (read me despairing over The Girl With The Golden Eyes here). In doing so, above all in Madame Bovary, Flaubert inadvertently invented Literary Fiction, fathering both the experimental ‘books about nothing’ of the nouveau roman et al and the ‘style degree zero’ writing of Hemingway and Carver. Writing this on the day that the longlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize is announced, and the ongoing discussion of what a ‘Booker’ novel might be, it makes sense to point to Madame Bovary as the ur-Booker book.

Flaubert wrote a wide variety of kinds of books, but he’s mostly remembered for Bovary and its stylistic and thematic reprise, A Simple Heart. Both are exquisite examples of ‘soft’ or lyrical realism (as opposed to the hard, dogmatic realism, or naturalism, of Zola etc.) that puts romanticism through the irony mill and seeks pathos in the mundane details of unremarkable lives. Part of the problem is that A Simple Heart has become emblematic of realism – it’s right there in the opening line of Roland Barthes’ second most famous essay, ‘The Reality Effect’, as exemplifying the insidious use of detail, by realist writers, as a kind of business or patter to distract us from the gimcrack nature of what they do.

That’s fair enough. We can do the rest of this discussion without reference to ‘realism’. There’s more to Flaubert than that – specifically irony and pathos. “Irony does not impair pathos,” as Adam Thirlwell quotes Nabokov quoting Flaubert: “On the contrary, irony enhances the pathetic side.” And it’s the pathos that I’m after, in this post. Yes, the story is moving, but why and how are we being moved?

Just as we find ourselves, despite our better judgement, touched by the plight of Emma Bovary, as we watch her flip-flap like a fish in the shallows of her provincial adultery, so too we find ourselves moved by the religious epiphany of Félicité, A Simple Heart’s servant woman of equally circumscribed outlook. With every person that she cares for taken from her by death or happenstance, she gives what devotion she has left over from the Church to Loulou, a pet parrot who ends up stuffed on her desk, and whom, in her last moments she conflates with the Holy Ghost, imagining it is welcoming her in to heaven. How ironical! How full of pathos!

The question is, is Flaubert really being fair to Félicité? Is the point of the story to do justice to the kind of life that usually gets ignored by Art and Literature, or to offer up Félicité as a kind of sacrifice to middle class piety, so that we can pat ourselves on the back for empathising, if just a little ironically, with a poor deluded servant woman, who nevertheless is worthy of art?

On the one hand, Flaubert does find literary ways (‘realist’ ways) to honour Félicité’s feelings:

When she arrived at the top of Ecquemauville, she saw the lights of Honfleur sparkling in the night like so many stars; the sea, further on, stretched vaguely out. Then a moment of weakness stopped her; and the misery of her childhood, the disappointment of her first love, the departure of her nephew, the death of Virginie, like the waves of a flood, returned all at once, and, rising up to her throat, stifled her.

To be stifled by something inside you, rather than outside, is quite something.

Elsewhere, however, there is a definite sense of de haut en bas:

The little circle of her ideas grew even smaller.


for such souls the supernatural is simple.

Read around the story, and you find that Flaubert put a lot of himself, a lot of his upbringing, into A Simple Heart, but really if the story isn’t palatable at face value, what good is it doing? Perhaps it’s just that this tactic, of honouring the unremarkable life, has become so prevalent in contemporary fiction. I’m thinking of books by Colm Toibin, and Mary Costello’s recent debut novel, Academy Street, which follows a woman not very different from Félicité from rural Ireland to New York. There, taking in a whole life seems a masterpiece of concision, but then Flaubert did it in 12,000 words – which, wait, hang on… – is rather short for a novella, isn’t it?

This takes us back to the story’s publication with two other ‘contes’ or ‘tales’ which, if I have read, I read a long time ago, and to the slightly fetishistic place these works take in Flaubert’s oeuvre, coming as they did as a rest from the interminable work of producing the monstrous, unfinished and unfinishable, Shandy-esque Bouvard et Pécuchet. (I also wish I had to hand Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, a fantastic non-fiction-ish novel by a writer whose non-fiction I prefer to his fiction, and one I realise I must have pressed on someone and not got back.)

That concision: Bovary and A Simple Heart both stand as emblematic of their respective genres: novel and ‘tale’. After all, the story of Madame Bovary would have made a wonderful novella, with all those descriptive passages cut out, just as you could imagine Emma’s story being told as a short story, focusing perhaps on her affair with Léon. But no: Flaubert wanted to fit everything in, by which I mean everything he hated about Normandy, and about rural France, and so the story of Emma’s pathetic attachment to romantic novels is opened up to take in all of life. It follows the core logic of the novel, which is to open up to more, more, more.

Could A Simple Heart have been used for the same ends? Could it too have had its veins opened, been added to, and opened up, until it was the size of Bovary, a fully fledged novel? Probably not. For starters, there is nothing in Félicité’s life which would give her the opportunity to travel to the big city. This shouldn’t be a problem. After all, the whole point of Flaubert’s realism is that less is more (“the best works are those with the least matter”) and that Rouen is as good as Paris, Pont-L’Évêque as good as Rouen. Nevertheless, you feel, contrast is needed. You can only been empathetic and non-judgmental about small town life for so long…

There’s also the sense that Flaubert’s attitude to Félicité precludes the kind of final empathy we feel for Emma. Realism is in the details, but also in the reticence, in the standing back and simply observing.

Félicité, passing by the wayside shrine, wanted to commend to God what she cherished most; and she prayed for a long time, standing, her face bathed in tears, her eyes turned up to the clouds. The town slept, customs inspectors strolled; and water fell without stopping through the holes in the lock, with the sound of a torrent. Two o’clock struck.

Isn’t Flaubert being a little unfair here? It is fun for us to note that, though Félicité is having a genuine religious experience (her face bathed in tears), her eyes find not God, but merely the clouds, and while she’s staring at the clouds, the inspectors stroll, and the water flocks through the lock…

But what of the prayers she makes? We have no access to those. We’re essentially allowed to condescend towards Félicité, but that old cliche about walking in someone’s shoes springs to mind. We, who don’t pray, applaud ourselves for our empathy towards this simple heart who does – ah! the parrot! I clasp my hands to my breast! – but what, exactly, is she praying? With Emma Bovary, we know all, and are allowed to move eventually, to an understanding that puts our early dismissal of her to shame. But with Félicité, I’m not sure. I’m not sure at all.

(NB A Simple Heart is an eBook only, thus the collage image at top, and not, for instance, a trip to the Natural History Museum.)

Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels