Literary Comedy and Reality

Nobel Literature Chief Bashes American Literature

Malin Rising and Hillel Italie:

“Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize next week: the top member of the award jury believes the United States is too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing.”

New Yorker editor David Remnick tries to defend the US by noting that the Nobel also passed over “Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov” – of France, Ireland, and Russia. (Though Nabokov eventually became a naturalized American, he wrote his first nine novels in Russian.) Other Europeans also passed over (unmentioned by Remnick) for being a bit too progressive for the Nobel a century ago: Tolstoy (late), Ibsen, and Zola. Most such mildly progressive writing is still too progressive for the New Yorker over a century later. With “defenders” like Remnick, the challengers scarcely need make a point. The US establishment is busy eviscerating its own literature quite nicely, thank you.

Remnick digs his hole deeper by additionally pointing to “the vitality in the generation of Roth, Updike, and DeLillo, as well as in many younger writers, some of them sons and daughters of immigrants writing in their adopted English. None of these poor souls, old or young, seem ravaged by the horrors of Coca-Cola.” Even Remnick can bring himself to say virtually nothing for US writers born after the Great Depression years (1936) who didn’t emigrate from…other countries. Good thing one could obtain some culture once upon a time, and good thing for immigrants bringing some culture with them. It is a good thing, and it goes further toward proving the Nobel point than to countering it.

While the US has a number of quality authors and some good diversity, the US literary establishment’s record is abysmal in a wide variety of ways. It has produced essentially no explicit novel of “the supreme crime” of the US invasion of Iraq, and precious few if any of its other many invasions. Similarly, US literature has trouble addressing plenty of other urgent central realities of life today, often because such work is too threatening to the powerful state-corporate interests that shape literature in the US (and elsewhere, Europe included, no doubt). It’s many a US and western backed oppresive regime abroad that make it “dangerous to be an author in big parts of Asia and Africa.” Repression of literature is more subtle in the US (and the West generally), the propaganda more sophisticated, the means of de facto censorship more advanced, but scarcely less effective for US writers attempting to write about many urgent US, and US-in-the-world, realities and possibilities.

Meanwhile, the New Yorker’s prominent literary critic James Wood this year published his book How Fiction Works celebrating the French Flaubert as main literary inspiration enduring today – an example, regardless of nationalities, that carries its own set of basic problems.

A century and a half on, Flaubert’s main value in art is that he continues to be used by the literature establishment to bury his countryman Victor Hugo and the example of a far more wholly accomplished and world changing fiction that is liberatory. While Hugo (Flaubert’s landmark watershed predecessor and contemporary) is a greater artist and liberatory force in literature and history than Flaubert, the establishment is deeply invested in giving the basic opposite impression. In a neat inversion, and to the detriment of all but perhaps the most privileged, Flaubert is used to bury Hugo, by way of misrepresented aesthetics, norms, reality.


Flaubert is so lauded by the establishment evidently because his ideological line is a great fit for that which the status quo must work within – an orthodox ostensible apoliticism – the ideology that denies it is an ideology. In fact, Flaubert is the status quo’s ideological apotheosis: a politically dismissive, politically disparaging artist who is narrowly aesthetically obsessed, a figure whose work has anything but apolitical effects. Moreover, Flaubert’s work is conveniently situated in time and place and style obsession to help downplay the work of the influential and far more socially engaged novelists in and around what has been called “the de facto world capital of literature,” Paris, France – Balzac and Zola – but especially and primarily – Victor Hugo, whose achievement in both literature and life dwarfs that of Flaubert, and holds far more real and potential significance through years past, years present, and foreseeable years future. “‘We felt that simply by reading [Hugo’s] works, we were contributing to some silent victory over tyranny,’ remembered Émile Zola,” as noted by Graham Robb, biographer of Hugo. Dostoevski called Les Misérables “that great book.” Tolstoy considered Les Misérables to be the greatest novel ever.


Rather than Victor Hugo’s society-rocking fiction (and daunting aesthetic achievement), today the New Yorker’s James Wood and many a writing circle celebrate the wan and overstuffed, by comparison, writing of Flaubert as seminal and essential. The establishment shouts Flaubert and his example far forward, typically to the utter exclusion of the greater art and the greater figure of Hugo, and the great work and vision especially in (though very far from only) Les Misérables, of liberty, justice, humanity: “a work of serious fiction for the masses…one of the last universally accessible masterpieces of Western literature, and a disturbing sign that class barriers had been breached,” notes Robb. Hugo was born a couple decades before Flaubert and died a few years after him, thus eclipsing Flaubert in life as well as in art and society, though the literary establishment has for many decades functioned purposefully, habitually, and predictably, to no little success, to upend both reality and potential. James Wood and the New Yorker are merely of their time and place in following suit.


“James Wood’s How Fiction Works sometimes misses the plot” – the lead into Chris Tayler’s Guardian review of HFW: “Novel Tour Guide.” “Good novelists, Wood says shrewdly, often use the kinds of metaphor that the communities they’re writing about would produce. His own similes and metaphors…tend to summon up leisured late-Victorian travellers”; meanwhile, Tayler notes, Wood’s “personal great tradition is a modernist one.” Wood respects some of the literary standards of the Victorians but values mainly the modernists, the status quo bastion of contemporary fiction. Both the Victorians and the modernists (moreso, it seems to me) fail the most liberatory tendencies in writing. Nevertheless, if we are to refer back to find regeneration in writing, far better to light upon Victor Hugo’s work than that of Flaubert, or the work of Jonathan Swift than that of Joyce, or the latter work of Tolstoy (Ivan Ilych, Hadji Murad) than that of Dostoevsky. For now, dominant literature looks, as if to fetish and icon, to the (partly manufactured) example of Flaubert, for fear (originally, at least) of the far more towering example of Victor Hugo, at his most influential and liberatory.


Upon publication of Les Misérables in 1862, that worldwide renowned and liberatory example of what a novel could be, establishment retrenching commenced with a vengeance, and continues to this day, with Flaubertian style obsession the nearest-at-hand, most useful literary countercourse available – then modernism – then a sort of formal criticism, politically charged – then the “realisms … traumatized … puerile … hysterical” … miasmic … intimatist – then the convolutions and misrepresentations of James Wood and the establishment. Retrenching began immediately upon publication in literary, social, and political realms. As Hugo notes, “‘The newspapers which support the old world say, “It’s hideous, infamous, odious, execrable, abominable, grotesque, repulsive, shapeless, monstrous, horrendous, etc.” Democratic and friendly papers answer, “No, it’s not bad.”‘” Robb adds, “Mme Hugo, who was in Paris giving interviews, tried to persuade Hugo’s spineless allies to support the book and invited them to dinner; but Gautier had flu, Janin had ‘an attack of gout’, and George Sand excused herself on the grounds that she always over-ate when she was invited out….” Further:


” …Perrot de Chezelles [a public prosecutor], in an ‘Examination of Les Misérables’, defended the excellence of a State which persecuted convicts even after their release, and derided the notion that poverty and ignorance had anything to do with crime…. The State was trying to clear its name. The Emperor and Empress performed some public acts of charity and brought philanthropy back into fashion. There was a sudden surge of official interest in penal legislation, the industrial exploitation of women, the care of orphans, and the education of the poor. From his rock in the English Channel, Victor Hugo…[exiled] had set the parliamentary agenda for 1862″


– as he had set out to, in many ways. Flaubert described Les Misérables as “infantile,” containing “neither truth nor greatness,” showing “the fall of a God,” his erstwhile icon. In reality, Flaubert and the rest never escaped Hugo’s shadow, in more ways than one, though the establishment tries to have it otherwise.


Robb notes that Flaubert, greatly inspired by Hugo’s poetry, Châtiments, wrote Hugo an “admiring pastiche” in 1853 including this bit of rhapsody: “‘Your poetry entered my body like my nurse’s milk.’ That same evening, before the stylistic effect had worn off,” continues Robb, “Flaubert sketched one of the great passages of modern prose fiction – the Comices Agricoles scene in Madame Bovary, where the pillars of rural French society pontificate among the animals and the dung. The resonances of Flaubert’s realism – a conscious blend of [two works by Hugo] Notre-Dame de Paris and Napoléon-le-Petit – go some way to explaining the political decision to prosecute Madame Bovary in 1857.” This is the side of Flaubert we don’t hear much about from Wood and other fixtures.


While advances have been made in literature in modernism, as in the contemporary novel – especially in the multicultural expansion – other basic and vast liberatory realms have been blocked, ignored, denounced, more-or-less wholesale in some ways. A more accomplished liberatory fiction – more fully human, with quality aesthetic and popular resonance – has been refused, buried, though not entirely. The establishment, typically denying it is partisan and ideologically orthodox to a severe degree, misrepresents itself and reality all the while, and writes against much that is urgent and liberatory in lit. The loss is to life and art both – to all manner of well-being, to aesthetics and imagination, to experience itself.


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