Flaubert and Hemingway: Stylists at heart

It took Gustav Flaubert almost four years to complete Madame Bovary. As a writer, he worked tirelessly at his craft, composing numerous drafts of each passage, paring each revision down to its basic elements. In the end he wrote over 4,500 pages.

“A good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry,” Flaubert said, “unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.”

His original drafts are available online at Édition des manuscrits de Madame Bovary de Flaubert. Flaubert believed that the success of the book was entirely dependent upon the style of composition.

“What a bitch of a thing prose is! It’s never finished; there’s always something to redo. Yet I think one can give it the consistency of verse,” Flaubert wrote in a letter to his mistress Louise Colet. He strove to hone a narrative style that was direct, precise and polished “as smooth as marble.”

Flaubert also worked hard to develop his characters through dialogue. In another letter he describes an “episode of six or seven pages without a single reflection or explanation coming from the author (all in direct dialogue).”

As a young writer, Hemingway educated himself in the art of writing by reading the masters: Turgenev, Tolstoy — and Flaubert. He developed his powers of observation in his work as a journalist, gathering facts necessary to flesh out the story. Like his mentor Flaubert, Hemingway’s writing — particularly his early prose — is clear and direct. He uses lengthy stretches of dialogue to develop characters. Hemingway became a meticulous stylist, writing and rewriting passages until the cadence was perfect to his eye and ear.

“I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied,” he told George Plimpton in a 1954 interview that appeared in the Paris Review.

And in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Hemingway wrote: “But isn’t writing a hard job, though?”

In his seminal biography of Hemingway, Carlos Baker describes the writer’s self-laudatory remarks upon finishing The Green Hills of Africa:

A narrative that combined true reporting, the excitements of action, and the quality of real literature was, Ernest thought, a pretty rare thing. First it all had to happen, and second the man to whom it happened had to be equipped to “make it all come true.” This was as hard as “painting a Cezanne,” and Ernest felt that he was “the only bastard right now” who was capable of such an achievement.

Referring to his early experiences as a newspaper reporter, Hemingway said: “On the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.”

Writing is difficult, and good writing is even harder to achieve. Even the masters are apt to fall short.

Flaubert alluded to the writer’s attempts to perfect the craft in these lines from the pages of Madame Bovary:

As if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat our tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.