How I Gradually (and Begrudgingly) Accepted Flaubert’s Influence on My Writing


Although many French authors are celebrated throughout history, — praise which is not undue, in all fairness —, Flaubert is, perhaps, the only one with whom I entertained a rather strange and strained relationship at first. In the French school system, in which I was educated, studying the behemoths of French and European literature was a notion which was drilled into our tiny heads as soon as we could put words together; it didn’t matter whether or not we even understood what we were reading. We were mercilessly quizzed and tested on the lyrical penchants of Rousseau, on the subtle comedic genius of Molière, on the meticulous stylings of Stendhal.

Many of my peers never recovered from this quasi-torture, and in fact grew to absolutely despise reading, turning instead to what they considered less rigid forms of entertainment: American pop culture, translations of popular international book series, anime and comic books. I don’t, in fact, think it a coincidence that France has been the biggest manga and anime consumer in Europe for the last few decades. Perhaps a part of this was a result of the youth rejecting the rigorous literature they were forced to dissect in school. 

I liked that they tapped into my tendency for people-watching and escapism. Even when they were overlong and tedious, I liked the novels we had to read in school.

I was caught somewhere in the middle of that. On the one hand, I was never going to resent literature. For as long as I could remember, I nursed a passion for words that would survive even the harshest days of being force-fed literature. I liked that they tapped into my tendency for people-watching and escapism. Even when they were overlong and tedious, I liked the novels we had to read in school. French is a beautiful language, and even the most uninteresting books are exquisitely written. 

But for a long time, my writing did not reflect that. 

I, too, felt the undeniable pull of the more pulse-racing entertainment forms, and influenced by the English-speaking side of my upbringing, my stories focused on the fantastical, the supernatural. It was less about the content, than a way of approaching my craft: my stories were about strange places, unique artifacts, objects, occurrences. It was only after all this, like an afterthought, that I would wonder how my characters could be bent and twisted to fit into the narrative, not the other way around. I didn’t understand, for a long time, why the feedback I received from peers and family was the same: great setting — wooden characters. I blamed it on the fact that perhaps, I was just very young and inexperienced.

My approach to writing changed in middle and high school when we delved into realism and naturalism in French/European literature, and especially Flaubert’s intricate works — but I would not admit that last part to myself for a very long time. It was childish. Unlike all the other authors we had studied in school, and which I had come to like by myself and for my own reasons, Flaubert was lost on me. Before we had even begun reading him, we were being given reasons why we should adulate him. We were being explained that he was influential, that he was a wordsmith, and that his mastery over character building had left an indelible mark on literature. Better yet, my teacher told us that his influence was inescapable, which rubbed me the wrong way. For the first time, I understood some of my fellow classmates: literature was being positively shoved down my throat. And as such, while I loved his stories, I remained stubbornly unimpressed.

Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with poetry again, with stories grounded in realism and people, with character-driven plot. I grew up and things happened, and I chucked aside my rose-colored glasses, all the while rekindling that which had made me love writing in the first place: understanding, seeing, and writing about people. I once again became fascinated with human beings, with the lives they led and lies they said; the small actions that conveyed so much, the hidden hours that concealed worlds of depths, the unspoken words, the subtle feelings and emotions buried under large gestures; with the slice-of-life, with the intimate, with the nuanced. And as I revisited Flaubert’s works, years later, of my own volition, I realized that either I had been paying attention after all, or perhaps I had liked him, at the time, more than I had wanted to admit. 

I acknowledge this now, the way you acknowledge that your mother was right about something, although you would never say it to her face. I cannot say whether this is because it was the natural curve to the arc of my growth as a writer, or whether Flaubert, and the writers of the French realist movement have been like a stamp at the back of my brain, but I have finally understood that inescapability my teacher had mentioned years earlier. And considering that it has made me a better writer over time, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.