All the sentences in Madame Bovary, wrote Flannery O’Connor, could be examined with wonder. Yes, indeed. It has been the better part of thirty years since I was first captivated by this:
“Once during a thaw, the bark of the trees in the barnyard was oozing and the snow on the roofs of the farm buildings was melting; she stood in the doorway, then went back inside for her parasol, brought it out and opened it. The sun shone through the iridescent silk, illuminating the white skin of her face with shifting patches of light. She smiled beneath it at the soft warmth of the day, and drops of water could be heard falling one by one on the taut moiré.”
The owner of that parasol is Emma Bovary, and for the better part of thirty years Flaubert’s image (in Lowell Bair’s translation) of the winter sunlight streaming through the iridescent silk of the parasol and illuminating Emma Bovary’s skin has stayed with me with nearly the same force as a personal memory.
An image can do that. A writer’s vivid presentation of the sensuous particulars of the world can become a permanent part of our imaginative furniture.
But you’re not interested in such mundane matters. You’ve got a book to write. A message to proclaim. A feeling to express. You have the zeal to communicate ideas, notions, social and political problems, issues. Dwelling too long upon images such as the one above from Madame Bovary strikes you as quaint, like watching the work of one of the colonial furniture craftsman down at Williamsburg. Exquisite, but of what significance?
“One of the most common and saddest spectacles,” continued O’Connor in the same essay (“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”), “is that of a person of really fine sensibility ad acute psychological perception trying to write fiction by using those qualities alone. This type of writer will put down one intensely emotional or keenly perceptive sentence after another and the result will be complete dullness.”
The other day I was looking at a family all of whom had the identical skin tone. It was a distinctive tone, not exactly swarthy. The only comparison I could think to make was to the brown on a lightly toasted marshmallow. Or to the perfect Café au lait. Except that the brown of their skin was tinged with, well, orange…
All this went down into my Moleskine for who knows what future purpose. For this is where writing fiction begins and, in some sense, ends: with sensible particulars carefully observed and rendered with precision in words. Writing fiction is about concreteness.
Which reveals fiction to be a quite modest endeavor. “The fact is,” observed O’Connor, “that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”
So tell me: what is your favorite image from a work of fiction?