18 February 2008
We continue blogging our reading of James Wood's How Fiction Works. Today we will be looking at the third chapter, "Flaubert and the Rise of the Flâneur." This is Wood's second chapter concerning Flaubert. In Chapter Two, he pointed out Flaubert's use of "different time signatures" to present details in a realistic, almost cinematic manner; there is a sort of temporal foreshortening in modern writing wherein short-term occurrences sit side-by-side with long-term or even eternal occurrences.
In this chapter, he cites the invention of the flâneur as a sort of "porous scout" for the author, a walking camera (or sponge) whose perceptions and impressions control the narrative. This combines the idea of the close third person POV with the modernist attention to detail; we only see what the character sees and we only see it the way s/he does.
Again, there is nothing controversial here: writers are always chastening their workshop fellows for using description as mere decor, or as travelogue. Description must characterize, they say, or perform some double function—more, say, than mere mood setting. When we see the streets of London through our hero's eyes, we are given privileged insight into his state of mind. This fiction does better even than, many would claim, film.