Le seul mot juste

Late in his life, the French writer Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) suffered debilitating financial difficulties, irrelevance with the critics, and a string of unsuccessful plays. Despite this, his art and his vision of it became ever more sophisticated. In letters to his lover, Louise Colet, Flaubert claimed there is “le seul mot juste,” or “the unique right word,” and repeatedly declared that there is no such thing as a synonym. In my thirties, as a young writer looking to Flaubert for what he had to teach, I disregarded this central idea. I chose vagueness, not understanding the importance of precision. Besides, I told myself, you can never control how a reader interprets your words anyway!

What a fool I was. I know now that when dealing with the ambiguities literature MUST deal with, an author has to be as precise and clear as they can be. Vagueness is not the same as ambiguity. And despite an author’s inability to control how a reader interprets their work, isn’t it advisable to be as concise as possible with one’s ideas to limit the flowering of false interpretations and impressions? Of course, sometimes vagueness comes into vogue, as evidenced by the successful career of Ernest Hemingway, who never deigned to describe a color in his life. For Hemingway and his dutiful readers, there is only one shade of blue, or of any color, no color has gradations. While I understand Hemingway’s point, his slavish devotion to his method is hidden beneath a veil of cartoon realism. Literature cannot fully represent human reality, yes; but should we accompany the rubbery boundaries of literature with language that just ‘makes do?’

There really is the right word for every situation. But keep in mind Flaubert himself did not use the word “perfect”. There is no “perfect” word. But there is the word that works better than any other.

The Bounties of Nature

The meme “Nature is Healing!” was inspired by the supposed “healing” or “return” of our ailing Mother Nature as a result of the decrease in human activity due to the pandemic. But, like many of you, I’m sure, I have witnessed signs that Spring has been more bountiful than usual this year. Here at Casa de Snee, we have been delighted by the booming population of baby rabbits, who step curiously across the backyard, chomp on flowers they’re not allowed to eat, and shoot like pinballs when my German Shepherd, Lottie, is let out. It’s a sign of beauty in an otherwise insane world. And yes, I’m sure some of these adorable bunnies will be consumed by coyotes (maybe their population is booming too?), but doesn’t something eat us all in the end?

Pictured here are some lovely cactus flowers which bloomed overnight. I think this is the fourth time these cacti have bloomed this year. I wish I could say they have an intoxicating aroma, but really they just faintly smell of cheap dish soap. I guess we’ll just have to settle for them being so damn beautiful.

I swear the Spring has been longer and cooler in Phoenix this year than in the previous eight I have experienced since I moved here in 2012. It has been wonderful. However, slowly but surely, the cool mornings are growing shorter, and the afternoons are growing hotter, and hotter. Summer is coming in the desert.

The Family Idiot

In the long history of literature, there have always been those writers who, usually in the waning years of their lives, undertake gargantuan, overly ambitious projects that they could never hope to finish. In the case of the French Existentialist philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre, this project was The Family Idiot, a five volume, 3,000 page, psychoanalytic biographical “novel” documenting the life (in all its excruciating detail) of 19th century French master Gustave Flaubert. This endeavor took up ten years of Sartre’s life, was left unfinished at his death, and pretty much destroyed his eyesight. Why was he compelled to do this? Why is anyone?

While Madame Bovary is rightly considered one of the most important novels of all time, people forget that it also solved, in one, sure stroke, a huge crisis in literature. The modern, industrialized, capitalistic world, and its modern cascade of social class, had caged artists of the mid 19th century into a confused identity – romanticism was trivial in the new, polluted, scientific society, and literature was paralyzed into stagnancy. Flaubert’s novel of a provincial woman revealing the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of French bourgeois life, scandalized society so much that they put him on trial for indecency. And realism, as we know it, was born.

The climax of Sartre’s The Family Idiot comes at around page 2,000, when Flaubert, at the age of 25 in 1846, has a debilitating “fit,” which some scholars have attributed to epilepsy (Flaubert never had another one). Flaubert’s father, a doctor, declares his son is not healthy enough for the career in law he has been studying for, and must be taken care of by the family for the rest of his life. And Flaubert is free to create. Sartre argues that this “fit” was not a medical incident, but a “willful act,” to save Flaubert’s life and provide him the environment to write. A curious idea from Sartre, who once claimed there is no such thing as an individual.

How I Write

This is how I write, at a table in the corner of the backyard (weather permitting), on a 2018 iPad Pro with an Apple Magic Keyboard. I don’t use a mouse, I prefer the touchscreen. I’ve been writing predominantly on the iPad for a few years now. I tried to go back to a laptop but it just didn’t take.

Hurricane Season

According to Goodreads, I read 211 books in 2020. Obviously, it was an escape for me. I read many, many good books last year, but one stood out. I don’t think I would recommend it to most readers, but I at least want to mention it and let people know it’s out there, because it certainly wasn’t marketed very heavily. The book I am talking about is Hurricane Season (2020), by the Mexican author Fernanda Melchor (translated by Sophie Hughes), which depicts the murder of a “witch” (who may have been male or female) in the state of Veracruz in Mexico. Melchor is from Veracruz herself, and she casts perhaps one of the most unsentimental eyes I have ever experienced in literature on her native state in this brief, brutal novel. Hurricane Season was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, but lost out to Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening, which I’ve heard is also brutal.

Melchor was born in 1982 and graduated from the Universidad Veracruzana with a degree in journalism. She has published numerous nonfiction articles and reporting in addition to her fiction, so it’s not surprising she has such an unsparing eye. But this is her first novel, and it soon becomes obvious to the reader, as it must have become obvious to Melchor, that fiction can sometimes tell truths that nonfiction and journalism can’t. I’m sure some of the details of this book were gleaned from Melchor’s work in journalism, but through narration she instills deep humanity into incidents that would just come off as statistical in reporting. Melchor has great talent, and a great mind and compassion with it, and the lives she brings to the page might not be exemplary or aspirational in any way, but somehow, while peering into her characters’ evil hearts, we see traits that we ourselves might share.

Some months after I read Hurricane Season, I listened to an interview with Melchor on the Between the Covers podcast. Her intelligence was rapidly apparent, but it was her wisdom and world-weariness that I found most affecting – she sounded like she has witnessed thousands of years of misery, and she’s not even 40. It was an enlightening interview, and it can be found here:





Musings – Mozart and the Opera

There have certainly been many innovations to the opera since Mozart breathed his short allotment of breaths, but I just feel as though he understood the medium better than anyone who ever lived. “The Magic Flute” premiered in 1791, two hundred thirty years ago. If you’re going to take a child to the opera, it’s still the one you go to. It was completed and premiered just months before his death, and seems to live in some sort of world of forms out of Plato – completely different from Wagner’s moody Teutonic myth orgies, Puccini’s and Verdi’s aching realism, and Philip Glass’s and John Adams’ ambiguously historical epics. What Mozart – and his music – possessed were wonder and whimsy, things completely alien to most composers, no matter their brilliance or time period. What can I say? He was freaking Mozart.