Art of the Novella Challenge: Balzac vs. Flaubert

August 11, 2011 

As those of you who follow this blog may have noticed, I haven’t posted a proper book review in a few months. Book reviews are hard work! And for various reasons — time and energy and other interests — they just haven’t been a priority for me as of late.

So I knew I wanted to do something different for the Art of the Novella Challenge. Of the novellas on my reading list for the challenge, the first I chose for obvious reasons — it was the shortest. Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart is, according to the book jacket, a “heart-breaking tale of a simple servant woman and her life-long search  for love.” Okay, but how to blog about it and make it fun?

I thought back to the most fun I’ve had with reading since I started this blog and, hands down, it has to be the Tournament of Books. Every March, the Morning News hosts a fierce competition of some the year’s biggest novels (and some dark horses as well). It’s fun because it doesn’t even pretend to be a balanced critical examination of the books. It’s all about the judge and his or her prejudices and predilections.

So here goes nothing. Round 1: Balzac vs. Flaubert.

Both are dead white French guys. Both wrote during the nineteenth century and are considered pioneers of realism. Neither was lucky in love: Balzac corresponded with a married woman for fifteen years, finally wed her after her husband died and then died himself five months later. Flaubert slept with a lot of prostitutes and had syphilis.

But their novellas could not be more different.

Words that come to mind about A Simple Heart are restraint and sacrifice. The story centers on Félicité, a servant girl with a bottomless heart who will do anything for those she loves. The novella isn’t exactly a nail biter, but there is a nice bit of action when Félicité saves her mistress and two children from a raging bull by throwing clods of dirt in his eyes. Despite her pure heart, everyone Félicité has ever loved meets an untimely end, even the parrot. (Yes, that’s right, I said a parrot.)  It is clear that Flaubert agonized over every word in this 62-page novella. The ending is a particularly tightly crafted interplay between the servant girl’s violent death throes and a procession of children ringing bells through the streets during a religious celebration.

At the other end of the spectrum, The Girl with the Golden Eyes is all about excess. Balzac takes us into the sex lives of the upper echelon of Parisian society — the lust and the intrigue, but also the incest and the violence. First, however, he spends 40 pages describing in minute detail every intricacy of Parisian society. There are some great turns of phrase — “cadaverous physiognomy” and “feeble decrepitude” — but I found myself impatiently turning pages looking for the characters and the plot.  Then, when I finally got to what I considered to be an actual story, I found myself turning back the pages because often I had no idea what was happening.

Which to choose? If this were an episode of The Bachelor, I’d be bemoaning what a hard decision this was and how both novellas have such admirable qualities. But really this wasn’t much of a contest. In spite of the parrot, A Simple Heart was meticulous and heart-wrenching. The Girl with the Golden Eyes, for all its promise of lust and extravagance, was ultimately just too messy for me.

Winner: Flaubert

3 Responses to “Art of the Novella Challenge: Balzac vs. Flaubert”

  1. Cassandra Says:
    August 11th, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Great strategy for getting through the challenge! Neither looks like m cup of tea, though I am going to try to get in a novella or two. I have Bartleby the Scrivner sitting here. One of my colleagues was adamant that I read it.

  2. gina Says:
    August 11th, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Love the tournament idea and I am finding so many novellas to add to my TBR list. The Girl With the Golden Eyes sounds right up my alley Parisian society! Lust! Not so much incest but woah, there’s a lot going on in the novella, eh?

  3. jenn aka the picky girl Says:
    August 17th, 2011 at 10:21 am

    After reading Madame Bovary last year, I have a bit of a soft spot for Flaubert. I’d like to read that novella.

    On the other hand, I have never read Balzac but haven’t really wanted to either.

    Love the idea!