A Novelist’s Narration

Literary critics widely regard Gustave Flaubert as the father of the modern novel. Features like a well-chosen, eloquent detail; a high degree of physical observation and description; a search for truth even if it unpleasing; or the portrayal of good and evil from a neutral perspective – though features certainly seen in previous authors – come to full bloom in Flaubert’s prose. Paris becomes a spectacle of sights and sensations, for example, as when he describes, “In the back of the solitary café, the lady at the counter yawns amidst her filled decanters; the newspapers remain in order on the tables of the reading rooms; underwear rustles to the blow of the tepid wind.”[1]

But the author of Madame Bovary is noted above all by his use of the narrative voice. Flaubert’s is often an unnoticed narrator, who hides his brilliance behind the eloquence of his details, and who does not stand in the way of the reader’s appreciation of the story. “The author must be in his work like God in the universe: everywhere present but nowhere visible,” advises Flaubert in a letter.[2]

painting van vogh

Everywhere present but nowhere visible. Literary skill notwithstanding, it seems Flaubert captures here an insightful observation. God feels indeed like a modern narrator: active, all-searching, omnipotent; a master of texture and detail as well as of round characters and social moods; present in every page and every turn and every tragedy, and converging plots and subplots to a masterful climax; yet invisible, imperceptible, undetectable; an artist inferred from the eloquence of his work; a gentleman secure enough of himself to let his creatures shine on their own; a genius crafting his masterpiece from behind the scenes.

God’s hiddenness is one of his most unnerving qualities. We would be in bliss if he lifted the veil from his face, if he came forth decisively in our midst, if he wooed us with his presence and splendor. We would have our questions answered and our hearts filled, like a character in a novel that could transcend the pages and meet its author face to face. As Anselm of Canterbury voices the human protest,

I have never seen thee, O Lord my God; I do not know thy form. What, O most high Lord, shall this man do, an exile far from thee? … He is eager to find thee, and knows not thy place. He desires to seek thee, and does not know thy face.[3]

Other people infer even that an invisible God must be an inexistent God, for “a god who is all-knowing and all-powerful and who does not even make sure his creatures understand his intentions — could that be a god of goodness?”, as ponders Nietzsche.[4] From the agony of Job and the psalmists in the Bible, to the protest of the searching agnostic nowadays, we do all seem to want a more visible, more extravagant, less modern God.

That is not the God we get, at least for the moment. We believe of course that one day we will meet him face to face, when the sun will be no more and God’s glory will illuminate us.[5] We wait for the moment when time will flow into eternity, evil will be undone and we will all stand in God’s presence. Now we protest and question and beseech our Creator to make himself known, and wait in silence. Yet we can go on living, because if God maybe be nowhere visible, he is still everywhere present. He is available and at hand. And we can rest assured that things may be dark and painful but are still moving to their climax, for someone is at work behind the scenes, an author is crafting a masterpiece, and one day we will be able to sit on his lap and listen he read aloud the story of us all.

René Breuel

[1] Gustave Flaubert, L’Éducation sentimentale, quoted by James Wood, Come Funzionano I Romanzi [How Fiction Works] (Milan: Mondatori, 2010), 31-32.

[2] Ibid., 32.

[3] Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul Moser, “Introduction: Divine Hiddenness”Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Revelation 21:23.


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