“Flaubert Again”
by Anne Carson
from the October 22, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

Anne Carson is a brilliant poet and translator whose unique re-visions of the Classical era has produced unique and powerful contemporary works, such as Autobiography of Red, Nox, and Red Doc>. The short work she’s published in The New Yorker over the past few years has been unconventional and enigmatic, but undeniably powerful if you are with her.

“Flaubert Again” is also a very short piece, this one of eight paragraphs. I read it in a just short of ten minutes, but that’s a bit deceptive. The later paragraphs in particular are rather dense, and Carson’s stream of images and sensations are not to be rushed.

In “Flaubert Again” we find a woman trying to figure out how to write something unique and fully present:

She was a novelist and enjoyed some success. But always she had the fantasy of a different kind of novel, and although gradually realizing that all novelists share this fantasy, she persisted in it, without knowing what the novel would be except true and obvious while it was happening. Now I’m writing, she would be able to say.

“Flaubert Again” doesn’t, however, simply ruminate on this old idea. Rather, to me (and I’ve only read it once), the story was a vivid exploration of the anxiety of watching time pass. Perhaps this is what the novelists wants to imbue in her book. Here she is explaining why she doesn’t bathe: it reminds her of Sunday night baths as a little girl, which she remembers being horrifying though she doesn’t know why.

At any rate, there is a rolling, all-pervasive upwash of dread, one great, hot, shooting surge of dread-sensation through mind and body, a sense — perhaps? — of Time, carrying a body from Sunday night to Monday morning, to every Monday morning after that, and on and on, willy-nilly, to extinction, a mountainload of moments forcing the body from now to then, from drab to drab, from exposure to exposure, this progress, this exasperating, non-negotiable, obliterating motion forward into the dark — the dark what?

There’s a lot going on in these eight paragraphs. I’m curious to know what you are all getting from “Flaubert Again,” so please leave your thoughts below!

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By |2018-10-15T11:18:37+00:00October 15th, 2018|Categories: Anne Carson, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Larry Bone October 23, 2018 at 1:05 pm

    Really strange story. I guess it is about the passage of time, particularly maybe a writer sitting down to write after writing 2 or 3 books and stumped on what to write next. So she just ponders as the clock ticks. If she was trying to write a short short short story about nothing like the Flaubert quote, it does have unrelated fragments. It reads like an experiment words crafted well in some paragraphs. But something like this in creative writing class would get a low grade because it incredibly noninvolving. Don’t know what Trevor saw in it.

  2. William October 24, 2018 at 11:03 pm

    I found an explanation of this piece in the author’s bio: classicist, poet, translator. Not short story writer. There were some phrases that I thought had poetical merit. But overall it’s something that academics write to try to be trendy. Robert Coover she’s not. Academics should leave writing to real writers.

  3. Larry Bone October 25, 2018 at 8:22 am

    Flaubert Again leans toward poetry in how the author tries to weave disjointed fragments into meaning or nonmeaning or deconstruction of the short story writing process. But some sort of meaning has to result or the experiment fails. A basic mistake is the premise that the writer wrote two books, which is an unsubstantiated generality that trivializes the writing process. If one likes nonmeaning and deconstruction, then there is something somewhat of interest.

  4. Trevor Berrett October 25, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    That’s an interesting angle, Larry, and one I like. I do think there is some fascinating stuff going on here, so I disagree with William’s dismissal. Carson may not be a conventional short story writer (and I wouldn’t want to read just this type of thing), but she’s a superb writer, and has been recognized as such for decades. I also don’t think she is trying to be trendy. This is very much a Carson story, focused more on sensation and emotion (for me, here, it is the clear sensation of the loss that occurs as time’s current speeds up, and the ensuing existential dread) than even clarity.

  5. Larry Bone October 25, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    “Clear sensation of loss that occurs as time’s current speeds up” more specifically delineates what is going on in the mind of the protagonist. It makes more sense of what’s actually in the story. There is a kind of tension of when a writer latches on to a detail that unlocks how the story can go and stops the clock of nothing appearing in the mind. That little detail once it appears, gives the story an immortality versus the tension of time running out and being lost because nothing seems to occur that could be written down or typed in. Those are maybe a writer’s uncomfortable moments arguing against writing or thinking at all. So that is interesting but it takes a bit to get there with this. Trevor, thanks for unlocking the sense of what could be going on in this story that I can read again and look for.

  6. William October 26, 2018 at 7:43 pm

    I’m good with Larry’s original comment: “But some sort of meaning has to result or the experiment fails.” I don’t see any meaning. I read Trevor’s comment closely. He says there is something “fascinating” in the story, but he doesn’t say what it is. He also says that there is a “clear sensation of the loss that occurs as time’s current speeds up”. I don’t even know that means, so I can’t say whether it is in the story or not. All I can see is that Carson addresses the notion that one can’t write a new story after Flaubert, and she proves it.

    After writing my original comment, I read “Wood”. I’m going to say again, you can tell if a story — like Carson’s — is any good by reading a very good story and comparing them. I know, Trevor, you don’t think every story should be Nobel-worthy. I agree. However — we can evaluate a new story by holding it and a story that we deem well-crafted in our minds at the same time and weighing them. Carson’s turns out to be a lightweight. Yes, I realize she is trying to do something different from what Munro did. But we can ask — How close to the writer’s objective did she get? Not very close, I would say.

  7. Ken October 28, 2018 at 2:11 pm

    Where has David gone? He’s not commented on this or last week’s story by Kevin Barry.

  8. Ken October 28, 2018 at 2:14 pm

    As for my thoughts, I liked this. I like academic type stuff (being one and having read a lot of theory) so I enjoy someone like Carson applying it to fiction. Obviously, this is a story that has been told many times–the writer trying to write–but this is partly addressed by her use of the word “again’ in the title and mention of Flaubert. She doesn’t reinvent the wheel here but there are some long, marvelously constructed and hypnotic sentences and a sort of tossed-off goulash of ideas that are interesting–time, influence, creativity etc. I have commented before that certain pieces work well because they are short–and this is one of those. Would I want 8 pages of this? Probably not.

  9. David October 28, 2018 at 4:29 pm

    If you miss me at the back of the bus
    And you can’t find me nowhere
    Come on over to the front of the bus
    I’ll be riding up there

    I’ll be riding up there
    Oh, I’ll be riding up there
    Come on over to the front of the bus
    I’ll be riding up there

    (I, briefly, explain my lack of comments on this one here: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2018/10/22/bryan-washington-waugh/ )

  10. Alex D October 30, 2018 at 1:13 pm

    This short story was not a story, it was a collection of thoughts. This might have worked if it was not written like someone angry at the fact that they have to write. Words were chosen for the sole purpose of inspiring deeper meaning into a story that has none.

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