Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Zola and Ian McEwan: The Devil Is in the Details

In Saturday, Ian McEwan has his hero Henry Perowne muse on something his daughter tells him: that her favourite novelist said that you can make anything interesting by looking at it closely enough. Henry is scornful of this, thinking that to be that kind of writer, all you have to do is be observant and take good notes. There’s a wink to the reader here, of course, because McEwan definitely believes that careful observation is a key to fiction.

This week I discovered that the quote is from Flaubert: Pour qu'une chose soit intéressante, il suffit de la regarder longtemps. I went looking for it after I’d begun reading Émile Zola’s novels, doing research for my next book. Zola’s books take place in mid-19th century Paris which will be my book’s starting point: its working title is Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Streets: A Non-pedestrian Look at Walking in the City. The enormous changes that Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann was bringing about in Paris are the background to L’Assommoir (The Drinking Den) La Curée (The Kill), and Au Bonheur des dames (The Ladies’ Delight.)

The books are stuffed with details: what people wore, what they ate, how they set their tables, whether they walked or rode in carriages. Sometimes—no, often—Zola, like McEwan gives more than you might care to know. But it is true that looking carefully renders the most ordinary things noteworthy. What matters is the choice of detail. For example, there are three dinner parties described in L’Assommoir. Like the fish soup that Henry cooks in Saturday, each of these meals tells volumes about the characters--and their destiny.

Great summer reading: heartily recommended.

No comments: