Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Like Flies in Saucers

From Elif Batuman's The Possessed:

A famous professor of comparative literature had just read what struck me as an incredibly lame paper comparing a passage in Madame Bovary, in which flies are dying in the bottom of a glass of cider, to Babel's description of the death of Squadron Commander Trunov. (The similarity was supposedly that both Babel and Flaubert were aestheticizing the banal.) The moderator-my adviser, Monika Greenleaf-returning to the subject of those flies in the cider, had compared them to the inkwell full of dead flies at the miser's estate in Dead Souls, and also to Captain Lebyadkin's lyric about cannibalistic flies in a jar in Dostoevsky's Demons. I thought this was a much more promising line of comparison-in fact, Babel, too, had a passage about "flies dying in a jar filled with a milky liquid" in a Tiflis hotel. A beautiful passage: "Each fly was dying in its own way."
Perhaps the flies were unhappy.

But anyway, this reminds me of two further fly-related passages. The first is from "The Duel," by Chekhov:

And it seemed to her that all the evil memories in her head had taken shape and were walking beside her in the darkness, breathing heavily, while she, like a fly that had fallen into the inkpot, was crawling painfully along the pavement and smirching Laevsky's side and arm with blackness.
The second is from "The New Dress," by Virginia Woolf:

"We are all like flies trying to crawl over the edge of the saucer," Mabel thought, and repeated the phrase as if she were crossing herself, as if she were trying to find some spell to annul this pain, to make this agony endurable. Tags of Shakespeare, lines from books she had read ages ago, suddenly came to her when she was in agony, and she repeated them over and over again. "Flies trying to crawl," she repeated. If she could say that over often enough and make herself see the flies, she would become numb, chill, frozen, dumb. Now she could see flies crawling slowly out of a saucer of milk with their wings stuck together; and she strained and strained (standing in front of the looking-glass, listening to Rose Shaw) to make herself see Rose Shaw and all the other people there as flies, trying to hoist themselves out of something, or into something, meagre, insignificant, toiling flies. But she could not see them like that, not other people. She saw herself like that-she was a fly, but the others were dragonflies, butterflies, beautiful insects, dancing, fluttering, skimming, while she alone dragged herself up out of the saucer. (Envy and spite, the most detestable of the vices, were her chief faults.)

"I feel like some dowdy, decrepit, horribly dingy old fly," she said, making Robert Haydon stop just to hear her say that, just to reassure herself by furbishing up a poor weak-kneed phrase and so showing how detached she was, how witty, that she did not feel in the least out of anything. And, of course, Robert Haydon answered something quite polite, quite insincere, which she saw through instantly, and said to herself, directly he went (again from some book), "Lies, lies, lies!"
The fly motif continues throughout the story. I find it incredibly compelling.

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