If you want to be a great writer, you have to study great writers.
So right now I'm reading Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.
You could breeze through the book if you wanted, but you'd miss much of its beauty. Flaubert's observations and ironies mingle together like the flavors of a richly-layered cake.
As well they should: Flaubert spent up to 18 hours a day writing and editing, taking six weeks to turn out a mere 25 pages.
His perfectionism came at a cost. By 30, he "looked noticeably older," writes Frederick Brown in Flaubert: A Biography.
"His hair had thinned — had in fact fallen out in clumps. His face showed a redness that could be taken for roseola. We know he was drinking syrup of mercury and would do so again whenever chancres reappeared, fearing, with good reason, that he had contracted syphilis."
But his brilliance outshines his tragic demeanor and debauched lifestyle.
"Novelists should thank Gustave Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it begins again with him," writes James Wood in the New York Times.
"Much of the time Flaubert's influence is too familiar to be visible. We so expect it that we hardly remark of good prose that it favors the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the author's fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible."
Later in the same article, Wood examines the difficulties of capturing Flaubert's talent in translation. Unfortunately, I can't read the original French. But I'm still learning a lot from studying his work, and the man himself.
As Flaubert famously said, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi."