Writing Craft, Vol. XI: Jean-Henri Fabre, entomologist with a knack for narrative

PORTSMOUTH, Va. – Sometimes soft dung can become a nourishing pill. I learned this from Jean Henri Fabre.

It’s not just the name I love; nor is it the science.

Fabre, a French entomologist, was a remarkable man of letters because he had a way of putting them in the right order. I picked up two volumes of his work last year at Old Professor’s Bookshop in Maine, and have since returned to them repeatedly for the descriptions of Fabre’s observations of nature.

As a bonus, his work often speaks to the nature of writing, particularly the ever-elusive narrative central to both the sciences and the humanities alike. And he writes things consistent with my own philosophies of discovering stories both in fiction and journalism. For what it’s worth.

The following quotes are from The Life and Love of the Insect, an early 20th Century English compilation of some essays. I am misappropriating some lines that deal not with narrative but nature. Hopefully for pure purposes. As Fabre wrote:

And now let us unfold the authentic story, calling to witness none save facts actually observed and reobserved.

On clarity:

I am convinced one can say excellent things without employing a barbarous vocabulary. Clearness is the supreme politeness of whoso wields a pen. I do my best to observe it.

On planning or editing:

It now becomes a question of shaping it.

On respecting the canon, if only to a point:

We take the genesis of the species in the act; the present teaches us how the future is prepared. (90)

On reaching that point, and continuing to achieve craft:

The creative power throws aside the old moulds and replaces them by others, fashioned with fresh care, after plans of an inexhaustible variety. Its laboratory is not a peddling rag-fair, where the living assume the cast clothes of the dead: it is a medallist’s studio, where each effigy receives the stamp of a special die. Its treasure-house of forms, of unbounded wealth, excludes any niggardly patching of the old to make the new. It breaks up every mould once used; it does away with it, without resulting to shabby after-touches.

On finding areas of study in one’s own backyard:

The gathering of ideas does not necessarily imply distant expeditions. …

Certainly, I have plenty. I have too much to do with my near neighbors, without going and wandering in distant regions.

On digging deep:

But what is the use of this history, what the use of all this minute research? I well know that it will not produce a fall in the price of pepper, a rise in that of crates of rotten cabbages, or other serious events of this kind, which cause fleets to be manned and set people face to face intent upon one another’s extermination. The insect does not aim at so much glory. It confines itself to showing us life in the inexhaustible variety of its manifestations; it helps us to decipher in some small measure the obscurest book of all, the book of ourselves.

On finding what matters within all the words:

She collect the remnants pouring down around her, subdivides them yet further, refines them and makes her selection: this, the tenderer part, for the central crumb; that, tougher, for the crust of the loaf. Turning this way and that, she pats the material with the battledore of her flattened arms; she arranges it in layers, which presently she compresses by stamping on them where they lie, much after the manner of a vine-grower treading his vintage. Rendered firm and compact, the mass will keep better and longer.

On clarity of form:

The poplar-leaf, with its simple form and its moderate size, gives a neat scroll; the vine-leaf, with its cumbersome girth and its complicated outline, produces a shapeless cigar, an untidy parcel.

For those interested in great bookstores, here’s a link to a post I wrote last year on Old Professor’s Bookshop. And here’s a video that originally ran with that post.

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