Nothing’s easy

Philip Horne

‘Writing this book I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles.’ The weighty agonies and agonisings of Flaubert, most famously over the details of Madame Bovary, have made him an exemplary writer for other self-conscious writers, and this unlikely simile is quoted in a recent work testifying to that detailed interest: Julian Barnes in Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) made a clever novel out of a preoccupation with the minutiae of Flaubert’s life, inventing a biographer-narrator to fight a long rearguard action against the death of the author. Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Perpetual Orgy (first published in 1975, and only now translated into English) is the work of a novelist whose creative imagination more than equals that of Barnes in complexity and abundance: yet it is what is called, sometimes regrettably, ‘secondary literature’, and Llosa is there in what seems person more than persona, autobiographically forthcoming, to convey, through an impressive array of details, his notion of the meaning of a novel by which he is obsessed – Madame Bovary. His novelistic vocation is not too much narrowed in his operation as a critic: The Perpetual Orgy is an expansive and self-reflecting book, a generously-ranging consideration of what fiction does and is for, and its critical reconstruction of Flaubert’s hampered processes of composition shows a convincing insight and a grasp of detail like those of Llosa’s fiction.

Critics can err by making over their subject-author in their own image. But there are cases and cases, and it should be admitted for honesty’s sake that every really interesting critical argument has an element, however refined, of distortion, of selectiveness, of calculated simplification, which is responsible for much of its interest, even if we wish not to lose sight of the question of its accuracy. Llosa’s multitudinous evidence, in concatenations of instances, gives his argument a sufficiently solid basis of fact to make his interpretations plausible, while his personal and professional urgencies, including his explicit taste for ‘rebellion, violence, melodrama and sex’, inform the writing with an attaching distinctiveness of approach. He is at an advantage with Flaubert in respect of combining passion with accuracy, for the book is partly an avowal of profound influence; even those for whom the critical picture is different will at least admit that Llosa, over the years, thoughtfully and with reservations, has taken trouble making himself as an author in the image of Flaubert – has worked at some of the same problems, and with a broadly similar perspective – before making Flaubert back in his own image here.

Flaubert emerges in the book, mainly through copious quotation from his letters, as an arch-combiner of accuracy and passion, fact and imagination; an assiduous collector and includes of material from the real world who then turns round and claims – with some reason, because of his constant alterations – that ‘Madame Bovary has nothing true in it. It is a totally invented story.’ Llosa is sensitive to this element of invention, or rather of transmutation, not only as part of Flaubert’s creative process, but also, on another level, as his heroine’s main business in the novel (and the relation of Flaubert’s creativity to Emma’s is constitutive). The moment at which Emma admits to her second lover, the clerk Léon, that there has been a first, apparently a true confession made on impulse, is shown by Flaubert as bearing its due burden of falsehood and subterfuge. She has loved before, but speedily revises the baldness of stating it with operatic flourishes: ‘ “pas comme toi!” reprit-elle vite, protestant sur la tête de sa fille qu’il ne s’était rien passé.’ (Llosa acutely discusses Flaubert’s habit of signalling typographically the clichés and vulgarities to which his characters succumb.) For present convenience, Emma suppresses Rodolphe’s name as well as the intensity and bustle of their affair, and goes on to lie romantically to the feeble Léon about what the aristocratic lay-about Rodolphe does: Il était capitaine de vaisseau, mon ami. Flaubert comes in here with a pointed question: ‘Was this not to discourage all inquiry, and simultaneously to raise oneself to a great height by claiming to have exerted a fascination on such a man, who must be by nature dominating and used to extracting the deference of others?’ The lie, when its egocentric motives are laid bare, tells us more than the truth: only it documents its psychological origins rather than its ostensible subject.

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