This book is mad, of course. Admirable but mad – to abduct Sartre’s own phrase about Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. A work of elucidation couched in a lazily dense style; a biography seemingly concerned with externals but in fact spun from inside the biographer like a spider’s thread; a critical study which exceeds in wordage all the major works of its subject put together ... ‘On n’arrête pas Voltaire,’ de Gaulle said of Sartre in 1968; and perhaps those down at Gallimard imagined they heard a pun. One does not arrest Voltaire ... and you can’t stop him either.
Who started him? Roger Garaudy, it seems, with an inviting bet in 1954: ‘Let’s try and explain the same character, I according to Marxist methods, you according to existentialist methods.’ So began a project whose aim Sartre expresses on the first page of The Family Idiot as: ‘What, at this point in time, can we know about a man?’ To which he gives the answer: a lot more than you might imagine. The traditional, academic approach to biography – the search for documentation, the sifting of evidence, the balancing of contradictory opinions, the cautious hypothesis, the modestly tentative conclusion – has run itself into the ground; the method has calcified. Sartre decides to reinvent the genre, using three principal techniques: Marxist analysis of the social background, Freudianish analysis of the personality, and freewheeling imaginative hypothesis to fill in any gaps. Not surprising, then, that it look a decade of his life, or that it brought upon the comrade of 1968 certain inevitable reproaches.
But why Flaubert? After all, Sartre recorded in Les Mots how, as a child, he was ‘poisoned’ by the ‘old bile’ and the ‘abstract hatred of mankind’ of Flaubert, Gautier and the Goncourts; and a harsh excommunication was also pronounced in Qu’est-ce que la littérature? It was Flaubert’s dazzling correspondence which shifted him, he remarks, from antipathy to empathy; moreover, the letters struck him as ideal psychobiographical material – an almost perfect example of free associating from a pre-Freudian couch.
There is, also, a personal element in the choice of Flaubert. L’Idiot de la Famille, for all its ‘scientific’ method, is a tellingly personal, almost autobiographical work as well: psychoanalysis, whatever else it does, in part defines the psychoanalyser. Sartre liked to fob off comparisons between his childhood and Flaubert’s, but the evidence was against him: in particular, his own evidence, Les Mots. Both writers came from provincial bourgeois families – austere, hard-working, traditional, practising virtue without too much believing in it. Sartre’s maternal grandmother, in her seventies, used to complain about the leek salad she and her husband had shared at a station buffet on their honeymoon half a century earlier: ‘He took all the white and left me the green.’ A way of life rich in matured rancour. Sartre also records how his paternal grandfather, a country doctor, discovered on the day after his wedding that his wife’s family – supposedly rich Périgord landowners – were in fact penniless. From that moment on, the deceived doctor never spoke to his wife again, expressing himself at table by means of gesture; undaunted, the couple still contrived to produce three children, and lived together for 40 years; in their old age the grandmother used to refer to her still silent husband as ‘my paying-guest’. This sort of family texture, acrid and enduring, was shared by the two provincial novelists; while some members of their immediate families also echoed one another. Sartre’s god-like grandfather, who amused himself by crushing the life out of his sons, recalls Flaubert’s father Achille-Cléophas – or, more precisely and more interestingly, recalls Sartre’s portrait of Achille-Cléophas; while the pinched virtue of his grandmother, who ‘thought straight and thought wrongly’ reminds us inevitably of Mme Flaubert.
Sartre liked to argue that there was one great and significant difference between himself and Flaubert: he was loved and pampered as a child, whereas Flaubert was mal aimé. Even if we accept this thesis (which is, of course, Sartre’s own, in both cases), its effect, paradoxically, is to bind the two men together as biographer and biographee even more closely: for Sartre in a way envied Flaubert his unlovedness. Sartre’s infancy was shamelessly happy, as he recalls in Les Mots: but after reading L’Idiot de la Famille it’s hard not to feel that this early happiness was in part begrudged. How selfish and irredeemably unfair of this bourgeois family to have inflicted untarnished contentment on the future Marxist, Existentialist and creator of Roquentin. The Flaubert family, on the other hand, was more properly bourgeois and supplied the correct degrees of trauma and unhappiness which Sartre was deprived of. His father died, it is true, before Jean-Paul was aware of him, but even this – he makes clear in Les Mots – was a deeply fortunate occurrence: while every other male child is an Aeneas slogging around with an Anchises on his back, he alone was free – free and filled with loathing at the sight of all those invisible progenitors astride their sons for the whole of their lives. And yet, and yet, there is a horrid shadow to this fatherless felicity: ‘The speedy departure of my father deprived me of a proper Oedipus complex.’ The tone is amused, ironic, of course: but not that ironic. What is a properly instructive bourgeois upbringing without an Oedipus complex? Every home should have one.
So a subsequent incident from Jean-Paul’s childhood curiously prepares the ground for L’Idiot de la Famille. The boy, encouraged to believe that ‘a book can never do harm if it is well written,’ asks his mother for permission to read Madame Bovary. ‘My mother put on her most musical voice: “But if my little darling reads these sorts of books at his age, what will he do when he grows up?” ’ The young Jean-Paul retorts precociously, ‘Je les vivrai’ – a reply which proved a lasting success. Even more long-lasting than his family imagined: first Sartre lived the threateningly anti-bourgeois life described in the dangerous classics; now, for long tracts of L’Idiot de la Famille, he is able to go even further: he lives, relives, the author himself.
Flaubert’s line of life, in Sartre’s version, runs like this: idiocy, passivity, interiorisation, neurosis, breakdown (the famous incident at Pont-1’Evêque in 1844 – fainting, epilepsy or Sartrean ‘false death’, according to your terminology and interpretation; John Bayley has wittily suggested a new one – namely, a good piece of acting), then genius. How to explain what Sartre calls ‘this scandalous occurrence: an idiot who becomes a genius?’ And how, a fortiori, to explain it when the documentary evidence is thin, misleading, fictional, or piously shuffled together after Flaubert’s death?
‘We recognise at the outset that we cannot know the vicissitudes of his intrauterine life.’ This is one of the few areas where not even Sartre will speculate. And there are a few others: ‘the nursing, the digestive and excretory functions of the infant, the earliest efforts at toilet training ... about these fundamental givens, nothing.’ If only Gustave’s parents had had the foresight to preserve one of Gustave’s earliest stools; if only the fossilised excrement had been passed down to the Musée de Rouen ... then Sartre might have been able to spin a hypothesis out of it. Ironically, just before The Family Idiot came out here, De Beauvoir was publishing La Cérémonie des Adieux, in which she usefully records the bladder malfunctionings which set in during Sartre’s final illness.
But there are few other areas where Sartre fails to tread. As he prowls round the infant Gustave – necessarily mute from such a distance – he sometimes reminds us of another French experimenter and theorist: Jean-Marc Itard, who spent years trying to make the Wild Boy of Aveyron talk. Sartre prods and pokes at Gustave, treats him alternately with kindness and frostiness, and is everywhere indefatigable.
The psychoanalytic insights offered by Sartre are always Olympian and frequently crass. The father of Flaubert’s mother died when she was ten: this makes it inevitable that ‘she would only marry her father.’ Her mother died in giving birth to her: consequently, when she suckles her first daughter, ‘she gave herself the breast in order to obliterate from the present the indestructible frustrations of the past; she made love to herself so that she could at least give the tenderness that she had not received.’ Achille, Gustave’s elder brother, is naturally kitted out with an off-the-peg Oedipus complex. Unfortunately for him its working-out goes wrong. When the father, Achille-Cléophas (head of the hospital at Rouen), falls ill, he instructs his elder son to operate on him. In the course of the operation he dies. Sartre comments: ‘The most unexpected result of this relationship is that the old man, by giving himself up to the knife, deprived his elder son of even the possibility of deliverance through the classic murder of the father; certainly Achille killed him, but he made himself the docile instrument of a sacred suicide.’ The proof that Achille has been cheated out of the necessary liberating murder comes in the next paragraph: when he stepped into his father’s shoes as head of the Hôtel-Dieu, Achille also stepped into his father’s old goatskin coat. This garment, the argument runs, was already eccentric and unfashionable when his father had worn it on his rounds: it would have been ‘aberrant’ by the time the son took it on. Yet he could not now avoid this flapping symbolic mantle. ‘Polished, refined by his new friendships, he was urbane in the salons, a clod on his rounds; in both instances, actually, he perpetuated the paterfamilias.’ Or maybe he just liked the coat ...
There is a matching inflexibility in Sartre’s Marxist analysis of Flaubert’s social origins. His parents were mere functioning units going through their bourgeois programme; the ambitions, social behaviour, attitudes to property and family of this ‘semi-patriarchal community’ can all be easily predicted. The Flauberts automatically pursue their dream of upward mobility (as if anyone ever pursued a dream of downward mobility), and the relations between Gustave and Achille-Cléophas ‘incarnate the drama of French society’. Moreover, the sly wrong-footing of Marxist criticism is also in evidence: characters can first be reduced to easily comprehensible social automata, with scarcely an atom of free will, reliant (like Flaubert’s father) on the chance mutation of intelligence in order to advance themselves; and then these ruthlessly conditioned social automata can be despised for not being more humane, more enlightened, more 20th-century. Thus Sartre, of Achille-Cléophas’s (undocumented) firmness with Gustave when teaching him to read: ‘125 years later, better-informed about the nature of childhood, we accuse the medical director of having aimed too high, too quickly, and of having bewildered his unhappy pupil by allowing him to see his exasperation.’ Publishing that sentence in 1971 doubtless required a cushion of arrogance about Sartre’s own reputation in the year 2096.
Yet perhaps this arrogance is not quite what it seems. There are times – many times – when Sartre seems impatient and scornful of Flaubert’s immediate family, when he seems to want that family to be in as great a state of postulated discord as possible, when he seems to cry openly, with Gide: Families, I hate you. But perhaps this is to overemphasise Sartre’s political and biographical presence in L’Idiot, and to underestimate his literary presence. In part, the biographer adopts the bullying, chivvying tone he does because the characters under examination are his own creation. He has revived them and fleshed them out, so he naturally awards himself extra rights in their behaviour. Thus he is at the same time the scientific, unsurprised Marxist and the intuitive but irritated novelist. It is easy to forget this ambivalence, to underestimate the fictional alloy present in L’Idiot, though the literary company he keeps sometimes looks a bit seedy. Take the account of Mme Flaubert’s pregnancy, which led to Gustave’s birth:
Nine highly agitated months. She must have imagined everything, poor Caroline, she must have hoped and despaired, sometimes welcoming a future daughter as celestial manna, at others spitting into the ashes to deny the imminent son. No doubt these agitations of the soul remained hidden. But she could not dissemble her ardent wish to have a girl, to re-create herself ...
Given that paragraph blind, where would you place it? Somewhere in the Imagine-the-Heartbreak school of popular biography, I should imagine, where the word ‘must’ is always a giveaway (‘To the young Lady Venetia, the dashing young consul from Corsica must have seemed a wildly romantic figure’). Very Jean-Paul Sartre, very Mills and Boon.
Of course, to say that swathes of L’Idiot are fiction is not to deny them the possibility of truth. Nor, on the other hand, is it to assert that they are well-written. L’Idiot is, indeed, an outstandingly badly-written book (the dust-wrapper disarmingly warns us that Carol Cosman’s translation conveys all the nuances of Sartre’s style ‘from the jaunty to the ponderous’). The contrast with Les Mots, swift, supple and economical, is saddeningly instructive. But then Sartre was always fighting against the allure of lucidity, against the guilt induced by pleasing the reader. There is a warning exchange in La Cérémonie where de Beauvoir quizzes him on the value of good writing. ‘Sometimes even,’ she begins, adopting the piousness of Michael Parkinson facing Auden, ‘you were disgusted with literature; you used to say, Literature is shit. What exactly did you mean? And from time to time, more recently, you have said to me: after all, it’s stupid to work at expressing oneself; you seemed to be saying that one only had to write, as it were, any old how. Moreover you told me that this is how you wrote your Flaubert, which isn’t entirely true.’ Sartre growls back: ‘It isn’t true.’ De Beauvoir retreats with, ‘There are many felicities in your Flaubert,’ and Sartre replies: ‘I write faster now. But that comes from having worked at it.’
No one, of course, would admit that he wrote worse than he used to, especially not by design. I just write differently, that’s all, more quickly; but then, as Sartre goes on, ‘I believe that the best writing is always done without too much working over.’ However generously we feel inclined to interpret the aging Sartre’s remarks, his is an ironic conclusion to reach while engaged on a study of the finest, the most literary, and the least engagé of French 19th-century novelists. ‘La littérature, c’est de la merde.’ ‘Oh yes, who are you working on at the moment?’ ‘Flaubert, of course.’ This makes shocking, almost insulting, the rare occasions in L’Idiot when Sartre chooses to quote Flaubert: suddenly we are reminded that it is perfectly possible – indeed, it seems almost actively desirable – for high intelligence, piercing insight and scrupulous concentration to be combined with extreme lucidity of expression. One of the rogue myths of criticism is that difficult ideas can only be expressed or elucidated in dense and difficult language. When one falls routinely on sentences like ‘Praxis becomes the efficacy of the passive because the child’s conditioning strips him of any means of affirming himself, even the positive act of negativity,’ it pays to remember the first act of practical criticism inflicted on the young Flaubert. When Louis Bouilhet and Maxime du Camp rubbished his ornate first version of La Tentation de Saint-Antoine they reminded him of La Bruyère’s advice: ‘If you want to say that it is raining, say: “It is raining.” ’
As you machete your way through the prose, however, the jungle partly begins to clear. The heart of this first volume is a rich and plausible imaginative hypothesis about the inner life of the young Flaubert, with its profitable passivity and fecund neurosis. The evidence is of two sorts: occasional documentation (Flaubert’s letters, his niece’s memoir of him), and internal evidence drawn from the adolescent stories (largely inaccessible to English readers). In his exposition of these stories Sartre is at his most resourceful: a swift and ruthless pursuer of the subtext and the Freudian implication (here Flaubert is shown wanting to kill his entire family; there just his brother; over here Satan represents Gustave, God represents Achille-Cléophas). No one will now be able to read these texts without bearing in mind Sartre’s psychological parallels, and the ‘proud confessions’ of hatred, envy and sublimated murder which he discerns.
Whether Sartre’s critical reading is right is another matter, of course. It is frequently plausible, but it is vigorously one-sided in method. These early stories – rancid items of romantic sex and violence, for the most part – are highly derivative, sometimes direct parodies or exercises. The scented influence of writers like Petrus Borel is paramount. Yet Sartre declines to discuss literary genesis, to examine how far the motifs he interprets as being Gustave’s private neuroses writ public are in fact provided ready-made by the writers he imitates. Sartre’s reason for not doing so is curt: of course Gustave is being imitative – but the real question is, what made him choose to imitate this rather than something else? His unconscious clearly directed him to rewrite, parody, expand items of direct psychological concern to him. It is a strong argument, but there are some points to be made in reply. How wide was the choice of imitable texts – the real, likely choice, given Gustave’s age, reading and surroundings? Is it all that surprising for an adolescent to produce stories littered with sex, madness and death when he lives above the morgue, and when from the age of six he had been taken for educative walks by an uncle who liked to drop in at the lunatic asylum and then linger in the prostitutes’ quarter? And what, furthermore, is the likelihood of Sartre not being able to read envy and revenge into whatever adolescent stories Flaubert might have written?
As for the documentary evidence, even Sartre admits that it is thin and unreliable. His starting-point for this whole enterprise – for the presumption of the young Gustave’s ‘idiocy’ – comes from a piece of ‘decorous gossip’ written by Flaubert’s niece, Caroline Commanville, after his death. She reports the family tradition that he was slow in learning to read (adding piously, however, that he was ‘avid for knowledge and his brain was always working’); then records that he would often as a child sit ‘for hours, one finger in his mouth, absorbed, looking almost stupid’, and that once, when he was six, ‘a servant called Pierre, amusing himself with Gustave’s innocence, told the boy when he pestered him: “Run to the kitchen ... and see if I’m there” ’ – which the child duly did.
Not much, is it? Yet Sartre immediately applies the magnifying glass and expands the child to ‘pathologically credulous’; while his parents, we are assured, ‘searched his features and feared he was an idiot’. Is Gustave’s instant departure towards the kitchen that credulous? How many parents would back their own six-year-olds not to fall for a similar straight-faced wheeze? As for the idiocy: Gustave was, it is true, slower at learning to read than his sister, but the memoir continues with an incident which might well be held to confirm intelligence rather than persuade one to doubt it. Before he was taught his letters, Gustave was often read to by an old family friend called Papa Mignot. Caroline Commanville reports that when there were scenes over Gustave’s slowness in learning to read, the child’s final argument, ‘to his mind irrefutable’, was ‘What’s the use of learning when Papa Mignot reads to me?’ Not quite as good, perhaps, as Jean-Paul’s ‘Je les vivrai,’ but hardly the sort of response to have parents scanning the infant face for signs of idiocy. Sartre naturally ignores this part of the memoir, and supports his thesis more by bullying repetition than anything else, by an insistent need for his line to be true. The 20th-century Freudian orthodoxy is that of the artist as neurotic: Sartre expands this into a wider orthodoxy of the genius as idiot. In fact, it’s rather a Hollywood notion, a literary version of Log Cabin to White House, rather romantic, and a bit vulgar. ‘I see it all ... the small boy, his thumb in his mouth ... the great writer having difficulty with his letters ... and a little wood-burning stove in the background ...’ Regrettable as it is, a lot of geniuses actually start off as pretty average.
Sartre is much stronger on the less contenttious subject of Flaubert as neurotic, on the big, strapping youth mysteriously laid low by spiritual scurvy. The passivity, the pessimism, the malice, the ‘option of hysteria’ and the ‘precocious senility’ are fictionalised together into a convincing flow. I’m not sure the lengthy result is more vivid than Flaubert’s own deliberations on the subject: he once described his adolescent self as ‘a mushroom swollen with boredom’. But then Sartre seems unwilling – too jealous, even – to give Flaubert his head in quotation.
Within the fictional flow there are occasional passages of trenchant analysis. The Sartre of Les Mots returns with imaginative and precise examinations of Flaubert’s mother’s loss of faith, and of that curious incident when Achille-Cléophas took his whole family on a visit to a former mistress and left them waiting outside in the street while he went up to call on her. Sartre’s examination of Flaubert’s crucial religious paradox – that of the man born too late to enjoy the happy lie that is so vital to his needs – is surprisingly sympathetic; and this first volume concludes with an excellent account of the strategy of the Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues.
It is, nonetheless, a puzzling and frustrating book, needlessly difficult to read, shuffling between dogma and perceptiveness. It will doubtless be consumed mostly in academe and, even there, anyone who wants merely to find out what Sartre thought about Flaubert will probably turn unreproached to Hazel Barnes’s Sartre and Flaubert. Perhaps we might offer a passing prayer of thanks that the fourth volume of L’Idiot was never written (de Beauvoir mentions in La Cérémonie that, ‘always thoughtful about renewing himself’, Sartre planned a study of Madame Bovary using structuralist methods – even though ‘he didn’t like structuralism’).
‘Critic. Always eminent. Held to know everything, to have seen and read everything. If you disagree with one, call him Aristarchus, or eunuch.’ Flaubert’s definition from the Dictionnaire doesn’t exactly come home to roost. Eunuch? Hardly. Aristarchus? Well, Sartre didn’t really cut or change bits of Flaubert – rather the opposite, in fact. But if you disagree with him, you could try calling him instead one who has not learnt the lessons taught by the object of his study. Flaubert died in 1880: Sartre in 1980. Flaubert left unfinished Bouvard et Pécuchet, in which he sought to enclose the whole of knowledge, the whole of the world, the whole of idiocy: Sartre left unfinished L’Idiot de la Famille, in which he sought to enclose and subdue Flaubert, master writer, master bourgeois, the sage and the enemy. In this first volume Sartre condemns Bouvard et Pécuchet, first as ‘colossal and grotesque’, later as ‘vast and monotonous’. All four adjectives can safely be transferred to his own work. It is a vast folly, erected with admirable but mad single-mindedness. There it stands, and surely, you think, the view from the top must be splendid. But no: climb up and you only see a little more than you do from the road. And the road itself – the Hazel Barnes freeway – only carries light traffic, because it only leads to the folly. A pity, of course, but then that’s the thing about follies. They aren’t actually very useful.