Flaubert: A Life 
by Geoffrey Wall.
Faber, 413 pp., £25, October 2001, 0 571 19521 0
Show More
Show More

And so another literary ‘life’, framed, as is the custom, by a beginning (childhood) and an ending (death), although Geoffrey Wall, on retiring from his story, decorates the frame with a nicely incongruous detail: ‘Flaubert’s coffin, too big to fit into the grave, had to be left stuck at an angle, headfirst, and only halfway into the earth.’ Flaubert’s novels are packed with grotesque contingencies of this sort, an ongoing series of petty but obstinate obstructions to human designs. How gratifying, then, that in this lack of fit between coffin and grave, death should confirm a whole Flaubertian way of looking at life. On the other hand, we should be cautious about construing this as a ‘sign’ and consequently, like Emma Bovary, losing the plot in the very act of searching for one. To his credit, the biographer leaves well alone here, in the penumbra of unstated implication.

Elsewhere, however, he is less restrained. Take the subject of Flaubert’s principal male friendships, with Alfred le Poittevin, Maxime du Camp and Louis Bouilhet. Alfred marries, and three weeks later Flaubert starts sleeping with Louise Colet: ‘a coincidence that is interesting but ultimately indecipherable’. Hmm: you can get away with a lot under the protection of that ‘ultimately’. Again, on Bouilhet’s mixed motives in breaking up the affair with Colet, Wall writes (discreetly, in a footnote): ‘We might squeeze something significant from the fact that Bouilhet, on a visit to Mantes, had made a point of sleeping at the same inn in the same bed.’ Well, yes, we might, but only if we squeeze very hard on an exiguous tube. Similarly, in 1851, du Camp loses Flaubert’s gift of a friendship ring which he had worn since 1843: ‘If one believed in omens, this might be significant.’ Well, does ‘one’ or doesn’t ‘one’, is it or isn’t it? The coy conditionals provide the requisite sceptical cover but the gesture towards putative Meaning peeps through, and is clearly meant to.

This guarded form of bovarysme reflects the biographer’s classic pattern-making temptation. In a not dissimilar instance, Sartre (author of a monumental study of Flaubert) glossed narrative as an extended obituary. The same might be said a fortiori of biography, and getting Flaubert’s life (possibly any life) into the shape of an obituary w0uld make getting his coffin into the grave seem like child’s play. For how do you write the life of someone for whom Life meant nothing and Art everything? This is one of the great themes in Correspondance: i.e. in the very text from this famously ‘impersonal’ writer that is the closest we get to autobiography. Flaubert’s life, in the senses that normally interest biographers, amounts to little. When not forcing the hermeneutic pace, Wall writes about it engagingly, but, compared, say, with the life of Balzac or Hugo or Rimbaud, there isn’t really much of a story here: a handful of friendships and love affairs; the first outbreak in 1844 of the epileptic fits that were to recur until his death; the various travels (notably to the Middle East with du Camp and later to North Africa in connection with the blocked project of his failed historical novel, Salammbô); the occasional notoriety (the infamous yet absurd trial of Madame Bovary); the worldly man of letters in the courts and salons of Second Empire Paris (where, according to Wall, ‘he had the time of his life’); but, above all, the often blankly mournful rhythms of daily life in provincial Normandy, grinding out the sentences that constituted Flaubert’s life-sentence in the service of Art (‘May I die like a dog,’ he wrote to du Camp, ‘rather than try to rush through even one sentence before it is properly ripe’).

This self-flagellating devotion accounts in large measure for Henry James’s view of Flaubert as the ‘novelists’ novelist’. He did not necessarily mean it as a compliment: Flaubert’s cultivation of craft, James thought, went hand in hand with a thinning of the human atmosphere. And it isn’t certain that Flaubert would have accepted it as one; the repeated lament of the Correspondance is that, while the great artists of the past are naturally at one with their gift, the latecomer is a mere labourer at the coalface of ‘technique’. But, despite later reservations (D.H. Lawrence described Madame Bovary as ‘sterile’; Malraux spoke of ‘beaux romans paralysés’), Flaubert’s passionate engagement with the travails of writing has made him seem the exemplary figure in the pantheon of modern literature. It is almost inconceivable that anyone before him could have represented writing in terms of ‘the humiliations that adjectives inflict on me, the cruel ravages of the relative pronouns’. This is only one of the many aspects of Flaubert’s description of himself as an ‘homme-plume’ (which Wall cites but translates as ‘creature of the quill’, thus making him sound like some quaint 18th-century scribbler). The phrase may call to mind the English ‘penman’, which Joyce (another admirer of Flaubert) was to use so extensively in Finnegans Wake. But where ‘penman’ is standard in an English dictionary, ‘homme-plume’ will be found nowhere outside Flaubert’s letters. It is striking because of the total identification it implies of life with writing, life as writing; the tiresome distinction of ‘l’homme et l’oeuvre’ collapses on the back of that straddling hyphen.

How, then, might biography stand in relation to this version of the ‘man’? The problem is exacerbated by another, related feature of his recoil from the world into art. Flaubert often said that even when young he felt old, and one manifestation of this premature withering of the soul was a hyper-developed self-consciousness presiding over all experience. Enclosed within this circle, ‘life’ is both preceded by fiction and destined to become it. This sense of the belated and derivative character of what we feel was a not uncommon complaint in the 19th century, but Flaubert took it to extremes, and it is one of the main lessons of the novels (supremely, Madame Bovary, L’Education sentimentale and Bouvard et Pécuchet). It is a lesson that Wall is too smart not to heed but which the rules of his chosen genre encourage us to disregard. ‘Life’ must go on, otherwise biography may quickly find itself out of business. Take the case of Flaubert’s travels, especially the journey to the Middle East. This was not so much a journey as a voyage en Orient (itself something of a 19th-century topos: this was the title under which Flaubert’s own record of his impressions and experiences was later published). It was, in short, a reprise of the Orientalist number, fictionalised through and through. When not energetically fucking exotic houris (‘fucking’ is a term much favoured by Flaubert), he travels in a kind of extended dream. As Wall remarks, immediately on departure and even before he has arrived in the East, Flaubert has set about ‘consciously novelising his experience’. Once there, books routinely mediate that experience: on the Nile he reads the Odyssey; at Ephesus he notes, ‘I’m thinking of Homer’; at Thermopylae he whips out Plutarch on Leonidas, and so on.

But consider also what happens when all this eventually passes into one of his own fictions, L’Education sentimentale:

Il voyagea.

Il connut la mélancolie des paquebots, les froids réveils sous les tentes, l’étourdissement des paysages et des ruines, l’amertume des sympathies interrompues.

Il revint.

Wall’s translation of this seminally obliterating passage makes additions (‘he travelled abroad’, ‘he returned home’) which rob the original’s narrative syntax of its laconic force. Everything here – the clipped sequence of past historics, the framing parataxis of both sentence and paragraph, and, in between, the listing of travel stereotypes as if they were the ingredients of a cultural sandwich long past its sell-by date – conspires, as fiction, to wipe out fictions. Travel-writing, especially its Orientalist variety, and indeed a whole tradition of the European Bildungsroman, here disappear into a space of non-writing, a refusal to narrate, presumably on the grounds that there is nothing of note, any longer, to tell. This is the scene par excellence where modern literary reflexiveness comes full circle, where ‘life’ is swallowed up in the yawning chasm of the non-event.

One area, however, in which the intelligent biographer can yank the subject out of these endless spirals of self-consciousness is that of historical contextualisation. Wall is exceptionally good on this front. Thus we encounter Flaubert the bystander, alternately amused, bored or exasperated, before the 1848 insurrections. During the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune we find a more patriotic Flaubert, farcically active in the National Guard and dyspeptically reactionary on the subject of the defeated Communards, though Wall is perhaps too affectionately disposed towards his subject to take us to those places in the correspondence where the dyspeptic becomes hysterical (round up, flog and deport is the principal saloon-bar theme). These are, increasingly, the tones of the disgruntled Bourgeois, the figure Flaubert himself repeatedly deploys as the sign of the deplorable 19th century. ‘Maxim: hatred of the Bourgeois is the beginning of all virtue.’ Perhaps, but if so, then virtue should begin at home. At home, however, Flaubert resembles nothing so much as the good bourgeois he detests. What, after all, was Croisset when stripped of the mythical image of the artist-hermit? It was a spacious and comfortable, if in places damp and draughty, country house (‘Croisset was the pleasant patrician face of the bourgeois century’ is how Wall puts it). Here, protected by a private income (until it was lost in a catastrophic speculation), Flaubert passed most of his writing life. The grey days of winter fed the winter of the soul, but did so in some comfort. In Madame Bovary, Emma is characteristically to be found staring helplessly out of the window on grey days; Flaubert is characteristically to be found staring into the log fire, a cosy way of dealing with existential gloom (‘I live a life of calm, regular routine. Exclusively busy with literature and history’).

According to Flaubert, the distinguishing mark of bourgeois civilisation was what he called ‘stupidity’ (bêtise), understood not merely as one among many vices, but as the supreme 19th-century vice, the term for a whole society and polity sunk in a moronic miasma. Yet he himself was by no means exempt from the malady he diagnoses. He had of course a cleverly paradoxical answer to this (not dissimilar to Erasmus’ paradox concerning the foolishness of the wise): no one is exempt because there is no point external to the caress of ‘bêtise’ from which it can be attacked; the discourse of denunciation (what he referred to as tonner contre) is itself a symptom or form of what it denounces. Much has been made of this vicious circle in the interpretation of Flaubert’s literary method: if it isn’t possible to confront society’s radical imbecility directly and in good faith, the only way both to approach and expose it is by a tactic of indirection, of insinuation in the form of a sly mimesis that copies its object, but does so relentlessly, to the point of paroxysmic self-implosion (the great comic catalogue of ‘bêtise’ being Bouvard et Pécuchet). Roland Barthes famously put this way of reading Flaubert on the map, and it is still immensely serviceable. But this should not be allowed to obscure the fact that, beyond the sophisticated paradoxes, Flaubert could be just as straightforwardly ‘stupid’ as his bourgeois enemy. In conversation with du Camp: ‘What do you most regret? . . . Personally I miss the fille de joie. I have seen her pale face at the street-corner, seen the rain falling on the flowers in her hair, heard her voice softly calling men to her as she shivers half-naked in her black velvet dress.’ This conversation allegedly took place at a brothel in Brest, but it fits the world of Croisset like a glove; how agreeably fatuous to be able to imagine the prostitute shivering half-naked as you stare into the log fire.

From these necessary historical and social placings of Flaubert in his time, how do we get back to the strange, narrative-resistant existence of the man-pen? More particularly, in what ways might a biography tell us anything useful about the writer but also about the writings? This is a question that concerns the genre as a whole. Generally speaking, its track-record in these terms is far from impressive, and suggests that, especially in the contemporary market, the function of ‘literary’ biographies is that of a substitute for reading the literature. What it supplies, for the most part, is either an impoverished version of ‘source-criticism’ (the external circumstances of gestation, composition and reception) or a hapless floundering in the pseudo-causal: events from the life ‘explain’ what happens (or does not happen) in the work. A favourite reference for this game is childhood, and here Wall proves no exception. Gustave has a problematic relationship with his father, Achille-Cléophas, and thus it is ‘no wonder that fathers are swept aside so effortlessly in Flaubert’s writings’. Achille-Cléophas studies at the ‘de-Christianised Collège de Sens’, but ‘the ancient poetry of religion’ cannot be eliminated from ‘the national mind’ for ever; and ‘so it is no surprise that the baffling, seductive, ridiculous, stubborn experience of the sacred was to become one of Flaubert’s major themes.’ During the Napoleonic period Father is exempted from military service and ‘so it was that the high drama of Revolution and Empire had no great imaginative resonance’ for the son. And so it goes on.

This gets us nowhere with explaining what it was for Flaubert to become a man-pen, at once addicted to and defeated by ‘les affres du style’. Buffon declared that ‘le style est l’homme même’ but Flaubert took this identification into quite new regions. Wall tends to treat the talk of ‘agonies’ as little more than a self-theatricalising boutade (an expression perhaps of what Flaubert once called ‘my charlatanesque character’). There is often a jokiness concealed in Flaubert’s gravest pronouncements, consistent with his remark about the deadpan manner of the Dictionnaire des idées reçues, to the effect that it is written ‘de sorte que le lecteur ne sache pas si on se fout de lui, oui ou non’. But there are in fact good reasons for taking the phrase ‘les affres du style’ seriously, less to buttress the stereotype of the martyred Artist than to guide us in addressing the one question that ultimately (sic) matters to any biography of Flaubert: what did living for writing mean when it was no longer clear what it meant to write tout court, especially in a culture where writing for a living (for the market) had become common practice? The constant preoccupation with finding the right ‘subject’ (remote or contemporary, grand or prosaic, lyrical or brutal; an oscillation finally reconciled in the triumphant Trois Contes) sometimes resembles a manic trying-on of literary hats, all of them uncomfortable (again the lack of fit), and is perhaps of a part with the constant mood-swings between obscene carnality and mystic asceticism, raucous sociability and trance-like reverie, cynical worldliness and dumb stupor. These abrupt aesthetic and psychological fluctuations speak of an unanchored mind and sensibility, of a lack of at-homeness in both the world of experience and the world of literature.

This may also help us to make sense of another moment in the Correspondance that Wall is disinclined to take seriously, the notorious dream of ‘a book about nothing . . . a book that would have no subject at all’. The notion is strictly a nonsense, but can be understood as projecting a vision of writing located in a space emptied of all ready-made conceptions of writing, yet with nothing that can authoritatively take their place. Without the comforting example of the literary Predecessor (the self-confident spontaneity that, according to Flaubert, we Moderns have lost), the support of cultural Institutions (corrupted by commerce and politics), the self-evidence of the canonical Subjects, Flaubert finds himself stranded on a literary desert island, paradoxically producing the most beautiful French prose of the century in the daily renewed struggle of writing against the grain of Writing. This is one reason he was himself to become a Predecessor, a hero-figure to the 20th-century avant-garde. His dilemma opens onto the long trajectory that will issue in the impossible writing scenarios of the opening and closing moments of Beckett’s L’Innommable, with their unresolvable dialectic of question and answer as to what it means to write at all.

Biography is framed by beginnings and endings of a conventional sort; in the case of the man-pen, we might do better to think in terms of the non-beginning and non-ending of Beckett’s novel. This does not lend itself to normal constructions of ‘story’: ‘Peu importe le sujet,’ remarks the narrator of L’Innommable (in various senses of the term ‘sujet’ – grammatical, literary and biographical), ‘il n’y en a pas.’ Mapping Flaubert on Beckett will seem anachronistic but, as Hugh Kenner once suggested, they are kindred souls in the half-heroic, half-clownish stoicism with which they commit themselves to a project whose foundations, boundaries and finalities always elude them (Kenner’s book is called The Stoic Comedians). Such as it is, Wall tells his story with great panache (this is by far the most enjoyable biography of Flaubert that I know, in English or French). But the larger caveat hangs oppressively over the whole enterprise, and no amount of narrative brio will succeed in despatching it. In the meantime, and on a sliding scale across the stoic from the sublime to the ridiculous, I had hoped that the errors of the proof copy I read would have been corrected for publication. Alas, not all of them have: I have lived with these deformations for most of my life, but would have been relieved not to find myself represented in the bibliography as ‘Prenderghast’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences