In the early 1960s my maternal grandparents were living in what estate agents call a chalet bungalow on the outskirts of Beaconsfield. The house was a new build in a sloping half-acre of woodland. My highly practical grandfather cleared an area of trees halfway down the slope, laid a concrete base and built a summer house, which he painted light blue. I can’t remember any furniture except for some kind of daybed, on which Grandma would take a siesta in the summer. A musty smell suggested that it didn’t get much other use. But it was here, on this bed, in this appropriately suburban setting, that I read Madame Bovary for the first time. I would have been fifteen or sixteen.
The book wasn’t my own choice. An iconoclastic English master, just down from Cambridge, had given us a reading list which to our surprise contained foreign authors. And I had high hopes of Madame Bovary. It still had the reputation of being a hot book – after all, it had been prosecuted for ‘outraging public morals’ when it first appeared serially in the Revue de Paris. France, a married woman, adultery: as we didn’t say then, what’s not to like? I read the novel in its Penguin translation. Back then, their classics were distinguished by the overall jacket colour: green for France, red for Russia, olive-green for Germany, purple and brown for the Classical world, and so on. The book was too subtle for me, of course, and I failed to find it at all erotic. I doubt I understood the scene in the closed cab, let alone the metonymic burst of white paper shooting from the window at its shrouded climax. But something remained from my dutiful reading, if only a willingness to return to the author at a future date.
Flaubert is a writer who, more than most, can provoke obsessive devotion and obsessive behaviour. One of the more arcane items of Flaubertiana is Ambroise Perrin’s Madame Bovary dans l’ordre (2012). Perrin is a member of Oulipo, and his project is very Oulipian: it lists, in alphabetical order, every single word, number and punctuation mark that occurs in the 1873 Charpentier edition of the novel. And by ‘list’, I mean list: the book has six vertical columns to a page, and prints out the word each time it occurs. So the word et, which features 2812 times in the novel, is printed out 2812 times, occupying almost nine full pages. La occurs 3585 times, le 2366 and les 2276, elle 2129 and lui a meagre 806 – from which you might perhaps deduce the sexual slant of the novel. Or not. In the same way, you could look up the names of Emma Bovary’s two lovers, Rodolphe and Léon, and discover that Léon’s name occurs 140 times and Rodolphe’s a mere ten fewer.
It is all vaguely witty, yet mind-numbingly useless. For instance, it can tell us that the word ecchymoses (bruises) and the date 1835 each occur a single time in Madame Bovary, but it doesn’t tell us where they, or any other word, occur. For that you have to go to the Flaubert website run by the University of Rouen.
In the years before digitisation, it could be a hazy business noticing and remembering how often a word occurs in a particular book. And the misremembering of books can be as radical as the misremembering of our own lives. For instance, I believed, for a number of years, that Flaubert had been tremendously cunning in his use – or rather non-use – of the word ‘adultery’ (adultère) in Madame Bovary. At first I was sure he hadn’t used it at all, later that the first appearance of the word was in a non-sexual sense: as in the adulteration of foodstuffs, or milk, or grain, or some other staple of mid 19th-century provincial life. Here, on p.296 of my Garnier edition, bought in 1967, my knowing annotation of the phrase ‘le souvenir de ses adultères et de ses calamités’ reads ‘not just of milk …’ My best defence of this false remembering is that I was rewriting the novel, increasing Flaubert’s brilliance, making the surface of the prose even more super-subtle. But the brute fact, as Ambroise Perrin’s word list makes clear, is that adultère occurs eight times in the singular, and three in the plural, very much in places where you would expect it to appear. There is nothing super-subtle in Flaubert’s usage; the word always occurs in a sexual context, and is never once used in a metaphorical or allusive sense, in reference to milk or any other foodstuff.
But then, if readers misremember, it’s comforting to know that writers do as well. In 1866, the historian-philosopher Hippolyte Taine was researching his celebrated study De l’intelligence. He was looking for what he called ‘hypertrophic cases’ who might explain to him the workings of the imagination. He consulted the artist Gustave Doré; a chess player who could make his moves without looking at the board; and a mathematician who could make extended calculations in his head. What he wanted to know from Flaubert was whether he ever confused an imagined person or scene with a real one; whether an intensely imagined character could change shape before the novelist’s eyes, as a kind of hallucination; whether, when he looked at a wall, a tree or a face, he subsequently had absolute, or only partial, recall of it; and whether the musings and images that entered his head while dozing before a fire, or just before going to sleep, were comparable in nature or intensity to the novelist’s intuitions and imaginings.
Flaubert replied that for him the mental image of things was as true as their objective reality, adding that ‘the characters I create drive me insane; they haunt me; or, rather, I haunt them: I live in their skin.’ And he cited the famous example of Emma swallowing arsenic: ‘I had such a distinct taste of arsenic in my mouth, was poisoned so effectively myself, that I vomited my entire dinner.’ He further explained that ‘there are many details that I do not write down. Thus, M. Homais as I see him is slightly pitted with smallpox. In the passage I am writing just now, I see an entire set of furniture including the stains on certain pieces: not a word will be said about all this.’
However, Flaubert was misremembering. In Madame Bovary Homais is described as being ‘lightly pockmarked’.
A richer example of the absent detail comes during Emma’s affair with Rodolphe. In Flaubert’s notes for the novel, he has her on one occasion returning home across the fields ‘le foutre dans les cheveux’ – with spunk in her hair. The book’s readers were spared this detail.
A Single Word …
changes everything. In Perrin’s lexicon there are 834 uses of the possessive article son, and 817 of du. In Part III, Chapter 6, Flaubert wrote one of the most desolate lines in the novel. Emma is coming to the end of her affair with Léon: ‘She was as disgusted by him as he was tired of her. Emma was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.’ This is harsh and terrifying news for both the adulterous and the loyally married – and the more so when discovered by one formed, as Emma has been, by romantic delusions. When Flaubert and the Revue de Paris were put on trial in 1857, the prosecutor, Ernest Pinard, leaped on this sentence: ‘The platitudes of marriage versus the poetry of adultery! On the one hand there is the soiling of marriage, on the other the platitudes, but also always the poetry of adultery. Such, gentlemen, are the situations which M. Flaubert loves to paint, and unfortunately he paints them only too well.’
So when it came to book publication later that year, Flaubert was persuaded to soften the phrase to ‘all the platitudes of her marriage’. Du becomes son, and the desolation is confined only to Emma. Proper married folk might console themselves that this Normandy adulteress is suffering remorse proper to a sinner: she can be doubly condemned as one bad at both marriage and adultery. The world can proceed as it always has, and the vice of adultery is safely contained. Revising the novel in 1862, Flaubert tried to restore the du, to the alarm of his friend Louis Bouilhet, who judged it imprudent: ‘You are attacking society in one of its fundamental structures.’ So the son was retained, as it was in the edition of 1869. But Flaubert was nothing if not stubborn, and in 1873 reverted to du, making Emma’s bleak condition universal once again.
Getting to Know Him
I carried on reading Flaubert, and in my university finals did a special paper on Trois Contes. Though this isn’t all it seems: my choice was swayed by the alternatives – ‘Proust’ or ‘Symbolist Poetry’, neither of which I thought I’d be up to. Ideally, high-mindedly, engagement with a writer should happen by reading all the work and only then inquiring what the author was like and what his or her circumstances and biography might contain. In reality, it’s rarely like that. For me, a particular moment of ignition happened in 1972, when Francis Steegmuller published Flaubert in Egypt, a compilation from letters and journals of Flaubert’s trip to the Middle East in 1849-50 with his friend Maxime Du Camp. It was here that I first became consciously aware of Flaubert’s unmediated personality – Steegmuller called the book ‘a sensibility on tour’. Everything noisily overlapped: the exotic and the everyday, the comic and the grotesque, the dream and the dismaying reality; it displayed Flaubert’s preternatural powers of observation, his love of squalor and prostitutes, yet equally of the colours and smells of the desert, and the silencing sunsets. It was these omnivorous contradictions that struck me as so modern. And when I came to read the Letters – brilliantly linked and edited by Steegmuller so that they still make Flaubert’s best biography – I found them untouched by time, written as if from the next postal district only yesterday. Sartre did call Flaubert’s correspondence a prime example of ‘free association from a pre-Freudian couch’.
Flaubert would scorn to think of us reading his correspondence. He believed unwaveringly that only the work mattered: the life didn’t, and shouldn’t, cast a shadow over it. But how can the letters not be read, given that they have survived? They, too, are a riotous kaleidoscope of genre: unfiltered, coarse, elegant, lubricious, witty, yearning, melancholy, despairing, but always fiercely intelligent. No formal biography can match their glow and glitter. Sartre, in L’Idiot de la famille, his three-volume theoretico-psychoanalytico-politico analysis-cum-attempted-assassination, almost never quotes directly from Flaubert. It was probably in order to assert control; but he might also have feared the blaze from the page when his subject spoke. Sartre told Beauvoir that he hated ‘fine writing’, and in his trilogy on Flaubert tried not ‘to write well’. He certainly succeeded.
Is it possible – let alone proper – for a novelist to feel grateful to a book he or she has written? Even if the self that wrote the book is forty years away, isn’t there something creepy or self-satisfied about it? I could pretend that it’s Flaubert I am grateful to, for without him my novel Flaubert’s Parrot could not have existed; but the truth is that I mainly feel gratitude to that book. It did two things in my life and career. It was the first of my books to be translated, leading to foreign publishers and foreign readers (like most writers, I delight in hearing that one of my books is being read a long way from home), and it also calmed my parents’ never-expressed anxieties as to whether I actually was a writer.
By the time Flaubert’s Parrot came along, I had published two novels and two pseudonymous thrillers, of which only the first novel seemed fit for their eyes (and even so, my father judged its language ‘a bit lower-deck’). I strongly advised my parents against reading my second novel, Before She Met Me, so a two-year radio silence had endured until one of the reviewers of Flaubert’s Parrot alluded to that earlier novel but got its ending completely wrong. Somehow, the subject of critics’ errors came up, whereupon my mother surprisingly drew attention to this recent one, adding: ‘Not that I read the book, of course.’ Ehhh????? ‘Well, I started it and read as much as I could stand and then flipped to the end to see what happened and saw that the fellow cut his throat and thought, I wish he’d done that earlier.’
It’s often the (male) writer’s mother, isn’t it? Although none of them can compare to Simenon’s punitive mother, who, at the height of his fame and wealth, returned to him all the money he had sent her over the preceding forty years. Staying in his palatial house, she would stop the maids and ask them suspiciously: ‘Is it all paid for?’ And when his brother died in Indochina, Mme Simenon grieved thus: ‘What a pity, Georges, that it’s Christian who had to die.’ The residual need to please is sturdy. However, nothing in my personal or professional life pleased my mother as much as when Flaubert’s Parrot was nominated for the Booker Prize and a small photograph of her son, together with the other five shortlistees, appeared on the front page of the Times. My parents were French teachers, and though my father knew far more about French literature than his wife, it was she who picked up the phone and used phrases I thought I would never hear issue from her mouth. When she had finished, she said, ‘I’ll put your father on,’ and I waited with warm anticipation of what I hoped would be an expression of pleasure and interest in the book. His words were: ‘“Concur generally”, as Ralph’s C/O used to say.’ This was his opening, and, as it turned out, his final comment on the book. I felt sad: not at the lack of praise for myself, but sad that he couldn’t express direct feelings for his son’s work without recourse to a side-stepping family phrase, drawn from what a bogus ‘uncle’s’ commanding officer had said forty years earlier. But then it was surprising, really, that I was surprised.
A Novelist’s View of His Own Work
Novelists are famously unreliable when judging their own work. Critical reception has an effect on their judgment, as does simple perversity; and they may affect to love the most overlooked of their progeny. Thus Evelyn Waugh used to claim that his favourite novel was Helena. Though Salammbô was a greater financial and social success than Madame Bovary – it became a meme, and the inspiration for ballgowns – most knew that Flaubert’s first novel was his best, and always would be. At times he resented this, once expressing the view that he would like to buy up every copy of the book and burn them all.
A more phlegmatic response to the Famous First Book dilemma was that of Kingsley Amis, who in later years was asked if Lucky Jim hadn’t been a bit of an albatross around his neck. ‘It’s better than having no albatross at all,’ he replied.
Another Thing Kingsley Amis Said,
this time of me: ‘I wish he’d shut up about Flaubert’ – advice it gave me delight to disobey.
While Frank Zappa Asked
‘Why the fuck should I read Flaubert?’
A Different Reader
At a noisy party many years ago, I was talking to my fellow novelist (and LRB contributor) Ferdinand Mount, who told me that he reread Madame Bovary every year, as both a literary duty and a pleasure. I was mightily impressed – he’d therefore doubtless read it many more times than I had – and carried this detail around for years. I was envious, of course; and it somehow made me dissatisfied with myself as a Flaubertian. Why didn’t I do the same? Every few years I would run into Mount, and his genial presence would always provoke the same vague queasiness in me. Finally, after about fifteen years, I confessed to him my feelings in the matter. He looked quite baffled. I must have completely misheard him: that wasn’t the case at all. Indeed, he couldn’t remember when he had last reread the novel.
I heard, from separate sources, that both Philip Roth and William Styron had pinned up above their desks a famous Flaubert aphorism, which Blake Bailey quotes in his Roth biography: ‘Be orderly and regular in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be wild and original in your work.’ It is a wonderful, uplifting quote, even if the translation seems to be a little adapted. ‘Violent’ or ‘fierce’ would be better than ‘wild’; and there’s a problem with ‘orderly’, which seems to add nothing to ‘regular’. In fact, Flaubert wrote ordinaire – ‘ordinary, normal, humdrum’. It’s one thing as a writer to tell yourself to be orderly; another to aim to be as humdrum as a bourgeois. No one would describe Roth’s life as ‘ordinary’ in the slightest, let alone bourgeois.
I’ve never had a Flaubert quote pinned above my desk (I’ve never had a pinboard). I did, for a long time, have an index card a foot or two from where I write, bearing this consoling line from Ford Madox Ford: ‘It is an easy job to say that an elephant, however good, is not a good warthog; for most criticism comes to that.’
Flaubert had a lordly view of the writer-publisher relationship. He believed that the publisher’s job was simply to pay, and to print. He was appalled by the idea that his publisher might actually read his manuscript; still worse was the impertinent notion that he might express an opinion about it. A condition of his sale of Salammbô was that its publisher, Michel Lévy, would not read the manuscript beforehand.
There was a different balance between writer and publisher at that time. There were no laws of copyright, and you sold your book outright for a single payment. In exceptional circumstances, if the book did extraordinarily well, the publisher might give you another chunk of money out of the goodness of his heart. In December 1856, Michel Lévy had bought Madame Bovary for 800 francs; ten years later Flaubert wrote that the publisher ‘suffered so much remorse that without any demand on my part he gave me an extra 500 francs’. To put the figures in context, in 1862 Lévy paid 10,000 francs for Salammbô. So the remorseful gesture felt more like a lordly tip. And it was only right to be lordly in return.
On Newspaper Interviews
‘Giving the public details about oneself is a bourgeois temptation I have always resisted.’
‘Man is nothing, the work of art everything … It would be very pleasant for me to say what I think and relieve Monsieur Gustave Flaubert’s feelings by such utterances, but what is the importance of the said gentleman?’
One of the pleasures of rereading great fiction down the decades is feeling your judgments shift. You tend to take this solipsistically, as a sign that your receptivity is continuing to develop, and that your experience of life is still feeding through into your reading (though it might equally be the case that you had read the work badly in the first place). With Flaubert, there are only five books to consider, and of them Madame Bovary has always maintained its primacy, while The Temptation of St Anthony has always been out of the medals. Salammbô, which initially seduced with its exoticism, violence and erotica – that salacious python between the priestess’s legs! – has solidified for me into a series of paintings by Gustave Moreau (appropriately, Flaubert’s favourite modern painter). The novel is forceful, highly coloured, sensationalist, and yet somehow inert, despite, or because of, all the learning and research that went into it. Does it feel like a work of art in the wrong genre? Maupassant did call it ‘an opera in prose’.
I used to think that L’Éducation sentimentale was about a hundred pages too long, and that all those young men – different exemplars of Frédéric Moreau’s generation, which is destined to fail – were a bit sketchy and indistinguishable. But I reread it this year and found it just the right length, with the lesser characters as developed as they need to be. I also noticed, I think for the first time, that the novel’s gloweringly Flaubertian conclusion is passingly alluded to very early on. Fifteen pages in, Frédéric Moreau (aged eighteen) and his friend Deslauriers are in Nogent, walking home after dark. They pass a low-built house with a light burning in the attic. Deslauriers takes off his hat and pompously, gnomically, declares that poverty is the mother of continence. This reference will not be fully explained for another four hundred pages. The building is the local brothel, which the two young men had previously visited, only to panic and run away (Deslauriers skedaddles first, and as he is the one holding the money, Moreau has to follow after him). Now, in full maturity, the two of them realise that this had been the happiest day of their lives. Why? Because it exemplified a central Flaubertian doctrine: that joy and beauty and happiness and pleasure lie first in the anticipation and later in the memory. The bit in between – the actual moment, and the next moment, and the next, which build into what we call life – is bound to be disappointing, and the sooner we realise it, the better. The failed brothel visit was the happiest day of the men’s lives because it was one of the few occasions when the dream was not tested by reality, and so could remain a dream, and they could still keep alive, if in the past conditional, that promise of happiness. George Sand reported to Flaubert that the younger people she knew were dismayed by the book: ‘They didn’t recognise themselves in it, they who haven’t yet lived. But they have illusions, and they say: Why does this man, so good, so loveable, so gay, so simple, so sympathetic, want to discourage us from living?’
L’Éducation sentimentale came out in 1869, and Flaubert blamed the Franco-Prussian War for diverting attention and causing it to be a failure. But the novelists of the next generation – led by Huysmans – thought it the greatest novel in French literature. Henry Céard and his friends committed the entire book to memory. In his memoirs, Céard describes meeting Flaubert in his apartment in the rue Murillo and expressing his profound admiration for the novel:
[Flaubert] drew himself up to his full height and answered in a gruff voice: ‘So you like it, do you? All the same, the book is doomed to failure, because it doesn’t do this.’ He put his long, powerful hands together in the shape of a pyramid. ‘The public,’ he explained, ‘wants works which exalt its illusions, whereas L’Éducation sentimentale …’ And here he turned his big hands upside down and opened them as if to let his dreams fall into a bottomless pit.
(A parenthesis on pyramids. In late June 1851, Flaubert and Du Camp climbed to the top of the Great Pyramid in time for sunrise. In his travel notes, Flaubert records discovering a ready-made example of the Flaubertian grotesque: ‘On the side of the pyramid lit by the rising sun I see a business card: “Humbert, Frotteur”.’ [A frotteur is a French polisher.] Six years later, in 1857, the year of Madame Bovary’s publication, he wrote: ‘Books aren’t made in the way that babies are born, they are made like pyramids. There’s some long-pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed on top of one another, and it’s back-breaking, sweaty, time-consuming work. And all to no purpose! It just stands like that in the desert! But it towers over it prodigiously. Jackals piss at the base of it, and bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc. Continue this comparison.’)
And that leaves Bouvard et Pécuchet, Flaubert’s last and most experimental novel, supposedly Joyce’s favourite book. In my twenties, I was terrified of flying, and would always choose what I was going to read on a flight with exaggerated care; after all, this was to be the book (somehow miraculously undestroyed) which would be found on my body when the wreckage was being inspected. A charred copy of Bouvard et Pécuchet might suggest that I was grown-up and had advanced literary taste. But this would have been a misleading obituary. In truth, the novel baffled and bored me, even before I considered the enormous ‘Copie’ which was going to form its second part. Cyril Connolly called it a ‘Baedeker of futility’ and listed it as number two in his hundred key books of the Modern Movement. A catalogue of human ignorance and human stupidity, with the two titular characters making the same mistakes over and over again, while their creator ironised and mocked them? What was the point and where was the fun in that?
It was an idea Flaubert had nurtured for thirty years before writing it, and which he pursued stubbornly; it is about the stubbornness of two clerks whose ambition is to pursue and master the whole of human knowledge; it is aesthetically stubborn, in that it refuses to give readers any of the narrative pleasures they traditionally crave; and in turn, it demands a stubborn reader, one willing to suspend normal expectations and confront the novel’s seeming (and actual) repetitions. Ezra Pound thought it inaugurated ‘a new form which had no precedents’. There is a story about Schoenberg showing his violin concerto to Jascha Heifetz, who told him that in order to play a certain passage he would need to grow a sixth finger, to which the composer had apparently replied: ‘I can wait.’ Bouvard et Pécuchet might be said to require a six-fingered reader, and perhaps we have not quite got there yet. But (as I only discovered in my fifties), it is not as implacable and programmatic a novel as it might seem. It is livelier and funnier and much more peculiar. It moves swiftly, even when making the same point repeatedly. It doesn’t just tell rather than show; it insists. It is also more reflective of its author than at first appears. ‘Bouvard et Pécuchet, c’est moi’ is much closer to the truth than ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’ (which is either apocryphal, or comic, or both). When Flaubert was fifteen, he won a school prize for a 25-page essay on mushrooms, all of which he had conscientiously purloined from a published source. His two pertinacious clerks bear a similar relationship to their creator as Rabbit – a kind of clownish, dimmer alter ego – does to John Updike. Bouvard and Pécuchet, who start the novel looking as if they are to be satirical butts, end it as deranged comic heroes, sub-Quixotic failures in their own heroic if absurd quest.
Not Too Slow, Not Too Fast
Flaubert is famous for his meticulousness, his long preparations, his daily battle with words, his corrections, his bellowing out of the text to ensure that it had the right weight and sound. To some, this looked like manic fastidiousness in which the movement of life was in danger of being crushed by monumentality. When still in the beginnings of Bouvard et Pécuchet, he discussed the project with his literary soulmate, Turgenev. In July 1874 Turgenev wrote from Russia: ‘The more I consider it, the more I think it is a subject to treat presto, à la Swift or à la Voltaire. You know that was always my opinion. As you described it to me, your plot seemed charming and funny. But if you overdo it, or fill it with too much learning …?’ Needless to say, Flaubert went ahead as only Flaubert could. And some find the result far from presto and too weighed down by information. But that was always the point. Bouvard et Pécuchet is about too much learning, or obsessive amateurism, or useless learning, or cack-handed learning. To write it presto would be to make it the sort of light comedy Turgenev approved of. It is still, in many ways, a comedy, but a darker one, about humanity’s pathetic striving towards knowledge and enlightenment.
Other close friends agreed about speed. In 1869 Flaubert reported atypically fast progress on L’Éducation sentimentale to Louis Bouilhet, his main literary adviser, a friend so close he called him his ‘left testicle’. The poet replied: ‘I’m glad to see that you’re forging ahead with the book and, what’s more, fucking like a gendarme.’ These are both separate matters and the same matter. In 1853 Flaubert wrote: ‘Today I got back to work on my Bovary … But it’s going very slowly … The erections of the mind are like those of the body: they don’t come when you want them to!’ After a hard passage of work, he felt ‘like a man who is all fucked out (forgive the expression)’. When writing L’Éducation sentimentale he found himself ‘wanking my brain to no purpose’. His first – and long-delayed – publication was like losing his virginity. And so, laddishly, on. Balzac was the immediate progenitor of this metaphor, and in a more scientific fashion. The Goncourt brothers noted that ‘sperm for him was an emission of pure cerebral substance, a sort of filtering out and loss, through the penis, of a work of art … When he had neglected to apply his theory, he turned up at the home of Latouche, crying, “I lost a book this morning!”’ This is certainly a male thing; is it also mainly a French thing? Answers to the letters column, please.
‘You don’t make art out of good intentions.’
‘Everything in art depends upon the execution: the story of a louse can be as beautiful as the story of Alexander the Great.’
‘You can no more imagine an Idea without a Form than a Form without an Idea.’
‘The artist in his work should be like God in his universe – everywhere present and nowhere visible.’
‘Prose is like hair: it shines with combing.’
‘You must write according to your feelings, be sure those feelings are true, and let everything else go hang.’
‘A line of prose must be as immutable as a line of poetry.’
‘If you happen to write well, you are accused of lacking ideas.’
Flaubert was less sound on this subject. As his biographer Frederick Brown put it, he had a ‘penchant for remote intimacy’. He once told Louise Colet that when two people loved one another, they could go ten years without seeing each other, and without suffering from it. Since they lived only a train ride apart, she was unimpressed by this; equally, by his advice that she marry the philosopher (and inventor of the phrase ‘Art for art’s sake’) Victor Cousin. But the real disaster was his advice to his adored niece Caroline. He conspired with old Mme Flaubert to dissuade her from making a bohemian liaison with her drawing teacher, Johanny Maisiat, with whom she was in love, and urged her to marry Ernest Commanville, a timber merchant of impeccable bourgeois reputation. The marriage was quickly and visibly unhappy; subsequently, Commanville’s unwise speculations ruined both himself and the Flaubert family. Goncourt called him a straightforward crook and was appalled by his behaviour when Flaubert died. ‘Commanville talks all the time about how much money he can make out of the dead man’s literary estate. On the evening after the burial, Commanville very elegantly cut for himself seven slices of ham.’
French literary life has always been more politicised than its British equivalent; and political memory runs longer there than here. When I first used to go to Paris on lit-biz, I was surprised to find that a writer would be characterised as much by politics as by quality. I would be asked about my favourite 20th-century French novelists and would sometimes mention François Mauriac. ‘But he was a Gaullist,’ would come the ritually disappointed reply; or sometimes, ‘But he was a Catholic.’ That he was, or might be, a great writer was made to seem secondary. Engagement was all; but engagement on the correct side of the correct party.
When I was first starting my lifetime’s reading of Flaubert, his reputation was probably at its lowest point since his death. Just as the new filmmakers of the 1960s were reacting against what they termed le cinéma de Papa, so the new novelists were reacting against le roman de Papa. And on top of this, there were the politics. Consider one of Sartre’s more monumentally fatuous statements, in Situations II (1948): ‘I hold Flaubert and Goncourt responsible for the repression which followed the Commune, because they did not write a line which might have prevented it.’ A piece of virtue-signalling eighty years after the event. Victor Hugo – vocal, visible and on the right side – was approved of; but not these two. The notion that anything the reactionary aesthete Edmond de Goncourt might have said could have caused anyone to think again about minimising post-Commune repression is fantastical. As for Flaubert, he never made a public political statement in his life. This was not how he viewed the writer’s task. Nor was he a reactionary like Goncourt; he described himself correctly as ‘an enraged liberal’. He also liked the idea of societies and civilisations coming to an end, because it meant ‘that something new was being born’. And his fundamental literary belief was this: ‘You cannot change humanity, you can only know it.’
Though it is not as simple, or as depressing, as this. By knowing humanity, and describing it with truth, you may change the way it sees itself.
I don’t think I am a Flaubertian writer (any more than Roth or Styron or Vargas Llosa is). It helps to have as your exemplar someone long dead who wrote in a foreign language. There would be no point, in any case, trying to imitate him: the proper message of great writers is ‘Go, and do thou otherwise.’ Not that Flaubert would necessarily approve if you did: he was very fond of Maupassant, whom he treated as a literary godson, but (or therefore) was always urging him to take more care, slow down, revise better. But this was not Maupassant’s nature as a writer. I revise a great deal; I believe that ‘prose is like hair, it shines with combing.’ But I don’t seek to construct pyramids in the desert. And I don’t always believe in the invisibility of the writer in the text. I think that theoretically the story of a louse can be as beautiful as the story of Alexander the Great, but if given the choice, I’d much rather write (and read) the latter. I think Flaubert might have liked some aspects of Flaubert’s Parrot, and hated others. He would have recognised that it was written with good intentions, but he would have reminded me that this was not sufficient.
For a long time I hunted for an image of Flaubert to occupy a totemic position in my study. A mere photograph wouldn’t suffice. Eventually, I found a sculpture of him. Not a real one: it was a mutilated stone head – supposedly 14th or 15th-century French – hacked from a religious building at some later iconoclastic date. It consists of a horizontal slice from mid-forehead down to where the lips meet. It does look strangely like the hermit of Croisset, with hooded eyes and a luxuriant moustache. So for twenty years and more, he has presided over events just a few feet from my desk. Recently, a friend gave me a stuffed green parrot, which now perches perkily on the sawn-off skull. An example of the Flaubertian grotesque, obviously. And I haven’t asked myself whether he would approve, or be amused.
At public events, I have many times quoted Flaubert’s line about prose being like hair, and it usually goes down well. However, a few years ago a woman in the audience pointed out that what makes hair shine is not combing, but brushing.
Writers are often at their wonkiest when attempting to predict the future. T.S. Eliot thought that after the Second World War there would be a totalitarian future in which everyone would be ‘either in uniforms, or Civil Servants’ – khaki or pinstripes. Around the same time, George Orwell, Britain’s most famous prognosticator, believed and repeated that peace would bring a British revolution, with blood in the gutters and red militias billetted at the Ritz. And after the revolution, ‘the Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten.’ One out of four on the vision thing – and tractors were not a difficult pick. Compare the non-engaged Flaubert’s predictions about the coming 20th century: ‘It will be utilitarian, militaristic, American and Catholic – very Catholic.’
‘As you get older, the heart sheds its leaves like a tree. You cannot hold out against certain winds. Each day tears away a few more leaves; and then there are the storms which break off several branches at one go. And while nature’s greenery grows back again in the spring, that of the heart never grows back.’ Flaubert wrote this in 1852, when he was still only thirty. And he was describing himself, not others. Old before his time, or mature beyond his years? Both: two years earlier, he had noted: ‘Scarcely are you born before you begin rotting.’ In his last years, his supporters would give him an annual dinner on the feast day of his chosen saint, Polycarp (a second-century bishop of Smyrna famous for his unhappy dictum: ‘Oh Lord into what a world you have caused me to be born.’) The menu would feature such dishes as Potage Bovary, Poulet Homais, Salade au Coeur Simple and Glace Salammbô. On one such occasion, a laurel wreath was produced and placed on the maître’s forehead. It had, however, been made too large and – grotesquely, Flaubertianly – slipped down around his neck. ‘I feel like a monument,’ he said. He also felt, in the last year of his life, that he was ‘liquifying like an old Camembert’.
‘Since happiness is impossible in this world,’ he wrote to Elisa Schlesinger in 1872, ‘we must strive for serenity.’ Repeatedly, he told himself and his correspondents: ‘I must be philosophical.’ Always, he counselled stoicism in the face of death: ‘It is only by gazing down into the black pit and saying, “This is so, this is so,” that we can remain calm.’ But Flaubert was not philosophical by temperament; and serenity cannot be willed. ‘I pass from exasperation to prostration, then I rise from annihilation to rage, so that my mean emotional temperature is a state of annoyance.’ He judged himself stupid and intolerant, and therefore intolerable. He was so insupportable that a servant of ten years’ standing and perfect suitability ‘announced that he no longer wished to work for me, because “I wasn’t nice to him any more”’. He died an old man of only 58.
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