Double Bind

Julian Barnes

  • The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert 1821-1857 by Jean-Paul Sartre
    Chicago, 627 pp, £17.50, January 1982, ISBN 0 226 73509 5
  • Sartre and Flaubert by Hazel Barnes
    Chicago, 449 pp, £17.50, January 1982, ISBN 0 226 03720 7

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.

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