Amused, Bored or Exasperated

Christopher Prendergast

  • Flaubert: A Life by Geoffrey Wall
    Faber, 413 pp, £25.00, October 2001, ISBN 0 571 19521 0

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’).

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