Yuk’s Last Laugh

Tim Parks

‘The good man’s home is a mask,’ Gustave Flaubert wrote when he was 16. Every ideal was a cover for vanity. How could it be otherwise, when our bodies were ‘composed of mud and shit and equipped with instincts lower than those of the pig, or the crab-louse’? Born in 1821 to a wealthy family and growing up in the cautious conservatism of provincial post-Napoleonic France, Flaubert saw only hypocrisy and intellectual dullness all around him. At 17 he was condemning ‘this good civilisation, this agreeable slut who invented railroads, poisons, clyster pumps, custard pies, royalty and the guillotine’. ‘If I ever do take an active part in the world,’ he concluded, as if he were far more likely to decide not to, ‘it will be as a thinker and demoraliser.’

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