Yuk’s Last Laugh
- Flaubert by Michel Winock, translated by Nicholas Elliott
Harvard, 528 pp, £25.00, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 674 73795 2
‘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.’
In his new biography, Michel Winock is inclined to dismiss this as juvenile posturing, yet his generous quotation from notes and letters written throughout Flaubert’s life shows a remarkable continuity of attitude. From infancy to death Flaubert would condemn the world in much the same terms. Anything that appeared ‘good’ was the product of a stifling adhesion to received ideas. The only future that society could offer was to be ‘just like anyone else … a lawyer, a doctor, a sub-prefect, a notary, an attorney, a common judge, a stupidity like every other stupidity’. The appropriate response was mockery. With his friends, the adolescent Flaubert invented an imaginary character, Garçon, who laughed wildly at every propriety. Garçon would soon be followed by the god Yuk, who appears in a story Flaubert wrote at 18 and laughs at the world with a ‘Homeric’, ‘inextinguishable’ laughter. Later there would be other derisive voices: the Old Sheik was invented on a trip to the Middle East; later still there was the Reverend Father Cruchard of the Barnabites, ‘spiritual director of the Ladies of Disillusion’. All these figures, like the wonderfully funny Dictionary of Received Ideas (published posthumously), allowed Flaubert to assume a position that involved neither dull goodness, nor mere transgression, but intellectual ridicule of bourgeois society across the board. Curiously, irreverence coincided with moral superiority: ‘I call bourgeois,’ Flaubert explained, ‘anyone who thinks in a base manner.’ It also offered relief from the boredom that would be his eternal enemy. One was bored because there was no way to engage positively with society, no project that would give life meaning and scope. ‘Why,’ he asks, ‘is man’s heart so big and life so small?’
Recounting Flaubert’s youthful despair and talk of ‘the inconvenience of being born’, Winock wonders again if it wasn’t all ‘a pose’. Gustave was handsome and healthy, well-off and educated, with good friends who loved him because he made them laugh. But if we deny the healthy and wealthy their melancholy we will have to dispense with half of literature. The question we might ask instead is: how did this privileged young man come to feel there was no role for him in the world? Why did he desire to be good, yet equate goodness with stupidity? Why did he head for the brothel, but sometimes hang back, sublimating his sex drive in lingering observation of the prostitutes? Above all, in what relation does this behaviour stand to the wonderful books he gave us? Of the first time he had sex, he wrote: ‘A woman presented herself before me, I took her; and I came out of her arms full of disgust and bitterness.’ Of an encounter in a Marseille hotel, aged 20, he complained: ‘Oh! Flesh, flesh! A demon who … tears the book out of your hands and the gaiety out of your heart, makes you dark, fierce, egotistical.’ If goodness was dull, sin was no solution. Only books offered gaiety and stability. ‘What a pleasure it is to compose!’ he remarked, at 14.
The words ‘good’ and ‘intelligent’ come together just once in Winock’s biography, when Flaubert describes his father, Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, one of France’s leading doctors and chief surgeon at a hospital in Rouen. Dr Flaubert was learned, competent and generous to his poorer patients. His son loved and admired him: he was ‘extremely humane … yet this didn’t impair his efficiency as a surgeon.’ In short, there was nothing false or laughable in him. At 27, Achille-Cléophas had married the 18-year-old Anne-Justine-Caroline and immediately produced a son, Achille, who, as his name foretold, was to follow in his father’s footsteps. After Achille, however, there were three children who all died shortly after birth, so that Gustave was born eight years after his brother and would always be more attached to his sister, Caroline, born another three years later. It’s strange that in this admirably documented biography Winock does not reflect on the special position of the child who survives after three siblings have died. One can imagine if nothing else that he was indulged by his parents; certainly he remained closely attached to his mother, living most of his life with her. What Winock does describe well is Gustave’s childhood, when the family lived in a wing of the hospital where his father worked, and the boy and his sister would look in through an open window as the great doctor performed post-mortems, becoming precociously aware of the body’s messy inner organs, its fragility, death. ‘I can still see my father looking up from his dissection and telling us to go away,’ he wrote many years later.
In this family of free-thinkers, the competent physician was the good man par excellence. So why didn’t Gustave study medicine? Was it because this path to self-realisation was already occupied by the dour Achille? Or was it, as Sartre claimed in The Family Idiot, because Flaubert Senior thought the boy unworthy? Winock doesn’t tackle the question. In any event, it was decided that the second son must accept a lesser destiny and become a lawyer. Those were father’s orders; the problem was that Gustave thought of the lawyer’s life as ‘completely materialistic, trivial’. He was expelled from school. He failed exams. Yet he couldn’t contemplate disobeying his ‘good, intelligent’ father. His two years at law school in Paris were spent oscillating between the penitential tedium of preparing for a profession he had no desire to practise and a busy social life where, with ‘his golden-blond beard, his enormous sea-green eyes … his voice resounding like a trumpet, his exaggerated gestures and ringing laugh’, as one friend described him, he was the soul of every party.
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