Books of The Times; A Man Who Wrote, Only Wrote
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
”What an atrociously delicious thing we are bound to say writing is – since we keep slaving this way, enduring such tortures and not wanting things otherwise,” wrote Flaubert to his mistress, Louise Colet, in 1894. ”There is a mystery in this I cannot fathom. The writer’s vocation is perhaps comparable to love for one’s native land (of which I have little, by the way), a certain fated bond between men and things. The Siberian in his snow and the Hottentot in his hut both live content, not dreaming of the sun or of palaces. Something stronger than they keeps them attached to their miserable environment, while we flounder about in our search for Forms. Whether poets, sculptors, painters or musicians, we perceive existence as refracted in words, shapes, colors or harmonies, and we find that the most wonderful thing in the world.”
Just as ”Madame Bovary” became a touchstone for the modern novel, so did Gustave Flaubert’s religious devotion to his work become a kind of model of artistic dedication. His industriousness (he wrote up to 18 hours a day), his willful search for ”le mot juste,” his decision to spend the better part of his adult life in an isolated provincial village, far from the distractions of the city – all would serve as an inspiration (and admonition) to younger generations of writers, eager to apprentice themselves to the demanding muse of fiction.
Indeed these qualities, combined with his enduring literary achievement, help explain the fascination that Flaubert has exerted on contemporary figures in literature – among them Julian Barnes, who recently created an enchanting fictional improvisation on the novelist’s life (”Flaubert’s Parrot”) and Mario Vargas Llosa, the author of a smart, chatty meditation on ”Madame Bovary” (”The Perpetual Orgy”). Whereas both those books were impassioned, highly personal works that illuminated Flaubert’s art with wit and indirection, Herbert Lottman’s new biography emerges as an altogether more conventional work.
In emulation, perhaps, of Flaubert’s own credo of detachment (an artist should be like God, ”present everywhere, yet visible nowhere”), Mr. Lottman has quietly removed himself from this volume. There are no critical assessments of the novels here, no real excursions into the inner landscape of Flaubert’s conflicted soul. Mr. Lottman dismisses the famous remark ”Madame Bovary, c’est moi” with a line, arguing that the novel was a willed choice of style over personality; and he refers only glancingly to the novelist’s long love-hate relationship with romanticism, delineated with such admirable sympathy by Francis Steegmuller in his fine study ”Flaubert and Madame Bovary.”
When it comes to giving us a dispassionate chronicle of day-to-day events in Flaubert’s life, however, Mr. Lottman proves a reliable guide, demonstrating the qualities of judiciousness and patience that distinguished his biography of Camus, and his recent study of French intellectuals during World War II (”The Left Bank”). Mainly, he gives us a portrait of Flaubert in his own words (”Debris of a vanished world, old fossil of romanticism”; ”all alone, like a bear”), and in the words of his family and friends.
To his brother Achille, he was a fanatic, who ”makes night into day, works to excess, and is continually overexcited.” To the young historian Hippolyte Taine, he was an ungainly man with ”the look of a cavalry captain who is already used up and who has been a drinker.” To the Goncourt brothers, he was an affected provincial, ”mainly concerned with the drumbeat of his sentences.” And to Henry James, he was ”the novelist’s novelist” and a somewhat awkward human being – ”so much talent, and so much naivete and honesty, and yet so much dryness and coldness.”
In fact Flaubert’s life is animated, from beginning to end, by his single-minded determination to become a writer. By the age of 10, he had ideas for 30 different plays; by 13, he’d written an ambitious story about Satan and the hellish nature of earth; by 15, he’d published a story in a grown-up journal. Though he reluctantly enrolled in law school, he clung throughout to his idee fixe of writing; and by the age of 24, had settled into a hermitlike existence at his parents’ house in Croisset. When he wasn’t writing, he was studying Greek, reading the classics or analyzing Shakespeare – activities all intended to sharpen his budding literary skills.
So dedicated was Flaubert to his writing that he came to regard marriage as a kind of ”apostasy”; and he limited himself to seeing Louise Colet once every two or so months. When she complained that he did not confide in her, he explained that his heart contained only ”two or three poor artistic ideas nursed with love; nothing more.” Following the end of that romance in 1854, he retreated even further into solitude. ”I hear no sound other than the crackling of my fire and the ticktock of my clock,” he wrote a friend.
No doubt the isolation contributed to his growing misanthropy. The Paris revolt of 1871 elicited from him a bitter condemnation of democracy; and he was soon talking of ”the universal decline” of the world around him. Health problems and difficulties with his novel ”Bouvard and Pecuchet” contributed further to the disillusionment of his remaining years. As he wrote George Sand in 1875: ”A roving gout, pains that show up here and there, an invincible melancholy, the feeling of ‘the world’s uselessness,’ and considerable doubt about the book I’m writing, that’s what’s wrong with me, dear and brave master. Add to that problems involving money, and the permanent desire to be dead . . . this is my present condition.”
He died five years later, without finishing his last novel.
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