The intolerable wrestle with words
FLAUBERT: A LIFE by Geoffrey Wall
Faber, £25, pp. 413, ISBN 0571195210
The question of how reflexive, or, alternatively, how transparent a writer can or should be, was recently brought to the fore in Ian MeEwan's Atonement, in which the protagonist rearranges given facts to fashion a narrative which is in itself a fiction. Ian McEwan chose to give his account of this procedure a moral dimension, albeit an ambiguous one. The question, which he left unresolved, inevitably comes to the fore in the composition of Madame Bovaty, a heroic act of self-abnegation which is in itself a remarkable feat of imaginative disguise.
Literary artifice, or a reversal of Romantic expectations, principally his own? Flaubert was heir to the Romantic tradition; he read and admired Balzac, Chateaubriand and Hugo, yet at some point, never made explicit despite the abundance of letters describing the progress of the novel, he decided that this tradition was no longer valid, and that it needed to be replaced by its opposite, something succinct, impassive, uninflected, and if necessary curtailed. This requirement would bring into play a different set of values: no more plebeian expansiveness, no more emotional Bonapartism (Balzac's 'Paris, a nous deux!'), no more insistent availability of the author as confessor or guide. The result is something approaching modern irony, the apparent eclipse of the author as player, yet with a detectable backward look to empathy, the empathy that every author feels for his characters, so that Emma Bovary, his simple, undistinguished and undiscriminating heroine, has the benefit of the author's remorseless attention throughout, even if that attention is expressed in language which neither espouses nor exonerates her.
The letters which describe the progress of the book are almost as famous as the book itself. The well-known pronouncements — that an author should be as absent from his work as God is from the universe — give rise to our image of Flaubert as a mighty artificer, paradoxically as present as God in his own particular universe. These almost drunken letters, written to his lover Louise Colet, have a dangerous solipsism. Later writers take them as inspiration, and feel reassured as to the importance of the task they have set themselves. The Flaubertian ideal of impersonality, of the writer as possessor of an alternative consciousness, is a difficult trick to pull off. One might almost say that it poses more problems than it solves. That Flaubert solved the problem — but only once — justifies his most exalted claims. His other works depart from it, and reveal an ineradicable nostalgia for the lush, the oriental, for the touchingly pathetic, or for lost opportunities. We read them less and less, recognising instinctively that in Madame Bovary something extraordinary has taken place: an apparently simple story, achieved, again without emphasis, that satisfies all our emotional requirements.
With Flaubertian rigour the author of this admirable biography touches only briefly on these matters and absents himself from this particular episode, merely remarking that Madame Bovary is a large fact of our cultural history. He summarises or paraphrases many of the relevant letters and concentrates, interestingly, on the trial which followed the serialisation of the book in the Revue des Deux Mondes. The book itself was published in April 1857 and prompted letters from lonely women who blamed provincial boredom for the bankruptcy of their lives. The biographical problem is this: how to look at Madame Bovary as if it were not yet that large cultural fact, as if indeed it were still being written.' This he manages to do, and the effect is refreshing. He is dealing with his own biographical problem: how to recount the life of a man always predisposed to writing but taking some time to find a suitable outlet for his ideas and ambitions. Madame Boyar), was Flaubert's first book. It made him famous; it turned him into an icon; but he had further plans for what now amounted to a literary career. It is the author's contention that we misrepresent Flaubert if we view him merely as a writer, a man proceeding at 500 words a week, in the solitude he cherished, in his mother's house, his home since birth.
Instead Geoffrey Wall draws us into the life of a complex, choleric, but amiable man, son of a distinguished doctor, given to close masculine friendships, attracted to
but fearing the encroachments of women, principally those of his mother and his mistress. It is chilling to be reminded that his mother was always at the station or the landing stage to greet him after all his excursions, even to Paris, that he was allowed to travel only under the aegis of his friend Maxime du Camp, and that she reproached him continually for his misogyny while doing all she could to reinforce it. Wall also lays emphasis on Flaubert's health, on the epilepsy, or apoplexy, which threatened him all his life, on the syphilis which occasioned alarming symptoms, and no less alarming treatment. The simplicity of Madame Boyar), was never recovered. By the same token the unified perspective of a life given over to art broke down, or up, into melancholia, frustration, and domestic complications. As he grew older he claimed to prefer the Marquis de Sade to Victor Hugo, so that cruelty, kept largely out of sight in Madame Bovaty, seems omnipresent in the later work. He is angry, and now it is the unsuspecting bourgeois who is in his sights. He is also anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-idealist, traits which denote a profound contempt, and, more important, a profound disappointment.
Continually rallied by his friend George Sand, Flaubert nevertheless remained faithful to his arcane principles, surprised that these were not widely shared. His regret was that he could not drop out of history, particularly during the Prussian conquest of Paris in 1870. He gave a misleading impression of health: the malicious Goncourts paint an unflattering picture of his red face, his swollen mouth, his tendency to bellow and rant. Something had been lost despite his success, and the attempt to make good this loss is the engine which drives L'Education Sentimentale.
A deep, cold book, containing sublime moments, Flaubert's last substantial novel reveals the pessimism that overtook the generation that had witnessed the events of 1848, and also indicates Flaubert's growing world-weariness. Fashionable, a social success, invited everywhere, and outwardly companionable, he remained wedded to his avowed intention — to write a book about nothing, held together only by the perfection of its style — without quite being able to recapture his early conviction. Quantities of research were now necessary to maintain the creative output. Only in his last trilogy of stories do the strands of his life come together, and it is significant that they are divided, discrete. His gigantic endeavour, remembered now only, or principally, for Madame Bovaty, was an impossible wager, a life which it is quite difficult to contemplate. It is a life to which Geoffrey Wall does impeccable justice. Written with considerable literary acumen, and with the transparency of good faith, his fine book will be admired and appreciated by specialists and amateurs alike. It is a welcome sign that he appears to make no distinction between the two.