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Intimate Notebook 1840-1841

by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Francis Steegmuller
Doubleday, 50 pp., $4.00

The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas

by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Jacques Barzun
New Directions, 86 pp., $1.45 (paper)


by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Frank Jellinek, edited by Francis Steegmuller
Serendipity Press, 192 pp., $3.95

Although marred by tiresome affectations of style, Professor Brombert’s book is a full and very suggestive scrutiny of Flaubert’s love-hate of realism, as it is woven into the texture of his narratives. Flaubert’s own ambiguities on the subject are clear. “I abhor what has been called realism, although they make me out to be one of its high priests,” he wrote to George Sand. He hated reality. (Or rather it disgusted him; that is also an attraction.) Art held priority over life. If so much of his work is minutely drawn from everyday life, he forced himself to depict it (in Professor Brombert’s words):

partly out of self-imposed therapy to cure himself of his chronic idealism, partly also out of a strange and almost morbid fascination…. Art for him was quite literally an escape… For hatred of reality…was intimately bound up with an inherent pessimism—and pessimism in turn was one of the prime conditions of his ceaseless quest for ideal forms.

In resilient moments he called himself an old “romantique enragé“: even, a troubadour.

All this is well known; we know an enormous amount about Flaubert and Professor Brombert brings all the important critics into his net. But, a good deal owing to Marxist and Christian criticism, the quite gratuitous notion has got about that Flaubert was not what he ought to have been. He ought not to have been “an alienated bourgeois”; yet, surely, a vast number of great artists are alienated from their dispensation and especially in the nineteenth century. Alienation is a cant term for a necessary condition. The “hatreds” of Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, Flaubert, or Proust are the characteristic engines of a century bemused by its own chaotic energies. The force of criticism from an outside position of Marxist, Christian, or psychoanalytical neo-conformity is now fading and one is at least heartened to see Professor Brombert applying himself to “the unique temperament and vision that determine and characterize a novelist’s work as we find them in the text.”

There can be two weaknesses in this kind of criticism; first it puritanically denies side glances at biography, social influences, etc., but rather hypocritically assumes that we have had these necessities privately at the back door. Professor Brombert is not too strict here; how could one leave out the effect of atheistic medical observation and the morgue on Flaubert’s mind? Even Flaubert’s obsession with style seems to have something of medical specialization in it. Secondly, the critic may find too much in the text and build comically top-heavy theories on images and symbols, as one finds, for example, when this kind of criticism deals with Dickens: all that talk of baptismal water! (I have only one doubt about Professor Brombert’s attention to key words: this is when he catalogues the symbols of liquefaction.)

In Flaubert’s case the danger is usually small for he was the most conscious of artists; a most ardent collector of echoes and symbols. His documentary interest in things is also a concern with what they tell of the imagination. Things are corrupted or corrupting. He is tortured by the fact that the century has turned mind into matter, the ideal converted into ludicrous or detestable paraphernalia. But if anyone makes too much of his images it will be Flaubert himself: for example, the snake, as in the snake-like hiss of Madame Bovary’s corset lace. It is a melodramatic excess, as one can tell by the eagerness with which the image was seized upon by the lurid and falsifying mind of the prosecuting lawyer when Flaubert was being charged with obscenity. The phrase could well have gone into the Dictionnaire des idées reçues. Flaubert’s subject is the imagination and particularly of the orgiastic adolescent kind which he never outgrew and which received almost operatic support from an early reading of the Marquis de Sade and the early extremes of the Romantic movement.

HOW IS IT that—as it seems to us now—a whole century became adolescent? Is prolonged adolescence characteristic of a new class coming to power? This is not Professor Brombert’s interest; but casting an eye on the ominous Intimate Notebooks 1840-1841—written when Flaubert was eighteen and already pretending to be twenty—and proceeding through the novels, Professor Brombert is able to show how, exhaustively and like an infected pathologist, Flaubert presented the hunger for the future, the course of ardent longings and violent desires that rise from the sensual, the horrible, and the sadistic. They turn into the virginal and mystical, only to become numbed by satiety. At this point pathological boredom leads to a final desire for death and nothingness—the Romantic syndrome. The Notebooks contain eager cries on behalf of adolescent bi-sexuality; moralize on the ecstatic yet soon-to-be ashy joys of narcissism; pass, without pause, into almost comic dreams of exotic travel:

Often I am in India, in the shade of banana trees, sitting on mats; bayaderes are dancing, swans are fluffing out their feathers on blue lakes, nature throbs with love.

One is struck by the drunken accomplishment of the young diarist, particularly by the precision and clarity of his ingenuous self-study at a time of life when one is most likely to be turgid and blind. The son of Dr. Flaubert has made notes which a psychiatrist would find useful. How perceptive to write, at that age:

Sensual pleasure is pleased with itself; it relishes itself, like melancholy—both of them solitary enjoyments….

The style has already the elan and excessive conviction which are the startling qualities of his first novel November, unpublished in his lifetime. Luckily it has in Frank Jellinek a translator who responded to the youthful yet (again) accomplished puerilities of the writer. This book, above all, contains the emotional source of Madame Bovary; it states the imaginative condition of romantic love, underlines the onanism at the heart of the fantasy of the virgin whore. The very absurdities of this first novel are deeply moving, not only because of the afflatus but because of the fidelity to the course of an emotion that may be extravagant but is precisely recognizable. What astonishes is Flaubert’s understanding of his experience at that age. Here he begins his career as the doctor who proceeds to diagnosis by catching the patient’s fever first.

November utters for the first time one or two of the famous Flaubert obsessions: “There was one word which seemed to me the most beautiful of all human words: ‘adultery’ “; his horror of begetting a child; and passages like:

Since I did not use existence, existence used me; my dreams wearied me more than great labors. A whole creation, motionless, unrevealed to itself, lived mute below my life; I was a sleeping chaos of a thousand fertile elements which knew not how to manifest themselves nor what to be, still seeking their form and awaiting their mold.

AS PROFESSOR BROMBERT says, November is indispensable to an understanding of Madame Bovary, where “the thousand fertile elements” manifested themselves in the facts of Normandy life. Life is a dream, life is bad art; only Art, the supreme reverie can redeem it: Flaubert’s pessimism is clinical and absolute. Or is it? Keeping close to the text, Professor Brombert tries to make a path through Flaubert’s ingenuities, duplicities, and double meanings; and taking a tip from Flaubert’s own phrase that it is stupid to come to conclusions, he points out that Flaubert’s pessimism is, at any rate, resilient. Style may not save us but it is a force. The good things in Professor Brombert’s book—and this is always true of good criticism—are by the way.

There are many in the discussion of Madame Bovary. It is a novel as complex as the second part of Don Quixote: we shall never get to the bottom of it. For example, there is the question of how Flaubert’s lyrical intention was to consort with the banal, especially in the matter of speech. In fact Flaubert’s impersonality was a fraud: he contrived—since the book was a work of self-discovery and confession—all kinds of intrusion. Often openly:

…it is a grave mistake not to seek candor behind worn-out language, as though fullness of soul did not at times overflow in the emptiest metaphors.

And Professor Brombert comments:

This feeling that human speech cannot possibly cope with our dreams and our grief goes a long way toward explaining why so often, in the work of Flaubert, the reader has the disconcerting impression that the language of banality is caricatured and at the same time transmuted into poetry.

(Yes: the comic is poetry inverted. The effect of pure comedy is poetic.)

Flaubert has the power of transmuting the trivial. He wrote:

My book will have the ability to walk straight on a hair, suspended between the double abyss of lyricism and vulgarity.

As Professor Brombert says, one misses the charity, the “imperceptible human tremors” in Flaubert; there is a rift between the sophistication of the author and the confusion of the characters; but it is the test of a great writer that he can turn his dilemmas to effect. Flaubert disguises the rift by

the telescoping of two unrelated perspectives which bestows upon the novel a unique beauty. A stereoscopic vision accounts in large part for the peculiar poetry and complexity of Madame Bovary.

On the subject of the death of Madame Bovary there have been wearying differences of opinion. To some she has been hounded. To others she is a silly and disreputable nonentity, her shame not worth the expense of spirit. To D. H. Lawrence she was crushed by the intellectual skill that had created her; to others no more than a cold exercise. Yet again, she has been used by Flaubert to cure himself of his own disease. In fact, as Professor Brombert shows, the theme and even something of the plot had been known to Flaubert since his youth. There are no exercises in literature. I was struck when I last read the novel—as Professor Brombert was—by the extent of the sympathy with which she is treated. She has, even when she is mocked, the honesty of an energy. Her periods of depravity do not single her out as an exceptionally deplorable being, but rather make her part of the general, sad strangeness of the people around her. She belongs to Rouen; she is what belonging to a place or a culture may mean. She is dignified by a real fate—not by the false word “Fate,” one of the clichés Flaubert derided. Delusion itself dignifies her. The comparison with Don Quixote imposes itself: we see

…her terrible isolation, her unquenchable aspiration for some unattainable ideal. Hers are dreams that destroy. But this destructive power is also their beauty, just as Emma’s greatness (the word is inappropriate to literal-minded readers) is her ability to generate such dreams…at the moment of her complete defeat in the face of reality, she acquires dignity, and even majesty.

And despite the clinical attentions of Flaubert, her fellow adolescent, I cannot see that it is any criticism that in drawing her Flaubert tried to turn himself into a woman; it may be that in putting masculinity into her—as Baudelaire said—Flaubert made her perverse. But perversity is a normal sexual ingredient as well as an article in the Romantic canon. The Romantics were good psychologists.

Professor Brombert’s final remarks are new. There is an apparent negation of tragic values in Flaubert! Does he suggest a new form of tragedy, the tragedy of the very absence of Tragedy, a condition familiar to contemporary writers? There is a link between him and ourselves.

The oppressive heterogeneity of phenomena, the fragmented immediacy of experience, the constant fading or alteration of forms…

are twentieth-century assumptions. Equally important, Flaubert diagnoses the crisis of language.

The breakdown of language under the degrading impact of journalism, advertisement and political slogans parallels the breakdown of a culture over-inflated with unassimilable data.

It leads to the incoherence of Waiting for Godot, the triumph of the rigmarole.

My only serious criticism of Professor Brombert concerns his own use of language. It is depressing to find so good a critic of Flaubert—of all people—scattering academic jargon and archaisms in his prose. The effect is pretentious and may, one hopes, be simply the result of thinking in French and writing in English; but it does match the present academic habit of turning literary criticism into technology. One really cannot write of Flaubert’s “dilection for monstrous forms” or of “vertiginous proliferation of forms and gestures”; “dizzying dilatation,” or “volitation”; “lupanar”—when all one means is “pertaining to a brothel.” Philosophers, psychologists, and scientists may, I understand, write of “fragmentations” that suggest “a somnambulist and oneiric state.” But why dig out the archaic “obnubilate”? Imaginative writers know better than to use such words. The duty of the critic is to literature, not to its surrogates. And if I were performing a textual criticism of this critic I would be tempted to build a whole theory on his compulsive repetition of the word “veilleities.” Words and phrases like these might come from the ingenuous and fervent pens of Bouvard and Pécuchet. Literary criticism does not add to its status by opening an intellectual hardware store.


Omission June 1, 1967

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