Sartre’s Last Case

The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert 1821-1857, Vol.I

by Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Carol Cosman
University of Chicago Press, 627 pp., $25.00

The Family Idiot makes it sufficiently clear that writing three volumes and twenty-eight hundred pages about Gustave Flaubert was not for Sartre a labor of love. But there were many other occasions on which he explicitly voiced his antagonism to the great novelist. “That’s Flaubert for you—a heavy Norman gent who walks in mud, drives a horse and buggy, a ponderous, provincial character,” he said during an interview published by L’Arc in 1980. “I’m not talking about his style (although it, too, has its clumsy moments); I’m talking about his personal reality. He’s a man whom one would not have liked to spend much time with.”

Certainly Sartre considered Madame Bovary a masterpiece—an “absolute” masterpiece whose refinement is the more remarkable for being so at odds with the oafishness of its author—and he originally planned to analyze it in a fourth volume. But the fourth volume, like the concluding one of Les Chemins de la liberté, the end of L’Etre et le Néant, and the second part of La Critique de la raison dialectique, never got written. Having seen Flaubert through what may euphemistically be called a labyrinth, Sartre leaves him just before he emerged from it with the work that illuminated and dignified his grim journey underground.

Why, then, did he ever undertake this task and then spend his failing eyesight on it? A partial answer lies in the preface, where Sartre defines the subject of his book not as a man but as an epistemological problem the investigation of which required that he bring to bear upon “a test case” the combined lights of Marxism and existential psychoanalysis: “What, at this point in time, can we know about a man?” All else being equal, the case might have been Proust, Mallarmé, or Robespierre. But among these would-be clients, none offered such ready access to his intimate being as Flaubert, in whose juvenalia and abundant correspondence Sartre found, or believed he found, information of a kind that neurotics divulge while free-associating on the analyst’s couch. “I thought it permissible, for this difficult test case, to choose a compliant subject who yields himself easily and unconsciously,” he declared, adding that, like him or not, Flaubert, as creator of the modern novel, is a figure with whom we must reckon whenever we confront the problematical state of literature today. In other words, the victim of a patriarchy, who found refuge from the real world in the imaginary, became, as Sartre understood it, the patriarch of our alienation.

Volume I, which addresses itself to Flaubert’s childhood and adolescence, while drawing for substantiation upon events that took place later in his life, begins with a social and psychological portrait of the family into which he was born. Sartre shows us a brood absolutely subservient to the personality, ambitions, and precepts of its head, Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, whom Gustave never knew except as chief surgeon at the Hôtel-Dieu in Rouen, meaning Normandy’s …

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