Gustave Flaubert and Jean-Paul Sartre
Gustave Flaubert and Jean-Paul Sartre; drawing by David Levine

Sartre’s awe-inspiring book is without a doubt the most extraordinary work ever composed by one writer about another. I have been reading it for a month in varying moods of exasperation, humility, exultation, and despair, and I have still not got to the end of the 2,000 odd pages. But to speak about an end is probably inappropriate. Sartre promises us more volumes, and indeed if his intention is eventually to analyze Flaubert’s major novels with the same exuberance as he has brought to bear on the oeuvres de jeunesse, there is no reason why the book should ever be completed. So far he has only got to the foothills of the subject; to deal with it completely he will have to digest the universe, because, strictly speaking, no one detail in creation is ever adequately defined until its relationships with all the rest have been minutely worked out.

As I have whirled along in this spiraling tornado of words, there have been times when I have thought that Sartre cannot be addressing any living person, not even Mme de Beauvoir. Perhaps the only reader really competent to understand him fully is the late G. W. F. Hegel, provided the professor has not been idle in the Elysian fields but has kept up with all the major intellectual events since his demise, and is conversant with every kind of French from technical vocabularies to la langue verte. L’Idiot de la famille is an attempt at totalisation, and those of us who put together our little crumbs of thought and knowledge in different corners of the field must hang our heads in shame; we are not in the same league.

Of course, if this were a Ph.D. thesis presented by a research student, the report would not be too difficult to write:

“The candidate has not made up his mind what subject he is dealing with. The fundamental argument indicated by his title is that Flaubert, through being permanently crippled by his alienation within the bourgeois family, evolved an actively passive attitude which led him to realize himself in his particular kind of literature. There may be some truth in this interpretation, but it is developed with a total disregard for the ordinary niceties of scholarship.

“M. Sartre has read widely—indeed, he is almost incapable of writing a sentence that does not contain a concealed quotation—but his critical apparatus is so defective that one often cannot tell whether the facts he is analyzing have any objective reality or whether he has invented them on the spur of the moment for the purposes of his demonstration. He is obviously one of those modern young men, very active at present in literature and the arts, who believe that because no final truth is available, the search for relative truth is a waste of time and may conveniently be replaced by interesting suppositions and lurid distortions. It need hardly be emphasized how contrary this is to sound academic method.

“But above all, instead of keeping to the point, he allows himself lengthy digressions on any subject that takes his fancy: the meaning of statues, the psychological explanation of laughter, the phenomenology of excrement, etc. I suggest that he be asked to resubmit, after working out an intelligible plan and cutting the text by two-thirds. It should be impressed upon him how unfortunate it is that, among other mistakes, he should misspell. Dr. Starkie’s name as ‘Sterkie.’ In view of his undoubted fluency, I fear that a viva at this stage might only serve to confuse the issue still further.”

The common sense arguments against what Sartre is doing are, in fact, very strong and can be reinforced from his own earlier writing. It will be remembered that Roquentin, the hero of La Nausée, gives up writing the life of the eighteenth-century figure M. de Rollebon because he comes to realize that an aspect of the existential dilemma is the non-recoverability of the past. The truth about M. de Rollebon is lost forever, because the documents concerning him are fragmentary and in any case can only be given a meaning by being interpreted in the present by the historian. In other words, history is bunk, in the sense that it is an imaginative reconstruction which can never be verified; as Voltaire put it, history is a series of tricks we play on the dead. This is not an amusing paradox, as some people seem to think; it is strictly true, and therefore all our thinking about the past is an anguish, because it is a perpetual manipulation of uncertainties. And if we are constantly aware, as we should be, that the past began a moment ago, all thought will be experienced as an anguish.

Why, then, should Sartre now set-out so confidently to write the life of Flaubert? First, for reasons that one can speculate about, he has always been obsessed with the novelist; as he says, he has long had the feeling that there was an old score to be settled. In spite of his assertion that Flaubert and he are very different, my suspicion is that he is haunted by the need to exorcise a certain idea he has of the Flaubert within himself. Secondly, just as he jumped, without any explanation, from Existentialist despair about the impossibility of meaningful action to the policy of commitment, so he jumps from the belief that the life of M. de Rollebon is unwritable to the opposite conviction that he can intuit the truth about Flaubert.


In both instances, he begins by showing that the game makes no sense, and then his intellectual vitality forces him to play it, because his tremendous brain cannot accept the insignificance of its own operations. But he plays the game with a sort of mad impatience, which is his particular form of mauvaise foi. It is not simply that he is intellectually arrogant; he is, but he has a lot to be arrogant about. It is rather as if he could not slow down and weigh the pros and cons in any average fashion, because he would blow apart with despair. Ingenious dogmatism is his only form of self-therapy or self-preservation. He can be seen pulling the wool over his eyes when he declares in his Preface:

chaque information mise en sa place devient la portion d’un tout qui ne cesse de se faire et, du même coup, révèle son homogénéité avec toutes les autres.

This desire to replace the universe by its total verbal counterpart is later illuminated in a brilliantly poetic passage (pp. 960 et seq.) where Sartre, in speaking of Flaubert, is clearly describing his own linguistic frenzy as the atheist’s response to the nonexistent God. Literature, he says, is la Contre création, which is meant to make up for the inadequacies of the existing creation. The writer writes “[pour donner] l’êetre au non-êetre dans l’intention de manifester le non-êetre de l’êetre.” Literature is demiurgic, and “Ecrire est le plus beau délire.”

As I have already indicated, the composition of the book is rhapsodic rather than ordered, but Sartre can eventually be seen to be dealing with Flaubert on three main levels:

  1. The child within the family. He was the second son of a dominant father and a recessive mother. His elder brother was a “replica” of his father; his sister, Caroline, a “replica” of his mother. Gustave himself was lost in between; at first apparently a backward child, l’idiot de la famille, a victim of estrangement, conscious of being unable to play any adequate role, etc. He eventually had a breakdown, and thereafter lived a secluded life as a rentier devoted to literature. From an early stage, he saw life from the point of view of death.
  2. The adolescent at school and the young man with his friends and mistresses. At this level, the bourgeois was inserted into mid-nineteenth-century society, with its peculiar political nature, during the aftermath of Romanticism. Gustave played various fantasy roles, and would have liked to be an actor; since the theater was impossible for family reasons, he had to fall back on literary composition, which is another form of role-playing. In his sexual relations, he also opted for “active passivity”; he was not homosexual, but he liked to play a feminine role in conjunction with masculine women, although at the same time he could act a comedy of virility.
  3. The individual in his metaphysical relationship to the universe. The great “Naturalist” hated nature. He saw life as “une brève folie de l’inorganique.” Like Camus, he felt that the fundamental question was whether one should commit suicide or not. In his case, art was a substitute for suicide.

To my mind, level one is the least satisfactory part of the thesis. Sartre repeats once more, and at still greater length, his analysis of the bourgeois stereotypes, and asserts that, in the case of Gustave, “la Malédiction paternelle…a réglé sa vie jusqu’à la mort.” Now one may know from direct observation and from abundant literary evidence (Balzac, Zola, Mauriac, Hériat, etc.) that the French bourgeois family is, or was, one of the toughest sociological inventions of all time, but it is difficult to believe that it is quite as Gothic in its all-pervading awfulness as Sartre makes it out to be. Although he rejects the Freudian unconscious, he seems to be ultra-Freudian in his acceptance of the fatality of family relationships. Curiously enough, he constantly describes the bourgeois family in feudal terms: Flaubert senior is “le Seigneur,” the children are “desvassaux,” etc. His gleeful insistence on the restrictiveness of the family even leads him to imply that Mme Flaubert killed her unwanted (?) children by suggestion:

…au suivant, elle se serait écriée: “Encore un!” Le nouveau-né devant cet accueil, se serait hêaté de rentrer sous terre. [P. 723]

A great deal of this part is based on wildly tendentious interpretation of anecdotes, when it is not pure invention. Gustave may have been a slow developer in his earliest years, but the stigma, if there was one, cannot have continued indefinitely, because his literary ability was already apparent in his early teens; he was, in fact, precocious.

There are, moreover, two major difficulties in Sartre’s Existentialist psychology, with its Freudian and Marxist overtones: the first relates to his elimination of “human nature,” and the second to the exercise of “freedom.”

He declares categorically in his Preface: “un homme n’est jamais- un individu; il vaudrait mieux l’appeler un universel singulier.” This means, if I have followed his thought, that Flaubert was only Flaubert because he was born and brought up in that situation. Anybody else would have done as well in that position. Therefore, if we explain the family setting, the historical moment, etc., we define the reality of Flaubert. Sartre misses the physiological uniqueness, the given genetic identity of the individual Gustave, because the concept of predetermined “human nature” is as hateful to him as the concept of the bourgeois. He loathes it as a limitation of freedom.


But anyone who has brought up children knows that each child is an individual from the day of its birth; it may grow up in many different ways according to circumstances, but each way will be a compromise between the possibilities of its temperament and its conditioning. There is a sense in which Gustave is Gustave and no one else, just as Sartre, heaven knows, is Sartre. The identity may be ultimately incomprehensible, being hidden in the mysteries of microbiology, but it is there. In the course of his narrative, Sartre often spontaneously assumes this, but he will not incorporate it into his thought.

Then his tone implies that the people he is writing about, and chiefly Gustave, were guilty of mauvaise foi in their various positions and did not fully exercise their freedom. It has always appeared to me that Sartre wants freedom to be exercised internally in vacuo, although externally en situation. If there is no density of the given individual nature, if there is no weighting to be derived from the various different possibilities within the temperament, how can anyone get the inner leverage necessary for the exercise of freedom? Freedom cannot be rootless; it must be the margin of uncertainty in the possibilities of the given. After all, Flaubert chose to write his books, which Sartre refers to as “ses grands romans“; was this not a proper exercise of his freedom? I may have misunderstood, but Sartre gives the impression that Flaubert ought to have been different. I would agree if this means that the novels could have been still better, if he had been a still greater genius. I don’t agree if it means that he ought to have gone in for praxis; he might simply have got bogged down in the “pratico-inerte.” In this case, he wouldn’t have become Flaubert, and Sartre wouldn’t have had occasion to write a book about him.

Levels two and three are much more convincing, and even in those places where the text is hardly credible, it is often animated by great intellectual excitement. Sartre hammers away at Flaubert, as if he were under some irresistible compulsion to prove that the novelist was full of multiple forms of mauvaise foi: class prejudice, false forms of friendship and love, fluctuating aggressive or recessive personae, ingratitude, self-centeredness, and psychosomatic symptoms. However, through a curious reversal, this complex onslaught only serves to make Flaubert more interesting, especially as it is accompanied by dazzling improvisations on all sorts of themes, from the meaning of the Romantic movement and the psychology of the aristocrat to the function of language.

Someone has reported Sartre as saying: “Je n’ai pas l’admiration facile.” It is true that his favorite mode is to think against, just as his favorite intellectual device is to argue from le néant, as if it were a solid entity; fundamentally, I suppose, he is worried about God as a solid absence. At any rate, the more he attacks Flaubert, the more substantial Flaubert becomes. This celebration by negativity may not conjure up everyone’s idea of Flaubert, but it turns him into a fascinating and monstrous character, the central figure in a kind of delirious philosophical novel.

What still remains to be shown is how this crippled monster came to write masterpieces, if they are masterpieces, and this presumably will be one of the functions of the future volumes. It might be thought that Sartre, because of his violent hatred of the gratuitous and the apparent lack of tenderness and warmth in his make-up, would be incapable of appreciating literary beauty, but, paradoxically, this is not so. In several pages of quite breathtaking felicity and ingenuity (pp. 1,277 et seq.), he gives an anticipatory explication de texte of the fiacre episode in Madame Bovary; if he cares to turn his hand to expository criticism of this kind, we shall soon be overwhelmed by a new aspect of his remarkable ability.

With M. Nadeau’s book on Flaubert, which was first published in French in1969 and therefore predates L’Idiot de la famille, we return to the more restful area of average discourse. It is the result of M. Nadeau’s reflections on Flaubert during the years he spent preparing a complete edition of the works. The approach is deliberately modest (“I do not put forward any thesis”), although M. Nadeau points out that Flaubert may be a good deal more complicated than he at first appears:

…both his works and his voluminous correspondence provide material for original approaches in a variety of disciplines…. In spite of the fact that Flaubert used to be taken for rather a simple fellow, not over-intelligent, the material is so abundant it gives scope for all kinds of brilliant applications. But I am not capable of such approaches.

His book therefore provides the perfect complement to Sartre’s theorizing, since it gives an intelligent summary of the obvious data for anyone wishing to get an over-all, commonsensical view of the writer’s life and achievement.

The French title, Gustave Flaubert écrivain, corresponds more closely to the contents of the book than “The Greatness of Flaubert,” because M. Nadeau does not actually try to place the writer on any scale of relative eminence by comparison with other novelists, either French or foreign. He tends to take the interest of the books for granted, and even in the case of Salammbô, which is second in popularity with the general public after Madame Bovary but has never been a favorite with the critics, he does not put up a very vigorous case for the defense. Nor does he try to arrange the novels in any order of merit. For many years now it has been fashionable in Parisian literary circles to consider Madame Bovary as too hackneyed, and to profess a preference for L’Education sentimentale; M. Nadeau is not concerned with this kind of argument. He makes judicious incidental remarks about all the novels, but his purpose is not primarily critical. His aim is rather to describe the Flaubert phenomenon.

He sees Flaubert as someone who—for reasons that we may never completely understand—was thoroughly disillusioned about life from an early age and fell back onto writing, and writing according to strict rules, as the only way of giving a point to existence. He never tried to live positively, and even his love affairs and his later involvement in Parisian social life under the Second Empire were totally subordinated to his self-appointed task as an artist wrestling with art as the only possible religion. When he is looked at from this angle, his enormous correspondence, in which he discusses his problems day by day, becomes almost as significant as his books, and indeed some readers, such as André Gide, have claimed that it is more fascinating.

For M. Nadeau too, Flaubert is not simply a novelist; he is an exemplary case of the “writer.” He himself wished to eliminate his personality from his novels, so that they could stand alone in their artistic autonomy; perhaps they do, in a sense, but it is also true that, because of his ferocious self-abrogation, Flaubert the literary hero, the total man struggling with the concept of literature, may seem more important now than the books he happened to write in the course of the struggle.

This Issue

April 6, 1972