Battle of the Century—Sartre vs. Flaubert

L'idiot de la famille Gustave Flaubert de 1821 à 1857 Books)

by Jean-Paul Sartre
Gallimard, 2 vols, 2,136 pp., 110F (to be published in its entirety in the United States by Pantheon

The Greatness of Flaubert

by Maurice Nadeau, translated by Barbara Bray
The Library Press, 306 pp., $9.95

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.