The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and 'Madame Bovary'
Has Flaubert become our Shakespeare? Or because of the modern attempt by prose fiction to dethrone poetic drama, is he simply overrated? We should listen carefully to what novelists have been saying. Henry James called him “a novelist’s novelist.” Conrad, Proust, Joyce, and Kafka left no doubt about how much they admired Flaubert and learned from him. More recently writings by Sarraute and Nabokov have reaffirmed his status as revered Master. Francis Steegmuller’s Flaubert and Madame Bovary, published in 1939, reads more like a novel than like a biography or a literary study. The three thousand pages of Sartre’s effort to settle the score with his literary father take on the compulsiveness of an unfinished pilgrimage. The Idiot of the Family absorbed and recycled Sartre’s considerable novelistic powers into a task already classified as impossible by Roquentin’s aborted biography of Rollebon in Nausea.
While Sartre was still toiling, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa spent over ten years on a highly personal work about his response to Flaubert’s life and writings. La orgía perpetua appeared in 1975 shortly after or just before Woody Allen wrote a story about a successful and disastrous attempt to meet Emma in the flesh by entering a supposedly therapeutic time machine. Most recently Julian Barnes’s “novel,” Flaubert’s Parrot, offers us the notes and fantasies of a fanatic and fetishistic amateur scholar unable to organize a proper book.
Meanwhile certified scholars continue to work strenuously on new studies and new editions. Flaubert’s complete Correspondance is appearing in the Pléiade collection and a two-volume selection in English has been published. The rush of events, reinforced by feminist concerns, has induced the translation, more than a century after its publication, of a novel by Louise Colet, Flaubert’s intermittent mistress and the recipient of his most important literary and personal letters.1 In this tale within a tale, mostly about George Sand and Alfred de Musset, Flaubert presides from a distance as the absent lover devoting himself to a great work. Colet portrays herself as being as scrappy as she is beautiful.
What did Flaubert do to deserve these sidelong tributes from novelists? His writing extends to many positions on the literary spectrum, from detached scientific description through the excesses of romantic yearning to the sassy, spontaneous voice of the wise fool in his incomparable letters. This profound versatility—not effortless but earned—has Shakespearean dimensions. One never recovers from Flaubert’s searing ironies on love, politics, beauty, and the bourgeois. The remarks that burst from him day after day about art, the imagination, and the discipline of work have formed our aesthetic attitudes as much as any other source since Hegel and Kant:
What seems to me the highest (and the most difficult) in Art is not to make us laugh or cry, not to arouse our lust or our rage…but to make us dream. Truly beautiful works do this. They are serene in appearance and incomprehensible…. Homer, Rabelais, Michaelangelo, Shakespeare, Goethe appear pitiless to me. It’s without bottom,…
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