Overrated: Gustave Flaubert

The French aesthete is hardly deserving of acolytic praise, such was his emphasis on style over substance

Joseph Epstein

Which name does not belong in the following list: 1. Stendhal, 2. Balzac, 3. Flaubert, 4. Proust?

Flaubert is the correct answer. He simply isn’t of the same calibre as the other three great French writers. Flaubert didn’t have Stendhal’s cool, telescopic, analytical detachment, Balzac’s sweep and insight into human destiny, nor Proust’s psychological penetration and sensitive social radar. What Flaubert had was a powerful artistic vocation and an obsession with perfection of style. Do such qualities alone a great writer make?

For the Cult of Flaubert, it does. The cult has long been in existence, and its contemporary adherents include Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, and Orhan Pamuk. My sense is that the cultists admire above all Flaubert’s sacrificing everything to his art, and his unflagging struggles to compose; the latter being perhaps as famous as, and quite possibly more interesting than, the compositions that resulted from these struggles. 

Flaubert’s letters record his wrestle with language: the ineptness of words to capture his meanings; his own infelicity in manipulating these words to form perfect sentences; the refusal of these sentences once laboriously formed to deploy themselves into lovely, lilting paragraphs. Letter after letter to his lover Louise Colet registers Flaubert’s literary costiveness. Days at his desk at his family home in Coisset go by without a single successful sentence born, weeks with only a few paragraphs composed, as Flaubert bemoans the torture of it all. The struggle is Sisyphean, if one happens to go in for that sort of thing. 

The Cult of Flaubert is also a cult of superiority. As philosophers and critics who too greatly admire Emerson tend not to worry overmuch about clarity in their own writing, so artists who too greatly admire Flaubert tend to make a religion of art, with themselves as its high priestly caste. 

Yet Flaubert left his followers few idols to worship. He wrote five novels. Three of them — The Temptation of Saint AnthonySalammbô, and the unfinished Bouvard and Pécuchet — are not quite readable. One of them, A Sentimental Education, has powerful scenes, especially towards its close, but otherwise feels sketchy and underdeveloped. The last, Madame Bovary, is acclaimed everywhere as one of the masterworks of Western literature. But is it, really?

In a review of an 1888 French translation of Anna Karenina, Matthew Arnold compared Tolstoy’s novel to Madame Bovary. He is quite swept away by Anna Karenina, even allowing that its irrelevant scenes take on a relevance of their own because “the author saw it all happening so — saw it, and therefore relates it; and what his novel in this way loses in art it gains in reality.” For Arnold, “the truth is we are not to take ‘Anna Karenin’ as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life.” Arnold remarks of Anna that, through all her travail, whatever her “failures, errors, and miseries, still the impression of her large, fresh, rich, generous, delightful nature, never leaves us — keeps our sympathy, keeps even, I had almost said, our respect.”

Arnold then turns to examine Madame Bovary, a novel with the same subject as Anna Karenina: an adulterous woman who comes to grief. He judges Flaubert’s novel tainted, “a work of petrified feeling“, he calls it in italics, over which “hangs an atmosphere of bitterness, irony, impotence; not a personage in the book to rejoice in or console us; the springs of freshness and feeling are not there to create such personages.” 

Flaubert’s cruelty to his wretched heroine, is, Arnold holds, “the cruelty of petrified feeling […] he is harder upon her himself than any reader ever, I think, will be inclined to be.” The reason for this is that, while the best of literature turns facts into ideas, in Madame Bovary, Flaubert began with an idea, a deeply flawed one — a hatred of the bourgeoisie that was apparently bottomless — and let this inadequate idea select his facts for him. 

George Sand, criticising her friend’s artistic credo, informs Flaubert that his writing, “by dint of striving after form […] underrates content. It addresses itself to a literary audience. But that audience doesn’t really exist, as such. We are human beings before we are anything else.” What even the candid Sand cannot bring herself to say, though it is implied, is that Flaubert writes with a shrivelled heart, which no stress on form or emphasis on style can hope to enlarge. 

Henry James, who knew Flaubert from his own early days in Paris, had many of the same reservations. As for Flaubert’s quest for perfect style, James, a writer not himself altogether inattentive to it, wrote that “style itself moreover, with all respect to Flaubert, never totally beguiles; since even when we are so queerly constituted as to be ninety-nine parts literary we are still a hundredth part something else.” James concludes that Flaubert is best spoken of “as the novelist’s novelist.” And so his cultists are pleased, even proud, to have him. Yet, how much better to be the reader’s novelist. 

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