Monsieur Flaubert, C’est Moi!

The Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk acknowledges his debt to Gustave Flaubert

As told in the final section of Voyage en Orient, Gustave Flaubert, accompanied by his friend Maxime du Camp, travelled to Istanbul in October 1850 after his visit to Egypt, the Lebanon and Syria. The two men had earlier travelled together and written about their experiences, an arrangement pleasing to both. Du Camp, the scion of an affluent family and knowledgeable in literature and art, proved to be a trustworthy and reliable friend — though somewhat effete. Six years later, he would serialise Madame Bovary in the Revue de Paris, which he edited. During their travels, as du Camp took the first photographs of the Middle East with his cumbersome camera, Flaubert was preoccupied with himself and his own future. In a word, he was burdened by his own troubles.

Flaubert’s trouble, or rather burning pain, was the syphilis he had contracted in Beirut. He treated his festering wounds with medicines, strove to lessen his pain, wondered whether he had contracted the disease from a “Turk” or Christian and described it all in his letters in a tone of self-mockery. 

Having been on the road for more than a year, Flaubert suffered exhaustion and fatigue. His hair had begun to fall out and his teeth to come loose. Furthermore, he pined for home, his mother and his former life in Rouen. 

In Istanbul, Flaubert responded to a letter from his mother in which he learned of a friend’s marriage and of her own curiosity about his marriage plans. When I dreamed of becoming a writer in my youth, I’d frequently turn to this letter dated 15 December, 1850, penned from “Constantinople”, and would garner strength and succour from its exceptional words in the face of the hardships of staying on one’s feet and on course as an author in Turkey. 

Flaubert wrote: “When is the wedding to be, you ask me, à propos of the news of Ernest Chevalier’s marriage…When? Never, I hope.” The prospective young writer of 29 then reminds his mother of his principles, emphasising that it is far too late to change them now. “I, too, am ‘established’ in that I have found my seat, my centre of gravity. For me, marriage would be an apostasy: the very thought terrifies me.” A few sentences later, he clearly expresses the view on the relationship between art and life that would later be developed by
Nietzsche and Thomas Mann: “You can depict wine, love, women and glory on the condition that you are not a drunkard, a lover, a husband or a private in the ranks. If you participate actively in life, you don’t see it clearly: you suffer from it too much or enjoy it too much.” Flaubert writes to his mother with the profound sense that the artist must be a freak of nature, an oddity outside of ordinary life, a monster of sorts: “So, I am resigned to living as I have lived: alone, with my throng of great men as my only cronies — a bear with just my bear skin as company.” And he addresses his mother with the sentences I whispered to myself before I’d turned 30, sentences in which I tried to believe: “I care nothing for the world, for the future, for what people will say, for any kind of establishment, or even for literary renown, which in the past I used to lie awake so many nights dreaming about.” And after writing these arrogant words, Flaubert adds one final line whose simplicity demonstrates his self-confidence and sincerity: “That is what I am like. Such is my character.” 

In Istanbul, at the end of the 1970s, while trying to get my newly completed first novel published, living alone with my mother, I remember trying to locate the Justiniano Hotel in Galata, where Flaubert had spent his days and penned these words in 1850. Just like the “great men” that he had idolised, I tried to take Flaubert as my model. 

If one principle of the modernist literary ethic that Flaubert expressed with instinctive calm in his famous letter was to maintain one’s distance from everyday bourgeois life and mundane success, another was to be awed by, and identify with, reclusive writers of stature who did so successfully and genuinely. 

To keep one’s distance from life, to avoid organisations, the state and routine family life, to regard success and literary renown as objects of disdain…These are the indisputable moral principles of secular modern literary seclusion. That is, of literary modernism. First of all, if being experimental and giving voice to never-before expressed human experience in a new idiom doesn’t entirely preclude literary acceptance and legibility, it can delay commercial success. A young writer who prepares himself for a difficult and trying literary life must sincerely believe in these principles, so that should success prove evasive (and sometimes never arrive), he will avoid immediate disappointment and be able to make do with little, to progress on the hard road of his convictions and to continue to write. I still believe that the modernist literary morality is something that all writers as a group from the mid-19th century to the present, especially today’s young writers, must continue to believe in if they wish to resist the commercialisation of literature. Another victory of Flaubert’s, in addition to the great success of his oeuvre, rests in having lived his life according to these principles, set out when he was only 29. 

Flaubert’s letters demonstrate how this moral principle and the passion for good writing are one and the same. In the 1970s, when I read them, I too assumed and believed, like him, that it was possible to avoid engagement in life and to keep a distance from easy success, society and people with power and influence. In this respect, for me, Flaubert was a recluse and a sage, the first of the hermit-saints of modern literature who had turned their backs on life and on superficial success. Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Pessoa, Walter Benjamin and Borges are all figures in the same pantheon. 

My devotion to these authors arose as much from their ability to renounce easy success as from their literary discoveries and the new horizons they opened in the struggle to see the world through words. For writers to stand on their own feet and persevere, I still think that they must take reclusive authors like Flaubert as an example and even be able to identify with them, especially in non-Western countries where the culture of novels and modern literature and the habit of reading have been slow to develop. 

But this necessity brings with it certain problems that I now, 30 years later, must address. First, the manner in which we admire the recluse-author is similar to expressions of respect, adoration and devotion towards sages and folk saints in non-Western traditional cultures. This was how the adoption and experience of Western literary modernism happened. I remember in the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s that the adoration a handful of young Turkish writers felt towards Kafka in many respects resembled traditional feelings of devotion and veneration towards late great Sufi masters and cloistered dervish sheikhs. Just as others had elevated Kafka’s life story, I read Flaubert’s letters in the 1970s as if reading the hagiography of a Sufi sheikh. This variety of traditional worship predicated on memorising the words and imitating the life of the venerated recluse-author, precisely because he was a Westerner, was infused with an aura of modernism rather than being subject to critical thought, analytical reasoning, or the stamp of blind devotion. 

An unintended result of this combination of traditional devotion and modernist literary ethics was that writers were evaluated through their lives rather than their works. All readers long for one thing: that the venerated writer should live an unsuccessful, unhappy and disquieting life. Of course, this desire takes different forms from country to country. 

In the US today, the commercial success of a novel does not necessarily imply any lessening of its artistic value. In Europe, however, the fact that an author’s works are commonly read makes critics approach the writer with suspicion. In small literary centres outside the West, should an elusive and improbable commercial success actually materialise, the author would be likely to live out his days as a wise recluse. In 1960s and 1970s Turkey, it would actually diminish rather than increase a poet’s respect to write poems that were widely understood and enjoyed. The streets of small and obscure countries, where books do not sell and no platform is given to authors by newspapers or television programmes, are full of poets and writers espousing literary morality and boasting that their books don’t sell and aren’t mentioned in the press. Even in America, I’ve come across many who felt a special awe for writers like J. D. Salinger (another Flaubert admirer) and Pynchon because they never appeared in the media, rather than for their works. 

The true problem with the enthusiastic appropriation and internalisation by literati in Istanbul or other non-Western writer-havens of the modernist literary morality expressed by Flaubert in his 1850 Istanbul letter is that 100 or more years later, literature is still regarded as a genre that only addresses the elite. For the poets of the Ottoman court tradition, literature only concerned well-educated elites and readers of a similar education and status. Perhaps Flaubert, who couldn’t spend a single day without mocking ordinary bourgeois life, would share this perspective. There are plenty of Flaubert enthusiasts who have more conviction in this perspective than Flaubert himself had and therefore have appropriated him and his literary ethics, and I would now like to turn to them.

In the history of literature, writers have given Flaubert pride of place among venerated authors. From Maupassant to Tolstoy, from Henry James to Nabokov, from Conrad to Mario Vargas Llosa, a horde of writers have been excessively preoccupied with Flaubert, writing about him, nurturing open or hidden deep affection for him, and candidly or furtively identifying with him. Madame Bovary (1857) became a model in Russia for Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1874-6) and in Germany for Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest (1894). In Portugal, the representative of such novels that described a woman’s extramarital affair in oppressive, closed contexts was Eça de Queirós’s O Primo Basílio (Cousin Basilio, 1878). In this novel, as with Madame Bovary, the heroine is led astray by reading romances and just as in Ashk-ı Memnu (Forbidden Love, 1900), by Halit Ziya Ushaklıgil, Turkey’s literary equivalent of Madame Bovary, the love and infidelity occurs within the family context though the heroine is of a higher class than Emma Bovary. Ashk-ı Memnu, written near the end of Sultan Abdülhamit’s autocratic reign, is among the handful of novels the Turkish National Education Ministry recommends to high-school students in addition to Madame Bovary

It is clear that over subsequent generations, the admiration felt towards Flaubert in the 20th century rested, as much as on his novels, on his letters, the lifestyle revealed in the letters and on his being a literary recluse of sorts. In an essay Georges Perec wrote 15 years after he’d lifted 13 sentences from my favourite Flaubert novel, L’Education Sentimentale (A Sentimental Education), and included them in his own work, Les Choses (Things: A Story of the Sixties), he stated that he’d done so because he wanted nothing more than to be Flaubert. 

To be Flaubert! The reverence of his contemporaries Turgenev or Henry James, Tolstoy or Theodor Fontane, focused on his novels. Conrad was concerned with Flaubert’s literary technique. Later generations, however, especially during the last half a century of Flaubert devotion, have focused on the writer himself, his life, the subject of his letters and even on the conjecture surrounding him. 

The primary reason for this is the meticulously edited and annotated publication of his letters. The respect and understanding of French culture towards the classics and its tradition of preparing critical editions has resulted in the “Flaubert idea” today and in the sincere respect and admiration garnered by this great writer throughout the world. 

The requisite feeling of “identification” needed to live in accordance with the modernist literary morality is still alive in full force thanks to these letters. Many writers, myself included, have wanted to be Flaubert during a period of their lives. It would be no exaggeration to state that Sartre’s Flaubert biography, L’Idiot de la Famille (The Family Idiot, 1971-2) was written to grapple with this feeling or that Julian Barnes brilliant novel Flaubert’s Parrot was written in order to prolong endlessly the pleasures of “being Flaubert”. 

I’ve always noticed two basic tendencies among those who wanted to be Flaubert. Allow me to simplify and summarise for the sake of discussing this distinction, which points out two fundamental characteristics of the art of the novel. 

The first type of Flaubert enthusiast admires the author’s characteristic venom and voice. I refer to Flaubert’s angry, mocking and intelligent voice rising against the ordinary, against average bourgeois life, superficiality and stupidity. At the end of the letter he writes to his mother from Istanbul, we immediately recognise this tone: Flaubert explains mockingly that his soon-to-be-wed friend will fast become a perfect bourgeois gentleman. Ernest will from now on be the defender of the established order, the family and private ownership. He will most certainly declare war against the socialist thinking of his youth. According to Flaubert, his friend’s fault is that he takes himself too seriously. His dear friend, who at one time would get drunk and dance the cancan in nightclubs, has become bourgeois first by purchasing a pocket watch and later losing his imagination. With increasing anger towards his old friend now turned bourgeois, Flaubert adds in his letter that he’s also certain soon to be made a cuckold by his wife. The authorial voice here is quite close to that of Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881 posthumous) or Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues (Dictionary of Received Ideas, 1911 posthumous). This derisive tone, fed up with the foolhardiness of humanity and especially the bourgeois, gets its strength from Flaubert’s intelligence and extraordinary knack for parody. The training of his intellect and humour, which emerges frequently in his letters, upon the target of middle-class values, from which he tried to keep distant throughout his life, and upon the new, comfortable and peaceful daily life created by modernity and industrialisation, gives Flaubert’s voice a power with which many writers today enjoy identifying. 

In the 20th century, Flaubert admirers, especially young writers, attached great importance to identifying with this voice and to taking the mask of mockery, cynicism and intelligence from Flaubert and placing it over their own faces. Reading Nabokov’s Lolita, one senses a Flaubertian-inspired sensibility behind his scorn of American middle-class life. We all regard an eminent author’s derision of human foolishness and mediocrity as appealing. 

We read their books and novels in some respects to hear these voices and live among them. However, should this voice of ridicule become a novel’s sole strength, wit and cynicism can in no time become a condescending voice belittling middle-class life, the uneducated, different cultures, and people whose customs vary from our own and are deemed inadequate. In particular, the way European modernism developed outside the West should be seen in the context of this ethical problem. 

On the other hand, despite all his anger and derision, Flaubert wasn’t an arrogant writer. And he had discovered a language that allowed him, through the framework of a novel, to analyse up-close his protagonists and those who were different from him. After reading in the letter to his mother how about his anger at his childhood friend’s marriage and entry into mundane bourgeois life, we are reminded of the essential strength of Flaubert the novelist through the affection with which he described the same childhood friends in A Sentimental Education. We learn, too, of the deep compassion with which he discussed their “tomfoolery” and mental confusion. Here was a writer who could identify so thoroughly with his protagonists that he could feel in his own heart the misery and predicament of a struggling married woman, Madame Bovary, and convey that dilemma to readers in a clear idiom. 

Flaubert developed a special technique in which the novel’s narrative voice came as close as possible to his protagonists’ thoughts and inner worlds. This voice, this narrative technique, was imitated throughout France and later the world, and is more clearly perceptible to Flaubert specialists than to the general reader. Known as the “free indirect style”, it was developed, rather than discovered, by Flaubert and does not make a distinction between the protagonists’ thoughts and the contexts and events of which they are part. Furthermore, the narrative voice does not help the reader with tags like “she thought” or “he considered”. And the descriptions of landscapes and settings, as should be the case in a novel, represent the protagonist’s state of mind both through descriptive details and the choice of words. 

This is how we, the readers, come to see the world through the eyes of his characters, through their feelings and in their own words. After Jane Austen and Goethe, the “indirect free style” that Flaubert commonly but carefully (for a reader might suppose that Madame Bovary’s feelings are Flaubert’s thoughts) developed and practised was very influential and happily used in many non-Western countries like Turkey where the art of the novel and the language of modern narration developed after Flaubert’s time. 

This style played a deterministic role not only in the formation of the art of the novel in “late-arriving” nation-states, but also in the emergence and adoption of national languages through literature and, of course, predominantly through the aid of the novel. 

The Flaubert that I love and admire, the Flaubert with whom I identify, is this second author: a great writer who, within the large canvas and panorama of the novel, discovered a new way to enter — suddenly, in a few words — his characters’ inner lives. A writer who could approach his characters with the deep compassion and empathy demanded by the art of the novel, and as a result, could later simply declare, “I am Madame Bovary!” 

The derisive and belittling Flaubert that I’ve just now described is not at all distant from this compassionate Flaubert. 

It’s not difficult for the reader who admires him to imagine these two Flauberts as chambers of the same heart. I’ve always wanted to identify with this author, who on the one hand felt boundless anger and resentment towards humanity, and on the other, nurtured a profound compassion for the same and understood men and women better than anybody else. Whenever I read his work, I’m urged to say, “Monsieur Flaubert, c’est moi!

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"