EDITOR’S NOTE: If you want proof as to why Florence King is considered one of America’s best book reviewers, look no further than her masterful take (from the March 1, 1993, National Review) on Henri Troyat’s Flaubert. ’Tis perfection.
As is our faithful collection of each and every one of Miss King’s eye-poking, ankle-kicking, gut-busting “Misanthrope’s Corner” columns. It’s titled, aptly, STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002, and if you are a King fan, you must order your copy, which can be done (securely!) here.
THE CONSERVATIVE MIND
Flaubert, by Henri Troyat
(Viking, 374 pp., $25)
In an age that equates perfectionist standards with an undemocratic turn of mind, Gustave Flaubert would be called a “control freak.” A contemporary, Théophile Gautier, did call him one, though he put it wittily:
There is one thing for which he feels a remorse that poisons his life. It’s that in Madame Bovary he put two genitives one on top of the other: une couronne de fleurs d’oranger [a crown of orange blossoms]. He is very upset over it; but there was nothing he could do, it was impossible to say it any other way.
When feminist Ellen Willis penned her now-notorious dictum, “Good writing is counterrevolutionary,” she was stating a simple truth. Political liberalism and literary romanticism travel in a tandem harness of intellectual confusion and emotional excess. Conservatism and classicism are also a matched set, both governed by realism, skepticism, objectivity, order, simplicity, and restraint.
The conservative artistic temperament flowered in Gustave Flaubert, whose opinions on literature and politics were virtually interchangeable. The back-to-back flavor of “One must write coldly” and “Democracy is the exaltation of mercy at the expense of justice” lets both apply equally to voter alienation or the difference between Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Oprah Winfrey’s “Women with Boring Husbands.”
Flaubert expressed a hatred of mediocrity so early in life that he must have been born with it. “How stupid mankind is, what fools the people are!” he fulminated in a letter to a schoolboy friend. Though only 11, he was furious that Louis-Philippe, the ostentatiously middle-class “Citizen King,” had the temerity to visit Rouen, birthplace of Pierre Corneille.
Though contemptuous of the King, Flaubert was even more contemptuous of the mediocrity of the speeches against him in the Revolution of 1848. His anti-republicanism was largely aesthetic, rooted in his nervous inability to hear a cliché without twitching. “I remained cold and nauseated with disgust in the midst of all the patriotic enthusiasm aroused by the ‘helm of State,’ the ‘abyss toward which we are racing,’ the ‘honor of our flag,’ the ‘shadow of our banners,’ the ‘brotherhood of peoples,’ and other stuff in the same vein.”
He started writing Madame Bovary in 1851 in the middle of Louis Napoleon’s coup d’etat, the political upheaval strengthening his resolve to bring order out of chaos on paper. Insisting that “a good prose sentence should be like a line of poetry–unchangeable, just as rhythmic, just as sonorous,” he frequently spent all day searching for a word that suited his stringent requirements of melody and rhythm. When he found it, “he would shout it at the top of his voice to test its music and make sure it contained no awkward combination of sounds. If he encountered the least snag, he would go back to work, scratch out, write between the lines, polish until the words flowed naturally and harmoniously.”
Working seven hours a day, he produced twenty pages a month–all that remained after he had cut and tightened a much larger pile of manuscript. Ruthlessly deleting unnecessary adjectives, flowery metaphors, dialogue and descriptions that did not illuminate character or advance the plot, and, above all, taking pains to keep his own authorial voice out of the story and let his characters speak for themselves, he achieved a literary version of the maxim, “The government governs best that governs least.”
He had a ready answer for friends who accused him of nitpicking. ‘When I discover a disagreeable assonance or a repetition in one of my sentences, I can be sure that I’m floundering around in something false.” Like George Orwell, he understood that opaque language is a tool of oppressive governments. ‘When one writes well,” he warned Guy de Maupassant, “one has two enemies to face: first, the public, because style forces it to think, obliges it to do some work; and second, the government, because it senses a force in us and power loves not another power.”
A sensual man who saw sex as a threat to his artistic need for tranquillity, Flaubert experimented with celibacy in his twenties and practiced it periodically while living the life of a confirmed bachelor in his mother’s country house outside Rouen. Occasional copulation was pleasant, but he would brook no interruptions from love-struck women. “The mere thought of being disturbed disturbs me,” he said sourly.
Then he met an arty Parisian narcissist named Louise Colet, who liked to say that the arms of the Venus de Milo had been found in the sleeves of her dress. From the moment they became lovers Louise felt she owned him and demanded to see him every day. When he told her she would have to be content with a correspondence, she demanded that he write her every day, but he replied, “The very idea that you want a letter every morning will prevent me from writing it.”
She clung harder, grilling him jealously about other women, complaining that he forgot her birthday, forgot to kiss her goodbye, and refused to say he would love her forever. To this he replied, “If despite the love that binds you to my poor self, my personality causes you too much pain, leave me.”
Naturally that made her redouble her efforts. When he forgot the anniversary of their meeting, she reproached him with tears and recriminations. Next she tried to bind him to her by suggesting they collaborate on a book. Finally, when she said she wanted a child by him, he went ballistic. If she dared carry out such a mad plan, he vowed, “the Seine is here, and I would throw myself into it at this very moment with a 36-pound cannonball attached to my feet.”
He concluded: “It is impossible for me to continue any longer a correspondence that is becoming epileptic. . . . I am weary of grand passions, exalted feelings, frenzied loves, and howling despairs.”
He forbade her to come to his mother’s house, but the desperate Louise showed up anyway–while he was writing Bovary. That did it. “Madame,” he wrote her, “I am told that you took the trouble to call on me three times last evening. I was not in. And, fearing that if you persist in this way I shall be obliged to offer you repeated affronts, I am bound by the rules of courtesy to warn you thatI shall never be in. Sincerely yours, G.F.”
The Louise Colet episode illustrated something Flaubert knew instinctively but that today’s conservatives, muzzled by America’s romantic ethos, are loath to consider: there is something plebeian about sex. The agitated emotions, morbid suspicions, furious invective, wild jealousy, maudlin sentiment, and presumptuous familiarity it engenders all point to the inescapable conclusion that the behavior of the lover is the behavior of the mob.
Ironically, Flaubert’s only intentional use of bad French was in the service of feminism. In letters to George Sand he addressed her as “Dear Master,” using maître, a masculine noun, out of respect for her literary stature, but the feminine adjective chère, in deference to her sex. (When a conservative man respects you, you really know you’ve been respected.)
I discovered Henri Troyat ten years ago when I read his devastatingly perceptive and frequently hilarious life of Czar Alexander I, Alexander of Russia: Napoleon’s Conqueror. This dazzling account of Gustave Flaubert’s life reinforces my opinion that Troyat is the finest biographer now writing.
Other students of Flaubert have presented him as a literary hermit who withdrew completely from the world, but Troyat the historian reminds us that he lived through not only the Revolution of 1848 and the Bonapartist power grab, but the Second Empire, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Paris Commune–enough to make a political animal of the most rarified artist.
Both Troyat and Flaubert have been well served by a translator of uncommon common sense whose gift for grappling with the idioms and buzzwords of another time and place is–dare I say it?–awesome. Flaubert had a scatological streak and something of a dirty mind, but Mrs. Pinkham renders it all with no bumps and grinds, syntactical or otherwise. This book comes with a summa cum laude recommendation.