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The Pontiff of Ridicule : FLAUBERT A Biography by Herbert Lottman (Little, Brown: $24.95; 416 pp., illustrated)

March 12, 1989|Andrew J. McKenna | McKenna teaches French literature at Loyola University of Chicago

Gustave Flaubert once compared his goal as a novelist to the divine creator, who would be everywhere present, nowhere visible in his creation. In his labors in service to art, which he ever capitalized in his letters as representing a transcendent ideal, he managed to make literary creation seem as mysterious and as improbable as its model.

For the analogy, as he knew, is dubious: It accounts for the pantheistic exuberance of his Faustian "Temptation of Saint Anthony," but it also accounts for the endless frustration that accompanied his quest for a style as "an absolute way of seeing things." He acknowledged the "abyss between the work and the absolute," and he never gave up trying to cross it or close it in search of aesthetic form that would redeem the platitude of his characters' existence.

God made the world in seven days and saw that it was good. Flaubert devoted seven years to the writing of "Madame Bovary"; they largely consisted in scratching out nine-tenths of what he wrote, while turning to ridicule his own romantic sensibilities. Creation in Flaubert was largely the art of decomposition, a process that informed the lives of his characters, and his own vision of history as well.

For all the vagaries of his love life (scrupulously noted by his biographer here), art was Flaubert's ruling passion, and judging by the testimony of his letters, it was largely unfulfilled. His love affair with literature paralleled Emma Bovary's ruinous fantasies, as he projected "an ideal of style whose pursuit makes me gasp for breath without respite. Consequently, despair is my normal condition." He would bounce back again enthusiastically and fall lower still, thereby producing a correspondence that has become a breviary for countless modern writers.

It is frequently observed that he invented the modern novel as an art form to be revered and carried the modern novelist aloft into a quasi-religious vocation. Proust, Joyce and Kafka are fairly inconceivable without him, not to mention Gide and Sartre. Indeed the priesthood of art that he founded counts so many living writers among its votaries that it is hazardous to summarize his achievement. Herbert Lottman doesn't make the attempt.

Flaubert's discernment of stupidity--the all-consuming, untranslatable betise-- was so acute and wide-ranging as to threaten nearly every possibility of linguistic expression, so that the last part of his hilarious, uncompleted "Bouvard and Pecuchet" was to consist entirely of unattributed quotations. Congressional Record beware! His irony cut so deep as to leave behind the difference between the tragic and the comic, the serious and the silly.

Yet our laughter often wells up out of this very loss of difference. This leveling effect may be his most enduring contribution to understanding modern culture, which he perceived as "without hate, without fear, without pity, without love, without God." He didn't believe in God, but he was mercilessly funny about our self-congratulatory disbelief.

The events of Flaubert's life interest us as they variously nurture, inform and reflect these obsessions. His travels to the Near East as a young man compose a fascinating volume unto itself. He had love affairs and altogether spectacular friendships (George Sand, Turgenev, Zola, Maupassant) that deserve a narrative of their own. His trial (and acquittal) for the immorality of "Madame Bovary" engages fundamental questions about literary representation.

He had powerful affections, variously disappointed by death or betrayal. He participated, though somewhat marginally from his native Rouen, in the literary life of the Paris of his time. He had a lot of provocative ideas about history and politics, including the idea that the bloody strife of the Paris Commune (1870) could have been avoided if people had understood "Sentimental Education," his devastating novel focused on the 1848 Revolution.

But like Flaubert's own novels, some principles of selection and emphasis, of organization and focus, are necessary if his life is to instruct us. All this is lacking in Lottman's detailed chronology, which is inexplicably divided into 10 parts across 51 little chapters of about six to eight pages apiece. Except for short, misleading plot summaries, there is no discussion of Flaubert's novels. His splendid correspondence is not mined for insights into his works or his times (or our own, though Flaubert's prescient letters often read us very perceptively).

Because of an obsession with documentation, enticing quotes are truncated and buried in trivia. Neither Flaubert nor his era come alive in these pages, which succumb to the criticism the novelist leveled at the narrow positivism of his own times: "Have you ever believed in the existence of things? Isn't everything illusion? There is only truth in 'relations,' that is in the way we perceive objects."

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