The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary

Overview

The book's first section is a tete-a-tete with Emma Bovary; the second traces the gestation and birth of the novel, as well as Flaubert's method, his mania for documentation, and the novel's literary sources; the third situates it in literary history. Vargas Llosa's first work of non-fiction will send the reader back to Flaubert's masterpiece with renewed interest.

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The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary

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Overview

The book's first section is a tete-a-tete with Emma Bovary; the second traces the gestation and birth of the novel, as well as Flaubert's method, his mania for documentation, and the novel's literary sources; the third situates it in literary history. Vargas Llosa's first work of non-fiction will send the reader back to Flaubert's masterpiece with renewed interest.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Vargas Llosa begins by explaining the special meaning Madame Bovary has for him. Then he deals with the story the novel tells and ``the sources it uses, the way in which it transforms itself into time and language.'' Here he examines the ``added element'' Flaubert joined to his perceptions of realityfor example, his humanizing of objects, his obsession with pairs, and his manipulation of fictional time and narrative. Finally, focusing on such issues as the antihero and interior monologue, the author discusses the place of Madame Bovary in the development of the modern novel. This knowledgeable and highly readable book may not break any new scholarly ground but is valuable as an intelligent introduction and personal appreciation by an important novelist. Richard Kuczkowski, Dir., Continuing Education, Dominican Coll., Blauvelt, N.Y.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374520625
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 3/10/2004
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,422,916
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Mario Vargas Llosa is Peru's foremost author and the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1994 he was awarded the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world's most distinguished literary honor, and in 1995 he won the Jerusalem Prize. His many distinguished works include The Storyteller, The Feast of the Goat, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Death in the Andes, In Praise of the Stepmother, The Bad Girl, Conversation in the Cathedral, The Way to Paradise, and The War of the End of the World. He lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

THE PERPETUAL ORGY (Chapter One)An Unrequited Passion

Criticism would perhaps be simplified if, before setting forth an opinion, one avowed one’s tastes; for every work of art contains within itself a particular quality stemming from the person of the artist, which, quite apart from the execution, charms us or irritates us. Hence only those works which satisfy both our temperaments and our minds arouse our unqualified admiration. The failure to make this fundamental distinction is a great cause of injustice.

—Preface to Dernières chansons by Louis Bouilhet

“The death of Lucien de Rubempré is the great drama of my life,” Oscar Wilde is said to have remarked about one of Balzac’s characters. I have always regarded this statement as being literally true. A handful of fictional characters have marked my life more profoundly than a great number of the flesh-and-blood beings I have known. Although there is no denying that when literary characters and human beings are an immediate presence, a direct contact, the reality of the latter prevails over that of the former—nothing is as alive as the body that can be seen and touched—the difference disappears when both become part of the past, of memory, to the considerable advantage of the first over the second, whose fading in our minds is irremediable, whereas the fictional character can be brought to life indefinitely, merely by opening the pages of the book and stopping at the right lines. In that heterogeneous, cosmopolitan circle, a gang of friendly ghosts whose members come and go, depending on the period of my life and my mood (today I might mention, offhand: D’Artagnan, David Copperfield, Jean Valjean, Prince Pierre Bezukhov, Fabrice del Dongo, the terrorists Cheng and the Professor, Lena Grove and the tall convict); none of them has been present as persistently, and with none of them have I had as clearly passionate a relationship, as Emma Bovary. That story may perhaps serve as a small example that will help to shed light on the much-discussed, enigmatic relationships between literature and life.

My first memory of Madame Bovary is cinematographic. It was 1952, a stifling-hot summer night, a recently opened movie theater in Piura, on the Plaza de Armas with its waving palms; James Mason appeared as Flaubert; Louis Jourdan, tall and svelte, was Rodolphe Boulanger; and Emma Bovary took on visible form by way of the nervous movements and gestures of Jennifer Jones. I couldn’t have been terribly impressed, because the film didn’t cause me to rush out and hunt up a copy of the book, despite the fact that it was at precisely this period in my life that I’d begun to stay up nights devouring novels like a cannibal.

My second memory is academic. On the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Madame Bovary, the University of San Marcos, in Lima, organized a ceremony in honor of the occasion, in the main auditorium. The critic André Coyné was impassively considering Flaubert’s reputation as a realist when his arguments suddenly became inaudible amid shouts of “Long live free Algeria!” and the war cries of a hundred or so San Marcos students, armed with sticks and stones, as they made their way through the hall toward the platform where their target, the French ambassador, awaited them, white as a sheet. Part of the celebration in honor of Flaubert was the publication, in a little booklet whose ink rubbed off on our fingers, of Saint Julien l’Hospitalier, in a translation by Manuel Beltroy. That was the first work of Flaubert’s I ever read.

In the summer of 1959 I arrived in Paris with very little money and the promise of a scholarship. One of the first things I did was to buy a copy of Madame Bovary in the Classiques Garnier edition, in a bookstore in the Latin Quarter. I began reading it that very afternoon, in a tiny room in the Hôtel Wetter, near the Musée Cluny. It is at this point that my story really begins. From the very first lines, the book’s power of persuasion was like an extremely potent magic spell. It had been years since any novel had vampirized my attention so quickly, blotted out my physical surroundings so completely, plunged me so deeply into the story it told. As the afternoon wore on, as night fell, as dawn began to break, the magical decantation, the substitution of the fictional world for the real one, held me spellbound. Morning had already come—Emma and Léon had just met in a box at the Rouen opera—when, dizzy with fatigue, I put the book down and went to bed: in my troubled sleep at that hour the Rouaults’ farm, the muddy streets of Tostes, the figure of Charles, good-natured and stupid, the ponderous pedantry of Homais (who might well have been Argentine) continued to exist, as vividly as when I’d been reading about them—and above these persons and these places, like an image foreshadowed in a thousand childhood dreams, dimly glimpsed from the moment I’d begun devouring books so avidly in adolescence, there hovered the face of Emma Bovary. As I woke up so as to go on reading, two certainties flashed through my mind, like two bolts of lightning: I now knew what writer I would have liked to be; and I knew that from that moment on, till my dying day, I would be in love with Emma Bovary. In the future she would be for me, as for Léon Dupuis in the first days of their affair, “the beloved of every novel, the heroine of every play, the vague she of every volume of verse.”

Since then I have read the novel from beginning to end half a dozen times and reread various chapters and episodes again and again. Unlike what has happened to me on going back to other cherished stories, I have never been disappointed; on the contrary, especially on rereading those scenes that are volcanic craters—the agricultural fair, the ride in the fiacre, Emma’s death—I have always had the sensation that I was discovering secret facets, unpublished details, and, to varying degrees depending on the place and the circumstances, I have always felt precisely the same emotion. A book becomes part of a person’s life for a number of reasons appertaining at once to the book and the person. I should like to explore what some of these reasons are in my case: why Madame Bovary stirred me to such profound depths of my being, what it gave me that other stories could not.

The first reason is, surely, my particular penchant, ever since childhood, for works that are rigorously and symmetrically constructed, with a definite beginning and a definite end, that form a closed circle and gave the impression of being perfect, finished works, in preference to those open-ended works deliberately aimed at suggesting something inconclusive, vague, in the process of becoming, only half over and done with. It is possible that these latter works are more faithful images of reality and of life—always unfinished, ever at some halfway point between this and that—but what I have doubtless sought instinctively and been pleased to find in books, films, paintings has not been the reflection of this infinite incompleteness, this boundless ongoing flow, but rather the exact opposite: definitive overviews, wholes which, thanks to their bold structure, arbitrary yet convincing, give the illusion of being a total picture of reality, of summing up all of life. That appetite was to be fully satisfied by Madame Bovary, the very exemplar of the closed work, of the book that is a perfect circle. On the other hand, an increasing preference, which up to that point in my reading had nonetheless remained quite vague, must have taken definite shape thanks to this novel. Between the description of objective life and subjective life, of action and reflection, I am more attracted by the former than by the latter, and I have always considered the description of the latter by way of the former a more impressive feat than the converse (I prefer Tolstoy to Dostoevsky, invention rooted in reality to that rooted in fantasy, and if I am left to choose between unrealities, the one closer to the concrete has my preference over the one that is abstract: I prefer pornography, for example, to science fiction, and sentimental stories to horror tales). In his letters to Louise Colet while in the throes of writing Madame Bovary, Flaubert was quite certain that he was composing a novel of “ideas,” not a novel of “action” with a lively plot. This has led certain critics who have taken his words literally to maintain that Madame Bovary is a novel in which nothing happens except on the level of language. But this is not so; in Madame Bovary as many things happen as in an adventure novel—weddings, acts of adultery, balls, journeys, outings, financial skulduggery, sicknesses, theatrical spectacles, a suicide—even though for the most part these events turn out to be inconsequential or sordid ones. It is true that many of these happenings are narrated as seen through the emotions or the recollected memories of the character involved, but because of Flaubert’s maniacally materialistic style, the subjective reality in Madame Bovary is possessed of a solidity, a physical weight, as palpable as that of objective reality. The impression that the thoughts and the feelings in the novel were facts, so concrete that they could be seen and almost touched, not only dazzled me: it revealed to me a profound predilection on my part.

These are formal reasons, stemming from the structure and conception of the book. Those concerning its subject matter are less invertebrate. The greater the role that rebellion, violence, melodrama, and sex, expertly combined in a compact plot, have played in a novel, the greater its appeal has been to me. In other words, the maximum satisfaction that a novel can bring me is to arouse, as I read, my admiration for this or that revolt against the established order, my anger at some stupidity or injustice, my fascination for melodramatic situations, for excessive displays of emotion that romanticism seemed to have invented, since it both used and abused them, though they have always existed in literature, as they have doubtless always existed in reality and in my secret desire. Madame Bovary is chock-full of these ingredients, they are the four great rivers that irrigate its vast geography, and the distribution of these contents in the novel reveals the same careful balance of its formal division into sections, chapters, scenes, dialogues, and descriptions.

Rebellion in Emma’s case does not have the epic dimensions of that of the masculine heroes of the nineteenth-century novel, yet it is no less heroic. Hers is the rebellion of an individual, and to all appearances a self-centered one: she violates the codes of her milieu because she is driven to do so by problems that are hers alone, not in the name of all humanity, of a certain ethic or ideology. It is because she feels that society is fettering her imagination, her body, her dreams, her appetites that Emma suffers, commits adultery, lies, steals, and in the end kills herself. Her defeat does not prove that she is wrong and the bourgeois of Yonville-l’Abbaye right, that God punishes her for her sins, as was maintained by Maître Sénard, the attorney for the defense at the trial of Madame Bovary (his defense of the novel is as pharisaical as the accusation against it put before the court by Pinard, the public prosecutor, a composer in secret of pornographic verses), but simply proof that the battle was one-sided: Emma was alone, and because she was an impulsive and sentimental creature, continually inclined to go astray, to become more and more deeply enmeshed in situations that in the end gave her enemy the advantage (setting forth arguments doubtless suggested to him by Flaubert himself, Maître Sénard assured the judges at the trial that the moral of the novel is: Dangers lie ahead for a girl who receives an education superior to that of her class). This defeat, foredoomed due to the conditions governing the battle, takes on the overtones both of genuine tragedy and of a cheap newspaper serial, and that is one of the mixtures of genres to which—poisoned, like Emma, by certain books I read and movies I saw when I was an adolescent—I am most likely to succumb.

But it is not only the fact that Emma is capable of defying her milieu—family, class, society—but also the causes of her defiance that force me to admire that elusive little nobody. These causes are very simple and stem from something that she and I share intimately: our incurable materialism, our greater predilection for the pleasures of the body than for those of the soul, our respect for the senses and instinct, our preference for this earthly life over any other. The ambitions that lead Emma to sin and death are precisely those that Western religion and morality have most savagely combated throughout history. Emma wants sexual pleasure, she is not resigned to repressing this profound sensual need that Charles is unable to satisfy because he doesn’t even know that it exists; she wants to surround her life with pleasing and superfluous things, elegance, refinement, to give concrete form by way of objects to that appetite for beauty that her imagination, her sensibility, and her reading have aroused in her. Emma wants to know other worlds, other people; she refuses to reconcile herself to the prospect of spending the rest of her days hemmed in by the narrow horizons of Yonville; and she also wants her existence to be different and exciting, to ensure that adventure and risk, the magnificent gestures of generosity and sacrifice, will play a role in it. Emma’s rebellion is born of one conviction, the root of all her acts: I am not resigned to my lot, the dubious compensation of the beyond doesn’t matter to me, I want my life to be wholly and completely fulfilled here and now. A chimera no doubt lies at the heart of the destiny to which Emma aspires, above all if it becomes a collective pattern, a common human goal. No society can offer all its members such an existence; it is evident, moreover, that in order for communal life to be possible man must resign himself to keeping a close rein on his desires, to limiting that will to transgress that Georges Bataille called Evil. But Emma represents and defends, in an exemplary way, a side of our humanity that has been cruelly disavowed by almost all religions, philosophies, and ideologies, and made out by them to be a cause for shame shared by our entire species. Its repression has given rise to as great and as widespread unhappiness as have economic exploitation, religious sectarianism, or the thirst for conquest. With the passage of time, ever broader and broader sectors of society—including even the Church today—have come to recognize that man has the right to satisfy his hunger, to think and to express his ideas freely, to enjoy good health and a secure old age. But the same taboos as in Emma Bovary’s day still hold sway (and in this regard the right and the left are in total agreement and work hand in glove to enforce them)—taboos that universally deny men and women the right to pleasure, to the fulfillment of their desires. The story of Emma is that of a blind, stubborn, desperate rebellion against the social violence that stifles this right.

I remember having read, in the opening pages of a book by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, that violence is almost always beautiful as an image, that is to say, in art, and having felt more or less reassured thereby. I was seventeen years old at the time, and it frightened me to note that despite my peaceful nature, violence—whether implicit or explicit, refined or raw—was an indispensable requisite for a novel if it was to persuade me of its reality and arouse my enthusiasm. Those works that did not possess at least a little taste of violence seemed unreal to me (I have always preferred novels that pretend to be real, just as others prefer novels that pretend to be unreal), and as a general rule unreality bores me to death. Madame Bovary is steeped in violence, which manifests itself on many planes, ranging from the purely physical one of pain and blood (the operation, gangrene, and amputation of Hippolyte’s leg; Emma’s poisoning of herself) or the spiritual one of ruthless rapine down to the last sou (the merchant Lheureux), selfishness and cowardice (Rodolphe, Léon), to its social forms represented by the animalization of the human being through backbreaking labor and exploitation (covered with embarrassment and paralyzed with confusion amid the crowd at the agricultural fair, old Catherine Leroux, who has taken care of the animals on a farm for fifty-four years, receives a silver medal worth twenty-five francs; as she walks off, those standing near her hear her murmur that she is going to give it to the parish priest to pay him for saying Masses for her), and above all, in its most generalized form of stupidity and the insidious traps that men lay for themselves and one another: their prejudices, their envy, their intrigues. Against this background Emma’s fantasy, her hunger for a world different from the one that shatters her dreams, stand out like snow against pitch-black darkness. It is precisely the scene, the most violent one in the book, in which Madame Bovary meets her final defeat, by her own hand, that moves me most. I know by heart this chapter which begins with Emma walking, in the fading light of day, to Rodolphe’s château to try one last maneuver that may save her from ruin, from shame, from Charles’s forgiveness, which would force her to change, and which ends the following day as Emma enters death as one enters a nightmare, overcome by the vision of the Blind Man covered with purulent sores, as he crosses Yonville humming a vulgar song. These are pages marked by an amazing mastery of the art of narrative and by a terrible cruelty—Maître Sénard couldn’t have lost the case if he had shown what horrible punishment Emma’s sin met with, thanks to the hideous effects of the arsenic—effects that have given me simultaneous pain and pleasure, that have totally satisfied my literary penchant for sentimentality and sadism a hundred times over. Moreover, I owe this episode a special debt of gratitude, for reasons that are a secret between Emma and me. Quite a few years ago now, for the space of several weeks, I suffered from the feeling of a definite incompatibility with the world, a stubborn despair, a profound distaste for life. At one moment the idea of suicide crossed my mind; on another night I remember having hung about outside the offices of the Foreign Legion (the fateful influence of Beau Geste) near the Place Denfort-Rochereau, with the idea of inflicting upon myself a romantic punishment, by way of that most odious of institutions: fleeing everything, changing my name, my life, disappearing by taking up a rough and despicable occupation. The help lent me in this difficult period by the story of Emma, or rather, the death of Emma, is a debt I cannot possibly repay. I remember having read, during those days, the episode of her suicide with anxious, avid anticipation, having hastened to my reading and rereading of this scene as others in similar circumstances take to religion and the parish priest, to drinking, or to morphine, and having each time found consolation and a sense of proportion, a revulsion against chaos, a taste for life in those heartrending pages. The fictional suffering neutralized the suffering I was experiencing in real life. To help me, Emma each night entered the deserted château of La Huchette and was humiliated by Rodolphe: she wandered out into the fields, where pain and helplessness brought her for a moment to the brink of madness; slipped like an elf into Homais’s pharmacy, where Justin, innocence become death’s henchman, watched her swallow the arsenic in the half-shadow of the capharnaüm; went back home and suffered her unspeakable calvary: the inky taste in her mouth, the nausea, the chill in her feet, the shivering, the fingers clutching the sheets, the cold sweat on her forehead, the chattering of her teeth, the wildly rolling eyes, the howls of pain, the convulsions, the vomiting of blood, the tongue lolling out of her mouth, the death rattle. Each time my sadness and melancholy were mingled with a curious sense of relief, and each time the agonizing ceremony left me with a feeling of admiration, of elation: Emma was killing herself in order that I might live. On other occasions when I have been deeply upset, depressed, or simply in a bad mood, I have had recourse to this remedy and almost always it has had the same cathartic effect on me. This experience and others like it have convinced me that the theories defending edifying literature in terms of its results are highly debatable. It is not necessarily happy stories with an optimistic moral that raise the spirits and gladden the hearts of readers (virtues attributed in Peru to Vargas Pisco*); in some cases, as in mine, the somber beauty of stories as unhappy and pessimistic as Emma Bovary’s may achieve the same effect.

But Emma is not only a rebel plunged into a world of violence; she is also an overly sentimental, rather coarse young woman, and therefore a certain bad taste, a moderate touch of vulgarity appear in her story. I deeply appreciate these aberrations, I am irresistibly attracted by them, and despite the fact that I cannot bear literary melodrama in its pure state (though I am a devotee of melodramatic movies, and it may well be that this weakness of mine stems from the Mexican films to which I was addicted in the forties and fifties, and for which I still feel a keen nostalgia), when a novel is capable of using melodramatic materials within a broader context and with artistic talent, as is the case in Madame Bovary, my joy knows no bounds. To avoid a misunderstanding, I should perhaps explain my feelings in this regard. My fondness for melodrama has nothing to do with that disdainful, supercilious intellectual game that consists of aesthetically rehabilitating, by way of a lofty and intelligent interpretation, what is ignoble and stupid—as Hermann Broch did, for instance, with his concept of kitsch and Susan Sontag with camp—but, rather, a primarily emotional identification with this material, by which I mean a total obedience to its laws and an orthodox reaction to its excitement and its effects. Melodrama may not be precisely the right word to express what I am trying to say, since it has a connotation closely linked to theater, films, and the novel, and I am referring to something broader that is present above all in real things and real people. I am speaking here of a certain distortion or exacerbation of feeling, of the perversion of the recognized “good taste” of each era, of that heresy, counterpoint, deterioration (at once popular, middle-class, and aristocratic) to which, in every society, the aesthetic, linguistic, moral, social, and erotic patterns established by the elite as models fall victim; I am speaking of the mechanization and vulgarization to which emotions, ideas, human relations are subject in everyday life; I am speaking of the intrusion of the comic on the serious, the grotesque on the tragic, the absurd on the logical, the impure on the pure, the ugly on the beautiful, as a product of naïveté, ignorance, laziness, and routine. Each country, each social class, each generation comes up with its own particular variants of, its own particular contributions to, vulgarity (in Peru it is known as huachafería and is one of the realms in which we Peruvians have been truly creative), one of the most persistent and most universal forms of human expression. This material does not interest me intellectually but emotionally. A movie such as El último cuplé,* with all its elephantine stupidity, does not attract me as a spider attracts an entomologist, as a phenomenon to be examined under a magnifying glass, but rather because during the hour and a half that it is shown on the screen, this spiderweb is capable of trapping me in its threads exactly as the black widow catches the imprudent fornicator of her species in hers, and provokes in me an identification, a recognition similar to that experienced by Emma on attending a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor in Rouen (“The soprano’s voice seemed to her to be merely the echo of her own consciousness, and this illusion that charmed her part and parcel of her own life”). The thing is, however, that in the case of El último cuplé the effect vanishes the moment the cause disappears, reflection intervenes, and in the light of reason and a sense of proportion, stupidity blindingly reveals itself as sheer stupidity. But this happens—as in El derecho de nacer by Corín Tellado,

• or in Simplemente María†—because in this movie reality is only melodramatic, there is only bad taste in life: the exclusion of everything else creates a sense of unreality. This strong propensity of mine, I grant, is no doubt symptomatic of my basic realist fixation: the melodramatic element moves me because melodrama is closer to the real than drama, as tragicomedy is closer to the real than either pure comedy or pure tragedy. When a work of art includes, in addition to other aspects (which are its opposites) and intermingled with them, this vulgar, pathetic, parodic, base, alienated, and stupid side, and does so without taking an ironic distance from it, without establishing a tone of intellectual or moral superiority, with respect and sincerity (the medieval hero who makes little buns out of the fingernails and hair of his beloved and eats them, another who kisses the princess three times on the mouth in homage to the Most Holy Trinity, the swaggering romantic swordsman whose eyes grow wet with tears at the smell of violets, the pair of pink panties bought by the maidservant with her carefully hoarded pennies so as to impress the chauffeur), I feel precisely the same emotion as that aroused in me by the literary representation of rebellion and violence.

In Madame Bovary this aspect is apparent above all in the weaving together of episodes, situations, and characters drawn for the most part from the arsenal of the romantic novel—from the premonitory signs that all through the story announce the dire fate that awaits Emma, to figures such as the ragged Blind Man covered with sores, a symbol of tragic destiny, or Justin, another all-too-familiar nineteenth-century figure, the young lad secretly in love with the unattainable woman. It pleases me that Madame Bovary can also be read as a collection of clichés, that it is peopled with stock characters: that Lheureux the dry-goods merchant is greedy, anti-Semitic, and rapacious, that the notaries and functionaries are sordid and wicked, and the politicians garrulous, hypocritical, and ridiculous. But most of all I am charmed by the ambivalence shown by Emma, who coldly plans her acts of daring and excesses, is moved like a little ninny by the naïve books she reads, dreams of exotic countries dotted with picture-postcard scenes that are stereotypes of her day, gives the man she loves a signet ring that says Amor nel cor, asks him to “think of me at midnight,” and sometimes utters grandiloquent phrases (“There is no desert, abyss, ocean I wouldn’t cross with you”) that irritate the practical Rodolphe. I am delighted by the cheap-serial coincidences of the novel, such as the marvelous one during Emma’s and Léon’s outing on the river, just after they become lovers, when the boatman remembers having taken out, a few days before, a party of ladies and gentlemen who drank champagne, and Emma, with a shudder, discovers that one of them was Rodolphe; or that ineffable image of Charles Bovary tenderly smelling and admiring the bouquet of violets that Léon has given Emma after possessing her. I am haunted by the scene of Justin, alone, sobbing in the shadows alongside Madame Bovary’s tomb, and I find it touching that Emma, when the world begins to cave in on her, tosses to a beggar the last five francs she has left to her name, and naturally I find it a perfect touch that the episode of the fiacre ride ends simply with a woman’s ungloved hand scattering to the four winds the torn bits of the letter breaking with her lover that she had intended to give him.

On April 24, 1852, Flaubert, who had just read a novel by Lamartine (Graziella), writes to Louise: “And first of all, to put the matter bluntly, does he fuck her or doesn’t he? The pair of them aren’t human beings, they’re mannequins. How beautiful these love stories are where the principal thing is so surrounded by mystery that one doesn’t know what in the world is going on, sexual intercourse being systematically relegated to the shadow along with drinking, eating, pissing, etc! This partiality irritates me no end. Here’s a strapping young fellow who is living with a woman who loves him and whom he loves, and never a desire! Not a single impure cloud ever appears to darken this pale blue lake! Had he told the real story, it would have been even more beautiful! But truth demands hairier males than Monsieur de Lamartine. It is easier in fact to draw an angel than a woman: the wings hide the hunched back.”* I have very often had precisely the same reaction to a story: a novel that leaves out sexual experience annoys me as much as one that reduces life exclusively to sexual experience (although the latter irritates me less than the former; I have already said that among forms of unreality I prefer the most concrete one). I need to know whether the hero excites the heroine (and vice versa), and in order for these protagonists to seem lifelike to me, it is indispensable that I be caught up in their mutual excitement. The treatment of sex constitutes one of the most delicate problems in fiction; along with politics it is perhaps the most difficult subject of all to deal with. Since in both cases author and reader alike bring to the narrative such a heavy load of prejudices and stubborn convictions, it is hard to pretend to be natural and spontaneous, to “invent” themes dealing with these subjects, to make them autonomous: one inevitably tends to take sides for or against something, to present arguments instead of showing. Just as, according to certain theologians, a majority of men go to hell by way of their trousers fly, a great number of novels are plunged into unreality by the same route. No other theme so patently demonstrates Flaubert’s mastery as his dosage and distribution of the erotic in Madame Bovary. Sex lies at the base of what happens; along with money it is the key to the conflicts of the novel, and sexual and economic life are so intimately interwoven that one cannot understand the one unless one understands the other. Nonetheless, in order to get around the restrictions of the period (the sinister puritanism imposed by men of the cloth in the Second Empire brought before the bar of justice the two great books of that era: Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du mal) and at the same time avoid the risk of giving the book an air of unreality by its total absence, sex is frequently present but hidden, cunningly bathing the episodes in sensuality from the shadows (Justin tremblingly contemplates Madame Bovary’s intimate undergarments; Léon adores her gloves; after Emma’s death, Charles relieves his tensions by acquiring the objects that she would have liked to possess), although at other times it parades in private triumph: the unforgettable scene of Emma letting her long hair down for Léon like a consummate courtesan, or preparing her person for lovemaking with all the refinements and foresightedness that the Egyptian houri Kuchuk Hanem must have possessed. Sex occupies a central place in the novel because that is the place it occupies in life, and Flaubert was out to imitate reality. Unlike Lamartine, therefore, he did not dissolve in a halo of spirituality and lyricism a phenomenon that is also biological; yet at the same time he did not reduce love to the merely biological. He made every possible effort to paint a love that, on the one hand, would be sentiment, poetry, gesture, and on the other (more discreetly), erection and orgasm. On September 19, 1852, he wrote to Louise: “The good old sex organ is the basis of human affection; it is not itself affection, but rather its substratum, as philosophers would say. No woman has ever loved a eunuch, and if mothers cherish their children more than fathers do, it is because they are the fruit of their womb and the umbilical cord of their love remains attached to their hearts without being severed.” This philosophy, which with Freud will attain scientific respectability, pervades the entire story of Emma Bovary. The “good old sex organ” sheds light on the behavior and the psychology of the characters and frequently fuels the advancement of the plot. The discouragement, the restlessness that little by little turn Emma into an adulteress are a result of her frustration as a wife, and this frustration is largely sexual. The officier de santé is no match for Emma and her ardent temperament, and the infrequent nights of lovemaking that fails to satisfy her precipitate her fall. Precisely the opposite happens to Charles. This beautiful, refined young woman makes him so happy (he who has so few expectations in this regard, having come to her from the bony arms of Héloise, an old hag whose ice-cold feet made him shiver when he climbed into bed) that, ironically, she kills his ambition, puts an end to his striving to better himself: since he already has everything, why seek anything more? His sexual contentment explains in large part his blindness, his conformism, his stubborn mediocrity.

In the same letter to Louise in which he comments on Lamartine’s novel, Flaubert sums up, in rather vulgar terms, his opinion of women: “They are not honest with themselves; they do not acknowledge their sensuality; they confuse their cunts with their hearts and think that the moon’s reason for being is to light their bedrooms” (Correspondance, vol. II, p. 401). I fail to see why the same thing couldn’t be said of men; they, too, are in the habit of being dishonest with themselves, of hiding their sensuality from themselves, and of mistaking their “cunts” (or the equivalent) for their hearts. Emma, however, tries to make what she can of herself within the “limitations” set upon her life, and by turning vice into virtue, the rule into the exception, breaks the bonds of the conditioning to which her person (her sex) has been subjected and sets in motion a process that is unquestionably an obscure, instinctive process of self-liberation. It is impossible not to admire Emma’s capacity for sexual pleasure; once stimulated and educated by Rodolphe, she surpasses her teacher and her second lover, and from Part Two, Chapter IX on, envelops the novel in a passionate eroticism. As in the libertine literature of the eighteenth century (Flaubert was an enthusiastic reader of the Marquis de Sade), love is linked to religion or, rather, to the Church and the trappings of worship. Emma’s sexual awakening takes place in a school run by nuns, at the foot of altars, amid the incense of religious ceremonies (a fact that made public prosecutor Pinard apoplectic), and her first rendezvous with Léon, which sets both of them on fire and precedes the great erotic scene in the fiacre, takes place, at Emma’s suggestion, in the cathedral of Rouen. In accordance with a system of communicating vessels whereby the erotic is suffused with religiosity and religion with eroticism, the seduction is intertwined with the description of the beauties and treasures of the cathedral reeled off by the guide to this couple who are about to become lovers. One of the critical judgments that keep cropping up with regard to Emma (beginning with Maître Sénard and Flaubert himself) is that she is an unfortunate creature who deserves our pity. In reality, her fate is more human and desirable than that of those industrious procreating wombs, the women of Yonville—Madame Langlois, Madame Caron, Madame Dubreuil, Madame Tuvache, Madame Homais—who seem to be alive only to fulfill certain domestic functions and who are doubtless persuaded, like Emma’s mother-in-law, that women ought not to read novels, for if they do they risk becoming flighty, irresponsible évaporées. Although she dies a terrible death at a young age because she has the courage to accept herself for what she is, Emma at least has profound experiences that the virtuous bourgeois housewives of Yonville, in their existence as humdrum and circumscribed as that of their hens and their dogs, have no notion of. I am pleased that, instead of stifling her senses, Emma did her best to indulge them, that she had no qualms about mistaking “cul” for “coeur” (the two of them are, in fact, close relatives), and that she was capable of believing that the moon existed only to light her bedroom.

It is not as a cold observer that the presence of sex in a novel interests me; if I am going to study the subject I prefer a manual. Every time a problem of censorship arises, those pleading in defense of the banned book base their case on certain fundamental arguments (such as those, for instance, put forward by Maître Sénard in rebuttal of Maître Pinard’s requisitory) that are hypocritical: that the literary description of sexual acts and organs, the invention of erotic situations have as their avowed aim the furthering of science, the education of readers, or their moral edification (depicting sin in order to combat it); or that the beauty of the form has so sublimated the sexual content that this latter can only provoke the loftiest of spiritual pleasures; or that only commercial pornography seeks to excite readers, a function incompatible with genuine literature. What humbug! In my case, no novel arouses my fervent enthusiasm, holds me spellbound, fulfills me, unless it acts, if only to a slight degree, as an erotic stimulant. I have noted that my excitement is all the more profound when the sexual element is neither exclusive nor dominant, but instead complemented by other materials, integrated in a complex and diverse vital context, as happens in real life: a book by Sade, where the obsession with a single theme devitalizes sex and turns it into something mental, excites me less, for example, than the (very few) erotic episodes in Balzac’s Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (I remember above all the two pairs of knees rubbing against each other in a carriage), or those found here and there in the pages of The Thousand and One Nights in Dr. Mardrus’s version. In Madame Bovary the erotic element is basic, but even though Flaubert wanted to tell all, he was obliged to take precautions in order to avoid the risk of censorship (and not only official censorship: his own friend, the writer Maxime Du Camp, was in favor of the cuts in the text made by the Revue de Paris). But the fact that the sex in the book is more implicit than explicit does not mean that the details that are not revealed, the events present in the narrative precisely because they are not described, are any the less effective thereby. The erotic climax of the novel is an inspired hiatus, a sleight-of-hand trick of genius that contrives to give the material hidden from the reader the maximum possible charge. I am referring to the interminable journey through the streets of Rouen in the fiacre, inside which Emma is giving herself to Léon for the first time. It is remarkable that the most imaginative erotic episode in French literature does not contain a single allusion to the female body or a single word of love, that it is simply an enumeration of the names of streets and places, the description of the aimless wandering back and forth through the town of an old coach for hire. But it is not only the erotic silences of Madame Bovary that I remember best. I am also thinking of the Thursdays at the Hôtel de Boulogne, in the port district of Rouen, where the trysts with Léon take place, when all the elements of tragedy are closing in on Emma and her feeling of imminent peril, her intuition that catastrophe is not far off appear to heighten her sensuality. I have waited for her countless times in that cozy room. I have seen her arrive, each time “plus enflammée, plus avide” I have heard the snake-like hiss as her corset lace falls to the floor, I have spied on her running to the door on tiptoe to make certain that it is locked, and then, with indescribable joy, I have watched her strip naked and come, pale and grave, into Léon Dupuis’s arms.

It is curious that, in all of the enormous Flaubertian bibliography that exists, no addict has as yet produced a research paper entitled “Flaubert and Shoe Fetishism,” since there is more than enough material for such a study. I offer here a sample of the data I have chanced to come across. Albert Thibaudet tells us that, as a child, Flaubert often fell into rapt contemplation of a woman’s button boots,* and hence the scene in Madame Bovary in which Justin begs her maid’s permission to polish Emma’s ankle boots, which the boy handles with reverent love, as though they were sacred objects, is more or less autobiographical. Sartre points out the passage in which, for the first time in Flaubert’s works, the theme of footwear appears (one “si important dans la vie et l’oeuvre de Flaubert,” he adds, though he has no more to say on the subject: one of the many loose ends never tied up in his Cyclopean essay)†: the lines in Chapter IX of Mémoires d’un fou in which Flaubert delicately describes a beautiful woman’s foot: “…her adorable tiny foot sheathed in a pretty high-heeled shoe trimmed with a black rose.” It is a well-known fact, moreover, that Flaubert kept in a drawer of his desk, along with letters from his mistress and certain garments and objects belonging to her, the mules that Louise Colet had worn on their first night of love and that, as he frequently writes to her in his letters, he often took out to caress and kiss.

The theme of feet and footwear often crops up in his correspondence, at times in a most curious way. There is extant, for example, a letter of his to Louise, penned in Trouville on August 26, 1853, in which he tells her, jokingly, that if he were a professor at the Collège de France he would give “…a course on the important subject of Boots as compared with literature. Yes, a Boot is a world, I would say, etc.” This whole long letter is a divertimento on the subject, consisting of several pages of surprising, ingenious, and vaguely perverted ramblings (the footgear in question here is masculine) on the shoe as a symbol of cultures, civilizations, and historical eras—China, Greece, the Middle Ages, Louis XV—and as emblems of books and authors—Corneille, La Bruyère, Boileau, Bossuet, Molière, and so on. All this is doubtless a game, but a disquieting one, symptomatic of an uncommon inclination: what allows him to fantasize with such great erudition on this particular theme reveals that in his reading and his observations he has always been very much aware of the appearance of this member, the foot, and its social envelope, footwear.

Another letter to Louise, written a few days before, is further proof of this. Having recently arrived at Trouville to spend a holiday, Gustave has gone down the beach to “watch the ladies bathing.” His letter (dated August 14, 1853) tells of his astonishment at seeing how ugly these women look in the shapeless sacks they hide themselves in and the bathing caps they stuff their hair into to take a dip in the water; but what depresses him even more is what they leave visible, namely, their feet. “And their feet! red, skinny, with corns and bunions, deformed by their button boots, feet as long as shuttles or as broad as washerwomen’s paddles.” There is no doubting the fact: Flaubert was a connoisseur of feet. And it is significant that the name of the supreme father of foot fetishism—a phenomenon which in fact has been named after him—whose voluminous autobiographical oeuvre as a novelist revolves around this delicate feminine extremity and the footwear in which it is encased, appears as a scribbled notation in Flaubert’s manuscripts of Madame Bovary preserved in the Municipal Library of Rouen: the picaresque melody that the Blind Man of the novel sings was taken from a book by Restif de la Bretonne.

In any event, this demon rears its head in Madame Bovary, where women’s feet and women’s shoes are very important in the erotic life of male characters.* I have already mentioned the spell cast over Justin by the sight of Emma’s shoes; at another point the narrator tells us that Léon, who has wearied of Emma, tries to free himself of her hold on him, but that “…on hearing the creak of her button shoes, he felt his resolve weaken, like a drunkard at the sight of strong drink.” During Emma’s meeting with Maître Guillaumin, the notary to whom she has gone to ask for help in paying her debts, his senses are stirred and he apparently has in mind taking advantage of his beautiful visitor and having his way with her when his knee brushes against “…her shoes, the sole of which was curling and smoking as it rested against the stove.” When Emma leaves, sickened by the notary’s baseness, the latter stands there like an idiot, “…his eyes staring at his handsome carpet slippers,” which were “a love-gift.” The first time that Léon sees Emma, who has just come to Yonville, Madame Bovary is standing in front of the fireplace tucking up her skirts so as to warm “her foot sheathed in a black button shoe.” And on the day of the horseback ride together, which will end with their making love, Rodolphe notes admiringly “…between the black cloth and the little black boot, her delicate white stocking, which seemed like a bit of her naked flesh.” When Emma, at the height of her passionate affair with Rodolphe, is at her most radiantly beautiful, it is not surprising that the narrator, in describing her dazzling charms, states that “…a subtle, penetrating aura emanated even from the folds of her dress and the arch of her foot.” In the early manuscript drafts of Madame Bovary, we discover that even Charles was a connoisseur. In one passage, which Flaubert later discarded, the officier de santé contemplates Emma’s feet as she lies dying and is being given extreme unction, and suddenly he is overwhelmed by erotic memories; he sees himself once again in his mind’s eye on his wedding day, undoing the laces of Emma’s white shoes as “…he trembled at the dizzying thought that soon he would possess her.” And indeed, the first symptoms of emotion that Charles displays on seeing Emma are of a fetishist nature: they are provoked by the wooden shoes that Père Rouault’s daughter is wearing. The narrator is nothing if not explicit: he states that Charles used to be happy at the thought of visiting Les Bertaux because these powerful magnets drew him to the Rouault farm: “…he liked the sound of Mademoiselle Emma’s little wooden clogs on the scrubbed stone flags of the kitchen; their thick heels made her just a bit taller, and when she walked in front of him, the wooden soles, clacking swiftly along, hit against the leather of her shoe inside with a sharp slapping noise.” The theme is omnipresent, with different emotional overtones: sometimes sensual, sometimes overpowering, and in the end even worshipful, as the Abbé Bournisien anoints with the holy oil “…the soles of her feet, which once ran so quickly to quench her desires, and which now would never walk again.” But in all this gallery of references, the one I cherish most, and the one that lingers longest in my mind, is the description of Emma’s “mignarde chaussure”—a little embroidered pink satin slipper—which dangles from the instep of her tiny foot as she hops into her lover’s lap in the cozy room in the Hôtel de Boulogne.

But on dissociating the indissociable, I know that I am falsifying: what is important is not that Madame Bovary contains these ingredients, but rather, that they are so intimately combined as to constitute a whole that is thereby more than the sum of its parts. Rebellion—vulgarity—violence—sex: it is form that makes this indivisible content what it is.

While still under the sway of the enormous impression the novel had made on me, I immediately proceeded to read, one after the other like episodes in a serial, all the other books by Flaubert in the Gamier edition of his works, bound in yellow paper covers. All of them moved me, some more and some less, and made me a definite addict. I remember a number of Olympian discussions I had, in that summer of ’59, with friends who laughed when I heatedly asserted that “Salammbô is a masterpiece, too.” Everyone agrees today that this book is dated, and no one can help yawning or smiling on reading this story of the young woman who committed the sacrilege of touching the veil of Tanit, what with all its operatic décors and the Technicolor “antiquity” somewhat reminiscent of a Cecil B. De Mille production. There is no denying that a good part of the novel is dated, a product of the worst sort of romanticism: the hollow, cliché-ridden story of the love of Mathô and the daughter of Hamilcar, for instance. But there is another side of this work that has lost none of its power and vigor: its epic dimension, the crowd scenes, which no other novelist except Tolstoy has brought off as well as Flaubert. (In Madame Bovary there is a major example of this mastery in the chapter on the agricultural fair: the entire town of Yonville is present, almost all the characters who have appeared previously circulate about and speak, and the synthesis of the general and particular, the alternation of the collective and the individual, are impeccable.) The banquets, the fêtes, the ceremonies and rituals in Salammbô—the unforgettable, hallucinatory sacrifice of the children to Moloch—and, above all, the battle scenes are still possessed of a dynamism, a plasticity, an elegance that have not been seen since in literature. (We do find these qualities, on the other hand, in films, in the great Westerns of John Ford, for instance—another precocious vice to which I remain addicted.) But even though I liked all of Flaubert’s other works, the only one that made as profound an impression on me as Madame Bovary was L’Education sentimentale. For a long time I considered it the greatest of Flaubert’s novels, because it was his most ambitious one, and to a certain degree this is a valid opinion: what in Madame Bovary is a woman and a town is a generation and a society in L’Education sentimentale. The whole is richer, we find in it a more complex variety of social types and a broader historical perspective, a more diversified representation of life, and, from the point of view of form, an equally striking originality, an equally spellbinding magic. And yet…the cast of characters in L’Education sentimentale, despite being so varied and so splendid, includes no figure comparable to Madame Bovary. The timid Frédéric Moreau and the elusive, maternal Madame Arnoux are admirable characters, but neither they nor the fauna surrounding them—the bankers, artists, industrialists, courtesans, journalists, workers, aristocrats—withstand comparison with Emma, for none of them in the end constitutes a human type in the Cervantine or Shakespearean sense that Flaubert himself defined so well: “What distinguishes great geniuses is generalization and creation. They sum up scattered personalities in a type and bring new characters to the awareness of mankind” (letter to Louise Colet, September 25, 1852). This is the case with Emma Bovary. Like Don Quixote or Hamlet, she sums up in her tormented personality and her less than glorious life story a certain permanent attitude toward life, capable of appearing in the most diverse guises in different places and different eras. And while it is a universal and enduring story, it is at the same time one of the most personal attempts to define the limits of the human, that quest from which all the heroic feats and all the cataclysms of mankind have derived: the capacity to fabricate illusions and the mad determination to make them real. Salammbô, Saint Antoine, Bouvard and Pécuchet, Saint Julien 1’Hospitalier also harbor extraordinary illusions and formidable wills bent on realizing their chimerical fantasies, but their ambitions have to do with God or Science: Emma’s utopia, by contrast, is strictly human. On the morning of May 22, 1853, Flaubert wrote to Louise: “The measure of a soul is the dimension of its desire, as one forms one’s preconceptions of a cathedral by the height of its bell tower.” His greatest glory may have been to have created, in the vulgar, fickle, fictional figure of Emma Bovary, the best demonstration of this truth, one of the bell towers that dominate the vast flat plain of human existence.

In 1962 I began to read Flaubert’s Correspondance. I remember the exact date; I had just earned some money from a novel I had written, and my first investment was the purchase, in a bookstore in Tours, of the thirteen volumes published by Conard. Apart from the interest in following step by step such a difficult and harsh human life, and the excitement that the Flaubert addict* finds on retracing the Homeric gestation of his works day by day as described by the author himself, discovering at first hand what his readings, his hatreds, his frustrations were, experiencing the sensation of having broken through the barriers of time and space and entered his circle of intimates, the witnesses of his life—Du Camp, Bouilhet, Louise, George Sand, his niece Caroline—I believe that Flaubert’s correspondence constitutes the best possible friend for a budding writer with a literary vocation, the most profitable example a young writer can have as he embarks upon the destiny he has chosen. Those who have read them will find it odd that I use the word “stimulating” to characterize letters in which the gloomiest pessimism reigns, in which curses against mankind in general and a great many men in particular sputter, in which humanity appears, with very few exceptions (almost all of them writers), to be a grotesque, vulgar lot. But while the great man gave vent to the nervousness and fatigue accumulated during the ten or twelve preceding hours of work* in these boiling fits of fury, the letters demonstrate better than anything else the humanity of his genius, how his talent was an inch-by-inch conquest, how, in the task of creation, the writer is left entirely to his own devices—to his misfortune (no one is going to come whisper the right adjective, the felicitous adverb in his ear), but also to his good fortune, because if he is capable of emulating the patience and persistence that these letters reveal, if he is capable of dissecting himself in vivo, as Flaubert was, in the end he too, like this vociferous old provincial bachelor, will succeed in creating something lasting. Pettiness and poverty that gradually become nobility and abundance, the process wherein perseverance and conviction play such an important role, can be a marvelous incentive for a writer, a powerful antidote against discouragement. It has been at times when I was having the most difficulties writing that I have most often turned to Flaubert’s letters (skipping about, and continually cursing his niece Caroline for having insisted that cuts be made in the Correspondance), and invariably they have had a tonic effect on me.†

I am a literary fetishist: I delight in visiting the houses, graves, libraries of writers whom I admire, and if I could also collect their vertebrae to venerate, as believers collect those of saints, I would do so with the greatest of pleasure. (In Moscow, I remember, I was the only one, among a group of those invited on a well-nigh endless Tolstoy pilgrimage, to make the entire circuit without despairing, the only one to enjoy nosing about among all the memorabilia, from slippers and samovars to the last goose-quill pen.) I have not forgotten how disappointing my visit to Croisset was. We had first gone to Rouen, with Jorge Edwards, to have a look at the scene of Gustave’s childhood, the Hôtel-Dieu, imagining the autopsy room, wanting to believe that over there was the very window through which he and his sister used to watch their father meticulously dissecting cadavers, and then we had strolled through the cemetery without finding the writer’s grave, and we thought that Croisset would be exactly the right crowning touch for this Sunday visit to Flaubert country. What we found was a miserable image of the man: the house had been torn down and a factory erected on the site; the atmosphere was ugly and oppressive, with chimneys belching forth black smoke; the river had been dammed and no longer flowed past the house; piles of coal were visible everywhere, and the air was full of soot. The museum was simply the one remaining outbuilding, in which visitors could see a stuffed parrot that had served Flaubert as a model for Un Coeur simple and one of the carved stone slabs he had brought back from Tunis when he was writing Salammbô. There were also a few yellowed photographs. Everything was sordid and sad, and the only thing that moved us was our walk down the famous “alleé des gueulades,” the little lane shaded by trees (“the same ones,” the guide insisted) to which the Norman giant—hunting down assonances, consonances, maddening cacophonies—was in the habit of repairing each afternoon to bellow out the phrases he had composed the night before.

A lover enamored of truth does not limit himself to taking his pleasure with his beloved, but, as was required in the Middle Ages, he orders his entire life around this love and does battle for his lady whenever called upon. (Late 1960. A heated discussion with a Bolivian friend whose parting words were: “You won’t give an inch when it comes to Cuba or Flaubert.” Fourteen years later, I am more tolerant of criticism of the Cuban revolution; I am as intransigent as ever, on the other hand, when the subject under discussion is Flaubert.) My addiction led me to devour not only all Flaubert’s works but all the critical or parasitical literature concerning him that came my way, and Flaubert has served in many instances as the thermometer by which I have measured other authors, the factor that has determined my eventual enthusiastic acceptance or my rejection of a given writer. I am certain, for instance, that my loathing for Barbey d’Aurevilly stems from his attacks on Flaubert, that the same reason underlies my scant sympathy for Valéry or Claudel (who called the consummately beautiful beginning of Salammbô the dullest prose in all of French literature), and that my sudden change of mind regarding Henry James, whose slow-moving novels had always sorely tried my patience, began when I read his intelligent essay on Flaubert. My lack of respect for journalistic literary criticism is due largely to my having become acquainted, thanks to the devoted labors of René Dumesnil, with what newspapers and reviews of the time had to say when Flaubert’s books first appeared; and my conviction that, generally speaking, creative writers have had a greater flair than critics for detecting what is genuinely new is largely based on Baudelaire’s review of Madame Bovary. I should also like to mention here Ezra Pound’s bold statement, in his ABC of Reading (which made my heart leap for joy, as the saying goes, when I came across it) to the effect that, unlike the poet, who must read a great long list of authors beginning with Homer if he is to have an adequate background for the practice of his craft, the prose writer may simply begin with the author of Bouvard et Pécuchet.

The critics of Flaubert’s day were unfair to him and shortsighted. Even Madame Bovary, which was a popular success—due in large part to the trial, which gave it the reputation of a “scandalous” book—was mercilessly attacked by the penny-a-liner Paris literary columnists, but in the case of this novel at least, Sainte-Beuve and a handful of other critics realized its merits. Flaubert’s other books were totally misunderstood, however, and provoked what amounted to mutiny among literary columnists (some sort of dubious record was achieved by Barbey d’Aurevilly, who declared La Tentation de Saint Antoine to be as indigestible as Faust, Part II), wherein envy and bad faith, along with ignorance and insensitivity, played a role. The following generation, on the other hand, claimed Flaubert as one of its own, and though he himself always declined to occupy the lofty place that Zola and the naturalists had set aside for him, it nonetheless considered him a master. But after this period French littérateurs scorned Flaubert—Claudel was no exception—and until the 1950s writers and critics more or less gave the impression that they remembered Flaubert only to denigrate him. The existentialists, convinced that literature is a form of action and that it is the writer’s duty to participate in the battles of his time with every weapon at his command, beginning with his pen, could scarcely tolerate Flaubert’s fanatic concern for form, his haughty isolation, his art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic, his lofty disdain for politics. Forgetting that what is essential in Flaubert is the work and not his temperament and his personal opinions, the antipathy they felt toward this hermit of Croisset, who did battle with words as the world came tumbling down about his ears, was extended to his novels as well. This attitude finds its most exacerbated expression in Sartre’s remarks about Flaubert in Situations II, an essay that I had read with fervor years before becoming addicted to the master of Croisset and that retroactively aroused in me a sort of anxiety attack, a clash of loyalties.

During the 1960s, the appraisal of Flaubert in France changed radically; scorn and neglect suddenly gave way to rescue, praise, worship of him as a cult figure. The French became addicts at the same time I did, and half pleased and half jealous, I saw the passion for Flaubert spread in those convulsive years of Gaullism, the Algerian war, the OAS, and for me, between writing and preparing radio broadcasts (I was earning my daily bread by working for the ORTF*), a work schedule that kept me on the go from morning to night. I remember clearly the satisfaction—as though a member of my family or a personal friend had been the one thus honored—with which I read François-Régis Bastide’s preface to the new edition of La Première éducation sentimentale, published by Seuil, an early version of the novel that up to that time had been known only to university students and professors, and I would not have hesitated a second to post the last words of Bastide’s preface on the door of my house: “We already realized it, but now we realize it once and for all: the real Boss is Flaubert.”

In contemporary French literature, the engageés were succeeded by that heterogeneous group of novelists referred to by critics under the bushel-basket title of practitioners of the “Nouveau Roman.” Although I found almost all of them extremely boring, with the exception of Samuel Beckett (he was included in the group because he was published by the same house), who also bored me but at the same time gave me the impression that in his case something lay behind all the tedium, I was always well disposed toward them because they proclaimed to the four winds how important an influence Flaubert had had on the modern novel. The first one to offer a theoretical analysis of this link was not a novelist, however, but a scholar, Geneviève Bollème, who in 1964 published an essay, “La Leçon de Flaubert,” pointing out those aspects of the work of the author of Madame Bovary on which the new narrators had based their own experiments: the concern for aesthetic values, the obsession with description, the autonomy of the text—in other words, Flaubertian “formalism.” Her essay was a practical demonstration of a bold hypothesis: that in all of Flaubert, and in Madame Bovary in particular, what is most essential is the description, that it deliberately destroys the narrative line, that “describing” rather than “telling a story” was for him the only experience capable of expressing “the movements of life.” It was an extremely clever way of erecting a bridge between Flaubert and the New Novelists, all of whom were merciless describers and rather apathetic storytellers. In interviews, articles, or lectures, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Claude Simon had recognized Flaubert as a precursor of modernity. But it was Nathalie Sarraute, in a brilliant and tendentious article entitled “Flaubert le précurseur,” published in the review Preuves (February 1965), who took it upon herself to crown him officially as master of the New Novel. As I read it in a bistro in Saint-Germain, I was thunderstruck. I was pleased by certain statements (“At this moment, the master of all of us is Flaubert. As to this name the consensus is unanimous: it is that of the precursor of today’s novel”), but when the article went on to explain the reasons for his status as the principal forerunner of the New Novel, I thought I was dreaming. Taking out of context a paragraph from a letter to Louise (“What seems beautiful to me, what I would like to write, is a book about nothing, a book with no attachments to the outside world, which would be self-sustaining thanks to the internal force of its style, as the earth holds itself in the void without being supported, a book that would have almost no subject, or one at any rate in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible”), Nathalie Sarraute confused this desire expressed by Flaubert with the reality of his work and arrived at the following extraordinary conclusion: “Books about nothing, almost without a subject, free of characters, plot, and all the old props, reduced to the sort of pure movement that makes them kin to abstract art.”It would have been difficult to distort Flaubert’s meaning any more drastically; Borges’s phrase according to which every author creates his precursors has never been truer. But in the last analysis a reader has a right to find in what he reads what he himself has put there. Nathalie Sarraute’s quotation is taken from a letter written when Flaubert was laboring over Madame Bovary, and anyone who has followed the process of development of this novel or the others knows how scrupulous Flaubert was about every detail of the story—the situations, the background, the characters, the peripeteias—and how carefully he mapped out the plot. It would not be difficult to cite hundreds of passages from the Correspondance demonstrating how important he considered the subject matter (he called this “the ideas” of a novel), as is quite evident, for example, from his opinion of Lamartine’s Graziella. It is more reasonable to take his desire to write “a book about nothing, a book with no attachments to the outside world,” as being, on the one hand, a fit of enthusiasm for the style of a novel and, on another hand, as yet another defense of the autonomy of fiction—everything in a novel, its truth and its falsehood, its seriousness or its banality, is a product of the form shaping its content—yet another statement of the necessity for a novel to be persuasive in and of itself, that is to say, through its use of words and technique and not through its fidelity to the outside world (although he was well aware that once the book is in the hands of the reader, this comparison is inevitable, inasmuch as the latter can appreciate, understand, judge the book only in terms of that outside world of which he is a part). The quotation cited by Nathalie Sarraute is an argument in favor of narrative objectivity, not a negation of the narrative element in a novel. If she had gone on searching through the Correspondance, she would have found that a year and five months after the sentence she cites, Flaubert wrote—again to Louise—this other sentence that begins by taking up precisely the same idea (books about nothing) once again, only to correct it and complete it in the opposite sense: “I should like to compose books in such a way that the only thing necessary would be to write sentences (if I may put it that way), just as in order to live the only thing necessary is to breathe. I thoroughly dislike having to bother with the tricks of organizing, the combination of effects, all the calculations of the underpinnings, and yet they are Art, for the stylistic effect depends on them, and on them alone” (letter written June 26, 1853—my italics). All this is as plain as day: the exciting part for Flaubert was polishing the style, choosing the words, solving the problems presented by nouns and adjectives, euphony, rhythm. He was less fond of all the rest of it—the “tricks of organizing,” the “combinations of effects,” the “calculations of the underpinnings” are, obviously, the problems having to do with facts, the order of the events that make up the story, the organization of the subject matter of the novel within a temporal system—but he did not deny that these concerns were artistic or important. On the contrary, he states that the “stylistic effect” depends on all these things, and adds, categorically: and on them alone. An author may not have the slightest conscious awareness of the full import of his work, and it might very well be that Flaubert, by yearning to write novels that were simply words, books without a story, contributed to the modern novel by way of inventions that have as much to do with narrative technique—the “montage” of the story—as with the use of words, or perhaps even more. But it gives me great satisfaction to be able to prove that this is not in fact the case; besides being a great storyteller in practice, Flaubert had a crystal-clear idea of the importance of plot in fictional narration and was even persuaded that the effectiveness of prose (whereby he meant its beauty) depended exclusively on it. Having come across this quotation, which corroborates my own idea of the novel, is one of the pleasures the Correspondance has brought me, in these days when so many narrators savagely attack the “story” in fiction; another pleasure, more personal still, is the happiness with which I, like any admirer of Amadis de Gaule and Tirant lo Blanc, discovered that Flaubert had once written: “You know that it has long been one of my dreams to write a romance of chivalry. I think this could be done, even after Ariosto, by introducing an element of terror and of sweeping poetry that is missing in him. But is there anything I don’t yearn to write? Is there any lust of the pen that does not excite me?” (Correspondance, Vol. II, p. 245).

But the important thing is that, even though critics were looking at him through more or less distorting lenses, Flaubert was rapidly becoming a key figure in modern literature. Not all the distortions came from the formalist contingent. Almost at the same time as the article by Nathalie Sarraute—rightist deviationism—I read, with equal astonishment, in Recherches Soviétiques (Cahier 6, 1956), the translation of an essay by a member of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., A. F. Ivachtchenko, who offered a leftist-deviationist interpretation: Flaubert had turned out to be one of the fathers of critical realism!

And in these same years, Sartre began to devote himself to what may be considered a laborious, monumental autocriticism. Between his summary judgment of Flaubert in Situations II and his effort to situate him in his family, social, and historical milieu in a “totalizing” interpretation which, by recalling Marx, Freud, and existentialism, would constitute a complete analysis of the social and individual aspects of creation,* Sartre’s attitude toward Flaubert changed considerably: a shift from scorn to respect, to a determination to understand him that is radically different from his initial ukase. This process culminated in the three volumes of L’Idiot de la famille (Sartre announced a fourth one, dedicated to Madame Bovary, but it remains unfinished, as has happened with other series of works of his), which represent the apotheosis of the interest in Flaubert that has characterized French literature of the seventies. This most intransigent of Flaubert’s critics, the sworn enemy of what he stood for in terms of his attitude toward history and art, devotes twenty years of his life and three thousand pages to the study of his “case” and acknowledges that the master of Croisset, along with Baudelaire, was a founding father of the modern sensibility. Happily for me, this reconciliation solved a personal problem. Sartre is one of the authors to whom I feel most deeply indebted, and at one time I admired his writings almost as much as Flaubert’s. As the years have gone by, however, his creative works have slowly faded in my memory, and his pronouncements concerning literature and the role of the writer, which at one time I regarded as articles of faith, seem to me today to be unpersuasive—to my mind his most penetrating and most enduring works are the essays devoted to Baudelaire and Genet, his polemical writings, and his articles. His moral stature, on the other hand, has little by little assumed gigantic proportions for me amid all the crises and dilemmas of these difficult years, in view of the lucidity, the forthright sincerity, and the youthful courage with which he has confronted not only Fascism, conservatism, and bourgeois snares and pitfalls but also the authoritarianism and dogmatism of the left.

I am not an overly enthusiastic admirer of L’Idiot de la famille; the book is of more interest to a Sartrean than to a Flaubertian; after the two months’ reading time that the essay requires, one is left with the feeling of a gigantic task that will never fulfill the aim announced in the preface—explaining the roots and the nature of Flaubert’s vocation, through an interdisciplinary investigation in which all the human sciences of our time will be called upon to demonstrate what they can tell us, today, about a man. It is of little moment if a literary essay—and Sartre’s work is that only in part—strays from the subject at hand to speak of other matters, wherever and whenever the result will justify such divagations. But that is not what happens in L’Idiot de la famille: in the final analysis, one is left with an impression of atomization, of an archipelago of disconnected ideas, of a striking disproportion between the means employed and the end attained. An extraordinarily uneven book, there exist side by side in its pages the most penetrating analyses and the most luminous discoveries, on the one hand, and the most flagrant contradictions on the other. What is strange, in the case of such a fervent partisan of the concrete and the real as Sartre, is that a large part of the book is pure speculation, with a very tenuous anchor in reality. In the first volume, for example, the account of the relations between Gustave and his father, Dr. Flaubert, seems convincing and is supported by solid textual evidence; that of the relations between Flaubert and his sister Caroline, firstly, and between Gustave and Alfred Le Poittevin, secondly, are based, on the other hand, on mere suppositions, some of which are highly questionable. Another unexpected feature of the book is the fact that although Sartre announced in “Question de méthode” that the point of view he planned to adopt in his study of Flaubert would be at once existentialist, Marxist, and psychoanalytic, in L’Idiot de la famille itself, save for certain passages here and there (some of them strikingly brilliant, such as the description of the social and ideological origins of Flaubert’s mother and father that he has tracked down, or the examination of social classes during the Second Empire), by far the greatest part of the interpretation is a rigorous (and, one might add, orthodox) Freudian one, though it is tricked out in an existentialist vocabulary. I do not point this out as a criticism, but merely as a curiosity. Furthermore, the best pages come off as brilliantly as they do precisely because Sartre has followed the Freudian method: the psychoanalytic explanation, for instance, of the “Pont-l’Evêque crisis,” the endlessly debated question, that is, as to the precise nature of Flaubert’s illness—epilepsy, hysteria, and so on—a debate to which Sartre, with his theory of neurosis, contributes a solid, complex, and imaginative, albeit not an entirely persuasive, point of view. It is in the second volume, above all, that the essay leaves literature behind altogether and becomes pure psychology. Instead of “explaining” Flaubert and his oeuvre in terms of this neurosis that he has analyzed in such minute detail, Sartre appears to use Flaubert’s person and his writings to illustrate the mechanisms of the neurotic personality. What the reader learns about mental pathology, the Oedipus complex, castration, symbolic displacements is instructive and fascinating; but at the same time all of this sheds very little light on Flaubert’s works. The description of generic traumas, of typical situations reduces to an abstraction the specificity of Flaubert’s case, despite the fact that the explicit aim of Sartre’s essay, as he himself announced, was to account for the specific nature of the man and his genius. Moreover, in this second volume, even more than in the first, there are infuriating repetitions, and at times, as the reader follows this prose that reworks, reiterates, retraces, circles back, returns again and again to the same idea, he has the impression that Sartre has imprisoned himself in his own spiderweb, that he finds himself—to use one of his own favorite images—trapped in his own labyrinthine construction. The same thing could have been said in half the number of pages. This impression becomes a near-certainty in the last volume, the most unfocused of the three. Save for the section entitled “Névrose et programmation chez Flaubert: le Second Empire,” Flaubert has disappeared from these pages and the book endlessly describes, in what is often mere pompous, verbose rhetoric, psychic processes that have no connection with his particular case: the general has blotted out the uniquely personal, the abstract has effaced the concrete. The last section, by contrast, is the most interesting one, in particular the comparison between Flaubert and Leconte de Lisle—the summary of what Parnassianism represented and the links between its aesthetics and Flaubert’s theory of art is admirable—and the same can be said of the intriguing analysis of the relations between Flaubert and the Second Empire, although Sartre advances very few convincing arguments in proof of his thesis that the writer most representative of this society was the author of Madame Bovary, who supposedly identified himself heart and soul with what the regime of Louis Bonaparte stood for. At the same time, this historico-social analysis is such a brusque departure from everything that has gone before—all of which moved exclusively on the psychological and psychic planes—that it gives the impression of being the beginning of another investigation, a radical departure rather than a complement. The book ends abruptly, as though exhaustion had overtaken its author before he was halfway through, on discovering that he had set himself a goal so distant that he did not have the strength to reach it, a goal too distant for any one man to reach by his own effort alone. In the end, it is disheartening to realize that the only texts of Flaubert’s that Sartre has analyzed in detail are the writings of his childhood and adolescence, that the effort expended in scrutinizing these texts—almost all of them of scant literary value, mere prehistoric signs of a vocation—has consumed all the critic’s time and energy, so that at the end of all these thousands of pages, through an error in planning, he has not yet gotten around to studying even the first novel of Flaubert’s that reached print. Hence Sartre’s work as it stands turns out to be what was doubtless intended in his original plan to be preliminary considerations before embarking upon his interpretation properly speaking. Unlike the character in Camus’s La Peste who never manages to write a novel because he can never decide how to phrase the very first sentence of it, in this case the author has set about writing with such fury, has developed his prolegomena in such detail, and dealt with so many adventitious subjects that he has lost sight of the whole and soon discovers that the work has assumed such tremendous proportions that he will not have the time—or doubtless the desire—to finish what he has started. The result is a monstrous baby, a giant child, a monumental—and brilliant—failure. This is what is known, of course, as defeat with honor; falling short of the mark by aiming too high; ailes de géant qui empêchent de marcher.

One is naturally reminded of the striking similarity between what happened to Sartre in this book and what happened to Flaubert in the last book he wrote. Have there ever been two such equally admirable failures, for such identical reasons, as those of L’Idiot de la famille and Bouvard et Pécuchet? Both are impossible endeavors, undertakings doomed to miscarry, because both were aimed at an unattainable goal, both weighted down by an ambition that borders on the inhuman: embracing the whole of the human condition. The idea of representing in a novel the totality of what is human—or, if one prefers, the totality of stupidity, since for Flaubert the two terms were very nearly synonymous—was a utopia akin to that of capturing in an essay the totality of a life, of explaining a man by reconstructing all the sources—social, familial, historical, psychological, biological, linguistic—of his life story, all the tributaries that converged to form his visible and secret personality. In both cases the author tried to unravel a tangle that has a beginning but no end. But it is evident that in both cases the merit lies in the defeat itself, that defeat represents a sort of victory, that in both cases we recognize the work to be a failure only after we recognize the grandeur that explains that failure and renders it inevitable. For to have persisted in such an adventure—to have fallen into Lucifer’s crime—is to have set the novel and criticism loftier heights to attain.

And so I have reached the end of my love story. It is a sad and glorious one, like that of any self-respecting romantic story, of the sort that pleased Emma and that pleases me. It is sad because this long and very faithful passion was doomed from the beginning, by the wretched law of life itself, to flow in one direction only, to be a plea without an answer, and because the last image of the story resembles the first: the lover, alone, his heart pounding with desire, his eyes fixed on the book clasped tenderly in his hands, and in his head, like a little mouse with cruel teeth crouching in a deep dark cavern, the terrible certainty that this most earthy of women will never leave her ethereal precincts to come to the rendezvous. But the lover does not give up, because this woman has filled his life with a pleasure doubtless less sublime but perhaps more enduring than if his love had been shared, since in the latter case, as Emma learns, he must continually confront the truth that everything is transitory, and since his lady, though she has never become incarnate or lain in his arms, will continue to be born for him on a farm lost in the hinterland of the pays de Caux and repeat her adventure as many times as he asks her to, with marvelous docility, with not the slightest sign of fatigue or boredom.

The ending of the story is glorious, because in recent years this little Norman peasant girl has attained a popularity that shows no sign of being a mere passing vogue and that in years to come will in all probability continue to grow. She has been admired by men and women of the most diverse classes and stations; austere professors have devoted their lives to studying her; young iconoclasts seek to do away with all the literature of the past and begin all over again, starting with her; wise philosophers who have offended her have tried to redeem themselves by writing thick volumes that will serve as a pedestal for her statue. And this is happening not only in her own country but in many others as well. In the Spanish-speaking world, too, after having long been forgotten, she is again becoming accessible to countless eyes, hands, hearts, in an estimable translation. I should be jealous, but I am not; like certain old perverts with their young spouses, I feel supremely flattered by these persistent attentions, this popular fervor, this seething excitement surrounding the young woman I love. I know that in the territory where her beauty shines forth, no one except the country doctor, Rodolphe, and Léon will possess her, and that in the territory where I find myself, she cannot give anyone more than she has given me.

THE PERPETUAL ORGY copyright © 1975 by Mario Vargas Llosa

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