Flaubert's Simple Heart

By Daniels, Anthony | New Criterion, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Flaubert's Simple Heart


Daniels, Anthony, New Criterion


Goodness knows why, but my wife (who is Parisian) likes me to read to her in French. I have heard Englishmen speak French, and on the whole, except for those who grew up bilingual, I have not been impressed, not at any rate favorably impressed, with the result.

I cannot believe that the English accent in French is anything other than charmless and painful on the ears of native speakers; and though I do not think I am by a long shot the worst of my countrymen (who make no concessions whatsoever to the pronunciation of foreign languages, of whose very existence they do not really, in their heart of hearts, approve), and though the local bookseller in my nearest town in France once flatteringly asked me not to lose my accent, as if she believed there were any possibility of my actually doing so, mine is no exception. True, my pronunciation is absolutely perfect, even Parisian, so long as it remains within the confines of my skull; but the moment it reaches my larynx it undergoes a reverse metamorphosis, and the butterfly turns into a caterpillar.

Still, there is no accounting for taste, and my wife does like it.

We have read a wide variety of books together, from standard works on the Dreyfus affair to an account of the great French serial killer of the early twentieth century, Henri Landru. It was reading the latter that stimulated me to formulate a law (more or less) of serial killing: in Anglo-Saxonia they do it for sex, but in the Frankish lands they do it for gain. And this is precisely as it should be, because the Anglo-Saxons are hypocrites about sex and the French are hypocrites about money. Which is the more attractive hypocrisy? I leave it to my readers to decide.

We once moved seamlessly from a biography of Robert Brasillach, the talented novelist who was a collaborator during the Occupation and was afterwards shot despite (or should I say because of?) the leniency shown to far worse collaborationists than he, to the autobiography of Louis Althusser, the Marxist philosopher who murdered his wife. This latter gave us a stock phrase that we still use in everyday life when one of us has committed a minor mistake such as dropping a cup or a bowl: J'ai etrangle Helene, I have strangled Helene!

In the admittedly rather special context of wife-murder, Althusser's act was banal; he had his hands around her throat and (to quote a phrase I have heard many times) "the next thing I knew, doctor, she was lying there." When Althusser, on his own account, recovered his senses, he uttered the exclamation that we have made our own--a little shamefacedly, for Helene's death, at the age of seventy, was of course truly a tragic one. Up till then, Althusser had been guilty only of strangling the French language, squeezing the meaning from it until only a vague but unpleasant Marxist connotation remained, and it lay lifeless on the page.

We sometimes read fiction together as well; for example, currently we are reading the latest novel by Patrick Modiano, a writer whose depictions of the recent past are like blurred monochrome photographs that are full of atmosphere and perhaps of documentary significance, though the latter always remains just out of reach, like the meaning of life.

A few weeks ago, however, on a day for which, rather unusually, we had absolutely nothing planned, we had, after coffee but before breakfast, a short lesson in real literary, and not only literary, greatness. We woke up and I read Flaubert's story, Un coeur simple, to my wife.

Shortly before, I had bought a cheap edition ($2) of this conte, complete with a scholarly apparatus that doubled the length of the story but still left the book slender enough. This apparatus was in itself not without interest. It was directed, I think, at secondary school pupils, who needed, apparently, to be told in a footnote that "the Napoleonic wars required numerous soldiers" (an assertion for the truth of which a book published by the same publisher was cited as evidence). …

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