Magazine article The Spectator

Portrait of the Invisible Man

Magazine article The Spectator

Portrait of the Invisible Man

Article excerpt

FLAUBERT by Frederick Brown Heinemann, £25, pp. 628, ISBN 0434007692

Any biographer of Flaubert is faced with a fundamental irony: he or she will be writing the personal life of the literary high priest of the doctrine of Impersonality. A writer, Flaubert maintained, should withdraw himself from his writings, self-annihilating, invisible. Like God in his creation, he may be felt everywhere, but should nowhere be seen.

Perversely, of course, one has a stronger sense of Flaubert's thoroughly individual, controlling, writerly presence in his fiction than of any other great novelist; and there is a correspondingly potent biographical mythology surrounding the personal agonies that went into producing this 'impersonal' landmark in European fiction.

In his lifetime, Flaubert was fiercely camera-shy (which may be a mark equally of diffidence or vanity), and almost never allowed himself to be photographed or caricatured ('I reserve my face for myself'). One wonders what he would have made of Frederick Brown's superb, full-length portrait. Even he, one suspects, could not have rejected it as a cliché -- even in its other French sense of a mere snapshot.

Such paradoxes of biography and creative life are, of course, meat and drink to any good biographer. The problem is that they may offer easy opt-out clauses to the third-rate. Any one who has ever taught undergraduates will know how quickly 'ironically' and 'paradoxically' become paperingover shorthand either to disguise 'I'm contradicting myself here', or to signal 'something interesting may be going on that I don't have time to try to understand'.

Biography, too, I sometimes feel, is now in thrall to the shallow-rooted paradox: we have swung from all-comprehending biography, which ironed out contradictions in pursuit of knowable character, to the belief that inconsistencies and unknowability are the true essence of humanity -- which may in practice mean that complexities are elevated rather than explored.

And every student of literature can reel off paradoxes in Flaubert's life and work.

Here is the thoroughly bourgeois selfproclaimed 'bourgeoisophobus', who vigorously and indeed obsessively loathed the middle classes to which he belonged: his superlative work charts the life and death of a bourgoise wife, whose every pretension and sentimental impulse he profoundly despises, yet with whom readers then, as now, deeply and perversely sympathised.

And the creator of Madame Bovary, too, was notoriously racked with creative ambivalence. The writer who exalted godlike distance was sucked into the very guts of his own imaginings, so that after describing Madame Bovary's death he tasted 'such a strong taste of arsenic' in his own mouth that he vomited his 'entire dinner'.

Flaubert, indeed, is the bibliophile who wrote Bibliomanie; the brilliant autodidact whose last work satirises the futility of self-taught learning; the worshipper of a 'Platonic ideal of style' who can nevertheless be, in this biographer's phrase, 'flagrantly uncouth'. He is the writer who passionately advocated monkish self-denial in the cause of Art, yet plundered the brothels of Paris and boasted from Egypt that in 17 hours he 'had survived five rounds of copulation and three more of oral sex, with coffee breaks and longer intermissions for meals' and time for a spot of sightseeing. Revolting 'chancres' on his member were the inevitable aftermath of extremely energetic sex-tourism. ('Self-denial', in this context, meant that he refused to marry or even maintain close domestic relationships with the women he went to bed with, which is, in a way, a thoroughly backhanded compliment to the powers of domesticity. ) Flaubert despised money and lived highmindedly off his mother; he loathed fame, since this anti-clerical elitist could not bear to pander to the masses; yet he demanded an exorbitant 30,000 francs for his second novel -- ten times the usual rate for a wellknown author, which would have been a bit steep had he truly believed that he was writing, as he claimed, for an elite audience of at most '20 well-educated people'. …

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