A Review of Henri Troyat’s Biography of Gustave Flaubert

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You should seriously consider embarking upon the richly-rewarding study of Gustave Flaubert if you meet the following qualifications:

—You are a human being, alive in the present day;

—You enjoy entertainment, passionately displayed; and

—You possess at least one ear, one eye, or one finger.

The piqued student must first indulge in the author’s oeuvre.  It is a guilty pleasure and should be consumed only in secret, in the same way a fat man hides behind couches to gobble down sweets.  Madame Bovary, Salammbo, The Temptation of St. Anthony, Bouvard and Pecuchet, and Three Tales, in any order.  There are all kinds of places where one may engage in such shadowy behavior as the consumption of Flaubert, but I would recommend ill-frequented public restrooms, forests that are prowled by wolves at night, and the windy rooftops of skyscrapers.  Any illicit place where one may find the solace of solitude is practicable.

Once you’ve bolted these candies down your gorge, you, Mr. Chubby Checker, are prepared to begin smacking your flabby lips over the chocolate cakes, i.e., the exegetical works, of which I have only read two—Flaubert’s Parrot, a bland pseudo-fictional mediocrity, and Henri Troyat’s biography.  Since local libraries are generally packed with paperbacks not fit for the kitty litter, you may spare your lumpy rump, and merely haul yourself over to your computer, where the appropriate volume is purchasable through a number of online venues which I would advertise here if any were interested in actually paying me for the exhausting effort of doing so.

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You’ll learn that the pattern of Flaubert’s life is as follows: desperate, hard, dire work on literature (endless reading, endless writing (but really re-writing)), diseased whores, pseudo-fascist elitism, passionate hatred of everyone except his friends, epilepsy, monetary anxiety, and very human hypocrisy.  Flaubert was nearly sixty when he died and there is little variation to these themes, which not only makes for difficult reading but also undoubtedly presented a real challenge to the author, who overcomes that challenge by applying a very light gaze to the man’s life.  There is no heavy analysis of any kind, and Troyat the narrator generally seems to hop from one letter or diary entry to the next rather than rack the reader with the crushing rhetoric of Jean-Paul Sartre.  So instead of nailing up the likes of Gustave Flaubert, George Sand, and Guy de Maupassant up on a threefold crucifix of interpretations, Troyat is content to let the characters of this novel walk about and speak for themselves—

“When I was young, my vanity was such that when I went to a brothel with my friends I would pick the ugliest girl and insist on fucking her in front of everyone without taking my cigar from my lips.  It was no fun for me, but I did it for the gallery.” (Goncourt, Journal, May 9, 1865)

He is aware of the risk of this approach, and more dedicated readers (perhaps with an academic bend in their spine) will have to look elsewhere for their critical kicks—I for my part fell in love with Foucault’s Introduction to The Temptation of St. Anthony.  Regardless, the final words of the biography not only justify Troyat’s light approach, but affirm a philosophy of life and art that I completely support, and which I found really refreshing to see so eloquently expressed, especially as I find myself constantly consumed with the same debilitating doubts that plagued Flaubert:

…those who seek to track down the truth get nothing for their pains and that, despite the most learned explications, the mystery of the artist remains inviolate.

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