Gustave Flaubert, is mainly remembered for what critics and aficionados of literature alike consider his greatest literary achievement, ‘Madame Bovary.’ Yet, this French genius indeed wrote other great books. The present work reminds one of Dostoevsky’s ‘Dream of a Ridiculous Man,’ as both are written in monologist style – verbose outpourings from a self-proclaimed deranged man.
The trials of love and ensuing tortures the protagonist undergoes remind also of the short-story ‘White Nights’ by Dostoevsky. However, here the author recounts his memories of late childhood and adolescent years.
One is also reminded of the pallid veneer of aloofness and hostility shown by Caulfield narrated brilliantly in one of the most colossal works of modern English literature, ‘Catcher in the Rye, in the very first few lines as the narrator speaks of his desolation and wretchedness…..
“As a child I loved what can be seen, as a teenager what can be felt, as a man I no longer love anything …..”
However, here the narrator is more poetic and eloquent and speaks volubly on the human condition. There are long sections of dark and despondent philosophical musings about the nature of existence.
“Humanity has taken to making machines turn, and, seeing the gold which has flowed, has exclaimed: ‘It is God!’ Humanity devours that God! But there is – for everything is now over, farewell! farewell! – wine for the dying. Everyone rushes where his instinct sends him, the world seethes like insects on a corpse, poets pass without having time to sculpt their thoughts, scarcely having the chance to throw them onto the pages before those pages fly away. Everything gleams and resonates in this masquerade, with its one-day kingdoms and its sceptres of cardboard. Gold rolls, wine flows, cold debauchery lifts its gown and stirs… horror! horror!”
Unlike Caulfield, the protagonist of this work is more eloquent and aware of what assails him. His metaphysical musings reflect the rich knowledge he has acquired through a broad reading of works of philosophy and history. At the onset of his narration his antipathy towards humanity, an evil concomitant of almost all with true philosophical dispositions, is dealt directly at the readers.
“A madman! How horrifying. And what, reader, are you? In which category do you place yourself? That of the fools, or that of the madmen? If you had to choose, your vanity would make you prefer the second of these states. So yes, I ask once again, what is the use of a book that is neither instructive, nor amusing, nor chemical, nor philosophical, nor agricultural, nor elegiac, a book which gives no formula for sheep or for fleas, which does not speak of the railways, of the stock exchange, of the intimate recesses of the human heart, of dress in the Middle Ages, of God or of the Devil – but which instead speaks of a madman, in other words of the world itself, that great fool who has been turning around in space for so many centuries, without moving an inch, who howls and dribbles and rips himself apart?”
Styled as an unconcerned and deeply detached individual, the narrator slowly draws in the reader to his own universe of thoughts, dreams, reveries and musings. After a cathartic discourse on all of his own flaws and the meaninglessness of human existence, the narrator starts to recount memories of his past.
Apart from the marginalized and self-imposed isolation of his college years, he gives a detailed account of his first two encounters with love in what he considers to be its most pristine form. The first is his infatuation with a married woman, Maria and second of a more direct nature with a girl of his own age, Caroline. Both of these affairs end inconsequentially.
Flaubert early on makes clear of his intention to narrate this story as freely as possible. There are atrocious metaphors, inconsistencies in use of tenses and inaccuracies of grammar. This demerit of language he squarely blames on the limitations of language itself.
“and how can one translate into words that harmony which arises in the poet’s soul, and the giant thoughts which make the sentences bend and bow as a strong swollen hand splits open the glove wrapped round it?”
He has taken a lot of freedom in the choice of metaphors and similes.
“That year we went to the seaside resort of …, a village in Picardy that was charming with its higgledy-piggledy houses,”
“Then, in the distance, you could see the blue ocean under the burning sun, moaning gently like a weeping giant.”
There are instances of jarring alliterations.
“First it was an extraordinary state of surprise and admiration, a quite mystical kind of sensation, devoid of all physical passion.“.
At places his writing is quite plainly juvenile.
“I was like those people who are starved to death in cages, surrounded by the most exquisite foods.”
The above sentence describes the narrator’s jealousy as Maria is spending the night with her husband.
Flaubert has written this work with minimal restraints and probably never redid the text. His portrayal of his love interest though quite original has way too many quirks to qualify as a totally finished work.
However, there are the bursts of Flaubert’s genius captured in clear cut statements about the vagaries of human nature.
“It is a need to speak, an instinct to join the herd where the boldest take the lead, that created human societies in the first place and nowadays brings people together in gatherings.” .
“It was the magic of a dream with all the pleasures of reality.“
He comes a little awkward yet quintessentially unique in his descriptions of sex and female form.
“There they are gasping for each other, walking together in the night and getting wet in the dew, watching the sunset and finding it diaphanous, admiring the stars, and saying in every possible way: ‘I love you, you love me, he loves me, we love each other,’ and repeating this with sighs and kisses; and then they return, each of them driven by an ardour without equal, for these two souls’ organs are violently aroused; and in due course, they are grotesquely conjoined, with grunts and sighs, each of them preoccupied with producing yet another imbecile on the face of the earth, another unhappy creature who will imitate them! Consider them, more stupid at this moment than the dogs or the flies, swooning and hiding their secret gratification from the eyes of the world – for they think, perhaps, that happiness is a crime and sexual fulfilment a cause for shame.”
The narrator’s description of his first love interest Maria has a similar original yet awkwardly beautiful tinge to it.
“She was tall and dark, with magnificent black hair that fell curling onto her shoulders. She had a Greek nose, burning eyes, high and wonderfully arched eyebrows. Her skin was warm and like golden velvet. She was slender and delicate, and you could see the bluish veins across her dark crimson breast. Add to that a gentle down which shaded her upper lip and gave her face a masculine, energetic look that would make blonde beauties fade in comparison. It might have been pointed out that she had slightly too full a figure or a casual artistic style, so in general women found her to be of poor taste. She spoke slowly. She had a modulated, musical, gentle voice…“
Later in the novel as he describes the sensuality of his interactions with two young girls, the metaphors seem to more well-formed.
“Then they began to run, and their coats, billowing behind them in the wind, floated and undulated like breaking waves. They paused, all out of breath. I can still remember their breath, with its wheezing sound, coming out through their white teeth and making steam in the air.“
” I tried to bind my heart to other passions. It skated over them as if over ice.”
“Her foreign accent had something elegant and delicate about it that made her voice as fresh as her cheeks.”
The novel ends ruing the limitations of language to express the sublime, therefore the most significant aspects of human nature. This outcry against language is also a recurring theme in this work.
“Poor human frailty! With your words, your languages, your sounds, you speak and stammer. You define God, the sky, the earth, chemistry and philosophy, and yet with your language you cannot even express the joy you feel at the sight of a naked woman… or a plum pudding!“
Overall, it is a novel which can be seen as the preparing grounds for the giant of an author Gustave Flaubert was to become in later years. Its short length and conversational style of writing make it both interesting and easy to read.