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Monsieur Flaubert, c’est moi!

by Orhan Pamuk

As related in the final section of the Voyage en Orient, Flaubert entered Istanbul in October 1850 accompanied by his friend Maxime du Camp after his visit to Egypt, the Lebanon, and Syria. The two companions had earlier travelled together and written about their experiences, an arrangement pleasing to both. Du Camp, the scion of a family of means and a savant of literature and art, proved to be a trustworthy and reliable friend –though somewhat effete. Six years later, he would be the one to serialise Madame Bovary in the Revue de Paris, a journal whose editorship he had assumed. Over the length and breadth of their travels, as Du Camp took the first photographs documenting the Middle East with his cumbersome camera, Flaubert was preoccupied with himself and his own future; in a word, he was burdened by his own troubles.

Flaubert’s trouble, or rather burning pain, was the syphilis He had contracted in Beirut. He treated his suppurating wounds with medicines, strove to lessen his pain, wondered whether he had caught the disease from a “Turk” or a Christian, and took up the entire matter in his letters with a high note of mockery.

Having been on the road for over a year, and not to mention the syphilis, Flaubert suffered exhaustion and fatigue. His hair had begun to fall out, and his teeth to wiggle; furthermore, he pined for his home, his mother, and his former life in Rouen. In Istanbul, Flaubert responded to a letter from his mother In which he learned of a friend’s marriage and of her own curiosity regarding his potential marriage plans. When I dreamed of becoming a writer in my youth, I would frequently turn to this letter dated December 15th, 1850, penned from “Constantinople”, and would garner strength and succour from its exceptional words in the face of the hardships of staying on one’s feet and maintaining one’s way as an author in Turkey.

Flaubert writes, “When is the wedding to be, you ask me, apropos of the news Ernest Chevalier’s marriage… When? Never, I hope.” The prospective young writer of twenty-nine then reminds his mother of his life principles, emphasizing that it is far too late to change them now. “I too, am ‘established’ in that I have found my seat, my centre of gravity. For me marriage would be an apostasy: the very thought terrifies me.” A few sentences later, he clearly expresses the perspective that would later develop in modern thought from Nietzsche to Thomas Mann on the relationship between art and life: “You can depict wine, love, women and glory on the condition that you are not a drunkard, a lover, a husband or a private in the ranks. If you participate actively in life, you don’t see it clearly: you suffer from it too much or enjoy it too much.” Flaubert writes to his mother, with the profound sense that the artist must be a freak of nature, an oddity outside ordinary life, a monster of sorts: “So, I am resigned to living as I have lived: alone, with my throng of great men as my only cronies – and a bear, with my bear rug as company.” And he addresses to his mother the sentences I whispered to myself before I had turned thirty, just like Flaubert, sentences in which I tried to believe: “I care nothing for the world, for the future, for what people will say, for any kind of establishment, or even for literary renown, which in the past I used to lie awake so many nights dreaming about.” And after conveying to her these arrogant words, Flaubert adds one final line whose simplicity belies his self-confidence and earnestness: “That is what I am like; such is my character.”

In Istanbul, at the end of the 1970s, in the midst of trying to get my newly completed first novel published, living alone with my mother, I remember trying to locate the Justiniano Hotel in Galata where Flaubert had spent his days and penned these words in 1850. Just like the “great men” that he had idolized, I tried to take Flaubert as my model.

If one principle of the modernist literary ethic that Flaubert expressed with near-instinctual ease in his famous letter was to maintain one’s distance from everyday bourgeois life and mundane success, another was to be awed by, and identify with, reclusive writers of stature who did so successfully and genuinely.

To keep one’s distance from life, to avoid organizations, the state, and routine family life, to regard success and literary renown as objects of disdain… these are the indisputable moral principles of secular modern literary seclusion; that is, of literary modernism. First of all, if being experimental and giving voice to never-before expressed human experience in a new idiom dœs not do away entirely with with literary acceptance and legibility, it delays commercial success. A young writer who is preparing himself for a difficult and trying literary life must have a sincere conviction in these principles such that should success prove evasive (sometimes success never arrives), he will avoid immediate disappointment and be able to make do with nearly nothing, to progress on the hard road of his convictions, and to continue to write. I still believe that the modernist literary morality is something that all writers as a group from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, especially today’s young writers, must believe in and respect to stay on their feet and resist the commercialisation of literature. Another victory of Flaubert’s, in addition to the great success of his books and œuvre, rests in having lived his entire life in accordance with his description of this morality made while he was only twenty-nine.

Flaubert’s letters demonstrate how this moral principle and the passion for good writing merge. In the 1970s, as I read them, I too assumed and believed, like him, that it was possible to avoid engagement in life and to keep a distance from easy success, society, and people with power and influence. In this respect, for me, Flaubert was a recluse and a sage, the first of the hermit-saints of modern literature who had turned their backs on life and on superficial success… Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Pessoa, Benjamin, and Borges are all figures in the same genealogy. My devotion to these authors arose as much from their ability to renounce easy success as from their literary discoveries and the new horizons they opened in the struggle to see the world through words. For writers to stand on their own feet and persevere, I still think that they must take reclusive authors like Flaubert as examples and even be able to identify with them, especially in non-Western countries where the culture of novels and modern literature as well as reading habits have been slow to develop.

But this necessity brings with it certain problems that I now, years later, must address. First, the manner in which we experience the bond to the recluse-saint quite readily merges in non-Western traditional cultures with expressions of respect, adoration, and devotion toward sages and folk saints. This was how the adoption and experience of Western literary modernism occurred. I remember in the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s that the adoration a handful of young Turkish writers felt toward Kafka in many respects resembled traditional feelings of devotion and resignation toward late great Sufi masters and cloistered dervish sheikhs. Just as others had elevated Kafka’s life story, I read Flaubert’s letters in the 1970s as if reading the hagiography of a Sufi sheikh. This variety of traditional worship predicated on memorising the words and imitating the life of the venerated recluse-author, precisely because he was a Westerner, was infused with an aura of modernism rather than being subject to critical thought, analytical reasoning, or the stamp of blind devotion.

An unintended result of this traditional devotion and modernist literary ethics was that writers were evaluated through their lives rather than their works. The combined hidden desire of a world readership is that the venerated writer live an unsuccessful, unhappy and disquieting life. Of course, this desire takes different forms from country to country. In the U.S. today, the commercial success of novels dœs not necessarily imply a loss in their artistic value. In Europe, however, the fact that an author’s works are commonly read could lead critics to approach the writer with suspicion. In small literary centres outside the West, should an elusive and improbable commercial success actually materialise, the author will likely live out his days as a wise recluse. In the 1960s and 1970s in Turkey, it would actually diminish rather than increase a pœt’s respect to write pœms that were widely understood and enjoyed. The streets of small and obscure countries, where books do not sell and no arena is given to authors by newspapers or television programmes, are full of pœts and writers espousing literary morality and boasting that their books don’t sell and aren’t mentioned in the press. Even in America, I have come across many who felt a special awe for writers like J.D. Salinger (another Flaubert admirer) and Pynchon because they never appeared in the media, rather than for their works.

The true problem with the enthusiastic appropriation and internalisation by literati in Istanbul, or other non-Western writerly havens, of the modernist literary morality expressed by Flaubert in his 1850 Istanbul letter is that a hundred or more years Later, literature still continued to be regarded as a genre that only addressed the elite. For the pœts of the Ottoman court tradition, literature amounted to the preoccupation of well-educated elites for readers of like education and status. Perhaps Flaubert, who could not spend a single day without mocking ordinary bourgeois life, would share this perspective. There are plenty of Flaubert enthusiasts who have more conviction in this perspective than Flaubert himself and therefore have appropriated him and his literary ethics, and I would now like to turn to them.

In the history of literature, writers have given Flaubert pride of place among venerated authors. From Maupassant to Tolstoy, from Henry James to Nabokov, from Conrad to Mario Vargas Llosa, a horde of writers have been excessively preoccupied with Flaubert, writing about him, nurturing open or hidden deep affections for him, and candidly or furtively identifying with him. Madame Bovary (1857) became a model in Russia for Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877) and in Germany for Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest (1894). In Portugal, the representative of such novels that described a woman’s extramarital affair in oppressive, closed contexts was Eça de Queirós’ O Primo Basílio (Cousin Basilio, 1878). In this novel, as with Madame Bovary, the heroine is led astray by reading romances and just as in Ask-i Memnu (Forbidden Love, 1900), Turkey’s literary semblance of Madame Bovary, the love and infidelity occurs within the family context though the heroine is of a higher class than Bovary. Halit Ziya Usakligil’s Ask-i Memnu, which he wrote near the end of Sultan Abdülhamit’s autocratic reign, is among the handful of novels the Turkish National Education Ministry recommends to high school students in addition to Madame Bovary.

It is not hard to comprehend that over subsequent generations, the admiration felt toward Flaubert in the twentieth century rested as much on his novels as his letters, the lifestyle revealed in the letters, and on his being a literary recluse of sorts. In an essay Georges Perec wrote fifteen years after he’d lifted thirteen sentences from my favorite Flaubert novel, L’Education sentimentale, (A Sentimental Education), and included them in his own work, Les  Choses (Things: A Story of the Sixties), he stated that he had done so because he wanted nothing more than to be Flaubert.

To be Flaubert!  The reverence of his contemporaries Turgenyev or Henry James, Tolstoy or Theodor Fontane, focused on his novels. Conrad was concerned with Flaubert’s literary technique. Later generations, however, especially in the last half-century of Flaubert devotion, have focused on the writer himself, his life, the subject of his letters, and even on the conjecture surrounding him. The primary reason for this is, of course, the edited and annotated publication of his letters with the due attention they deserve. The respect and understanding of French culture toward the classics and its tradition of preparing critical editions has resulted in the “Flaubert idea” today and in the sincere respect and admiration garnered by this great writer throughout the world. The requisite feeling of “identification” needed to live in accordance with the modernist literary morality is still alive in full-force thanks to these letters. Many writers, myself included, have wanted to be Flaubert during a period of their lives. It would be no exaggeration to state that the famous Flaubert biography by Sartre, L’Idiot de la famille (The Family Idiot, 1971-2) was written to grapple with this feeling or that Julian Barnes’ brilliant novel Flaubert’s Parrot was written to prolong endlessly the pleasures of being a Flaubert. I have always noticed two basic tendencies among those who wanted to be Flaubert. Allow me to simplify and summarize for the sake of discussing this distinction, which points out two fundamental characteristics of the art of the novel.

The first variety of Flaubert enthusiast admires the author’s characteristic venom and voice. I refer to Flaubert’s angry, mocking, and intelligent voice rising against the ordinary, against average bourgeois life, superficiality, and stupidity. In October 1850, at the end of the letter he writes to his mother, we immediately recognize this tone: Flaubert explains with ridicule that his soon-to-be wed friend will fast become a perfect bourgeois gentleman. Ernest will from now on be the defender of the established order, the family, and private ownership; he will most certainly declare war against the socialist thinking of his youth! According to Flaubert, his friend’s fault rests in taking himself too seriously. His dear friend, who at one time would get drunk and dance the Can-Can in nightclubs, has become bourgeois by first purchasing a pocket watch and later losing his imagination. With  increasing anger toward his old friend, now turned bourgeois, Flaubert adds in his letter that he is also certain to soon be cuckolded by his wife. The authorial voice here is quite close to that of Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet (Bouvard and Pécuchet, 1881 posthumous) or Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues (Dictionary of Received Ideas, 1911 posthumous). This derisive tone, fed up with the foolhardiness of humanity and especially the bourgeois, takes its strength from Flaubert’s intelligence and extraordinary knack for parody. The training of his intellect and humour, which emerges frequently in his letters, upon the target of middle class values, from which he tried to keep a distance during his whole life, and upon the new, comfortable, and peaceful daily life afforded by modernity and industrialisation, gives Flaubert’s voice a power with which many writers today enjoy identifying. In the twentieth century, Flaubert admirers, especially young writers, give great importance to identifying with this voice and to taking the mask of mockery, cynicism, and intelligence from Flaubert and placing it over their own faces. While reading Nabokov’s Lolita, one senses a Flaubertian-inspired sensibility behind the scornful needling of American middle class life. We all regard eminent authors’ derision of human foolishness and mediocrity as appealing; we read their books and novels in some respects to hear these voices and live among them. However, should this voice of ridicule become a novel’s sole strength, wit and cynicism can in no time become an arrogant voice representing a look from above belittling middle class life, the uneducated, different cultures, people whose customs vary from our own and are deemed inadequate. In particular, the process of European modernism’s settling outside of the West must be understood in tandem with this ethical problem.

On the other hand, despite all of Flaubert’s anger and derision, he was not an arrogant writer. And he had discovered a language that allowed him, through the frame of the novel, to analyse up-close his protagonists and those who were different than him. After reading in the letter to his mother how he grew angry at his childhood friend’s marriage and entry into mundane bourgeois life, we are reminded of the essential strength of the novelist Flaubert through the affection with which he described the same childhood friends in A sentimental Education and the deep compassion with which he approached their “tomfoolery” and mental confusion. Here was a writer who could identify so thoroughly with his protagonists that he could feel in his own heart the misery and predicament of a struggling, married woman, Madame Bovary, and convey that dilemma to readers in a clear idiom.

Flaubert had developed a special technique so that the novel’s narrative voice could come as close as possible to his protagonists’ thoughts and inner worlds. This voice, this narrative technique, was first imitated in and spread throughout France and later the world, meeting with the positive acknowledgment of Flaubert scholars rather than his readers and is known as the “free indirect style” (style indirect libre). This expository style, which Flaubert developed rather than discovered, dœs not make a distinction between the protagonists’ thoughts and the contexts and events of which they are part. The prose, from time to time, approaches the protagonist’s inner thoughts and problems relying on that character’s vernacular and idiom; furthermore, the narrative voice dœs not cue the reader with tags like “she thought” or “he considered.” And the descriptions of landscapes and settings, as should be the case in a novel, represent the protagonist’s state of mind both through descriptive details and the choice of words. In this fashion, readers perceive in an intimate way the world, the events being described, and the setting through the eyes of the protagonists as inflected by their emotions, troubles, and choice of words. After Jane Austen and Gœthe, the “indirect free style” that Flaubert commonly but carefully (for a reader might suppose that Madame Bovary’s feelings are Flaubert’s thoughts) developed and practiced, was very influential and happily used in many non-Western countries like Turkey where the art of the novel and the language of modern narration developed after Flaubert’s time. This style played a deterministic role not only in the formation of the art of the novel in “belated” nation-states, but also in the emergence and adoption of national languages through literature, and of course, predominantly through the aid of the novel. The Flaubert that I love and admire, the Flaubert with whom I identify, is this second author. A great writer who, within the large canvas and panorama of the novel, discovered a new way to enter –suddenly, with the stroke of a few words– his characters’ inner lives. A writer who could approach his characters with the deep compassion and empathy demanded by the art of the novel, and as a result, who could later simply declare, “I am Madame Bovary!”

The derisive and belittling Flaubert that I have just now conjured up, is not at all too distant from this Flaubert of great compassion. It is not difficult for the reader who admires him to imagine these two Flauberts as lobes of the same heart. I have always wanted to identify with this author, who on one hand felt boundless anger and resentment toward humanity, and on the other hand, nurtured a profound compassion for the same and understood men and women better than others. Whenever I read his work, I am urged to say, “Monsieur Flaubert , c’est moi!

Flaubert, in the 1850 letter he wrote from Istanbul to his mother, also states that among the things that permit his dear childhood friend Ernest to get married, take his place in common bourgeois society and take himself too seriously, is receiving a doctoral degree from the university. Esteemed chancellor, dear professors, students, and guests of Rouen University, which has granted me an honorary doctorate by way of Flaubert, I believe this is a danger of no consequence to me in consideration of my relatively advanced age. I extend my gratitude to you one and all.

Rouen, 17 03 2009.