Biography captures Flaubert's lifelong pessimism and devotion to his art

January 24, 1993|By Eve Ottenberg Stone

FLAUBERT.

Henri Troyat.

Viking.

374 pages. $25.

With this newly translated biography of Gustave Flaubert, Henri Troyat, who is renowned for his books on Russian novelists, gives an accessible and vivid picture of this strangely isolated writer. Flaubert's nature, full of gloomy vitality, is clear from the start, from Mr. Troyat's first sketches of him as a boy of 9. And he is consistently portrayed to the end: full of life but bitter about its general absurdity, and thus a fanatical believer in the redeeming value of artistic work.

This fine biography makes it clear that for Flaubert (1821-1880), his art was his life, and without it, his intense pessimism might well have killed him. But art certainly was no easy refuge from life.

Indeed, for those who may ever have thought the writing of fiction should not be difficult, Mr. Troyat's book will certainly set them straight. Although Flaubert's agonies in search of "le mot juste" have long been famous, the excerpts from his letters here, detailing the miseries, the uncertainties and the veritable convulsions of perfectionism that he went through in the course of writing everything from "Madame Bovary" to "Bouvard et Pecuchet," are particularly striking.

Flaubert wrote of his "mania for work. I'll compare it to an itchy rash. I keep scratching myself and screaming. It's a pleasure and torment at the same time." He spoke of being exhausted, of going mad from overwork, of his constant wrestling with himself over the disposition of words, phrases.

"The floors of rooms were beginning to move under my feet like the deck of a ship," the French novelist wrote, "and I had such a weight on my chest at all times that I could hardly breathe." Such were the travails of the writer who believed that money could never be a reward for artistic work, that "one must practice art for oneself and not for the public."

It is with an almost novelistic unity that Mr. Troyat presents such opinions as part of an entire world view that Flaubert was, for all practical purposes, born with. The picture here is not the more standard biographical one of an artist's growth and development, but of someone who sprang, full blown, his views fully articulated from the start, into the world.

It is sometimes astonishing how consistent, even in his contradictions, Flaubert truly was. He always believed in "art for art's sake." He was always profoundly apolitical. He always hated the world and regarded life as a bad joke. He never wanted to marry. He always thought an author should keep himself out of a story. He always had, from the beginning, the potential for very serious misanthropy.

As a result, his letters, which are a wonderful resource for any biographer, are the kind one can't stop reading. Many of them are used liberally in this book, and are quite frank in their obscenity. Judiciously pruning them, Mr. Troyat is at his best when evoking Flaubert's strangely solitary existence. For although he had friends, his circle was small, and since he never married or had children, much of his adult life was taken up with the sorry business of people his own age or older passing away. The most profound bereavement of all was his mother's death.

Flaubert lived all his life with his mother, and Mr. Troyat shows how that relationship shaped his life and, especially, the contours of his working life -- that is, how he worked, which he did by living with her in the family house. His mother made many demands on him, and the relationship with her really was the central one in his life.

Indeed, it is quite comical in this book to find Flaubert hemming and hawing as his mistress insists on meeting his mother. He had one lame excuse after another for why they could not meet, but perhaps the best one -- which he never made -- was that it was not until the affair had been going on for years that this grown man and famous man of letters dared tell his mother that he even had a mistress.

If it was ever a choice between the two, he always chose his mother. When she died, Mr. Troyat observes, "he tried to accustom himself to his new status as a 50-year-old orphan."

The few friendships he did have, with writers and non-writers alike, are chronicled here in such a way that one gets a clear picture of his literary milieu. He spent much time shuttling from his home in the provinces to Paris, where he led the typical life of the Parisian literati -- becoming embroiled in literary disputes, taking up causes on behalf of his friends, quarreling with publishers, dining out with novelists and critics, even venturing into the theatrical production of a friend's play.

By far one of the most striking images in this book is that of Flaubert's death. Alone in his big house in his native Rouen, preparing for a trip to Paris, he fell to the floor, calling out incoherently.

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