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Fall 2009

Table Talk

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Orhan Pamuk

In an essay Georges Perec wrote fifteen years after he’d lifted thirteen sentences from my favorite Flaubert novel, L’Education Sentimentale, and included them in his own work, Les Choses, he stated that he’d done so because he wanted nothing more than to be Flaubert.

To be Flaubert! Many writers, myself included, have wanted to be Flaubert during some period of their lives. It would be no exaggeration to say that the famous Flaubert biography by Sartre, L’Idiot de la Famille, was written to grapple with this feeling, or that Julian Barnes’s brilliant novel Flaubert’s Parrot was written to endlessly prolong the pleasures of being a Flaubert. The reverence of his contemporaries—Turgenev and Henry James, Tolstoy and Theodor Fontane—focused on his novels; Conrad was concerned with Flaubert’s literary technique. Later generations, however, especially in the last half-century, have focused on the writer himself: his life, the subjects of his letters, and even on the conjecture surrounding him. The primary reason for this is, of course, the publication of his letters, edited and annotated with all the attention they deserve. French culture’s respect for and understanding of the classics, and its tradition of carefully preparing critical editions, has resulted in the sincere admiration earned by this great writer throughout the world. The requisite feeling of identification needed to live in accordance with Flaubert’s modernist literary morality—his insistence that the artist needs to stand apart, outside of conventional society, in order to perceive it fully—is still alive in full force, thanks to these letters.

I’ve 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. I refer to Flaubert’s angry, mocking, and intelligent voice, rising up against the ordinary—against average bourgeois life, superficiality, and stupidity. In 1850, in response to his mother’s news about the forthcoming marriage of one of his childhood friends, the twenty-nine-year-old Flaubert wrote back to her from his travels in the Middle East:

When is the wedding to be, you ask me, apropos of the news of Ernest Chevalier’s marriage… When? Never, I hope… For me marriage would be an apostasy: the very thought terrifies me… I am resigned to living as I have lived: alone, with my throng of great men as my only cronies… 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.

In my youth, when I was becoming a writer, I’d frequently turn to this letter—dated December 15, 1850, and penned from “Constantinople” —and I would garner strength and succor from its exceptional words, its reassurance in the face of the hardships of maintaining one’s way as an author in Turkey.

At the end of the letter, 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 dear friend, who at one time would get drunk and dance the can-can in nightclubs, has become bourgeois, first by purchasing a pocket watch and later by losing his imagination. With increasing anger toward this old friend, Flaubert adds in his letter that he’s also certain to be made a cuckold by his wife.

The authorial voice here is quite close to that of Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet or his Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues. This derisive tone, fed up with the foolhardiness of humanity and especially of the bourgeois, gets its strength from Flaubert’s intelligence and extraordinary knack for parody. The training of his intellect and humor upon the target of middle-class values, from which he tried to keep a distance his whole life, and upon the new, comfortable, and peaceful daily life enabled by modernity and industrialization, gives Flaubert’s voice a power with which many writers today sympathize. In recent times, Flaubert admirers, especially among young writers, have given great importance to identifying with this voice, taking the mask of mockery, cynicism, and intelligence from Flaubert and placing it over their own faces. When reading Nabokov’s Lolita, for instance, one detects a Flaubertian sensibility behind the scornful needling of American middle-class life. We all regard an eminent author’s derision of human foolishness and mediocrity as appealing; we read his books, in some respects, to hear these voices and live among them.

On the other hand, despite all of Flaubert’s anger and derision, he wasn’t an arrogant writer. And he discovered a language that allowed him, through the frame of the novel, to analyze up close his protagonists and those who were unlike him. After reading his taunting letter about his friend’s marriage and entry into mundane bourgeois life, we are reminded of the essential strength of the novelist Flaubert by the affection with which he described the very same childhood friends in A Sentimental Education, 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. 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 into 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 I’ve just now conjured is not all that distant from this Flaubert of great compassion. It’s not difficult for the reader who admires him to imagine these two Flauberts as lobes of the same heart. I’ve always identified with this author, who on one hand felt boundless anger and resentment toward humanity, and on the other hand nurtured a profound compassion and understanding for individual men and women. Whenever I read his work, I’m urged to say, “Monsieur Flaubert, c’est moi!”

Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. This piece, which has been translated by Erdag Goknar, was excerpted from a speech delivered in Germany under the title “Monsieur Flaubert.”

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