"First and foremost, I would like to thank Gustave Flaubert, for so many things, and for so many reasons."1
When I had finished my dissertation on the relationship between nineteenth-century French realism and twentieth-century postmodernism, as portrayed in Flaubert's work and Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot (are you still with me?), I figured that I could only start off my acknowledgments by thanking and recognising the Rouen writer who influenced (and shaped) literary realism more than any other writer. And while my (three pages of) acknowledgements as a whole were (purposefully) a "tad nauseating,"2 no amount of gratitude when it came to Flaubert was enough, to be honest.
While it was Tolstoy's Anna Karenina3 that first sparked my academic interest in literature, Flaubert's oeuvre, far exceeding any other literary influence, made me fall in love with literature in a dangerously obsessive manner. It taught me that there is no such thing as "form over function," "story above all," "form over matter," that "plot is the most important part," or that the construction of a novel is—which might be an odd thing to conclude seeing that Flaubert's realism dictates a perfect form above a perfect story, but the nuance lies with the different application of perfect there.
However, I do not want to get into an examination of literary realism, or a comparison between writing styles, here. Foremost, because to me, Flaubert is on his own.
Which is not only evident from his published works of fiction. While I feel that no other writer could have crafted L'Éducation sentimentale in the manner Flaubert did (with its "ironic realism" at times), his published letters further establish that he was very serious, iconic, and fresh in his approach to literature. And so I thanked him for:
"His beautiful use of language, grammar, and punctuation in his fiction, on one hand; and the coarse, forthright, fault-finding, but most of the time incredibly sincere discourse that can be found in his personal letters, on the other. For the statement, 'May I die like a dog rather than hurry by a single second a sentences that isn't ripe!' Because he not only showed the 'naked truth' in his fiction, but also never withheld his opinion in conversation."
Francis Steegmuller's two-volume collection of letters4 is—in addition to my atheist-ownership of an eighteenth-century English family bible—the most important piece of literature I own, for two clear-cut reasons:
- They show the theoretical and practical background of Flaubert's crafting of (what would eventually become) literary realism, and his journey towards it;
- The letters make it very obvious why separating author (Author) from the literary work (Art) is necessary in academic literary criticism.
Even though it may seem like I have constantly been linking my admiration of Flaubert to my love of his literary output, they are completely separate. As I also argued in the main content of my dissertation (way past the personal, ironic acknowledgements), there are essentially three admirations here: of Flaubert as a person (as witnessed in his personal letters); of Flaubert as a literary realist (taken from the opinions expressed in his letters, as well as from close-reading his literary works); and of the work written by "Gustave Flaubert," who as author does not matter in this third admiration.
To clarify: do I think Bouvard et Pécuchet is a great novel with a literary tightness unchallenged by its incompleteness, simply because it was written by Flaubert, or because it "happens" to adhere to the writing style that belongs to and is dictated by (the literary movement supported by) Flaubert? While a subtle but highly important difference, I believe the answer speaks for itself. S