Review of M. Gustave Flaubert's novel on the Lemoine Affair by Sainte-Beuve in his contribution for "Le Constitutionnel"
The Lemoine Affair... by M. Gustave Flaubert! so very soon after Salammbô, the title has caused general surprise. What? the author has set up his easel in the middle of Paris, in the law-court, in the chamber of the magistrate's court... : we thought he was still in Carthage! M. Flaubert - estimable in all this in his fancy and his predilection - is not one of those writers that Martial1 mocked so artfully and who, past masters in their field, or reputedly so, take up their positions, fortify themselves, being careful above all not to lay themselves open to criticism, never exposing more than one flank at a time in their manoeuvres. M. Flaubert, on the other hand, likes to multiply his reconnaissances and his attacks, to open up a front on both sides, may I say, he takes up challenges, conditions that have been offered, and never lays claim to the choice of arms or the advantage of the terrain. But this time, it must be acknowledged, that this sudden about turn, this return from Egypt (or very nearly) like Bonaparte, and no certain victory being ratified, did not appear very fortunate; we saw in it, or thought we saw in it, let's say it, a hint of mystification. Some of us have gone so far as to utter, and not without reason, the word wager. This wager, M. Flaubert, at all events, was it won? It is this that we are going to discuss with total frankness, but without ever forgetting that the author is the son of a rather unfortunate man, that we have all known, a professor at the school of medicine at Rouen, who has left his mark and his scope in his profession and in his province; and this amiable son - whatever opinion we may have moreover in opposition to what some precocious young people have no hesitation, through good-will, in already calling his talent - deserves, moreover, every respect for the acknowledged simplicity of his ever trustworthy and his decidedly popular narratives - he, the very opposite to simplicity as soon as he picks up his pen! - by the invariable refinement and delicacy of his conduct.
The narrative begins with a
scene that, better executed, would have been able to give a
tolerably favourable idea of M. Flaubert, in the immediate and
impromptu style of a first sketch, of a study taken from life. We
are in the law court, in the magistrate's court, where the
Lemoine affair is being tried, during a suspension in the
proceedings. The windows have just been closed on the orders of
the presiding judge. And here an eminent barrister assures me
that the presiding judge would have nothing to do with it, since
in fact it seems more natural and proper, in these sort of
things, and that even during a suspension he would certainly have
retired to his council chamber. It is only a detail if you like.
But you who come and tell us (as if you had really counted them!)
the number of elephants and onagers in the Carthaginian army, how
do you hope, I ask you, to be taken at your word when, for such
an immediate truth, so easily verifiable, so summary even and not
at all detailed, you perpetrate such blunders! But let us pass
on: the author wanted an opportunity to describe the presiding
judge, he has not let it slip. This judge has "a clownish
face, a robe too tight for his bulk (awkwardly put and which
tells us nothing), pretensions of wit". Again we will leave aside the
clownish face! The author is from the school that never sees
anything noble or praiseworthy in humanity. Yet M. Flaubert,
being from lower Normandy, comes from an area known for subtle
artifice and superior wisdom that has given France plenty of
eminent barristers and magistrates, I do not want to single them
out here. Without even limiting ourselves to the boundaries of
Normandy, the image of one magistrate Jeannin, one Mathieu
Marais, one Saumaise, one Bouhier, the agreeable Patru2 indeed, so many of these men
distinguished by their wise counsel and infallible attainments,
would be just as interesting, I believe, and just as real, as
that of the magistrate with the "clownish face" that he
presents us with here. Be off with your clownish face! But if he
has "pretensions of wit", how do you know, all the more
so as he has not even opened his mouth yet? And likewise the
author, amongst the public who he is describing points his finger
to a "reactionary". A much used expression these days.
But here again I ask M. Flaubert: "A reactionary? how can
you tell that from such a distance? Who told you? How do you
know?" The author is evidently amusing himself, and all
these traits are gratuitous inventions. But still that is not
all, let us proceed. The author continues to paint the public, or
rather the innocent unpaid "models" that he has grouped
together at leisure in his studio: "Taking an orange from
his pocket a negro..." Traveller, nothing comes from your
mouth but words of truth, of "objectivity", you make a
profession of it, you make a show of it; but beneath this
professed impersonality, how quickly we can recognize you, even if it is only from this negro, this orange, presently this parrot,
recently disembarked with you, these collected
accessories that you swiftly rush to veneer onto your
sketch, the most motley, I proclaim, the least veracious, the
least resemblant that your pencil ever struggled to produce.
So, the negro takes an orange out of his pocket, and so doing he... "brought respect upon himself"! M. Flaubert, I well understand, wants to show in a crowd someone who wants to make use of and demonstrate an advantage, not unusual and familiar to everyone, who takes out a drinking cup when nearby somebody is drinking from the bottle; a newspaper, if he is the only one that had thought to buy one, how much this particular one is immediately deemed more worthwhile and superior to the others. But confess that in the main you are not displeased, by venturing such a bizarre and uncalled-for expression of respect, to insinuate that any respect, up to the most lofty and the most far-fetched, there is no more to it than that, that it is done through the desire that they give to others benefits that in the end are of no value. Well, we say to M. Flaubert, that is not right; respect is something we earn - and we know that the example will touch you, since you are not of the school of insensibility, of impassibility, except in literature, - it is earned through a whole life dedicated to learning, to humanity. Literature, in former times, was able to provide it too, when it was only the pledge and so to speak the flower of urbanity of the mind, of that entirely human disposition that can have, certainly, its predilection and its aims, but admits, next to images of vice and ridicule, innocence and virtue. Without going back to the ancients (much more "naturalists" than you will ever be, but who, on a painting cut out into a real frame, always send down from the open air as from the open sky a divine ray that sets its light on the pediment and illuminates the contrast), without going back to those that have the name of Homer or Moschus. Bion or Leonidas of Tarentum3, and in order to come to more premeditated paintings, is this another thing, we say, that these same writers have always done whom you have no hesitation in making use of? And Saint-Simon at first sight, next to quite atrocious and slanderous portraits of a Noailles or a Harlay4, what strokes of the brush does he not have to display for us, in his light and proportion, the virtue of a Montal, a Beauvilliers, a Rancé, a Chevreuse5? And even in that "Comédie humaine", or so it is called, in which M. de Balzac, with laughable conceit, claims to portray "scenes from Parisian life and the provinces" (he, a man incapable of observation if ever there was one), compared with and as if in atonement for the Hulots, Philippe Bridau, Balthazar Claes6, as he names them, and of whom your Narr' Havasand your Shahabarims7 have nothing to envy, I confess, has he not imagined an Adeline Hulot, a Blanche de Mortsauf, a Marguerite de Solis8?
Certainly, they would have been very astonished, with good reason, Jacquemont, Merimée, Ampère9, all those men of ingenuity and learning who knew him so well and who did not believe that there was any necessity, for so little, to have so many bells sounded, had they been told that the spiritual Beyle, to whom we owe so many indisputable and profitable views, so many appropriate remarks, would pass as a novelist in our day. But in the end, he is still more true than you! But there is more truth in the slightest essay, I am talking about Sénac de Meilhan, Ramond or Althon Shée10, than in yours, so laboriously inexact! But all that is false to shout about, do you not feel?
Finally the sitting is resumed, Werner's barrister makes his address, and M. Flaubert informs us that as he turns to the presiding judge he acted each time with "such a profound bow that he brought to mind a deacon leaving the altar". That there could have been such barristers, and even on the Paris bench, "kneeling down" as the author says, before the court and the public ministry, is quite possible. But there are others too - that M. Flaubert does not want to acknowledge - and it is not so long ago that we heard the very illustrious Chaix d'Est Ange11 (whose published speeches have certainly lost none of their impetus and pungency, only their opportuneness and colloquium), proudly reply to a haughty summons from the public ministry: "Here, at the bar, Monsieur the Solicitor-General and I, we are equals, other than in talent!"
But the action moves on and hurries forward. The accused is introduced, and at first, at his appearance, certain persons regret (always these suppositions!) the riches that would have allowed them to go and live far away with a woman they have loved since their youth, in those hours of which the poet speaks, that alone are worthy of being lived and where one is inflamed from time to time for the rest of one's life, vita dignior aetas12. That fragment, read out in a loud voice, would offer sufficient harmony and vagueness. "They would have known the cry of the petrel, the arrival of the mists, the rocking of the ships, the formations of the clouds". But, I ask him, how do these petrels come to be here? The author is evidently beginning to amuse himself again, let us say the word, to mystify us. One does not have to have a degree in ornithology to know that the petrel is a very common bird around our coasts, and that there is no need to have discovered diamonds and made a fortune in order to encounter one. A huntsman who has often pursued it assures me that there is absolutely nothing peculiar about its call or anything that would strongly move someone who heard it. It is clear that the author has put that in as a random phrase. The cry of the petrel, he thought that would sound good. M. Chateaubriand is the foremost to have thus ushered in a studied framework of details added after the event and on the truth of which he showed no difficulty. But he, he had the divine gift, the word that sets the image on its feet, for always, as Joubert13 said, the talisman of the Enchanter. Ah! the descendants of Atala, the descendants of Atala, we meet you again everywhere today, even on the anatomist's dissecting table! etc.
1. Martial (c.40 - 104), Latin poet.
2. Pierre Jeannin (1540 - 1623), French magistrate and man of politics. Mathieu Marais (1665 - 1737), French writer. Claude de Saumaise (1588 - 1653), French jurist. Jean Bouhier (1673 - 1746), French magistrate. Olivier Patru (1604 - 1681), French advocate and writer.
3. Moschus (2nd century BC), Greek poet. Bion (2nd century BC), Greek poet. Leonidas of Tarentum (3rd century BC), Greek poet.
4. Anna de Brancovan, comtesse de Noailles (1876 - 1933), French poet. Achille de Harlay (1639 - 1712), French man of politics.
5. Montal, French militarist. Paul, duc de Beauvilliers (1648 - 1714), governor of the duc de Bourgogne. Armand-Jean Le Bouthillier de Rancé (1626 - 1700), French priest. Charles, duc de Chevreuse (1646 - 1712).
6. Hulot, Philippe Bridau, Balthazar Claes, characters from La Comédie humaine.
7. Narr' Havas and Shahabarim, characters from Salammbô.
8. Adeline Hulot, Blanche de Mortsauf, Marguerite de Solis, characters from La Comédie humaine.
9. Victor Jacquemont (1801 - 1832), French explorer and naturalist. Prosper Merimée (1803 - 1870), French writer. Jean-Jacques Ampère (1800 - 1864), French historian.
10. Gabriel Sénac de Meilhan (1736 - 1803), French writer. Louis de Ramond de Carbonnières (1755 - 1827), French naturalist and writer. Comte Edmond d'Althon Shée (1810 - 1874), French man of politics.
11. Charles Chaix-d'Est-Ange (1800 - 1876) - French lawyer and politician.
12. Quotation from Virgil: Tua vita dignior aetas (Aeneid), literally: "Your age is more deserving than your life".
13. Joseph Joubert (1754 - 1824), French writer.
Article appeared in Le Figaro, 14 March 1908 and reprinted with minor changes in Pastiches et Mélanges (Libraire Gallimard, 1919).
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