Response to Thibaudet's 'Gustave Flaubert'

   My dear Thibaudet,

   You implicate me very nicely in your excellent "Gustave Flaubert" (so rich, so thorough) with respect to "the friendly discussion that you might say I had with Marcel Proust, in the Nouvelle Revue Française". Had I not currently been prevented from doing so I would gladly pursue that discussion, because I do not yield to your every point. For example I have in the past quoted as a phrase that Flaubert was fond of, this one of Montesquiou's: "Alexander's vices were as extreme as his virtues. He was terrible in a rage. It made him cruel." You go further, you say: He goes one better than quoting that phrase, he imitates it. The example you give of this imitation does not seem to me to be very striking. I would much rather see you substitute it for the one in which you detect the touch of Labruyère and I myself detect the touch of Montesquiou. "Everyone went after the working men. People intrigued for the favour of being associated with them. They became nobles." "They became nobles" is exactly "It made him cruel". It would be quite pedantic and quite vain to dwell on that point if the principal mechanism of Flaubert's phases was not visible in them. A word is drawn from the genitive or the ablative where it lodges inside a phrase and through a reversal becomes the subject of the following phrase. And once begun this never stops, it will not enter into the open air between Flaubert's phrases that have, as they say about motor cars, their steering or their controls on the inside. The more the word that begins the phrase is unexpected as the subject, the more pleasing is the grammatical surprise. In Flaubert's later works, in Un Coeur simple for example, it is often necessary to reread what has come before a few times to be certain that it is about Félicité and not Mme Aubain, or some other character. The he or the she may be obscure, but that does not matter, its worth is primarily through its power as a lever, it is a motor. We may remain indefinitely beneath that sealed bell-jar of progress, unless we are suffocating and cannot save ourselves. Formerly I have taken "baths of compressed air" beneath an analogous bell-jar that were odious to me and made me very ill. In the no less hermetically sealed prose of Flaubert I find on the contrary that I could not be more comfortable. Great minds of great writers like Léon Daudet on the other hand experience the suffocation in it that I felt in my baths of compressed air. Note that in no way do I wish to suggest that Flaubert let it be said of himself analytically "Any agreement other than the genitive becoming the subject enhances the phrase and propels it". He has rather imitated in a completely instinctive and musical way the phrase of Montesquiou's. It is even probable that he has not imitated him and simply recognizing as misplaced and proactive in Montesquiou, a phrase precursive to Flaubert himself, he admired it, as does any creative artist who encounters in the Past something that could have been his own.

Manuscript article in response to Albert Thibaudet's recently published biography of Flaubert, intended for La Nouvelle Revue Française but never published. July 1922. See Nathalie Mauriac Dyer's article: "Défense de Flaubert (1919-1922)" and Bulletin d’Informations proustiennes, n° 30, 1999 (p. 29-48).


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