hitchens on flaubert


Flaubert is pitiless with his wretched creations, allowing them no moment of joy, or even ease. It is enough for them to turn their hands to a project for it to expire in chaos and slapstick, and after a while this, too, shows the shortcomings of the unpolished, because we can hear the sound of collapsing scenery before the stage has even been set. True bathos requires a slight interval between the sublime and the ridiculous, but no sooner have our clowns embarked on a project than we see the bucket of whitewash or the banana skin. The story is set in motion by their rash decision to quit Paris for the Norman countryside: it was a rule of fiction before Flaubert that city clerks attempting agricultural improvements would end up with smellier sewage, thinner crops, sicker animals and more combustible hayricks than even the dullest peasant. A hinge event in Flaubert’s writing is the revolution of 1848. If he ever read Marx and Engels’s manifesto of that year, with its remark about “the idiocy of rural life,” he evidently decided to go it one better. In his bucolic scheme, every official is a dolt, every priest a fool or knave, every milkmaid diseased and unchaste, every villager either a boozer or a chiseler. (I am influenced here, perhaps, by Pollizzotti’s use of American idioms like “Are you putting me on?”)

more from the NY Times Book Review here.