Thomas Mann was an archmodernist, and this was his favorite story: One day, Gustave Flaubert was out walking with his sister. Ferociously antibourgeois, Flaubert lived alone, unconsoled and unencumbered by marriage or family. His novels mocked and maligned the French middle class, ironizing it into oblivion. He was a great frequenter of brothels and had fornicated his way through Paris and Cairo. And yet here he was out for a stroll, suddenly stopping in his tracks before a small house surrounded by a white picket fence.
In the yard, a solid middle-class father played with his typical middle-class children while wife and mother looked lovingly on. The enemy! Yet instead of holding his nose, Flaubert gestured toward the house and exclaimed, without irony: “Ils sont dans le vrai!” (“They are in the truth!”) For Mann, the delightful incident illustrated the tension between the outrage at conventional life and the yearning to be part of it that tore at modernist psyches. There is more to aesthetic rebellion than offends the eye.
Surprisingly, the anecdote doesn’t appear in Peter Gay’s “Modernism: The Lure of Heresy,” a massive history of the movement in all its artistic forms — painting, sculpture, fiction, poetry, music, architecture, design, film (though, bafflingly, not photography, one of the chief catalysts of the modernist revolution).
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