The end of 2021 witnessed an unusual literary event: the bicentennials of two geniuses of modern fiction. They were arguably the leading novelists of their respective countries: the Russian Fyodor Dostoevsky (November 11) and the Frenchman Gustave Flaubert (December 12). No conclusive biographical evidence exists that Dostoevsky ever read Madame Bovary (1857) or anything else by Flaubert. The reverse is certainly true: Flaubert knew no Russian, while Dostoevsky was little known in France until after he died in 1881, a year after Flaubert’s own death.
Still, the coincidence of the bicentennial anniversaries of their births provides an occasion to explore the fascinating similarities between the two writers within the enormous continent of their differences. Otherwise, no one would ever think to pair two authors so dissimilar as the punctilious, perfectionistic exemplar of French prose and the chaotic, disordered genius of the Russian novel. Indeed: not even the recent passing of their dual bicentennial prompted scholarly reflection on their resemblances and dissimilitudes, which says as much about academic overspecialization as it does about the two authors.
Progenitors of the Modern Novel
At first glance, Dostoevsky and Flaubert stand at the opposing poles of style and sensibility in late 19th-century European consciousness—of “the European axis” of “literary space,” as the literary scholar Andrzej Busca has phrased it. At one extreme, we see the excruciatingly controlled precision of Flaubertian fiction; at the other, we meet the wild, passionate, often nightmarish moods and literary modes of a Dostoevsky novel. In this view, Flaubert, “the hermit of Croisset,” is the exquisite genius who fathered literary realism, the perfectionist who strove unceasingly for le mot juste, while Dostoevsky became, arguably, the greatest imaginative artist of psychological realism. Freud called The Brothers Karamazov (1880) the most powerful novel ever written. Joseph Conrad, a Pole, while abominating the pan-Slavist, pro-czarist Dostoevsky (“he is too Russian for me”) and vilifying him as “a grimacing terror-haunted creature,” allowed that he was the greatest psychologist ever to pen a novel.
And it is precisely here that we spot the breathtakingly common achievement by these co-inventors of the modern novel—these practitioners of new modes of “realistic narrative,” a term that both authors would deny, dispute, and revalue. Coming from different directions and drawing on different literary resources—a fact that, as we shall see, has obscured our recognition of the two authors’ confluence—they jettisoned the traditional narrator and thereby transformed the art of storytelling.
Flaubert’s approach was stylistic, even deistic, whereby a form of narrative withdrawal, or renunciation, renders the impassive narrator a neutral, “uninvolved” witness, an observer of events. Dostoevsky’s approach, expressed through character, was psychological, even psycho-pathological. The traditional authoritative narrator is dissolved into an ether-like consciousness. Internal dialogue and external events swirl and mix and blur in this fantastical psychic space, with the novel’s characters speaking in a discordant chorus of voices—characters in search of a (unified) consciousness à la Pirandello. The Flaubertian narrator aspires to a scrupulous objectivity; the Dostoevskian “voices” are inevitably fragmentary and subjective.
In their joint assault on the conventions of 19th-century fiction, both Flaubert and Dostoevsky engage in a kind of literary kenosis, emptying or stripping traditional narration of characteristic features such as authoritative commentary, intervention, or intrusion. It “all begins again with Flaubert,” critic James Wood wrote in How Fiction Works (2008). He should have added: “And with Dostoevsky.”
Elective Affinities and Disaffinities
Let us begin with some broad generalizations that suggest some common ground, notwithstanding the differences that we mentioned at the outset. Not only were both Dostoevsky and Flaubert ingenious analysts of human motivation, they also created immortal literary characters who will live as long as literature is valued. As creators, however, the two writers were tortured—yet in very different ways: Flaubert by a soi-disant impossibly pure and elevated aesthetic ideal; and Dostoevsky by dogmatic views on religious tenets (Russian Orthodox Christianity) and ethnic/nationalist convictions (for example, the latter included a virulent antisemitism, antipathy toward Poles, and an exaltation of Russia’s purportedly foreordained spiritual mission to save and spearhead the human race. Still, Dostoevsky’s life and work are redeemed by his unstinting compassion for sufferers of all kinds, his fierce denunciation of the evils of autocracy, and his heartfelt—sometimes maudlin—sympathy for the oppressed. However reactionary his outlook became in later years, he remained in many respects the youthful revolutionary imbued with a commitment to justice and a hatred of tyranny.
If Flaubert sought to make a religion of art, Dostoevsky aspired to exalt religion through his art. Both writers were convinced that their own conceptions of culture and civilization were of the most advanced and creative sort—and were essential to the future welfare of humanity.
It is fitting that the author of Madame Bovary has become known as the “martyr of style,” a characterization voiced by Walter Pater and applied by critics so often since the publication of Flaubert’s journals and letters that it could be engraved on his tombstone. It is equally appropriate that Dostoevsky has been memorialized as the “master of Petersburg,” the title of a distinguished biographical novel published in 1994 by the South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, since so much of Dostoevsky’s work is set in his adopted city.
What lends significance to such comparisons is that both authors are viewed today as towering exemplars of their respective countries. Flaubert is la France, idealized in the Western imagination as a land of impeccable style, unparalleled precision (from Descartes to Valéry and beyond), l’amour, and la beauté. He represents these aspects of the French collective consciousness of his era more completely than Hugo or Stendhal or Balzac, the three French literary artists regarded as his peers in the latter half of the 19th century.
Dostoevsky, for his part, exemplifies the unbridled passion, limitless intellectual vistas, endless theoretical ruminations, and above all the messianic utopianism of the Russian soul. Some of those elements are also present in other 19th-century Russian authors, like Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Lermontov; Gogol exerted a decisive influence on Dostoevsky as a pioneering literary psychologist, just as the Francophile Turgenev strongly influenced Flaubert. Yet it is Dostoevsky’s four greatest novels—Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), The Demons (1872), and especially The Brothers Karamazov—that embody this age of Russian social turmoil and literary splendor most fully and directly.
Flaubertian Orientalism and Dostoevskian “Fantastical Realism?”
Yet there is more, far more, and it complicates—and often contradicts—the preliminary generalizations about these authors. (Flaubert, with his horror of platitudes, would have been the first to object.) The universally known Flaubert of Madame Bovary is traditionally associated with le mot juste and supreme narrative control. Yet the same author followed up that novel with his salacious, violent saga of ancient Carthage, Salammbô (1862), a sensational bestseller in Second Empire France that is nearly forgotten today.
After the public controversies and courtroom drama involving Madame Bovary and its scandalous alleged “endorsement” of adultery and immorality, another and very different Flaubert undertakes a new novel as boisterous and raging as old Karamazov and as stormy as any vituperative altercation in The Demons or The Brothers Karamazov. Flaubert presents a panorama closer to A Thousand and One Arabian Nights than that of any Russian contemporary and as wild and debauched as any delirium that Dostoevsky ever depicted.
As for the reputedly slapdash and chaotic Dostoyevsky, half-crazed by weekly epileptic seizures and feverishly scribbling away while missing one publisher’s deadline after another, his first and most widely read major novel, Crime and Punishment, is a tightly wrought work. As Edward Wasiolek first argued in the 1950s, the novel exhibits not just skilled craftsmanship but a formal design characterized by a symmetrical relationship between episodes throughout its two halves, featuring the predominantly rational and proud Raskolnikov (Parts I–III) and the emerging deranged, abject Raskolnikov (III–VI). Not only is the book tautly written; it exhibits impressive dramatic pacing and a sophisticated psycho-logic, manifested in the hero’s steady, relentless disintegration as his crime and composure unravel.
The prevailing view that Dostoevsky was a rather artless, negligent storyteller stems in no small part from his pioneering narrative techniques (alternations of first/third/omniscient points of view, conflicting flashbacks of memory, abrupt shifts of temporal sequence, interior “dialogues” presented as abrupt crisscrossings in/out/among “voices” of characters or their thoughts), all of which mainstream European literary critics deplored as a discordant farrago of zigzagging plot and histrionic characters prone to torrential harangues and breast-beating oratory. It was as if they were recoiling from what would later be recognized as a literary equivalent of the “cacophonous” atonal music of the avant-garde. As Joseph Frank has explained in his magisterial five-volume biography of Dostoevsky, Victorian and Edwardian readers, accustomed to relatively orderly, linear narratives, underestimated Crime and Punishment as well as much of Dostoevsky’s later work. It was not until the formalist experiments of the modernists “retrained” sensibilities that Dostoevsky’s pathbreaking achievement was fully appreciated.
Frank was building on the insights of Mikhail Bakhtin, who had argued since the 1920s that any “monological” criticism that approached Dostoevsky’s work from an extrinsic intellectual framework like Marxism, psychoanalysis, or existentialism could never appreciate Dostoevsky’s labyrinthine “artistic architectonics.” Dostoevsky’s art is “logical”—that is, inherently dialogical—with the narrative proceeding through fierce volleys conducted by embattled inner critics, as it were: Raskolnikov’s consciousness is the fractious battleground for all of the conflicts and contradictions in the outer Petersburg world.
From Crime and Punishment onward, critics have lamented, even mocked Dostoevsky’s affinity for allegedly outlandish plots and extreme characters. Dostoevsky always maintained, however, that his narratives and protagonists mirrored reality and were fully realistic—exemplifying a “fantastical realism,” in his paradoxical phrase. He noted that his own malady—temporal lobe epilepsy, from which his protagonists, ranging from Raskolnikov to Prince Myshkin (in The Idiot) also suffer—could trigger “fantastical” situations and behaviors yet occupied the very center of his daily reality. Dostoevsky was aiming for a realism that mirrored not just “superficial” factual reality but a deeper realism that showed “how the mind works in extreme situations,” as Gary Saul Morson has phrased it.
Exoticism, Excess, and Épater les bourgeois!
Oddly enough, the twenty-year-old Flaubert bears an uncanny resemblance in certain respects to Dostoevsky: Even before ignominiously failing his 1842 law exams, in a mean-spirited mockery of a fellow student, Flaubert repeatedly and cruelly play-acted being in the throes of epileptic seizures. (Or, as some biographers and medical scientists have wondered: Was it in fact “mockery”? Or real seizures?)
Just as we need to appreciate Dostoevsky’s “fantastical realism”—and not just pigeonhole him as the champion of Russian Orthodoxy and defender of enlightened autocracy—it may be more helpful to conceive of Flaubert as not just the anatomist of “Provincial Manners” (the subtitle of Madame Bovary in the first edition), but rather as the fantasist par excellence, ranging from his own era of the mid-19th century (Madame Bovary, Sentimental Education ) to Roman and Christian antiquity (Salammbô, “The Legend of St. Julien” , “Herodias” ).
Flaubert the fantasist had a special penchant for the “jeweled” past, the exotic, the hothouse atmosphere of luxuriance or decadence. These are prominent distinguishing features in much of his oeuvre. Those aspects of his work—along with his sometimes persnickety pedicuring, on the one hand, and Dostoevsky’s inclinations toward vast, Balzacian or Hugolian sweep and sprawl, on the other—serve to separate the two writers widely.
Readers of Madame Bovary who focus on its descriptive realism and its setting in the near-present tend, however, to miss the very artfulness—or better, artifice—that distinguishes much of Flaubert’s work from that of Dostoevsky’s: Flaubert’s exotic, Orientalist, rarified side. Its importance is suggested by the fact that he began his mature career as a writer of prose fiction in his mid-twenties with his prose poem The Temptation of St. Anthony (1849, endlessly revised à la Wordsworth’s Prelude) and was chided by his friends for not working with contemporary settings or characters. Thereupon in reaction he began Madame Bovary. Reacting against it, however, he followed it up with Salammbô, which in turn brought him back to the near-present (of the 1848 revolution and the advent of the Second Empire) in Sentimental Education, only once again to reach back to a barbaric, tempestuous antiquity in his contes “Herodias” and “The Legend of St. Julien.”
Exoticism, Orientalism, and Catholicism with erotic undertones, all of it delivered in a highly wrought, sometimes arguably overwrought, style reminiscent of 17th- and 18th-century French idioms and locutions, and everywhere the combination of extraordinary discipline as to characters’ psychology and endlessly ramified ironies (even in the loving depictions, as of the female peasant protagonist in the third conte of the late 1870s in Flaubert’s “Un Coeur simple” (“A Simple Heart”)—all of this does indeed lie poles apart from Dostoevsky. It is these spangled, exotic works that most fully spotlight the contrasts between the two authors.
And yet, within their shared literary and axiological space, an important and unmistakable resemblance prevails in the utter disdain both writers harbored for mere conventionality, “safe” thinking and acting, lukewarm reactions, intellectual posturing, and lazy opinions.
Flaubert, with a patrician contempt drenched in sovereign irony, inveighed against not only bourgeois materialism but working-class vulgarity. Both classes, he believed, were enemies of art and lovers of mammon. With withering mockery he savaged them in his final, incomplete novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881), and in The Dictionary of Platitudes (1913). Much of Sentimental Education also addresses what Flaubert regarded as the bankruptcy, smugness, and soul-rotting mediocrity of self-satisfied banality.
Dostoevsky, too, wrote with searing disgust for conformist social norms, though he had immense sympathy for “poor folk” (the title of his first, epistolary novel in 1846). Furthermore, however psychologically disturbed the Underground Man, the ranting first-person narrator in the Notes from Underground (1864), may be, he is also indisputably more authentic, more human than the nonentities all around him who commit to nothing, feel nothing, ache and bleed for nothing. Here, as elsewhere, the psychological penetration of Dostoevsky’s portraiture fully justifies Freud’s uncharacteristically modest claim that psychoanalysis was merely expressing in expository prose what “poets” such as Dostoevsky had depicted in their fictions.
The Effluence of Dostoevskian Influence …
Dostoevsky’s stature as a world author—rivaled only by Dickens and Tolstoy as the preeminent exponent of prose fiction—is well known. His influence on modern Western writers ranging from Joyce, Lawrence, and Woolf to Nietzsche, Kafka, Sartre, and Camus is vast; he is the philosopher’s writer, the psychologist’s writer. Dostoevsky’s portrait hung in Heidegger’s Freiburg study throughout the philosopher’s lifetime. Freud and Faulkner exalted The Brothers Karamazov as the pinnacle of achievement in the novel; both Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn nominated Crime and Punishment for that honor; still others, like Iris Murdoch, have acclaimed The Demons as the “greatest novel ever written.” Even Tolstoy wrote only two novels proposed for such an accolade; no other author, including Flaubert, has more than a single contender that consistently receives a first-place vote.
Dostoevsky is not only the philosopher and psychologist of the novel; the author of The Demons—doubtless the most formidable critique of nihilism and revolution ever written—is also its prophet. Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn touted and trembled before Dostoevsky’s prescience, regarding his demonic doctrine of “Shigalevism” (shigalevshchina) as an astounding, horrific, full-blown vision of the “Great Purge” and the gulag of their Stalinist present.
Lionized as a “genius” by his cell mates, Shigalev, the social theoretician among the members of the conspiratorial sect depicted in The Demons, proclaims that “unlimited despotism” is the sine qua non of utopia. Anticipating anti-utopians ranging from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924) to George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949), Shigalev proclaims that the revolutionary avant-garde will exercise unlimited power over the sheep-like masses, which will be “secure and happy in their equality:” They will be reduced to animals. “They shall all be equal in their slavery!” rhapsodizes the sectarian leader Pyotr Verkhovensky, elaborating on Shigalev’s doctrine. No fewer than “one hundred million will be eliminated.” (Prophetic indeed! That figure matches the international death toll of communism as calculated by the ex-Maoist French authors of The Black Book of Communism.) As for those with “higher abilities,” the “gifted ones” who resist, Shigalev and Verkhovensky are the most ruthless exponents of “cancel culture” imaginable. Whoever and whatever is noble and cherished in civilization will be annihilated in the holocaust. As Verkhovensky proclaims, “Cicero will have his tongue cut out, Copernicus will have his eyes gouged out, Shakespeare will be stoned—that’s Shigalevism. Slaves must be equal.”
And what of Flaubert? His own novel of failed revolution before and during the events of 1848, Sentimental Education, is the only notable 19th-century work of European fiction to address most of the same topics as The Demons: the dilemma of how to build a good and just society, the wisdom of radical change, the role of the intellectual, the relations between the elites and the masses, and the nature of class conflict and class solidarity. (Memorable scenes in Sentimental Education are studded with discussions and debates that address universal suffrage, the status of women, and the prerequisites for a democratic polity.)
Is it a stunning oversight that not a single scholar or critic has ever compared these two political novels? Certainly it would seem so, yet perhaps it is not so surprising after all. The topical similarities have escaped critical attention because each author’s treatments of these subjects varies so widely from the other’s. The chasm illuminates the large differences between Dostoevsky’s imagination and Flaubert’s—and the reasons why the authors themselves have never received sustained comparison.
Unlike The Demons, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education is in fact not really a political novel at all. Rather, like its predecessor set a couple of decades earlier in 19th-century France, it is a novel addressing les moeurs de province—a Madame Bovary with a political background and a larger cast of characters who venture to and from la grande metropole.
That is to say, Sentimental Education is chiefly a novel of domestic “affairs;” its attention to public affairs is secondary. Instead, Flaubert scrutinizes personal relationships: The overwhelming preoccupations of the major characters center on the boudoir, not the polity. The endless romantic entanglements and assignations of the novel’s aimless hero, Frédéric Moreau—his fruitless pursuit of a married woman, his succession of mistresses, his attempts to deceive his women and his business associates—form the novel’s center.
And that is Flaubert’s point, albeit one easily missed: The failures in the domestic affairs of the “generation of 1848” mirror and contribute to their failures in public affairs. Their self-indulgent conduct of personal relationships has its counterpart in their hapless conduct of public life. Flaubert once said that he aspired to write the “moral history of the men of my generation.” To many readers, Sentimental Education is closer to the demoralizing soap opera of his generation.
Flaubert’s political theme is easily elided or misconstrued, not only because Sentimental Education transpires on a smaller, paler canvas than The Demons but also because its characters are dispirited; its theme is dispiriting. Dostoevsky and his revolutionaries are impassioned; Flaubert’s Frédéric is dispassionate.
… and the Flaubertian Cult of Impersonality
The predominantly domestic tableaux and the microscopic inspection of personal relations in Flaubert’s two best novels—Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education—are also suggestive for the question of how Flaubert’s reputation as a novelist differs from that of Dostoevsky.
The breadth of Flaubert’s influence is narrower: He is the writer’s writer. It is, however, no less deep—and, if anything, even deeper: more impassioned, more intense. Flaubert’s champions are reverent acolytes, even ardent proselytes, for his art and his conduct of the artistic life.
Indeed, one should not even speak of “influence.” Flaubert is nothing less than a cult hero in some circles. This status owes much to his agonized dedication to his craft and his commitment to aesthetic perfection, both documented in endless detail in his journals and voluminous correspondence. Flaubert was a devout, lifelong, dues-paying member of the High Church of belle littérature, complete with self-mortifying sackcloth and thorns—and presides today as its high priest. His self-appointed missionary crusade for le mot juste, his unconditional submission to the self-sacrificing demands of his writing, and his unalloyed hatred for the bourgeois represent the holy trinity of the “martyr of style.” (Despite Flaubert’s professed antagonism toward all that was bourgeois, his own middle-class routine—the country squire’s home, the pied à terre in Paris, etcetera—induced Jean-Paul Sartre in his existential biography to portray him as a bourgeois icon.)
The legion of literary artists who champion and cherish Flaubert as the quintessential “writer’s writer” and extol his uncompromising commitment to his artistic vocation is long. Novelists ranging from his early disciples (Guy de Maupassant, Edmond de Goncourt, Alphonse Daudet, Émile Zola) to respected authors of our day (Ian McEwan, Orhan Pamuk, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov) are among the faithful of the “Flaubert cult.” Julian Barnes has called Madame Bovary the “best novel ever written.” The literary impressionism of Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, which is governed by their key concept of progression d’effet—the gathering force of nuance and detail that builds to a crescendo in a final, culminating sentence—expresses in a phrase one of Flaubert’s aesthetic aims. (Readers encounter it brilliantly executed in the exquisite closing paragraphs of both Madame Bovary and “Un Coeur simple.”)
James Wood’s rhapsody to Madame Bovary in his critic’s handbook, How Fiction Works, speaks for Flaubert enthusiasts when he writes (in a passage we cited earlier), “[I]t all begins again with him.” Wood goes on:
There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible. We hardly remark of good prose that it favors the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the author’s fingerprints on all this are paradoxically traceable but not visible.
Flaubert’s “unsentimental composure,” his humble willingness to “withdraw” and remain “neutral,” his “truth-seeking” courage even to “repel” us readers: Flaubert’s devotees pride themselves on perceiving and prizing these “invisible” signs of his kenosis. If this is a cult, it is a cult of impersonality—or better: a cult of personality in the guise of impersonality, of the master as valet. (T.S. Eliot was the object of a comparable mystique in the mid-20th century, though it has largely passed.)
Above all, Flaubert’s votaries value his example: The artist as indomitable creator, a hero of the spirit engaged in a lifetime of Sisyphean battles at his writing desk. Illustrating this excruciating heroism is an anecdote about his exchange with a visitor to Croisset. When a despairing Flaubert wailed that he had bled out a mere dozen words in his day’s travails, the guest responded: “Well, Gustave, that’s more than yesterday!” Pause. A piercing cry. Flaubert: “Yet how will I ever get them in the right order?!!” (Apocryphal? Yes. Implausible? Mais non.)
Dostoevsky, on the other hand, had contempt for any such notion as the “religion” of art. Not because he did not prize art, but rather because he treasured “religion” more. Witness The Demons, in which a secondary character voices a cherished article of Dostoevskian faith as he protests against the rising specter of Shigalevism. The speech should lay to rest the persistent allegations that Dostoevsky was an ideologue and polemicist who cared little about art:
I declare that Shakespeare and Raphael are greater than the emancipation of the serfs, greater than nationalism, greater than socialism, greater than the younger generation, greater than chemistry, almost greater than Humanity! Because they’re the fruit, the genuine fruit of all humanity, perhaps the greatest fruit that there can be.… Mankind can get along without science, without bread, but not without beauty. For then there would be nothing left.
Dostoevsky believed that “beauty”—moral as well as physical—was the elixir of human flourishing because it fostered the greatest art: the art of living. That is the meaning of the fervent Dostoevskian cry of Prince Myshkin, the quasi-autobiographical hero of The Idiot: “Beauty will save the world!” The arts enhance life.
By contrast, like Prince Myshkin, the “perfectly good man,” Dostoevsky regarded a “religion” of art—that is, placing anything whatever in lieu of religion, or even on the same level—as blasphemy. For the prince as well as for Dostoevsky, a “religious” outlook cultivated beauty of body and soul, so that religion was not only compatible with art but indispensable to it.
Here again, there are strange parallels. Was Flaubert himself a Prince Myshkin, a “‘perfectly good’ … artist?” Like Dostoevsky, Flaubert has been the subject of a massive five-volume biography: the never-completed, aforementioned psychoanalytic study by Sartre, The Family Idiot. In volume four, Sartre pursues the interconnections among Flaubert’s epileptic episodes, his ostensible childhood idiocy, and his “idiot savant” behavior at law school, after which Flaubert returned home, quickly finished two manuscripts (one of which became his first publication, the novella November, a Flaubertian Werther), and concluded that he was a genius destined to be a great artist.
Un Coeur “Simple”—or Shriveled?
Great artist or not, did Flaubert “write with a shriveled heart, which no stress on form or emphasis on style can hope to enlarge?” Joseph Epstein convicted him on that charge a decade ago. He is not the lone plaintiff. Epstein’s favorite novelist, the “Master” Henry James—who knew Flaubert personally—indicted the French Maître (as younger members of his literary circle called him) in similar terms. So too did Matthew Arnold, who pronounced Madame Bovary “a work of petrified feeling,” comparing it (and its author) unfavorably with Tolstoy’s novel of an adulterous woman who comes to grief, Anna Karenina. The latter and its heroine are so alive for Arnold that he pronounces it far more than “a work of art;” it is “a piece of life.” By contrast, Flaubert’s chef d’oeuvre is suffused with “an atmosphere of bitterness, irony, impotence; not a personage in the book to rejoice in or console us; the springs of freshness and feeling are not there to create such personages.”
The hallowed virtues of Flaubertian “impersonality” that James Wood catalogued in How Fiction Works are the very deficiencies that lead his detractors to condemn him as an emotional invalid with a “shriveled heart”—indeed, a sadist possessed by the “cruelty of petrified feeling.”
True or false? This supposed “hard truth” dissolves into a half-truth at most on sustained reflection. It conveniently ignores a tour de force that can stake a claim to be the finest—and most poignant—conte in the French language: “Un Coeur simple.”
The heroine is Félicité, whose nature is to love. She is as noble and pure as Prince Myshkin. She gives and gives and gives, incarnating what Rilke later termed “non-possessive love.” It goes unrequited. With quiet heroism and with nary a thought about her own welfare, let alone a shadow of resentment or doubt, she retains her simple, open heart—and even her innocent “felicity”—through a life impoverished in every way. As Flaubert describes it in a letter to a friend, “Un Coeur simple” is a
tale of the obscure life of a poor country girl [based on a beloved servant in his childhood home], devout but not given to mysticism, devoted in a quiet sober way and soft as newly baked bread. One after the other, she loves a man, her mistress’s children, a nephew, an old man, and then her parrot.… It is in no way ironic but on the contrary very serious and very sad. I want to move the reader to pity. I want to make sensitive souls weak, being one myself.
The story is a reply (and gentle riposte) to, and also a gift for, his dear friend George Sand, who had on occasion remonstrated with him in language echoing Matthew Arnold. Begun after receiving a sharp letter from her bemoaning that he was never anything except cynical, satirical, and skeptical, the story poured out of Flaubert within weeks. He concluded about this unprecedented, joyous bloodletting: “This time they won’t say I’m inhuman. On the contrary, I shall be considered a man of feeling.”
The accusations of unfeeling detachment and even inhuman cruelty have continued. Yet, quite apart from the allegedly mesmerized cultists, not a few readers have disagreed. Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac—a fervent Catholic and certainly no Flaubert cultist—confessed that the adamantly atheistic hermit of Croisset had moved him deeply by his “mystical innocence;” he was a religious fellow traveler, a mystic who could not acknowledge the divine, “a seeker of God in spite of himself.”
It is true that Flaubert tears away the veils concealing the sinister illusions promoted by religion and society, thus presenting the reader with plain “reality.” Here again, however, a superficial understanding of Flaubert’s realism misleads us. He repeatedly disavowed the name “realist,” which he associated with the photographic realism (or “naturalism”) of Zola and his followers, protesting that “realism” amounted to vigilant observation and painstakingly accurate description of surface realities.
Flaubert prided himself on seeking more than that. He regarded himself as a prose poet—indeed, a visionary bringing to fiction the laser-beam of intensity and densely concentrated focus of poetry, explicitly in order to penetrate surface reality. Delicately, ceaselessly lavishing care on even the tiniest detail, he aspired thereby to unveil a spectacle that would seize and hold the reader’s being. The emphases on form, on style, and dedication to craft were not ends in themselves. Rather, they were the key techniques of the novelist’s method for sharpening and realizing his vision. Pace his critics, his passionate pilgrimage to le mot juste was not a prissy aesthete’s compulsion. It was central to his vision quest, and it is best understood in light of another, oft-forgotten Flaubertian precept that Maupassant enshrined in a memorial tribute to the Master: Les mots ont une âme (Words have a soul).
Here we glimpse the startling fact that, starting from completely different ends—ostensibly “poles apart” on the European axis of literary consciousness—the ultimate aspiration of Flaubert the artist is much the same as that of Dostoevsky. So deeply did Flaubert identify with the visions that dripped from his pen that it was by no means unusual for him to live his characters’ struggles—and to feel overwhelmed by them: not an absence of emotion but rather a deluge of overpowering feeling. That is the existential reality pointing to the deeper meaning of his famous remark, “Madame Bovary—c’est moi.” More viscerally than the reading experience of any of his readers, he often inhabited a character as if the character were himself. As the French critic Maurice Nadeau has written, “All the self-imposed discipline, all the strict commands of his artistic convictions, could not prevent him from vomiting when Emma took the fatal dose of arsenic.” Nor could it have stopped him from “finally adopting the naive and simple views of [the pathetic dolts] Bouvard and Pécuchet. If he had been less on his guard, he would have become … a victim of the imaginary world that he himself had created.” His derisive critics likewise miss the depth of his famous statement: “I am un homme plume. I feel through my pen, I feel in relation to it, and much more with it in my hand.”
Yes, Gustave Flaubert. More than a man of the quill, he was a human pen.
The charges by Arnold, James, and others that Flaubert, the damnable human ink quill of petrified feeling, was an emotional invalid who required his own education sentimentale should be turned on its head: It is his critics who require an education of their sentiments in order to appreciate an aesthetics far removed in conception—and also, at its best, in practice—from art for art’s sake. Instead, it is a writer’s daily, self-disciplinary training for birthing his creative vision.
The Idiot Prince, Dostoevsky’s “Perfectly Good Man”
Several years before “Un Coeur simple” was published in 1877, Dostoevsky had also portrayed a human being with a pure and loving heart: Prince Myshkin in The Idiot (1869). In a letter to a close colleague, Dostoevsky explained that Myshkin was his vision of a “positively beautiful man,” of which there is “nothing more difficult in the world”—so difficult that it has rarely even been attempted in all of literature, added Dostoevsky. To create a man of truth and beauty and love: a beautiful soul. Only Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Dickens’ Mr. Pickwick are imaginable as candidates, and yet they fail because they are virtuous “and at the same time ridiculous.” The reader feels “compassion” for them yet cannot take them seriously. Jean Valjean in Les Misérables is “another powerful attempt,” but he arouses the reader’s “sympathy because of his terrible misfortune,” not on account of supernatural virtue. (Dostoevsky overlooks Hugo’s great-souled Bishop “Bienvenu” Myriel, my own candidate for the intelligent, keenly aware, and “perfectly good man” of modern Western literature.)
Doubtless unaware of “Un Coeur simple,” Dostoevsky also does not mention Félicité, though he would probably have excluded her as deficient in self-awareness or even as ridiculous or pitiable. Prince Myshkin—in his early notebooks Dostoevsky calls him “Prince Christ”—is, like Félicité, imbued with a self-sacrificing charity toward all. Some of his declamations amount to a virtual commentary on—indeed, a Flaubertian defense of—Flaubert’s humble, simple-hearted peasant heroine, as when the prince proclaims that “religious feeling does not come from any sort of reasoning.… You will notice it more clearly and quickly in the Russian heart than anywhere else.”
Unlike Félicité, however, Myshkin is an intelligent young man of twenty-six. He registers keen anguish upon seeing anyone distraught or unhappy. While Félicité acts spontaneously, as if from a primal maternal instinct for universal love (when she saves the life of her mistress and her two small children), Myshkin possesses a spiritual clairvoyance that enables him to see clearly into the thoughts and motives of others. He is well aware that most people regard him as “an idiot;” he even tells them how understandable and forgivable, if erroneous, their judgment is.
Yet Myshkin is not comical. Others do not mock or laugh at him. Instead, his utterly natural frankness, his freedom from vanity and vainglory, his pure innocence, and his boundless empathy toward human failings and frailty transform his all-too-human companions, who sense that he possesses an intelligence of the heart, the higher wisdom of the yurodivi (holy fool). They come to feel affection, gratitude, and even reverence toward him.
Unlike the yurodivi, however, the innocent prince is much admired, an educated aristocrat as well as a skilled calligrapher—and not a bizarre, anti-social, hysterical buffoon (or “idiot”) in the tradition of the fool for Christ. Except, that is, during an epileptic fit.
Not only is Myshkin, like Raskolnikov, an epileptic—here again, like Dostoevsky himself—he is also an impassioned believer in the grand destiny of Russian Orthodoxy to lead the human race toward sanctity, as well as an outspoken foe of capital punishment. He lashes out against Ippolit, the radical, tubercular young nihilist. During his engagement reception, he launches into an embarrassingly grotesque tirade about the evils of Catholicism, the dignity of the Russian aristocracy, and the nobility of the Slavic soul.
These scenes cast doubt on critics’ dismissals of Dostoevsky as a propagandist for Russian Orthodoxy; indeed, they testify to his artistic integrity. By putting his most dearly held beliefs in the mouth of Myshkin during a major epileptic seizure, a shattering event that scandalizes Petersburg society, Dostoevsky places art above ideology or dogma. Myshkin’s outbursts go against the grain of the author’s most firmly held doctrinal positions—just as Flaubert’s sympathetic, poignant portrait of Félicité would cut across his own established literary credo of authorial detachment and distance.
As Joseph Frank writes:
For with an integrity that cannot be too highly praised, Dostoevsky fairly submits his own most hallowed convictions to the same test that he had used for those of the nihilist, the test of what they would mean for human life if taken seriously and literally, and lived out to their full extent as guides for personal conduct. With exemplary honesty, he portrays the extremism of his own eschatological ideal, incarnated by the prince, as being equally incompatible with the normal demands of ordinary social life. It constitutes just as much a disruptive scandal as the appearance of Christ himself did among the complacently respectable Pharisees.
Neither Flaubert nor Dostoevsky seems to have read each other’s work. That is certainly true of Flaubert, who could not read Russian—though he certainly would have heard much about Dostoyevsky from his good friend Turgenev (whose portrait in The Demons of a prominent Europhile Russian writer satirized Turgenev savagely). Neither Sartre nor any other biographer, however, mentions Dostoevsky’s name. Likewise, the indices covering the 3,500 pages of Frank’s biography of Dostoyevsky contain no entry under Gustave Flaubert.
Nevertheless, in the closing scene of The Idiot, when the prince (along with the murderer Rogozhin) enters the study and discovers the dead body of Nastasya Filippovna—the despairing, neurotic beauty with whom Myshkin is infatuated—he inadvertently spots an open book on her night stand: Madame Bovary. He says nothing; he pockets it and leaves. We are invited to contrast the fate of his betrothed—stabbed through the heart on her wedding day—with that of Flaubert’s desperate adulteress on her deathbed, driven to ignominy and suicide.
A fascinating, if pedantic, biographical issue: Did Dostoevsky read Madame Bovary? If so, when? His wife Anna, according to her (still mostly untranslated) diaries, bought and read it after Dostoevsky returned from a tense 1867 visit with Turgenev, who had praised it as the best European novel in at least a decade. Did Dostoevsky read it at that time too? Or just asked Anna about it? No firm evidence in the form of her diary entries or his notebooks, their personal correspondence, or survivors’ testimony exists. Circumstantial evidence points to the plausibility (or probability?) that he did read it before writing The Idiot, perhaps in 1867 after his combative meeting with Turgenev; and yet, a later (post-Idiot) notebook of Dostoevsky records his aim to read it “if time permits” before writing A Raw Youth (1875). (More than a dozen other works are also named in this self-assigned reading list.) Or was that entry intended to mean that he intended to reread it? Another possibility is that he did reread it around that time in the mid-1870s—yet that his initial reading occurred not before composing The Idiot, but rather only after he had turned his attention to his subsequent work of fiction, his lesser-known novella of adultery, The Eternal Husband (1870), the tale of an ingenuous (“eternal”) cuckold who resembles Charles Bovary.
A Russian memoirist—writing in 1929 in her old age—recollected Dostoevsky’s telling her more than fifty years earlier, not long before his death, that he had “read and valued … one novel” by Flaubert. No date, no further elaboration.
This much is incontestable: The decision to place this detail in the climactic scene of The Idiot shows that Madame Bovary’s story line was well known to the literate, French-speaking Russian public (no Russian translation appeared until 1881).
Of Consciousness and “Carnivalization”
We noted earlier that, as a literary psychologist who changes how narrators and characters speak and interact, Dostoevsky warrants acknowledgment as a progenitor of the modern novel—the modern novel of “consciousness,” as it were, featuring a riotous troupe of polyphonous, sometimes cacophonous voices. “It all begins again” with Dostoevsky, too—in The Idiot above all, where his innovations in narrative consciousness are most thoroughgoing.
And because those experiments were so radical, so far ahead of their time, and so shocking to 19th-century readers, The Idiot has long been derided as nothing short of “a complete mess,” as Gary Saul Morson summed up the early critical response. Since the widespread translation of Mikhail Bakhtin’s work during the late 1960s, however, the influence in the West of his literary theories in general and revaluation of The Idiot in particular has transformed readers’ views of the novel.
Bakhtin has taught readers how to read Dostoevsky’s novels, and especially how and why to appreciate The Idiot. Thanks to Bakhtin’s criticism, we can see that Dostoevsky’s narrative innovations represented trailblazing breakthroughs, not inept failures. Defending its plot discontinuities, shapeless structure, and “fantastical” characters, Bakhtin hailed The Idiot as a work pulsating with life. Its narrative gyrations give shape to the tensions, travails and turmoil, mental and physical, under modernity. The Idiot is a supreme, largely unprecedented instance of the “carnivalesque” in literature, that is, a work that enacts—in the swirling atmosphere generated in the interactions among the saintly, ebullient Myshkin, the morbid Nastasya, the half-crazed Rogozhin, and all the others—a literary “polyphony” that defies conventions of plot, structure, and character.
The Idiot was Dostoevsky’s favorite and most personal work, “the one in which his personal vision of life, in all its tragic complexity, is expressed with the greatest intimacy with the most poignancy and with a lyrical pathos that touches on the sublime,” in Joseph Frank’s words. Uneven and digressive though some readers may find it—certainly it is no “well-made novel”—The Idiot “triumphs over all the inconsistencies and awkwardness of its structure and motivation” because of the brilliance of numerous scenes, climaxing in “the haunting, dreamlike vigil” of the ending, in which the prince, with Rogozhin at his side, “hover[s] over the … corpse…. No other Christ figure in modern literature rivals Prince Myshkin in the purity of his appeal.”
In a coda, we are told that the prince has gone mad, returned to the Swiss sanatorium from which he came, and never recovered. Like Flaubert, Dostoevsky does not flinch from making clear that the world exacts a high price from a virtuous, princely soul—who, like poor, innocent Félicité, suffers, in the phrase of Murray Krieger, from the “curse of saintliness.”
Dualities and Divergences
The dual bicentennial of Dostoevsky and Flaubert provokes reflection on a wealth of never-examined resemblances and divergences between these two extraordinary authors, and invites scrutiny of our casual generalizations and conventional wisdom about them. There is something uncanny and paradoxical about the “master of Petersburg” and the “martyr of style” being born within a single month of each other in the winter of 1821, cultivating an art of the novel at opposite extremes of sense and sensibility, gaining the status of symbolic national figures and exemplars of literary greatness, and dying before the age of sixty within just nine months of each other, conceivably without having read even a line of each other’s work.
John Rodden has written essays on an idiosyncratic variety of European figures of the last two centuries, most recently including Edmond Rostand and Albert Camus.
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