Orhan Pamuk was recently given an honorary doctorate by the University of Rouen; his acceptance speech is devoted to Flaubert, whom he (like many modernist authors) idolized as a young man: “And he addresses to his mother the sentences I whispered to myself before I had turned thirty, just like Flaubert, sentences in which I tried to believe: ‘I care nothing for the world, for the future, for what people will say, for any kind of establishment, or even for literary renown, which in the past I used to lie awake so many nights dreaming about.’ And after conveying to her these arrogant words, Flaubert adds one final line whose simplicity belies his self-confidence and earnestness: ‘That is what I am like; such is my character.'” Pamuk discusses the reasons for this idolization (and the variant form it took in Turkey, where it “in many respects resembled traditional feelings of devotion and resignation toward late great Sufi masters and cloistered dervish sheikhs”) and ends by analyzing “two basic tendencies among those who wanted to be Flaubert,” a “distinction, which points out two fundamental characteristics of the art of the novel”:
The first variety of Flaubert enthusiast admires the author’s characteristic venom and voice. I refer to Flaubert’s angry, mocking, and intelligent voice rising against the ordinary, against average bourgeois life, superficiality, and stupidity. In October 1850, at the end of the letter he writes to his mother, we immediately recognize this tone: Flaubert explains with ridicule that his soon-to-be wed friend will fast become a perfect bourgeois gentleman. Ernest will from now on be the defender of the established order, the family, and private ownership; he will most certainly declare war against the socialist thinking of his youth!… We all regard eminent authors’ derision of human foolishness and mediocrity as appealing; we read their books and novels in some respects to hear these voices and live among them. However, should this voice of ridicule become a novel’s sole strength, wit and cynicism can in no time become an arrogant voice representing a look from above belittling middle class life, the uneducated, different cultures, people whose customs vary from our own and are deemed inadequate. In particular, the process of European modernism’s settling outside of the West must be understood in tandem with this ethical problem.
On the other hand, despite all of Flaubert’s anger and derision, he was not an arrogant writer. And he had discovered a language that allowed him, through the frame of the novel, to analyse up-close his protagonists and those who were different than him. After reading in the letter to his mother how he grew angry at his childhood friend’s marriage and entry into mundane bourgeois life, we are reminded of the essential strength of the novelist Flaubert through the affection with which he described the same childhood friends in A Sentimental Education and the deep compassion with which he approached their “tomfoolery” and mental confusion. Here was a writer who could identify so thoroughly with his protagonists that he could feel in his own heart the misery and predicament of a struggling, married woman, Madame Bovary, and convey that dilemma to readers in a clear idiom.
He says “I have always wanted to identify with this author, who on one hand felt boundless anger and resentment toward humanity, and on the other hand, nurtured a profound compassion for the same and understood men and women better than others.” You can read the speech in English here and in French here. (Via MetaFilter.)