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.)


  1. This thread looks so sad. I’ll give it an off-topic comment.
    Did Latin supremacists give the Germanic languages a lot of shit for having two extra vowels? Were the extra vowels regarded as brutish or pagan or illiterate or something? Did some of them insist that there really should only be three vowels, but that the Teutons had screwed up their own language?
    Jeremy at “Readin” is a big Pamuk buff.

  2. michael farris says

    John, this thread does not need your pity off-topic comments. This thread can hold its head up high, plain but proud.
    You go back to your Latin and Dravidian nonsense, this thread will do just fine even if not one damned commenter here sees fit to look it in the eye and say ‘howdy do’. This thread may be poor, but it does have its pride, thank you very much.

  3. i never liked Emma Bovary

  4. Apparently Flaubert didn’t either.
    One thing I vividly remember is that Ms. Bovary’s provincial peasant / bourgeois cliche image of the dashing Latin lover was much like the small town American image of the dashing Latin lover. (More at my URL).
    Jeremy! Get over here! (He’s already linked.)

  5. Oh hi John, thanks for posting this LH! I was impressed by the speech without being able to make too much of the Flaubert connection — I have no memory at all of reading M Bovary and have not even cracked any other book of his. The role of the reclusive rebel in the modernist imagination is always fun to think about though, and nice to see the obligatory nod to our local recluses Salinger and Pynchon.
    It was interesting to notice the repeated references to “identifying” with Flaubert this dovetailed nicely with my theme over the last couple of years of trying to identify with Pamuk. (There is an essay about Flaubert in Other Colors where IIRC this theme is batted around some.)

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