Looking for mother

Flaubert: a life

Geoffrey Wall <em>Faber and Faber, 413pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0571195210

Gustave Flaubert probably comes closest to the putative Platonic ideal of the writer who sacrifices everything for his art. It was the Goncourt brothers who familiarised the idea of Flaubert as a testudinal writer who spent the morning putting a comma in and the whole afternoon taking it out again, but both his literary output and his word rate were an affront to the Balzac/Dickens tradition. Geoffrey Wall, in an engaging and refreshing life of the author, shows there was substance behind the Goncourts' canard; he establishes that Flaubert clocked up five words an hour, or five hundred a week. Rarely can mots justes have been more juste.

A great blond giant of a man with a deep, resonant, Danton-like voice, Flaubert the great precisian resembled his near-contemporary Alexandre Dumas, pere, only in girth. One can hardly imagine Dumas adopting the following credo: "The only way of not being unhappy is to lock yourself in the tower of Art and dismiss the rest as worthless." This was an idea that Flaubert honed in his correspondence with George Sand, whom Wall persuasively portrays as the major influence on his hero's life. Not only was Sand a convincing mother substitute (and Wall is at pains to point out that "looking for mother" was the great theme of Flaubert's erotic quest), but she shared his views on the creative life, as in her dictum: "Art is not a study of positive reality; it is a search for ideal truth." Moreover, she was the only significant friend with whom Flaubert did not quarrel: no doubt one can forgive him for jettisoning his tiresome long-term lover Louise Colet, but the fading of the entente with the interesting writer Maxime Du Camp shows Flaubert at his most egocentric and impossible.

Despite being close, Flaubert and Sand clashed violently on politics. Sand was an old-fashioned socialist and optimist who believed in human perfectibility, but Flaubert was always pessimistic and cynical (to put it no worse) and a man of the right. He poured scorn on the revolutionaries of 1848, though Sand begged him to consider that they might have been wrong for the right reasons. Flaubert had the last laugh when Sand recanted her socialism after the Paris Commune of 1871. Like many left-wing intellectuals, she found the reality of "power to the people" - rather than the sentimental Shangri-La fantasy - too much to stomach, and retreated into reaction.

Both she and Flaubert were fundamentally "anti-bourgeois" in terms of sensibility and lifestyle, but not when it came to wealth and privilege. In this respect, Flaubert's idolising of gypsies is, I think, significant. Love of gypsies is often the mark of the right-winger - take Henry Fielding, George Henry Borrow, and so on - and, although the two are often confused, the liking for la boheme, in all senses, is very far from a leftist cast of mind. There was a similar confusion in the recent past between the "make love, not war" hippies and the genuine political radicals of 1968.

Flaubert illustrates another frequent liberal or bien-pensant misconception - that hostility to, or dislike of, something must stem from ignorance. Probably the most celebrated negrophobe of the 19th century was Sir Richard Burton, yet he knew more about African anthropology than any man alive. Flaubert treated women abominably and, their quality as sex objects apart, viewed them largely with contempt. He never married, disingenuously claiming that he could not afford a wife even though, until the last years of his life, he had the income and capital of a prosperous bourgeois. He preferred to consort with prostitutes, cocottes and frisettes and, with mistresses such as Colet, he insisted on coitus interruptus so there could be no pregnancy. Flaubert's attitude was life- denying in the most literal sense, and he was guilty of the miso-gyny one sometimes finds in men who are both highly intelligent and highly sexed. For all that, he created unforgettable female characters. His female readers thought he must be a sorcerer to have produced Madame Bovary, who is indeed a rare example of the novelist's empathy, hence Flaubert's justifiable boast that "Emma Bovary, c'est moi".

The one flaw in Wall's accomplished biography - and it is a surprising one, coming from an academic - is the lack of any really sustained critical attention to the novels. While rightly pointing to the huge influence of Don Quixote on L'Education sentimentale, Flaubert's most ambitious novel, Wall does not use this work as a key to his subject. Don Quixote is a masterpiece of ambiguity, in that the Don is either the greatest fool that ever lived or the most perfect paladin of chivalry that ever existed. Similarly, the great closing scene in L'Education sentimentale between Frederic Moreau and Marie Arnoux can be read either as Enid Starkie read it - as one of the most poignant scenes of disappointed love in all literature - or as Flaubert at his most cynical, where he is openly laughing at the whole idea of love and viable relations between the sexes. But whereas, in Don Quixote, one can reply "both" to those who question which of the above descriptions of the Don is correct, Flaubert fails to achieve this equilibrium. Ultimately, his would-be masterpiece is dragged down by his own nihilism. It is no accident that he claimed his ambition was to write "a book about nothing". It was his lack of heart that prevented Flaubert, for all his matchmaker's talent, from being a Dostoevsky or even a Zola.

Frank McLynn's most recent book is Villa and Zapata: a biography of the Mexican revolution (Pimlico, £12.50)

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world