By stressing the pains and losses Flaubert had to endure, Julian Barnes presents him in a more compassionate light than is usually shed by the chilling legend of a literary genius who repels most people as cold, cruel, narcissistic, depressed, dogmatic, sexually vulgar, and sardonic. Barnes/ Braithwaite takes an inventory of such inflictions as Flaubert’s subjection to shattering attacks of epilepsy; his hopeless infatuation with Elisa Schlesinger; the deaths of both his father and his beloved sister Caroline when Gustave was twenty-five; the possessive hysterics of Louise Colet; the death of his dearest friend, Alfred le Poittevin, aged thirty-two; the ravages of syphilis, contracted when he was twenty-nine; his victimization in financial affairs by his niece’s husband, Ernest Commanville, to the point at which Flaubert had to plead with him and his niece not to eject him from Croisset; and his lonely death at fifty-nine, after years of illness, poverty, and increasing social isolation.
In one chapter, the narrator compiles a summary brief of “the case against” Flaubert, only to refute it, point by point. The most eloquent response is offered to the charge that Flaubert teaches no affirmative values. Not so, insists Braithwaite: He teaches one “to sleep on the pillow of doubt,” to value language, to venerate truth and beauty, feeling and style, to hate hypocrisy, to conduct one’s life courageously and stoically, to cherish one’s friends,...
(The entire section is 485 words.)