Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Fame? What is Fame?

One of the side benefits of reading Flaubert's Madame Bovary is that it gives you an excuse to go back and pull down Francis Steegmuller's Flaubert and Madame Bovary, half historical record, half biography, half epistolary novel (three halves, yes)--in any event, a vivid and convincing definition of the context in which Flaubert lived and wrote.  It wouldn't have been possible without the abundant surviving quantity of Flaubertian correspondence (a selection of which Steegmuller also edited), which constitute about a third of the book.  But they would be a fragmentary record at best without Steegmuller's own imaginative brio.  Here, for example, Steegmuller observes Flaubert as Flaubert observes his lover Louise Colet and makes an unsettling discovery:
Louse had...in Mantes, said something to distress him.  Perfect as her flesh ahd been, the imperfection of her spirit had betrayed itself to a degree which he shuddered to think of,and in an utterance which eclipsed the most petulant and vituperative of her complaints.  By his side in bed, she had passionately declared tht she would "not exchange her present happiness for all the fame of Corneille."  And that statement had driven a cold blast of air into Gustsave's entrails.  He had made no reply.  It had almost stupified him.  It was the cause of the fits of absrtraction which Louise had perceived.

Fame?  What is fame?  The external sound of the pleasure that art gives.  What rational being would sacrifice a pin or a shoestring for the fame of Corneille?  But--to be Corneille!  To feel one's self Corneille!  For that a rational being would sacrifice a great deal, anything at all--including, with no hesitation whatever, lying in bed with a mistress or a lover in a quiet hotel in Mantes. 
Id.  at 83 (1966).  The first edition was published in 1939.  Steegmuller died in 1994 but his widow, Shirley Hazzard, is still alive.  She is herself a novelist of repute; she was just this year shortlisted for the "lost Booker"--the prize work work published in 1970, and hitherto overlooked by a quirk in the definition of the prize.  Hazzard was the only one named who was still alive.  She said her only regret was that Steegmuller wasn't around to hear the news " “Though I can almost hear him saying," she told a reporter, "that he wouldn’t want that to spoil anything.” He might also have reminded her that achievement is more important than recognition.

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