Now you are coming out into the open. So this is how we are to judge our writers – on their ‘positive virtues’? Well, I suppose I must play your game briefly: it’s what you have to do in the courts. Take all the obscenity trials from Madame Bovary to Lady Chatterley’s Lover: there’s always some element of games-playing, of compliance, in the defence. Others might call it tactical hypocrisy. (Is this book sexy? No, M’Lud, we hold that it would have an emetic, not a mimetic, effect on any reader. Does this book encourage adultery? No, M’Lud, look how the miserable sinner who gives herself time and time again to riotous pleasure is punished in the end. Does this book attack marriage? No, M’Lud, it portrays a vile and hopeless marriage so that others may learn that only by following Christian instructions will their own marriages be happy. Is this book blasphemous? No, M’Lud, the novelist’s thought is chaste.) As a forensic argument, of course, it has been successful; but I sometimes feel a residual bitterness that one of these defence counsel, when speaking for a true work of literature, did not build his act on simple defiance. (Is this book sexy? M’Lud, we bloody well hope so. Does it encourage adultery and attack marriage? Spot on, M’Lud, that’s exactly what my client is trying to do. Is this book blasphemous? For Christ’s sake, M’Lud, the matter’s as clear as the loincloth on the Crucifixion. Put it this way, M’Lud: my client thinks that most of the values of the society in which he lives stink, and he hopes with this book to promote fornication, masturbation, adultery, the stoning of priests and, since we’ve temporarily got your attention, M’Lud, the suspension of corrupt judges by their earlobes. The defence rests its case.)
So, briefly: Flaubert teaches you to gaze upon the truth and not blink from its consequences; he teaches you, with Montaigne, to sleep on the pillow of doubt; he teaches you to dissect out the constituent parts of reality, and to observe that Nature is always a mixture of genres; he teaches you the most exact use of language; he teaches you not to approach a book in search of moral or social pills – literature is not a pharmacopoeia; he teaches the pre-eminence of Truth, Beauty, Feeling and Style. And if you study his private life, he teaches courage, stoicism, friendship; the importance of intelligence, scepticism and wit; the folly of cheap patriotism; the virtue of being able to remain by yourself in your own room; the hatred of hypocrisy; distrust of the doctrinaire; the need for plain speaking. Is that the way you like writers to be described (I do not care for it much myself)? Is it enough? It’s all I’m giving you for the moment: I seem to be embarrassing my client.