Kapoor on Samson (2021)

Samson, Véronique. Après la fin: Gustave Flaubert et le temps du roman. PU de Vincennes, 2021, pp. 385, ISBN:978-2-37924-154-3

Death occurs many times in Flaubert. Not only has he tugged at the heartstrings of readers over the years with his numerous depictions and evocations of death, he has also provoked responses from storytellers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, André Gide, and a host of scholars from diverse schools of literary criticism: Albert Thibaudet, Georg Lukács, Paul Ricœur, Roland Barthes. Glancing at the views of these thinkers, especially Sartre, Véronique Samson writes that Flaubert’s protagonists, be it Emma, Salammbô, Frédéric, or Bouvard and Pécuchet, are actually already dead and dusted when the novels begin; what these novels narrate within fictional time is, in effect, a posthumous literature, “une littérature déjà posthume” (7). The two-part title, through which Samson paradoxically associates death with the temporality of fiction, suggests that her objective is aesthetic. In fact, the book is like a remodeled book-length version of Barthes’s seminal 1967 essay, “La Mort de l’auteur,” that focuses on Flaubert and reiterates death’s dialectical link to key aesthetic concerns in Flaubert’s writing (memory, time, narrative design), all examined from the viewpoint of an attentive and proactive reader.

Divided into four lengthy chapters, the book examines the interplay of fictional and metaphoric deaths with mnemonic devices in Flaubert, from the mal du siècle and romantic aging visible in juvenile writings such as the first Éducation sentimentale (1845) in the first chapter to the substantial presence of posthumous narrative designs in Flaubert’s well-known mature works such as Madame Bovary, Salammbô, L’Éducation sentimentale (1869), Un cœur simple, and Bouvard et Pécuchet in the second chapter. The third chapter is a study of memory in two of Flaubert’s most self-avowed anti-romantic novels, Madame Bovary and Bouvard et Pécuchet. The final chapter entitled “l’épuisement du roman,” however, goes against the grain and identifies the reductive techniques at work in Flaubert’s celebrated writings, techniques that, paradoxically, empty the texts after filling them with vivid fictional detail. In addition to these thoroughly referenced four chapters, the book contains introductory and concluding sections where the inner dialectic in Flaubert between death and narration of the past is taken up and reaffirmed.

Chapter one, which focuses on time and ageing in Flaubert’s juvenile works, begins with a telling image from a letter on 18 August 1875 where Flaubert wishes to die—“je souhaite crever le plus vite possible car je suis fini, vidé, et plus vieux que si j’avais cent ans” (24) – and includes several other references to Flaubert’s correspondence.  This prominent and frequent referencing of Flaubert’s non-fictional writing, in a book focusing on Flaubert’s aesthetic response to death, is not fully fleshed out, nor is the relationship between Flaubert’s non-fictional writing and the well-known typology of the mal du siècle of nineteenth-century literary Romanticism that Samson claims gave birth to the dichotomous figure of the “jeune-vieux” visible in Flaubert’s early works such as Quidquid volueris. Perhaps the author could have linked Flaubert’s depictions of aging in his fiction more explicitly to personal thoughts about being old and wishing to die in the letters, showing thereby that the “jeune-vieux” is not only a romantic cliché, it is also a historical problem resulting from living in the past and not aligning with one’s time (25-28).

In chapter two, echoing Jacques Rivière, Samson argues that the novels of Flaubert offer a simultaneous double-temporality: “l’avenir ouvert” which suggests a protagonist in a mindset of adventure as well as “l’avenir refermé” which hints that the protagonist knows that all adventure has become impossible (107). Further, Samson shows how predecessors such as Honoré de Balzac and Walter Scott showed Flaubert the way to re-conceptualize the traditional novel. While Balzac followed the dramatic model in suggesting that the completeness of a novel should be judged by its conclusion, Scott revolutionized the narrative novel by replacing romantic intrigue with dramatic action. To strengthen her point, Samson also quotes Flaubert’s contemporary and oft-quoted commentator of Madame Bovary, Baudelaire, who recommended a dénouement or dramatic ending for a poem: “Tout, dans un poëme comme dans un roman, dans un sonnet comme dans une nouvelle, doit concourir au dénoument” (112).

Having established the significance of dénouement in Flaubert’s fiction, the third chapter contends conversely that Flaubert’s novels lead to an epilogue or commentary because they are essentially acts of memory (191). According to Samson, the organizing principles of such fiction are repetition, recognition (of what is repeated), and return, creating a revolving gyre in which the reader is trapped (224). Among other examples, Samson analyses the scene where Emma Bovary returns to her room after horse-riding with Rodolphe in the forest. According to Samson, Emma’s sensory recapitulation of the scene (“elle voyait les arbres, les chemins, les fossés, Rodolphe, et elle sentait encore l’étreinte de ses bras, tandis que le feuillage frémissait et que les joncs sifflaient,” 237) imparts the immediacy of the present to the fictional past.

The fourth chapter demonstrates the desire to stop memory by focusing on aesthetic mechanisms that paradoxically deplete the fiction. According to Samson, this is evident, for example, not only in the unsentimental manner in which the narrator reports Emma Bovary’s death (“elle n’existait plus,” 304), but also in Charles’s paradoxical tendency to forget after remembering: “Une chose étrange, c’est que Bovary, tout en pensant à Emma continuellement, l’oubliait” (336). The chapter is a remarkable attempt at nuancing the out-and-out aesthetic argument of the preceding chapters by tracing its modification into the desire for an ending, even in novels heavily reliant on memory such as Madame Bovary, as if Flaubert were keen to halt temporarily the never-ending spiral of memory (296).

Samson’s achievement lies in painstakingly weaving the detail of a significant number of Flaubert’s works into an aesthetic design that unifies death, memory, and time. However, she also seems compelled by her central argument to accumulate and uncritically endorse past commentaries that privilege the theme of memory rather than death. Nonetheless, if death and memory are opposite poles of thought, Samson’s book shows how they can be brought together to demonstrate their intricate interrelationship and interdependence in Flaubert.