Gustave Flaubert: The Ambiguity of the Imagination by Giuseppe Cafiero

Review published on May 16, 2018.

Had Gustave Flaubert finished and published his imagined novel about the Orient, its protagonist would have been Harel-Bey. However, he didn’t and in this story by Guiseppe Cafiero the character is brought to life and given the opportunity to explore how his life could have turned out differently had he been allowed to live. Full of resentment against Flaubert for having created him not only as an incomplete character, but also blind, he seeks murderous revenge on all the protagonists the author did enable to become fully-formed characters in his various books. Monsieur Bouvard, another protagonist in one of Flaubert’s started but not finished books, accompanies Harel-Bey on his quest and the pair visit places where the author spent time, as well as where his novels were located. As Harel-Bey seeks his revenge, and as Monsieur Bouvard attempts to control his fiery, unpredictable fellow-traveller, this literary device enables them to meet up with characters from many of the author’s works.

I love the idea of an unfinished character creating a life for himself, quite independent of his creator’s original vision for him and so I approached this novel with some enthusiasm. To begin with I found it rather difficult to feel engaged with the story and it wasn’t until the characters of Harel-Bey and Monsieur Bouvard took centre-stage (p. 63 of very small print) that my enthusiasm began to be rewarded. I enjoyed the novel’s epistolary form and although the huge cast of characters initially felt rather overwhelming, as the story progressed this allowed for some interesting insights into both Gustave Flaubert and his characters. The fact that the story was full of ambiguities was a fascinating reminder that, as a reader, one is continually having to try to distinguish between what is fact and what is fiction; where reality ends and where imagination takes over. Once a story is finished an author must relinquish control over his work as he hands it over to his readers; they are then faced with embarking on their own journey of discovery as they attempt to resolve the literary detective story. For me, this process is one of the joys of reading – but I often wonder authors cope with letting go of their creations.

I loved the explorations of the questioning and challenging of Flaubert’s motivations for creating his various characters, as well as the characters’ explorations of their own relationships with the author. These characters, as described by Cafiero, were vibrant and three-dimensional, even if none was particularly likeable; in fact, many, including Flaubert himself, were portrayed as thoroughly disagreeable! There were many references to the lack of personal hygiene of the characters, as well as their irritating personal habits, and this, combined with some colourful descriptions of the resulting smells, certainly contributed to bringing them vividly to life! However, there were times when I felt that these descriptions were too repetitive and so their initial, very powerful and evocative impact was reduced for me.

The author’s writing style captured an authentic feel of contemporary, nineteenth-century literature and evoked a very powerful sense of time and place, capturing vividly the social conditions of the time. The many quotes from Flaubert and his contemporaries, added an extra dimension to setting the scene for Cafiero’s story-telling. The occasional archaic use of language meant that I needed to read the book with a dictionary by my side. This is not a criticism, because learning new words is something I always enjoy, but is just a warning for anyone who is tempted to read this entertaining story. The labyrinthine explorations of Flaubert and his characters mean that this is not a book which can be quickly skimmed through; it deserves a commitment to being prepared to follow in their footsteps.

Although in the early stages of reading this book I had wondered whether I would even want to finish it, I’m very pleased that I did persist. I found the colourful, often licentious lives of most of the characters, including Flaubert himself, shockingly enjoyable; I also found the many instances of deliciously wicked humour very entertaining. Madame Bovary is the only Flaubert novel I have read (and that was several decades ago) so many of the references to characters from that, and all the other works mentioned throughout this book, would have held much more significance had I felt more familiar with his original stories. I thought that the final epistolary offering, from Harel-Bey, was enlightening, entertaining and very well-executed.

Several irritations did spoil my overall enjoyment of this cleverly written novel. The small print size made reading something of a strain, the 284 pages certainly don’t accurately reflect the true length of the story. However, what caused me even greater frustration was the extremely poor proofreading. There were lots of spelling mistakes (including one on the back-cover) and there were more than thirty mistakes in the footnotes that feature throughout the book. There was also some inconsistency in what was translated and what wasn’t; not only was this intensely irritating to this pedant’s reading experience, but it was also extremely disruptive. Without these various irritations I would probably have given this story a four-star rating.

However, to end this review on a more positive note, for any reading group willing to take on the challenge of this fascinating novel, there is much in it to provoke some very interesting discussion.

Linda Hepworth 3/4

Gustave Flaubert: The Ambiguity of the Imagination by Giuseppe Cafiero
Clink Street Publishing 9781911525387 pbk Feb 2017

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