Which name does not belong in the following list: 1. Stendhal, 2. Balzac, 3. Flaubert, 4. Proust?
Flaubert is the correct answer. He simply isn't of the same calibre as the other three great French writers. Flaubert didn't have Stendhal's cool, telescopic, analytical detachment, Balzac's sweep and insight into human destiny, nor Proust's psychological penetration and sensitive social radar. What Flaubert had was a powerful artistic vocation and an obsession with perfection of style. Do such qualities alone a great writer make?
For the Cult of Flaubert, it does. The cult has long been in existence, and its contemporary adherents include Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, and Orhan Pamuk. My sense is that the cultists admire above all Flaubert's sacrificing everything to his art, and his unflagging struggles to compose; the latter being perhaps as famous as, and quite possibly more interesting than, the compositions that resulted from these struggles.
Flaubert's letters record his wrestle with language: the ineptness of words to capture his meanings; his own infelicity in manipulating these words to form perfect sentences; the refusal of these sentences once laboriously formed to deploy themselves into lovely, lilting paragraphs. Letter after letter to his lover Louise Colet registers Flaubert's literary costiveness. Days at his desk at his family home in Coisset go by without a single successful sentence born, weeks with only a few paragraphs composed, as Flaubert bemoans the torture of it all. The struggle is Sisyphean, if one happens to go in for that sort of thing.
The Cult of Flaubert is also a cult of superiority. As philosophers and critics who too greatly admire Emerson tend not to worry overmuch about clarity in their own writing, so artists who too greatly admire Flaubert tend to make a religion of art, with themselves as its high priestly caste.
Yet Flaubert left his followers few idols to worship. He wrote five novels. Three of them — The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Salammbô, and the unfinished Bouvard and Pécuchet — are not quite readable. One of them, A Sentimental Education, has powerful scenes, especially towards its close, but otherwise feels sketchy and underdeveloped. The last, Madame Bovary, is acclaimed everywhere as one of the masterworks of Western literature. But is it, really?