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3.0 out of 5 stars Peter Gay's liberal failure of imagination, September 28, 2004
This review is from: Savage Reprisals: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks (Hardcover)
Peter Gay has over the past five decades gotten a reputation as a leading moderate liberal historian, writing on Voltaire, the Enlightenment, Freud and the sexual life of the 19th century middle class. He has shown himself as a moderate, common-sense historian with Freudian interests. This book, part of the Norton Lecture Series, asks to what extent is great literature reliable history? He looks at three major realist masterpieces: "Bleak House," "Madame Bovary" and "Buddenbrooks". Why these three were chosen, instead of, say "Middlemarch," "The Sentimental Education," or "The Maias," is never made clear. Nevertheless by looking at the pyschological problems of Dickens, Flaubert and Mann, he gives a negative verdict for the first two and a more positive one for Mann. He then spends a conclusion arguing against postmodernist nihilism and then praises "The Autumn of the Patriarch."

Unfortunately, this book does not do much credit to either Gay's critical skills or his historical abilities. Indeed, it confirms the worst opinions of European liberalism as being too unimaginative to appreciate the extremes of human behavior. Gay also uses Freudian theory in its most unimaginative way, as a simplistic supporter of order who reduces all differences to someone's abnormality. For a start, Gay's understanding of the books is not all that firm. His discussion of "Bleak House" starts with the death of the non-existent character Richard Carstairs, whom he has confused with Richard Carstone. Miss Flite does not expect an imminent judgement in her endless Chancery case; in fact she confuses judgement with the Final Judgement. It is not quite true that Mrs. Snagsby thinks her husband is having an affair; she actually thinks, utterly wrongly, that Jo is his illegitimate son. Flaubert does not jump in one famous passage from 1848 to 1867, but from 1851 to 1867. The gap, from the beginning of the Second French Republic to its end, is not a minor one, either historically or in the novel. It would be mistaking a gap in American novel from 1861 to 1880, when it is actually starts from 1865.

A more serious problem is Gay's superficiality. Given the revolution in literary criticism over the past three decades it is somewhat alarming to have Gay believe that Marxist criticism ends with George Lukacs. He is prone to making sweeping statements about Dickens, such as that Gradgrind and M'Choakumchild are merely caricatures, or that Leigh Hunt wasn't really like Harold Skimpole, or that the portraits of mothers are mere lampoons. There is no evidence or argument to support these statements: just flat assertion. There is a certain psychological superficiality as well. There is an interesting discussion of Esther Summerson's and Agnes Wickfield's excessive virtue arising out of extreme guilt. But Gay ignores the fact that of the unambiguously middle-class characters in "Bleak House", almost all are horrible parents. Mrs. Guppy is merely silly and Mrs. Woodcourt slightly foolish in her Welsh nostalgia. But Skimpole, Turveydrop, Smallweed, Mrs. Jellby and Mrs. Pardiggle are uniformly repulsive. Vholes incessantly mentions his daughter and father to justify his vampiric behavior, Carstone's foolishness kills himself before his son is even born, while Mrs. Chadband is a cold surrogate mother to Esther. Ironically the one middle-class parent who truly loves her child had her out of wedlock. What would a Freudian analysis make of all this, or the distorted families of Clennam and Dorrit? But Gay has no interest.

Instead he sees Dickens governed by rage, personally irritated by the Law over an unsuccessful lawsuit, and somewhat suspicious of his mother (he does not point out that Skimpole is a more malevolent Micawber, and therefore a more malevolent version of Dickens' father). "For all his protestations to the contrary, Dickens's commitment to the Reality Principle was at best intermitten." he says patronizingly. His main complaint against Dickens is that he underestimated the reforming intentions of good liberals like Gay himself. It therefore rather severely undercuts his case that Gay says that the Second Reform Act of 1867 gave the vote to most men when, in fact, it did not. He also criticizes Dickens for ignoring reforms that were starting right when he writing the novel, as if their success was assured and didn't need Dickens' polemic. It certainly takes a certain lack of imagination to say that there were no Bounderbys, Vholes, Dedlocks, Barnacles, Mrs. Clennams, Podsnaps or Veneerings in Victorian England. Gay's discussion of Flaubert is little better, and views his anger at the bourgeoisie as phobic rage. Allowing for certain self-dramatizing moments on Flaubert's part, this strikes me as obtuse. The July Monarchy was a narrow, illiberal oligarchy, notwithstanding its "liberal" elite; the Second Empire started out as a bloody dictatorship before it ended in ignomious defeat. Here is a man who writes one of the masterpieces of world prose and instead of being honored by his country is put on trial for obscenity. A certain contempt and indignation is all too well deserved. In trying to refute Flaubert's picture of provincial Rouen, Gay notes that one man (out of 100,000) bought impressionist paintings. Well, this is certainly a step up from Abraham, who had to prove five good men so as not to have Sodom incinerated. Here one good man refutes "Madame Bovary."
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Initial post: Sep 28, 2008 9:26:01 PM PDT
Great review! I thought he didn't read the whole book, actually.
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