'Writing this book I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles.' The weighty agonies and agonisings of Flaubert, most famously over the details of Madame Bovary, have made him an exemplary writer for other self-conscious writers, and this unlikely simile is quoted in a recent work testifying to that detailed interest: Julian Barnes in Flaubert's Parrot (1984) made a clever novel out of a preoccupation with the minutiae of Flaubert's life, inventing a biographer-narrator to fight a long rearguard action against the death of the author. Mario Vargas Llosa's The Perpetual Orgy (first published in 1975, and only now translated into English) is the work of a novelist whose creative imagination more than equals that of Barnes in complexity and abundance: yet it is what is called, sometimes regrettably, 'secondary literature', and Llosa is there in what seems person more than persona, autobiographically forthcoming, to convey, through an impressive array of details, his notion of the meaning of a novel by which he is obsessed - Madame Bovary. His novelistic vocation is not too much narrowed in his operation as a critic: The Perpetual Orgy is an expansive and self-reflecting book, a generously-ranging consideration of what fiction does and is for, and its critical reconstruction of Flaubert's hampered processes of composition shows a convincing insight and a grasp of detail like those of Llosa's fiction.
LRB 26 November 1987 | PDF Download