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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy / biography / psychology

The Family Idiot
(Abridged Edition)

Jean-Paul Sartre

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To purchase The Family Idiot (Abridged Edition)

Title: The Family Idiot (Abridged Edition)
Author: Jean-Paul Sartre
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (1971-2) (Eng. 1981-94; abridged ed. 2023)
Length: 277 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Family Idiot (Abridged Edition) - US
The Family Idiot (Abridged Edition) - UK
The Family Idiot (Abridged Edition) - Canada
L'Idiot de la famille (I) - Canada
L'Idiot de la famille (I) - France
Der Idiot der Familie - Deutschland
L'idiota della famiglia - Italia
El idiota de la familia - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857
  • An Abridged Edition
  • French title: L'Idiot de la famille
  • Translated by Carol Cosman
  • Edited and abridged, and with an Introduction and Conclusion by Joseph S. Catalano

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Our Assessment:

B+ : an interesting take on Flaubert; solid presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Comparative Literature¹ . (47:1) Winter/1995 M.G.Rose
London Rev. of Books² . 3/6/1982 Julian Barnes
The NYT Book Rev.² . 27/12/1981 F.Jameson

¹: review of the complete text
²: review of the first volume of the original complete text

  From the Reviews:
  • "Cosman not only has to maintain a consistent voice, but must also let that voice be recognizable throughout different styles. She succeeds to such an astonishing degree that a reader cannot justify any improvement. (...) Cosman, unflinching, kept going, so that we have an integral work. It is she who is responsible for this major contribution to the canon of Flaubert scholarship." - Marilyn Gaddis Rose, Comparative Literature

  • "This book is mad, of course. Admirable but mad -- to abduct Sartre’s own phrase about Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. A work of elucidation couched in a lazily dense style; a biography seemingly concerned with externals but in fact spun from inside the biographer like a spider’s thread; a critical study which exceeds in wordage all the major works of its subject put together (.....) L’Idiot is, indeed, an outstandingly badly-written book (the dust-wrapper disarmingly warns us that Carol Cosman’s translation conveys all the nuances of Sartre’s style ‘from the jaunty to the ponderous’). The contrast with Les Mots, swift, supple and economical, is saddeningly instructive. (...) As you machete your way through the prose, however, the jungle partly begins to clear." - Julian Barnes, London Review of Books

  • "The Family Idiot sometimes looks like a form of self-imposed penance, a private duty jealously guarded against the reproaches of his Maoist friends (they wanted him to write a proletarian novel). If, however, one sees the theme of the imaginary in inseparable dialectical tension with that other lifelong theme of Sartre's work, which is praxis, then Sartre's stubborn devotion to his Flaubert project becomes more comprehensible; the study of the "imaginary" can then be taken as a self-diagnosis of bourgeois "objective neurosis," while praxis -- deliberate action in the real world - stands as the projection of a radically different mode of activity, identified with the proletariat." - Frederick Jameson, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jean-Paul Sartre's L'Idiot de la famille was published in three volumes in 1971 and 1972, and Carol Cosman's English translation was published in five volumes between 1981 and 1994. Weighing in at not much under 3000 pages, it is an enormous work, and with this abridged edition, cutting the English translation down to about one-tenth its original size, Joseph S. Catalano tries to make it more readily accessible; as a note on the copyright page sums up: "The present volume is an abridged edition highlighting the Work's main ideas". Such radical abridgement leads to two obvious questions: can such a version possibly fairly convey at least the essence of the complete text ? and: how well does it stand on its own ?
       It's hard to imagine any work, no matter how bloated, could hold up if re-presented at merely one-tenth its original length, but without the full text readily accessible to compare it to I barely dare hazard commentary much less criticism on what might have gone lost in this so reduced rendering. This is then merely a review of this particular presentation, this Abridged Edition.
       As editor Joseph S. Catalano explains in a brief discussion of the abridgement in his Introduction, he has divided his version into seventeen chapters -- compared to the original twenty-two (which are: "uneven in length and sometimes very long") -- and he retains: "at least a brief selection from most of these chapters". He also sums up that:

     These are the three main themes that I see in The Family Idiot: First, a detailed reflection on the vulnerability of infants and children to adults. Second, a detailed reflection on our present notion of what is shadowy and false as opposed to what is real and true. And third, a summary of Sartre's committed philosophy focused on a specific life.
       Sartre's is certainly an odd exercise and work -- in many respects arguably more one of psychological analysis than philosophy. Much of the work is focused on Flaubert's childhood and youth -- "Without early childhood, it is obvious that the biographer is building on sand -- he is constructing his edifice on mist, out of fog", Sartre notes --, and Flaubert's becoming a writer, with relatively little space or discussion devoted to the works of his maturity; Sentimental Education and Bouvard and Pécuchet are barely so much as mentioned. Sartre does focus on Madame Bovary; in a sense everything in The Family Idiot is meant to lead up to an explanation of Flaubert's writing of that novel -- indeed, The Family Idiot closes not with a firm conclusion but rather suggesting that, with a (nearly three thousand page) foundation now laid, Sartre and his readers may now be equipped to really get to the root of things: "We shall try to answer these questions by rereading Madame Bovary". (This isn't an arbitrary choice of endings by Catalano; it is how Sartre closed the work -- though one might take a bit of issue with Cosman's translation of that: "C'est ce que nous tenterons de décider en relisant Madame Bovary".)
       (It's probably worth noting that, while Madame Bovary is the central Flaubertian text Sartre is (ultimately) concerned with in The Family Idiot, editor Catalano makes clear that he is not as impressed by that novel as many are and isn't necessarily convinced by Sartre's reading and interpretation of it. In both an endnote and then in the closing chapter, his Editor's Conclusion, he writes:
In truth, when I first read the book, I did not see anything particularly remarkable in it. It did not affect me as did, for example, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.
       Those sentences are identical in both the endnote and the Editor's Conclusion (a curious duplication). In the endnote he also acknowledges first: "I do not have a deep knowledge of French literature", while in the Editor's Conclusion he continues:
One's first mature reading is what counts, and I think that we must grant that Sartre's first reading revealed the book to him as preaching a false, nihilistic realism. It will prove nothing to go back and read the book with Sartre's interpretation in mind; this sort of thing can always be done.
       This surely suggests some of what Catalano brings to the text, and what he doesn't, presumably also affecting what is re-presented here; remember that some nine-tenths of the original has been discarded in this abridged version.)
       As the title of the work suggests, Sartre makes a great deal of Flaubert being considered the 'family idiot'. The second son, Gustave, was always overshadowed by the success of his considerably older brother Achille -- who followed in their father's footsteps and became a doctor. Sartre focuses on Flaubert's relationship to language from early on -- beginning with his difficulties learning to read, one of the reasons he is considered 'slow' (if not an outright 'idiot'). So also Sartre finds that for the child: "Meaning is not important, it is the verbal materiality that fascinates him".
       Sartre notes that in childhood Flaubert wanted to be an actor, and finds traces of this throughout his approach to writing and the writing itself -- finding also that:
(T)he secret of style in Flaubert's great works is eloquence rejected. And rejected by the other. Gustave wrote Madame Bovary in a state of oratorical abandon, then cut and trimmed under Bouilhet's influence. The orator is there, everywhere, but censored, rejected, painful; he is hounded, compromised, but he returns in the very compression of the prose to lend a strange, sonorous vibration to even the most stripped-down sentences.
       For Sartre, the written word is more than mere language, and Flaubert's choice of it of significance. He writes of youthful Flaubert's: "nocturnal and masturbatory effort to give substance to his rancorous dreams, his forbidden desires, his moods by setting them down on paper" -- and:
     In any event, the danger of literature is here: by expressing his inner feelings in written words, Gustave the laughable gives laughers new occasion to laugh. If he spoke to them, his presence, his force, his conviction, his voice might restrain their hilarity; but he has slipped into the inert graphemes that are only what they are.
       Sartre focuses a great deal on Flaubert's early, formative years, the influence of the parents seen as particularly strong -- not least in their disappointment in him, compared to his siblings. (So then also when he becomes a writer: "Certainly the profession of writer is not dishonorable, but it is nonetheless unworthy of a Flaubert".) The closer reading and analysis of Flaubert's lesser-known and read juvenilia is of particular interest here.
       In adulthood then, Sartre focuses on 'the attack at Pont-l'Évêque' as a turning point, a physical and mental crisis that was a manifestation of everything leading up to it.
       Sartre finds:
In itself it seems atypical: if we start with the universal, we shall understand nothing about it. By contrast, to anyone who has followed Gustave from early childhood, it is clear that the attack somehow reproduces a singular experience, repeated a hundred times, now sudden and suffered, now playacted, now imagined and attributed to a fictional character.
       As he then sees it:
     Thus Gustave, at Pont-l'Évêque, chose to privilege a moment, the intratemporal negation of temporality: something happens to him (the moment is also the suffered time of the event) so that nothing more will ever happen to him.
       And: "it renders Flaubert an heir, a vassal, a monk, even as it ties him to his room and leads him to objectify himself -- a cadaver under a spell -- in a real property, scarcely disguised, which will become the inert infrastructure of his immutability". He withdraws, in most every respect (and, Sartre emphasizes, neurotically), into himself and his work.
       Eventually, then, it all leads to Madame Bovary -- and:
     The trouble is that Madame Bovary, incontestably the work of a neurotic, is in no way in itself a neurotic work.
       Sartre digs deep into neurosis -- Flaubert's as well as more generally. He finds: "from 1830 on [...] neurosis was the royal road to the masterpiece" -- and the case of Flaubert is the ideal example for him; as he noted early on: "Flaubert, creator of the 'modern' novel, stands at the crossroads of all our literary problems today".
       It all makes for a very curious work which, even in this abridged version, has Sartre considering biography and Flaubert's literary output -- especially his earliest work -- through psychological and philosophical lenses. The observations and conclusions range from the insightful to the far-fetched; there is coherence to Sartre's theorizing, but its range of application extends ... very far. (One can only wonder about the effect in the original, where there is literally ten times as much material .....)
       Sartre's Preface to The Family Idiot -- with which this volume also begins -- opens explaining that:
     The Family Idiot is the sequel to The Search for a Method. Its subject: what, at this point in time, can we know about a man. It seemed to me that this question could only be answered by studying a specific case.
       The choice of Flaubert seems, at least in part, pure chance. Sartre does give three reasons for choosing him, but presumably others would have served his purposes equally well -- though clearly Flaubert's struggles with writing and being a writer proved of particular interest, and particularly fruitful for Sartre. Among the reasons he gives as to his choice of Flaubert is also to answer the question: "What then is the relationship of the man to the work ?" (whereby he continues noting: "I have never discussed this until now, or, to my knowledge has anyone else", which seems ... surprising), and this is of course always of interest to many readers regarding the works they read. In addition, Sartre gives as another reason Flaubert's early works and his correspondence, which he sees as consisting of: "the strangest, the most easily deciphered revelations" -- and he certainly has some fun with these. (As noted, the extensive discussion of Flaubert's juvenilia is particularly illuminating here.)
       The Family Idiot: An Abridged Edition does provide an interesting reading and analysis of Flaubert and (some of) his work, with Sartre's main concerns and interests appearing to be quite clearly presented. There are places where one can sense there are gaps, and certainly overall one wonders about larger absences -- the lack of discussion or even mention of some of Flaubert's most significant works, for example -- though given how Sartre can seem to pick at and go on at any length about the smallest of details one wonders just how much he managed to get to in the original, too. Catalano's selection and how he has divided up and presented the text makes for a well-paced and quite comfortably readable work -- no small feat, it seems, given the reputation of the wordy original.
       One suspects that The Family Idiot: An Abridged Edition isn't an adequate substitute for the original, which looks to be a different beast entirely, but it looks also to be more than mere workmanlike summary. It does serve as at least an interesting introduction to and consideration of Flaubert, and also of Sartre's own thought and methods. Its manageable length is certainly a big selling point -- and while it likely will serve as a steppingstone to the larger original for only a few more curious readers, it appears to be an entirely serviceable summary volume that provides the (often fascinating) gist of the prodigious original.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 February 2023

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The Family Idiot (Abridged Edition): Reviews (¹: review of the first volume of the complete text; ²: review of the complete text): Gustave Flaubert: Jean-Paul Sartre: Books by Gustave Flaubert under review: Books about Gustave Flaubert and his work under review: Other books by Jean-Paul Sartre under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was awarded (and declined) the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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© 2023 the complete review

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