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||Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)|
French novelist of the realist school, best-known for Madame Bovary (1857), a story of adultery and unhappy love affair of the provincial wife Emma Bovary. As a writer Flaubert was a perfectionist, who did not make a distinction between a beautiful or ugly subject: all was in the style. The idea, he argued, only exists by virtue of its form – its elements included the perfect word, cunningly contrived and verified rhythms, and a genuine architectural structure. Madame Bovary was first translated into English by Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor Marx.
"Has it ever happened to you," Leon went on, "to come across some vague idea of one's own in a book, some dim image that comes back to you from afar, and as the completest expression of your own slightest sentiment?"
Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen into a family of doctors. His father, Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, a chief surgeon at the Rouen municipal hospital, made money investing in land. Flaubert's mother, Anne-Justine-Caroline (née Fleuriot), was the daughter of a physician; she became the most important person in the author's life. Anne-Justine-Caroline died in 1872.
Flaubert began to write during his school years. At the age of
fifteen he won a prize for an essay on mushrooms. Actually the work was
a copy. His first published short story was 'Bibliomanie' (1837), which
appeared in the pink pages of a Rouen literary journal called Le Colibri.
This stylistic exercise in Hoffmannian fantasy about a bookseller's
fetishist love of books drew its inspiration from a fabricated trial
account published in La Gazette des Tribunaux.
The case concerned a former Catalonian monk, a bibliophile named Don Vincente, who became a
serial killer over the possession of rare books. He was found guilty
and executed. Differing from Don Vincente, Flaubert's protagonist, Giacomo, is innocent of the crimes he is accused of.
A disappointment in his teens – Flaubert fell in love with Elisa Schlésinger, who was married and some 10 years his senior – inspired much of his early writing. His bourgeois background Flaubert found early burdensome, and eventually his rebel against it led to his expulsion from school. Flaubert completed his education privately in Paris.
In the 1840s Flaubert studied law at Paris, a brief episode in his life, and in 1844 he had a nervous attack. "I was cowardly in my youth," Flaubert wrote once to George Sand. "I was afraid of life." He recognized from suffering a nervous disease, although it could have been epilepsy. However, the diagnosis changed Flaubert's life. He failed his law exams and decided to devote himself to literature. In this Flaubert was helped by his father who bought him a house at Croisset, on the River Seine between Paris and Rouen.
In 1846 Flaubert met the writer Louise Colet. They corresponded regularly and she became Flaubert's mistress although they met infrequently. Colet gave in Lui (1859) her account of their relationship. After the death of both his father and his married sister, Flaubert moved at Croisset, the family's country home near Rouen. Until he was 50 years old, Flaubert lived with his mother – he was called ''hermit of Croisset.'' The household also included his niece Caroline. His maxim was: "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."
Although Flaubert once stated ''I am a bear and want to remain a
bear in my den,'' he kept good contacts to Paris and witnessed the
Revolution of 1848. Later he received honors from Napoleon III. From
1856 Flaubert spent winters in Paris. He had written since childhood,
and unable to throw anything away, he stored his manuscripts. But by
the age of thirty, his only major work was a prose-poem, La Tentation de Saint Antoine. Its
first printing of two thousand copies sold out in less than three
weeks. Part of the poem's fantastic mode was inspired by a Brueghel
painting in Genoa.
His friend, Louis Bouilhet, adviced, "I think you ought to throw it in
the fire and never mention it again." In 1871, when the Prussian army
destroyed the last monarchical regime in France, Flaubert buried a box
full of letters and perhaps other papers in his garden.
Flaubert's relationship with Collet ended in 1855. From November
1849 to April 1851 he travelled with the photographer-journalist Maxime
du Camp in North
Africa, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. It took several Egyptian
guides to help Flaubert to the top of the Great Pyramid – the muscular,
almost six feet tall author was at that time actually relatively fat.
"Handsome heads, ugly feet" was his comment upon the Colossi of Abu
Simbel. Du Camp made the first known photographs of these sandstone
figures. Most of the letters from the journey he sent to Louis Bouihet
and his mother. Flaubert told Bouilhet openly about his frequent visits
to male and female brothels and casual affairs with passing
complained that there were no good brothels to be found in Cairo. For
the sake of amusement he shot stray dogs in a dump. All that was
bizarre in the street life fascinated him: a naked monk dances on the
streets and barren women rub themselves with his urine; young man has
himself buggered in public by an ape. To
his mother Flaubert wrote that he reads every morning a little Homer in
Greek while his travel companion Maxime reads the Bible. "We go to bed
at 9 p.m."
On his return Flaubert started Madame Bovary, which took five years to complete. Sometimes he spent a week on one paragraph. It appeared first in the Revue (1856) and in book form next year. The realistic depiction of adultery was condemned as offensive to morality and religion. In one cartoon Flaubert was portrayed as a surgeon, wearing a blood-stained apron and holding up the heart of Emma Bovary. Flaubert was prosecuted, though he escaped conviction, which was not a common result during the official censorship of the Second Empire. When Baudelaire's provocative collection of verse, The Flowers of Evil, was brought before the same judge, Baudelaire was fined and 6 of the 100 poems were suppressed.
Madame Bovary was published in two volumes in 1857, but it appeared originally in the Revue de Paris, 1856-57. Emma Bovary is married to Charles Bovary, a physician. As a girl Emma has read Walter Scott, she has romantic dreams and longs for adventure. "What exasperated her was that Charles did not seem to notice her anguish. His conviction that he was making her happy seemed to her an imbecile insult, and his sureness on this point ingratitude. For whose sake, then was she virtuous? Was it not for him, the obstacle to all felicity, the cause of all misery, and, as it were, the sharp clasp of that complex strap that bucked her in on all sides." Emma seeks release from the boredom of her marriage from love affairs with two men – with the lawyer Léon Dupuis and then with Rodolphe Boulanger. Emma wants to leave her husband with him. He rejects the idea and Emma becomes ill. After she has recovered, she starts again her relationship with Léon, who works now in Rouen. They meet regularly at a hotel. Emma is in heavy debts because of her lifestyle and she poisons herself with arsenic. Charles Bovary dies soon after her and their daughter Berthe is taken care of poor relatives. Berthe starts to earn her living by working in a factory. The character of Emma was important to the author – society offered her no escape and once Flaubert said: "Emma, c'est moi." Delphine Delamare, who died in 1848, is alleged to have been the original of Emma Bovary.
Eleanor Marx's translation of Madame Bivary appeared in the same year in which the first volume of Das Kapital was published in English. She committed suicide in 1898 by taking cyanide poison after learning that her common law husband Dr Edward Aveling had entered into a legal marriage with a young actress. Aveling, who had purchased the poison, inherited Eleanor Marx's fortune, including revenues from the translation.
Among Flaubert's friends were Zola, George Sand, Hippolyte Taine, and the Russian writer Turgenev, with whom he shared similar aesthetic ideals – dedication to realism, and to the nonjudgmental representation of life. Their complete correspondence was published in English in 1985. ''The thought that I shall see you this winter quite at leisure delights me like the promise of an oasis," he wrote to Turgenev. "The comparison is the right one, if only you knew how isolated I am! Who is there to talk to now? Who is there in our wretched country who still 'cares about literature'? Perhaps one single man? Me! The wreckage of a lost world, an old fossil of romanticism! You will revive me, you'll do me good.'' (from Flaubert & Turgenev. A Friendship in Letters, edited and translated by Barbara Beaumont, 1985)
By nature, Flaubert melancholic, and he never fully enjoyed his work and role as an intellectual
at the court of Napoleon III. His perfectionism, long hours at
his table with a frog inkwell, only made his life harder. Though
he pretended that he did not care how his books were received, he
suffered from the effects of negative reviews. Moreover, the profits of
Madame Bovary had disappeared into the publisher's pocket. In a
letter to Ernest Feydeau he wrote: "Books are made not like children
but like pyramids... and are just as useless!" Flaubert's political comedy, Le Candidat
(1874), was closed after only four performances at the Vaudeville. One
critic stated that "M. G. Flaubert does not know theater and lacks the
natural gift that, in some few prodigies, compensates for
inexperience." (Flaubert: A Biography by Frederick Brown, 2006, p. 496) Only Emile Zola loved the play.
Flaubert's private, non-literary life was marked by his prodigious appetite for prostitutes, which occasionally led to venereal infections. "It may be a perverted taste," Flaubert said, "but I love prostitution, and for itself, too, quite apart from its carnal aspects." His last years were burdened by financial worries – with his modest fortune, Flaubert helped his niece's family after their bankruptcy. Flaubert died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 8, in 1880.
In the 1870s Flaubert's work gained acclaim by the new school of
naturalistic writers. His narrative approach, that the novelist should
not judge, teach, or explain but remain neutral, was widely adopted.
Flaubert himself detested the label Realist – and other labels, too.
After Madame Bovary, Flaubert wanted to write a novel about Egypt called Anubis.
However, he changed his mind and decided to focus on Carthaginian
culture and the siege of Carthage in 240-237 BC by mercenaries. This
novel, entitled Salammbô (1862), was an immediate success. Much of his historical material Flaubert took from J. Michelet's Roman History
(1830) and Ernest Renan's studies. Though the story treated a
historical subject, it had also contemporary political parallels and
implications: in India, the British had brutally suppressed the
so-called Sepoy Rebellion, which had united in 1857 Hindu and Moslem
Flaubert's excursion into decadence struck a chord with the
Parisian upper class and enabled him to make an acquaintance with the
Imperial family. In May 1861, when he had felt that his book was ready
for his friends, he had invited them to come to a reading with the
Salammbô inspired in 1998 Philippe Fénélon's opera, the libretto was written by
Jean-Yves Masson. Also the composers Hector Berlioz and Modest Mussorgsky had planned
opera adaptations, but they were never realized. In Orson Welles's film Citizen Kane (1941) Charles Foster Kane produces an opera for his former mistress and second wife, Susan Alexander, based on Salammbô. Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the score, proclaimed in 1972 that "I was fortunate enough to start my career with a film like Citizen Kane. It's been a downhill run ever since!"
L'Éducation sentimentale (1869, A Sentimental Education), a panorama of France, was set in the era of the Revolution of 1848. Its first version (La première Education Sentimentale)
Flaubert had finished in 1845. The story depicted the relationship
between a young man and an older married woman. Fréderic Moreau, the
hero, is full of vague longings, but he constantly
meets people who have nothing else to offer but pessimism and cynicism.
The ironic title, A Sentimental Education, means the education of feeling, and refers to the failure of Flaubert's generation to achieve its ideals.
La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874, The Temptation of Saint Anthony), written between 1848 and 1874, influenced the young Freud. It drew on the story of the 4th-century Christian anchorite, who lived in the Egyptian desert and experienced philosophical and physical temptations. There were other writings, novels, and unfinished projects, but this was the work on which Flaubert spent most of his time. Upon finishing the manuscript in September 1849, and wanting to hear the judgement of his literary confidants, he read them the work. "He read for four days, without stopping, from noon to four, and from eight to midnight," recalled Maxime Du Camp in his memoirs. After Flaubert had reached the end, they told the book needed to be rewritten or thrown in the fire. (Flaubert by Michel Winock, 2016, pp. 93-94)
Trois contes (1877, Three Tales) won Flaubert the greatest acclaim of all his books during his lifetime. The Italian writer Italo Calvino has praised this work as "one of the most extraordinary spiritual journeys ever accomplished outside any religion." 'The Story of a Simple Heart,' the most admired of the tales, was an account of the life of simple, pious country girl named Félicité. Some critics have suggested that her confusion between a stuffed parrot and the Holy Ghost was just a joke. Flaubert himself said, "This is not at all ironical as you may suppose, but on the contrary very serious and very sad. I want to move tender hearts to pity and tears, for I am tender-hearted myself." 'Herodias' was most likely inspired by a tympanum, representing Salome dancing on her hands in front of Herod, on the northern door of the Rouen Cathedral. It was a part of his childhood memories and he saw it when he later revisited the city. Trois contes was a major influence on Gertrude Stein's storytelling technique in Three Lives (1909). André Gide once said that Flaubert's corresponde took the place of the Bible at his bedside.
Bouvard et Pécuchet, on bourgeois stupidity, was left unfinished at the author's death. Edited by Flaubert's niece Caroline Commanville, it was first published in La Nouvelle Revue (1880-81). The protagonists, two copy clerks who move to the country, have often been considered forefathers of Beckett's characters. Bouvard and Pécuchet was partly inspired by Bartlémy Maurice's story 'Les Deux greffiers' (1841), which had appeared in the magazine La Gazette tribunaux. Some of the banalities which Flaubert found unbearable, he had already collected in Dictionary of Received Ideas (1911).