Saturday, December 12, 2015

Birthday: Flaubert said, "An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere."


Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

There seems to have been a 19th century rule that, in every French provincial haute bourgeois family, there must be one son who wants to chuck it all and be a writer.

In the Flaubert family of doctors and judges, Gustave was the one.

Educated at Rouen, he went to Paris to study law in 1840. Flaubert hated both the subject and the locale. He fussed about until 1846, when a seizure thought to be epileptic gave him an excuse to quit the city for the small town of Croisset. He planned a quiet existence as a bachelor writer, but his father promptly died, and his sister died in childbirth, so he set up house with his mother and an infant to look after.

He traveled frequently in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, sightseeing, visiting friends, and indulging a penchant for prostitutes of both genders. After  a false start on a novel, he undertook a story about adultery in 1850. Madame Bovary took five years. In New York Magazine, Sam Anderson writes,

Flaubert fetishized style; he wrote slowly and revised endlessly. He worked on the novel for nearly five laborious years, and his letters from the period are a running commentary of agony. “Writing this book,” he wrote, “I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles.” At that time, the loose-baggy-monster tradition of the novel was still in ascendance: Bovary’s contemporaries include Moby-Dick, Bleak House, and Les Misérables. Flaubert’s novel, however, demonstrates the kind of perfect control seen more often in poetry: seamless sentences that unite, seamlessly, into paragraphs, which then flow seamlessly into episodes and chapters—craftsmanship so advanced that the craftsmanship disappears. As Michael Dirda once put it, “You can shake Madame Bovary and nothing will fall out.”

The book was serialized in October-December 1865. In January the French government charged him with promoting indecency and put him on trial.  Bovary was, by the standards of the time, a highly provocative book, and Flaubert narrowly escaped conviction by arguing he was, in fact, upholding decency by throwing a searchlight on its opposite. The scandal did wonders for the book’s sales.

Weary of the bourgeoisie, Flaubert turned his mind to a historical drama, Salammbo, set in ancient Carthage. This had the added benefit of giving him cause for a research trip in 1858, from whence he wrote his friends at length of his amorous adventures.

Flaubert tended to work ideas over endlessly. His novel, A Sentimental Education (1869) went through multiple incarnations over thirty years, arising from a crush he developed  on an older woman when he was sixteen. He wrote a friend that he labored all morning putting in a comma, then all afternoon taking it out. He saw a direct connection between words and the ideas and emotions they expressed. Le mot juste- the perfect word- was his endless pursuit. This striving for perfection makes life hard, however, for translators, this excerpt from Lydia Davis’ acclaimed 2010 edition of Madame Bovary demonstrates:


Flaubert remade the idea of the novel, turning the cliche of the unfaithful wife into a human tragedy that resonated through the ages. His appeal is universal; half of his published works remain in print and widely read today.

Flaubert’s last years were troubled. His home was sacked by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War; his niece's husband suffered business reverses so severe Flaubert beggared himself trying to save him. His health began to fail, and he died of a stroke at 58.

His enormous correspondence with other writers- Hugo, Sand, Turgenev, the Goncourts- has been published and gives vivid life to the times. The many modern writers who acknowledged their debt to Flaubert include media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Julian Barnes (Flaubert’s Parrot) and Woody Allen, in whose short story, “The Kugelmass Episode”, a bored humanities professor finds a magician with a cabinet that can transport him into the book of his choice. Kugelmass embarks on an affair with Emma Bovary (“always get me in before page 120,” Kugelmass tells The Great Persky, “before she meets that Rodolphe”)  to the shock of readers everywhere:

What he didn't realize was that at this very moment students in various classrooms across the country were saying to their teachers, "Who is this character on page 100? A bald Jew is kissing Madame Bovary?" A teacher in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, sighed and thought, Jesus, these kids, with their pot and acid. What goes through their minds!

“Anything,” Flaubert maintained, “becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.”

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #Flaubert

No comments:

Post a Comment

We enjoy hearing from visitors! Please leave your questions, thoughts, wish lists, or whatever else is on your mind.