|French literary history|
Gustave Flaubert (December 12, 1821 – May 8, 1880) [gystav flobɛʁ] was a French novelist who is counted among the greatest Western novelists. He is known especially for his first published novel Madame Bovary and for his scrupulous devotion to his art and style, best exemplified by his endless search for le mot juste ("the precise word").
Flaubert was born in December 1821, in Rouen, Seine-Maritime, in the Haute-Normandie Region of France.
He was the second child of Achille-Cléophas Flaubert (1784-1846), a surgeon in practice at Rouen, and his wife, Anne Justine, born Fleuriot. He began writing at an early age, as early as 8 according to some sources. He was educated in his native city and did not leave it until 1840, when he went to Paris to study law.
In Paris, he is said to have been idle at school. Though he found the city distasteful, he made a few acquaintances, including Victor Hugo. Towards the close of 1840, he travelled in the Pyrenees and Corsica. In 1846, he left Paris and abandoned the study of the law. Epilepsy may have contributed to his departure.
After leaving Paris, Flaubert returned to Croisset, close to Rouen, and lived with his mother. Their home near the Seine became Flaubert's home for the remainder of his life. Flaubert never married. From 1846 to 1854, he had an affair with the poet Louise Colet (his letters to her survived him). According to his biographer Émile Faguet, his affair with Louise Colet was his only serious relationship. There is evidence, including evidence from Flaubert's personal writings, that he visited prostitutes.
His principal friend after leaving Paris was Maxime du Camp, and the two traveled in Brittany in 1846, and to Greece and Egypt in 1849. From his return to France in 1850 until his death, Flaubert remained in Croisset, never leaving, except for occasional visits to Paris, and a trip to Carthage in 1858.
During 1850s and 1860s Flaubert's sequestered and laborious life was comparatively happy. He was close to his niece, Caroline Commanville, and had a close friendship and correspondence with George Sand. He occasionally visited Parisian acquaintances including Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Turgenev, and Edmond and Jules de Goncourt.
The 1870s, however, were difficult. Prussian soldiers occupied his house during the War of 1870, and in 1872, he lost his mother. After her death, his circumstances became greatly reduced. Flaubert's health declined, and though he was only 58 when he died of a stroke in 1880, he appeared much older. He died at Croisset, but was buried in the family vault in the cemetery of Rouen. A monument to him by Henri Chapu was unveiled at the museum of Rouen in 1890.
In September 1849, Flaubert completed the first version of a novel, The Temptation of St. Anthony. He read the novel aloud to Louis Bouilhet and Maxime du Camp over the course of four days, not allowing them to interrupt or give any opinions. At the end of the reading, they told him to throw it on the fire, suggesting instead that he focus on the day to day life of normal (banal) people rather than on fantastic subjects.
In 1850, after returning from Egypt, Flaubert began work on Madame Bovary. The novel, which took 5 years to write, was serialized in the Revue de Paris in 1856. The government brought an action against the publisher and against the author on the charge of immorality, but both were acquitted. When Madame Bovary appeared in book form, it met with a warm reception.
In 1858, Flaubert traveled to Carthage to gather material for his next novel, Salammbô. Considered an early masterpiece of the Fantastique, the novel was completed in 1862 after four years of work.
He then took up again the study of contemporary manners, and, drawing on his childhood experiences, wrote L'Éducation sentimentale (Sentimental Education or rather Emotional Education), the composition of which occupied him for seven years. L'Éducation sentimentale was his last complete novel, published in 1869.
After the publication of L'Éducation sentimentale, he wrote an unsucessful drama, Le Candidat, and published a reworked version of La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, portions of which had been published as early as 1857. He devoted much of his time to an ongoing project, Les Deux Cloportes (The Two Woodlice), which later became Bouvard et Pécuchet, breaking from the obsessive project only to write theThree Tales, probably for financial reasons.
In 1877, Flaubert published a book of three stories entitled Trois contes or Three Tales. The included stories were Un Cœur simple, La Légende de Saint-Julien l'Hospitalier and Hérodias. After the publication of the stories, he spent the remainder of his life toiling on the unfinished Bouvard et Pécuchet, posthumously printed in 1881, which is a vast satire on the futility of human knowledge and the ubiquity of mediocrity. He believed the work to be his masterpiece, though the posthumous version received lukewarm reviews.
In his youth, Flaubert was vigorous, had a certain shy grace, was intensely individual, and apparently lacked ambition.
The personal character of Flaubert offered various peculiarities. He was shy, and yet extremely sensitive and arrogant; he passed from silence to an indignant and noisy flow of language. The same inconsistencies marked his physical nature; he had the build of a guardsman with a Viking head, but his health was uncertain from childhood, and he was neurotic to the last degree. This ruddy giant was secretly gnawed by misanthropy and disgust of life. His hatred of the bourgeois and their bêtise (wilful idiocy) began in his childhood and developed into a kind of monomania. He despised his fellow-men, their habits, their lack of intelligence, their contempt for beauty, with a passionate scorn which has been compared to that of an ascetic monk.
Flaubert's curious modes of composition favored and were emphasized by these peculiarities. He worked in sullen solitude, sometimes occupying a week in the completion of one page, never satisfied with what he had composed, violently tormenting his brain for the best turn of a phrase, the most absolutely final adjective. His incessant labors were rewarded. His private letters show that he was not one of those to whom easy and correct language came naturally; he gained his extraordinary perfection with the unceasing sweat of his brow. Many critics consider Flaubert's best works to be models of style.
That he was one of the greatest writers who ever lived in France is now commonly admitted, and his greatness principally depends upon the extraordinary vigour and exactitude of his style. Less perhaps than any other writer, not of France, but of modern Europe, Flaubert yields admission to the inexact, the abstract, the vaguely inapt expression which is the bane of ordinary methods of composition. He never allowed a cliché to pass him, never indulgently or wearily went on, leaving behind him a phrase which almost expressed his meaning. As a writer, Flaubert was nearly equal parts romantic, realist, and pure stylist. Hence, members of various schools--especially realists and formalists--have traced their origins to his work. The exactitude with which he adapts his expressions to his purpose can be seen in all parts of his work, especially in the portraits he draws of the figures in his principal romances. The degree to which Flaubert's fame has extended since his death presents an interesting chapter of literary history in itself.
The publication of Madame Bovary in 1857 was followed by more scandal than admiration; it was not understood at first that this novel was the beginning of something new: the scrupulously truthful portraiture of life. Gradually, this aspect of his genius was accepted, and it began to crowd out all others. At the time of his death he was famous as a realist, pure and simple. Under this aspect Flaubert exercised an extraordinary influence over Edmond de Goncourt, Alphonse Daudet and Zola. But even after the decline of the realistic school, Flaubert did not lose prestige; other facets of his genius caught the light. It has been perceived that he was not merely realistic, but real; that his clairvoyance was almost boundless; that he saw certain phenomena more clearly than the best of observers had done. Flaubert is a writer who tends to appeal to other writers more than to the world at large because of his deep commitment to aesthetic principles, his devotion to style, and his indefatigable pursuit of the perfect expression.
He can be said to have made cynicism into an art-form, as evinced by this observation from 1846:
His Œuvres Complètes (8 vols., 1885) were printed from the original manuscripts, and included, besides the works mentioned already, the two plays, Le Candidat and Le Château des cœurs. Another edition (10 vols.) appeared in 1873–1885. Flaubert's correspondence with George Sand was published in 1884 with an introduction by Guy de Maupassant.
He has been admired or written about by almost every major literary personality of the 20th century, including philosophers such as Pierre Bourdieu. Georges Perec named Sentimental Education as one of his favourite novels. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is another great admirer of Flaubert. Apart from Perpetual Orgy, which is solely devoted to Flaubert's art, one can find lucid discussions in Vargas Llosa's recently published Letters to a Young Novelist.
2000. ISBN 0-19-815918-8