Flaubert — the writer’s writer par excellence — is a real challenge to write about

One of the charms and shortcomings of biography is that it makes perfectly normal situations sound extraordinary. According to Michel Winock, Gustave Flaubert (1821–80), the author of Madame Bovary and L’Éducation sentimentale, contracted ‘an early and profound aversion to mankind’. To Gustave the schoolboy, man was nothing but a coagulation of ‘mud and shit… equipped with instincts lower than those of the pig or the crab-louse’.

This might have been the influence of his freethinking father, an eminent Rouen surgeon, but perhaps it was just the spirit of the age. The Napoleonic adventure was over; the sun of Romanticism had set. As Winock reminds us, quoting Alfred de Musset’s Confession of a Child of the Century, ‘the young saw the foaming waves ebbing away from them… and those oiled gladiators felt unbearably wretched’.

The depressing lycée which Gustave attended in Rouen can’t have helped: ‘Life at boarding school was harsh. The premises were poorly heated and rudimentary, hygiene left much to be desired; discipline was rigorous’ and ‘student insurrections were not uncommon’. Schools in biographies nearly always have an air of Dotheboys Hall about them. I taught at that school in 1979–80 and found it exactly as Winock describes.

Wallowing in lost illusions was normal for the time, as was the argot of scientific jargon and obscenities which Flaubert used throughout his life: ‘I feel waves of hatred against the stupidity of my era suffocating me. Shit is rising into my mouth, as with a strangulated hernia.’ Politics left him cold or, rather, seething with indifference:

The idea of la patrie, the fatherland — that is, the obligation to live on a bit of earth coloured red or blue on a map, and to detest the other bits coloured green or black — has always seemed to me narrow, restricted and ferociously stupid.

Like countless bourgeois teenagers of the 1830s, Flaubert decided to make the best of a bad job by becoming a writer: ‘Let us intoxicate ourselves with ink, since we lack the nectar of the gods.’ ‘What is surprising here,’ says Winock, ‘is not the attitude but its staying power.’ Flaubert’s last work, unfinished and probably unfinishable, was a Dictionnaire des idées reçues. To judge by what survives, it would have taken the form of a conversation manual for fools: ‘ENGLISHMEN: All rich.’ ‘ERECTION: Said only in reference to monuments.’ ‘FRANCE: Needs an iron hand in order to be ruled.’ Flaubert’s hope was that readers of his ‘encyclopedia of human stupidity’ would never dare say anything again in case they ‘inadvertently uttered one of the sentences in the book’. It might have been subtitled, ‘World, Shut Your Mouth’.

‘Why write yet another biography of Flaubert?’ asks Winock in his opening sentence. For that matter, why write a biography of Flaubert at all? He spent almost his entire life sitting in a summerhouse above the Seine, fuming at the stupidity of the human race, and writing — which is to say, filling up the wastepaper basket and salvaging an occasional sentence — for 14 hours a day. When he looked up, he saw the masts of invisible ships passing on the river and, on one occasion, the Obelisk of Luxor on its way to Paris. That was Flaubert for nine-tenths of his waking existence — ‘a big, stout, superb Gaul with an enormous moustache, a powerful nose, and thick eyebrows sheltering a seabird’s blue eyes’, dipping his pen in an inkwell shaped like a frog.

Luckily for his biographers, he travelled quite a lot, notably to Egypt, where, like many an ‘artistic’ young man of the time, he tried out sodomy. He told a friend after a visit to the baths in Cairo, ‘It was a laugh, that’s all. But I’ll do it again. For an experience to be done well, it must be repeated.’ (‘Expérience’, that faux ami, should obviously be ‘experiment’.) He also contracted syphilis, as did ‘practically everyone’, according to the Dictionnaire des idées reçues. Nonetheless, as the narrator of Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot puts it, he had ‘an active and colourful erotic career’. There are some detailed examples in his letters to the poet, Louise Colet; but we know almost nothing about his long affair or friendship with the English governess, Juliet Herbert, who translated Madame Bovary before it was published. (The translation, which Flaubert called ‘a masterpiece’, has disappeared.)

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