How Gustave Flaubert captured the turbulent politics of his age

Sooner or later, virtually every piece of literary lore is dragged from the popular imagination, stripped of impunity and ritually debunked. For a long time, every­one was busy enjoying Coleridge’s story about the knock on the door that ruined “Kubla Khan” – hunting for a moral, smarting with vicarious frustration. Then biographers arrived to spoil the fun, pointing to the absence of an unwanted visitor from the first version of Coleridge’s preface, wondering what “a person on business” could want with a poet on opium that he would travel more than 20 miles and then detain him for an hour. And you know the one about Jack Kerouac, stabbing out his novel on a hundred-foot “scroll” during a punctuation-phobic three-week Benzedrine haze? Try: years of drafting, yards of Scotch tape, caffeine, commas.

The latest candidate for this treatment is the composition of Gustave Flaubert’s first novel, Madame Bovary, which was serialised (and censored) in 1856. At the end of the previous decade, Flaubert spent 32 hours over a four-day period reading aloud the manuscript of his Oriental epic, The Temptation of St Antony. The audience, his friends Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet, kept their silence until the last full stop, at which point they advised him to stick it in a drawer. The novel’s story was excessive, they said, and its language cloyingly romantic. Instead, they advised that Flaubert should look for a tale of ordinary life – what Michel Winock, in his excellent new biography, calls “a down-to-earth subject, in the style of Balzac”. Bouilhet proposed the case of the Delamares, a bourgeois couple who had killed themselves in quick succession.

After some initial push-back, Flaubert embraced the task with vigour. He set about writing a novel about a farmer’s daughter educated beyond her natural intelligence who marries a country doctor but, itching for a grander life, soon becomes mired in debt and sexual scandal. Then, having settled on a story so far from what he called “the mythological and theological extravagances of Saint Antony”, he sought a voice and a tone to suit these restraints, free of what he called “grand turns of phrase . . . the dazzling bursts of style, in short everything I like”.

Character took precedence; the author, he decided, should resemble God in the universe (“present everywhere and visible nowhere”). His solution was an approach nowadays known as free indirect style, a regimented, highly implicit, outwardly impersonal – though often slyly ironic – form of third person, which accommodates a character’s impressions without quoted speech or thought (this is why it is indirect) and without the tag “he said” or “he thought” (this why it is free).

There was to be no metaphor, no moralising, but also nothing that would offend his tastes. “May I die like a dog rather than hurry by a single second a sentence that isn’t ripe!” he wrote in 1852. To this end, Flaubert composed the novel “pianissimo”, as he put it, one phoneme at a time. He also yelled the results until his throat was raw.

The vision of the towering, walrus-like Flaubert, in his study at Croisset, or in the family garden, day after day, pacing and twitching and belting out passages, ears pricked for idle pronouns and prepositions, ought to be too pathetic, unglamorous and exhaustively well documented to attract the same killjoy, cold-water tendencies as Coleridge’s curtailed daydream and Kerouac’s sleepless bender. Unlike those stories about literary labour, Flaubert’s “gueuloir” (his term for the yelling) is immersed in the idea of writing as a challenge and a craft.

The martyr of literary style – Water Pater’s phrase – is not a role that many would audition for. John McPhee, in “Draft No 4”, the title essay of a forthcoming book on “the writing process”, recalls that when he learned about Flaubert’s struggles during an eighth-grade English class, he considered him to be “heroic”, but saw that most kids found him “weird”.

And Flaubert didn’t compose a public mythology about his habits, in prefaces or prime-time interviews. He confessed his woes (“I sometimes eliminate sentences that took me several entire days”) in a series of letters to his on-off lover Louise Colet and, when things were off, Louis Bouilhet – correspondence that he had no way of guessing would be published within a decade of his death, achieve unrivalled fame in the annals of literary self-portraiture and become a manifesto- cum-manual for at least two generations of European novelists.

Yet a process of chipping away has started to take place, revealing Flaubert not as a fraud but as a failure on his own terms. Michael Fried, in his 2012 book Flaubert’s “Gueuloir”, noted that the writing in Madame Bovary is full of the kind of repeated syllables the novelist yearned to stop at the gate. This is not iconoclastic, or particularly new. Going back, Flaubert’s followers have loved his writing without needing to believe in its perfection. Proust wrote an essay defending Flaubert’s style, but his earlier pastiche clearly associates him with flamboyant metaphors and the alliteration of “P” sounds. Fried worships Flaubert, and he mounts an intricate argument about the creative unconscious – style as a mixture of will and habit – to explain how the guilty words crept in. The martyr didn’t die for nothing; he just didn’t die for what he thought he died for.

The dominant modes in current Flaubert studies are squarely and unbashedly literary. There’s a lot of “genetic criticism” – the study of drafts, manuscript and notebooks, the so-called avant-textes. A French critic has considered the use of the semi­colon in his final, unfinished novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, in which a pair of copy clerks engage in a vast intellectual project that proves to be no more than a series of rabbit holes. Michael Fried’s close-up study is certainly in this vein, but his desire to show that Madame Bovary contains sentences in which the syllable “-ait” figures more than once is also consistent with a wider effort to absolve the novel of the sin of aestheticism and to turn Flaubert into a different kind of writer.

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