I once spent a year in the manuscript room of the old French National Library on the Rue de Richelieu. Toward the end of my stay, the curator offered to give me a going-away present: a day at my carrel with any manuscript in her archives. I had nearly all of French literature to choose from, but there was no contest. I asked for Flaubert’s “The Sentimental Education.” This greatest Bildungsroman, one of the first modern novels, tells the mock-epic, tragicomic story of Frédéric Moreau, a provincial dilettante who fritters away an inheritance on the wrong women, friends, pleasures, investments, and causes, and whose ambitions are thwarted as methodically as his illusions are demolished. The book was published in 1869, thirteen years after “Madame Bovary,” to excoriating reviews. Writers of an ironic temperament revere it for the qualities that have alienated the larger reading public: its arduous purity of style; its uncompromising pessimism, free of cant; and its refusal to ennoble human nature.
“A romantic anarchist with a small private income,” Flaubert lived in the country with his mother for most of his writing life.Illustration by J. J. Sempé
Flaubert wrote a rabidly depressed letter about the novel’s reception to his friend George Sand, and she responded with a maternal nudge, typical of their correspondence, for she liked to pretend that his misanthropy was an affectation. “This man who is so kind, so friendly, so cheerful, so simple, so congenial, why does he want to discourage us from living?” she wondered rhetorically. But Sand, who foraged tirelessly for pleasure and companionship, and wrote with complacent fluency, misunderstood the tonic nature of Flaubert’s despair. Less of the world is more for him because there can never be enough, and his discouragement with life sets the bar that his pitiless ambition keeps forcing him to transcend.
The draft of “The Sentimental Education” runs to twenty-five hundred shagreen-bound folio pages—a fortune in stationery. The writer so wary of self-indulgence was profligate with ink and paper. He covered his leaves minutely, on both sides, with wiry black script. Almost every line is altered or crossed out, then recopied dozens of times. The manuscript has the aspect of a battlefield on which each inch of forward momentum has been wrested at exorbitant human cost from an implacable enemy. An epitaph for this expense of valor comes to mind: Flaubert’s words of mourning and consolation from a scene halfway into “Madame Bovary,” where Emma’s romantic effusions begin, fatally, to bore her lover Rodolphe. Here the author inserts a very rare editorial aside: a defense of his heroine’s ineloquence, which sounds like a plea to his own conscience for mercy—“As if the soul’s fullness didn’t sometimes overflow into the emptiest of metaphors, for no one, ever, can give the exact measure of his needs, his apprehensions, or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when we want to move the stars to pity.”
The best literary biographies give the most exact possible measure of the overflow from a writer’s being into his work. In that respect, “Flaubert: A Life” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $27), by Geoffrey Wall, is an admirable if not completely satisfying book. The author—a British university professor—has a penchant for the pastoral “we,” and he occasionally succumbs to what, for a Flaubertian, is the fatal pitfall of solemnity. Discussing “Herodias,” the last of the “Three Tales” (a late masterpiece that also includes the novellas “A Simple Heart” and “The Legend of Saint Julian"), Wall complains, as might a nineteenth-century cleric writing to the Journal de Rouen, that the ending lacks a proper sense of exaltation. Why? Because the disciples of John the Baptist set off for Galilee with his severed head on a dish, and “as it was very heavy, they each carried it in turn.” He finds this “a conclusion so inscrutably prosaic that it leaves us yearning for the poetry of the sacred.” But only two things are sacred to Flaubert: impiety and perfection.
Anyone foolhardy enough to enter the lists with Flaubert must submit to the ordeal-by-humiliation of sharing a page with his sentences, and Wall survives. His style has flair (if at times too much), and so does his erudition. Citing the famous passage at the end of the “Education,” which must be one of the bleakest elegies ever written—seven telescopic sentences devoid of embellishment that sum up the futility of Frédéric’s later life—Wall notes that Flaubert is “showing his successors how to smuggle their old Romantic contraband into a modern realist novel.” Wall understands that cunning is necessary, too, when dealing with an obsessive teaser and connoisseur of farce. It is daunting enough to establish a critical beachhead on a character so well defended, in Wall’s words, by “lucid comic anguish.” But it is practically impossible to ascertain when Flaubert’s self-mockery is contrived, and to resist its subversiveness. He was a man who could write of his own violent moods, “I go from exasperation to a state of collapse, then I recover and go from prostration to Fury, so that my average state is one of being annoyed.” Two weeks before his death, he told his niece, “Sometimes I think I’m liquefying like an old Camembert.”
Wall’s condensed portrait is drawn mostly from previously published material, and it doesn’t, and perhaps wasn’t intended to, enrich Flaubert scholarship. Earlier biographers have mapped the terrain in multiple volumes. Wall is not as dogged as Enid Starkie, as urbane as Francis Steegmuller, or as microscopic as Sartre. No abbreviation of the life may ever match the cranky wit and wry felicity of Julian Barnes’s “Flaubert’s Parrot” (which, however, enjoys the riffing privileges of fiction). But the author of the “Dictionary of Received Ideas”—the glossary of clichés that Flaubert appended to “Bouvard and Pecuchet,” his “encyclopedia of human stupidity” in novel form—would surely have bellowed with joy at the themes listed after his name in Wall’s index. With a few minor omissions, they are as follows: “Flaubert, Gustave: aesthetic mysticism; alleged sadism; artistic intransigence; attitude to marriage; castration complex; celebrity and influence; chevalier de la Légion d’honneur; death; debts; dogs; fatness; hallucinations; interest in history; masturbation; modernity; pleasure taken in books; pleasure taken in travelling; realism; recitations; romanticism; sexual abstinence; sexual initiation; sexual passion; syphilis; use of prostitutes; views on book illustrations.”
Flaubert might also have argued against spoiling the effect of such a deliciously incriminating catalogue with the clutter of elaboration.
In February of 1848, Flaubert travelled to Paris from his native Rouen to join, or at least to observe, the so-called “beautiful revolution.” This insurrection of workers and enlightened bourgeois against the aristocracy was fomented by an alliance of socialists, liberals, and Romantic intellectuals (Lamartine was one of its leaders), and, without much bloodshed, it toppled the corrupt regime of King Louis Philippe, instituting the Second Republic—a period of giddy political reform and debate on the Social Contract. Flaubert had just turned twenty-six. He had given up his law studies and had seen something of the world. His father and sister had recently died. He had also embraced his vocation, though its path was obscure. Having scuttled several earlier fictional projects, he was deep into a visionary tale set in the fourth century—“The Temptation of Saint Anthony.” “We think you ought to throw it into the fire and never mention it again,” said his friends and lifelong literary confidants Louis Bouilhet and Maxime Du Camp when he read them the manuscript. (Flaubert would always be a frugal recycler. He drafted the saint’s history at least three times, and the definitive version—his mature view of martyrdom—was published in 1874.)
The pleasures of Flaubert’s intense masculine friendships helped to relieve his periodic fits of boredom and gloom, but he still considered “the great event of his life” to have been his encounter, at fourteen, with the maternally lovely older woman—Elisa Schlésinger—who inspired the character of Mme. Arnoux in “The Sentimental Education.” If meeting her was the high point of his youth, its nadir was the onset, at twenty-two, of a malady that Flaubert would always refer to evasively as “my nervous attacks.” His father, a celebrated surgeon, had recognized the symptoms—hallucinations, convulsions, migraines, blackouts, disturbances of vision, and “cerebral congestion”—and had treated Gustave with the only palliatives then known: regular bloodletting and mercury massages bolstered by a regimen of swimming and a restricted diet. Neither the patient nor his family would ever admit the truth: that Flaubert had epilepsy.
He was supposed to avoid violent stimuli, but when news of the republican insurrection reached Rouen he couldn’t resist the chance, as he put it, “to watch the riot ‘from the artistic point of view.’ ” Bouilhet came with him, and they met Du Camp in Paris. There wasn’t anything dramatic to see, so they went to dinner at their favorite restaurant. At the door of Du Camp’s apartment, they heard gunfire but mistook it for fireworks, and missed the massacre taking place a hundred yards away, on the Boulevard des Capucines. They spent the evening listening to Bouilhet recite his poetry. The next morning, they were able to witness a little picturesque street fighting around the Palais-Royal, and Flaubert and Du Camp (they had lost Louis in the melee) were among the first new “citizens” to tour the liberated Tuileries. At this point, Wall says, the royal apartments were still intact, the crowd was in a festive mood, and two stout apostles of the people sat cheerfully at the King’s table finishing his breakfast. But, as the palace wine cellars were emptied, their contents fuelled a spree of looting and vandalism. “Feeling uncomfortably and identifiably bourgeois,” the friends retreated, though they managed to talk a mob out of executing some prisoners. Decades later, Flaubert recalled these scenes from 1848 in the dénouement of the “Education.” He repudiated all parties, right and left, and, with them, the naïveté of his generation. But he reserved his most unbridled contempt for the Jacobin sanctimony of the ideologues and “speechifiers.” Du Camp, deeply influenced by the account, remarked in his memoirs that revolution is always “initiated by simpletons, helped along by fools, pushed through by rogues, then taken over by the opportunists.”
Their age of disaffections was still remote when Flaubert and Du Camp—who had exchanged friendship rings in a spirit of manly Hellenic devotion—left France, in October of 1849, for eighteen months of vagabondage in the Romantic holy lands of southern Europe and the Middle East. Wall gives the flavor of their journey to the Orient in a gamy little inventory of the souvenirs that Flaubert shipped home:
All the gazelle skins and the lizard skins had been devoured by worms; the pots of ibis . . . broken in transit; and the Nubian garments (female) were horribly rancid. But many other items . . . had happily survived. . . . Hashish, “something special” from Cairo. One small crocodile, Nubian, embalmed. Ten feet of gold-embroidered fabric (wool and silk) from Beirut. Rosaries, eight dozen, from Jerusalem. One rose, ditto, blessed on the Holy Sepulchre. . . . Marble from the Temple of Apollo, one piece. . . . Flowers, for Louis Bouilhet, picked from just by the door of a brothel in Pompeii.
Sated with sublimity and degradation, the adventurers returned to sit by the fire, dreaming, as Flaubert put it, “about hairless cunts.” Or at least that’s what he did. He would always suffer, Wall writes, from the indignity of being that absurd creature, “a romantic anarchist with a modest private income,” and this costly expedition had depleted his capital. Du Camp, heir to a fortune, repaired to the well-furred lairs of Paris.
The Second Republic was short-lived. In 1851, it fell to the coup d’état of “the people’s prince,” Louis Bonaparte, who had been democratically elected President of France by five and a half million newly enfranchised (male) citizens, including peasants and workers. He quickly became a reactionary tyrant. “The Second Empire was the ridiculous, Ruritanian outcome of three exhausting, audacious years of political experiment,” Wall writes. “Pedantic censorship to crush the disobedient, lavish patronage to reward the compliant—these were the blunt instruments of the state’s cultural policy. Flaubert endured the full force of both. He was to be persecuted and patronised in almost equal measure.”
Nearly thirty, Flaubert had just begun writing “Madame Bovary.” He spent the next four and a half years living with his widowed mother and orphaned niece in the family manor at Croisset, on the banks of the Seine south of Rouen. The lamp in the window of his study became a beacon to the rivermen. Like Penelope, he worked through the night, mostly unravelling. The book was composed, Flaubert said, at the rate of “five hundred irreproachable words a week” and published in six installments in Du Camp’s literary journal, the Revue de Paris. They were read as avidly by the imperial police of Napoleon III as by the thousands of stifled provincial housewives—les bovarystes enragées—who saw themselves as Emma.
In 1857, after much intrigue and publicity—all of it a vile distraction, in Flaubert’s view—he was prosecuted by the state for “grossly offending against public morality, religion, and decency.” To his lawyer, he declared himself “puzzled as to the nature of my misdeed”:
Sincere books may sometimes have a certain salutary pungency. Personally I deplore . . . those sugary confections which readers swallow without realizing that they are quietly poisoning themselves. It had always been my belief that the novelist, like the traveller, enjoyed the liberty to describe what he saw. Following the example of many others, I could have chosen a subject drawn from the “exceptional” or ignoble ranks of society. I chose, on the contrary, from among the most prosaically ordinary. . . . Readers in search of lascivious material . . . will never progress beyond the third page of what I have written. The serious tone will not be to their taste. People do not go to watch surgical operations in a spirit of lubricity.
“The son and brother of famous doctors,” Sainte-Beuve wrote in his often quoted review of “Madame Bovary,” “Gustave Flaubert wields the pen like a scalpel.” Wall, for his part, is smitten unapologetically by the doctor-father’s greatness of character and detects, “beneath the brilliant, educated surface” of his mind, “the same tension, between explicit impersonality and unspoken compassion [that] animates the mature style of his son.” Flaubert also happens to have been the child of a surgeon’s niece, Caroline Fleuriot, but Wall manifests an odd and hostile incuriosity about her. Except to denigrate Mme. Flaubert as “glacial,” “querulous,” and “coldly aristocratic,” he treats her as a cipher. Yet Gustave lived with his “Maman” for most of his life. In a certain sense, he inherited her “cult for form,” as Sand describes Flaubert’s true religion. He respected her advice and depended upon her purse. She provided him with many kinds of comfort and containment. Upon her death, in 1872, Flaubert realized, he told Sand, “that my poor dear mother was the person I have loved most. It feels as though a piece of my guts has been torn out.”
Flaubert and his two siblings, Achille and Caroline, spent their earliest years in a wing of their father’s hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu, a labyrinthine public institution. Dr. Flaubert’s dissection room looked onto the family’s garden, and, by climbing the trellis and clinging to the vines, Gustave and his sister could see the corpses laid out, abuzz with flies, and their father standing above them with a sharpened blade. At the age of five or six, he told Sand, he had wanted to “ ‘send my heart’ to a little girl I was in love with (I mean my actual heart). I could see it on a bed of straw, in a hamper, a hamper full of oysters.” In the same period, the Flauberts employed a fetching, “simple-hearted” peasant nursemaid called Julie. Fetching, simple-hearted peasant nursemaids seem to occupy an inordinately prominent place in French literature and biography. Julie (not her real name, she said) liked to overexcite her pet, “Monsieur Gustave,” with amorous kisses and fairy tales of the grimmer, more fabulous variety. She also told him—dubiously, considering her station—that she had once spent an entire year reading in bed. “All our lives we still smell of our nurse’s milk,” Flaubert wrote. In his case, however, the smell of childhood was of a sunlit garden, cuisine bourgeoise, and a warm, lactating breast mixed with blood and rotting flesh.
By the time of the “Madame Bovary” trial, Flaubert, at thirty-five, was prematurely decrepit. He would always tower above his contemporaries—he was over six feet tall—but he had lost the striking Apollonian beauty of his youth to the Nubian desert sun; to a sedentary life; to his venereal souvenirs from the dives of Esneh; to an excessive fondness for his pipe; and to the periodic attacks of epilepsy that, with syphilis, probably killed him. He had become a nearly bald and paunchy giant with a heavy, saturnine countenance chronically plagued, as was his body, by eczema and boils—the sort of man, he once joked, “that whores wince at when it comes to the shagging.”
Not every woman winced, however. It is true that Flaubert was celibate by choice for long periods; that he never consummated his greatest love (for Mme. Schlésinger); and that masturbation—the vice of the self-employed—was his most reliable source of release. But Flaubert also dallied with housemaids, actresses, artists’ models, society hostesses, and the English governess of his niece, Caroline. The story of his longest, most flamboyant affair has probably enthralled more readers than any of his obscurer fictions, and, while this irony might or might not have amused him, it would certainly have confirmed his opinion of the book-buying public.
Wall describes the mistress in question, who was eleven years Flaubert’s senior, in the style of the “Dictionary of Received Ideas.” Louise Colet: “Socialist-feminist writer . . . victim of much misogynist ridicule, notoriously vain and spiteful. An impossible person.” She and Flaubert were thus ideally suited to drive each other crazy, and they did. At the beginning, his frustrated ardor responded ecstatically to her vitality. “You would breathe love into a dead man,” he told her. He paid her the compliment, which she resented, of using her the way he used his most intimate male friends, as a sounding board for his work-in-progress and his literary enthusiasms. ("So what the devil do you want me to talk to you about if not Shakespeare?") But she was more interested in flowery raptures and perhaps a baby. Quite soon, Gustave was correcting her “illusions” about him—“You deserved better”—and then he took to shouting, as if at someone stone deaf, that for him love could never be “the main dish of existence.”
A pious utopian (bleeding hearts are a leitmotif of Flaubert biography), Louise objected, Wall writes, to “Flaubert’s ‘aristocratic ideas’ about women,” and she complained that his mockery had killed her love. Confident about her looks (“My bust . . . and arms are extremely beautiful. . . . My nose is charming . . . my legs are perfect”), and their effect on men, she had always been generous with her favors. But she cherished the touching hope of marrying well—indeed, of marrying Flaubert—and she didn’t like being treated “as a woman of the lowest order.” The passionate sincerity with which, at first, he defended himself against her accusations and demands gave way to frigidly ironic politeness and, as time passed, to exasperated brutality: “If you could have been content with gallantry spiced up with a little sentiment and a little poetry, perhaps you would not have met with this fall which has caused you so much suffering.” Even then, she was impossible to shake off.
The egomania of Louise Colet, unlike the egomania of Gustave Flaubert, was so unpolluted by self-consciousness that it achieves a certain comic grandeur. She lived in Paris on the margins of the demimonde, dependent on a series of celebrity protectors (Alfred de Musset, Alfred de Vigny, and Victor Cousin, among others), and valiantly eked out a debt-ridden living, like Mlle. Vatnaz in “The Sentimental Education,” by contributing to bluestocking journals, writing about fashion, and composing mawkish verse that she proudly sent to her paramour, who—ever incorruptible—felt morally obliged to savage it: “Do not imagine you can exorcise what oppresses you in life by giving vent to it in art.” For nearly a decade, on and off, Louise and Gustave met every few months for what he was pleased to call a “big fuck,” usually at a cheap hotel near the railway station in Mantes, a town conveniently situated halfway between their two abodes. (“O bed! If you could speak,” Louise exclaims in one her poems, a twelve-part opus.) These erratic trysts were hardly enough to gratify a woman of her socio-literary aspirations. While she obsessed about meeting Flaubert’s mother, pined for his devotion, griped about his ingratitude, schemed to arouse his jealousy, bristled at his insistence on coitus interruptus, and sent him a lock of Chateaubriand’s hair, he toyed with her feelings in immortal epistolary prose laced with quite a bit of infantile whining. “You have hurt yourself on the secrets of my heart,” he chided her. And he compared himself to an angry leper turning against the misguided do-gooder who stops to dress his sores.
Flaubert was acquitted of the charges against him in the case of Emma Bovary. In certain quarters—having been cast as the Ted Hughes of the nineteenth century—he has never been acquitted of the charges against him in the case of Louise Colet. In one respect, perhaps, justice was served divinely: wherever posterity entertains the great man, his ex-girlfriend is invited. But “with [her] passing,” Wall writes, “some portion of Flaubert’s inner life disappears from view. . . . A new, unexpected, public figure now enters the scene . . . a man of the salon and the boulevard, master of intrigue, expert in ‘the art of shaking hands,’ an author indeed.”
Even before “Madame Bovary” was finished, Flaubert had warned his friends that he was feeling “a need for immense epics.” He yearned for a vacation from the austerity of his style and the claustrophobia of his subject matter, and now he was free to take one. In 1858, he spent six weeks touring the ruins of Carthage and enjoying the taverns of Tunis (and perhaps its male brothels—his letters refer to them in passing). When he returned, he began to distill his impressions of the trip and his avid reading of ancient history into “Salammbô,” the kind of febrile costume drama his friends had once urged him to feed to the fire. Fastidiously documented tales of half-dressed pagan practitioners of human sacrifice sold well, and this redolent “stew” of barbaric horrors, perversities, and sacred rites was the most popular of Flaubert’s novels among his contemporaries. It became a “cult book” to the decadents, then an opera, and inspired a school of kitschy salon art, most of it featuring some version of a dusky princess in deshabille posed ecstatically with a snake. When the manuscript of “Salammbô” was nearly completed, Flaubert invited a small party of friends, including the prissy Goncourt brothers, to a private reading—or, rather, a declamation, for he liked to bray his work at the top of his lungs—that lasted for ten hours. “To mark the occasion,” Wall writes, “a special Oriental dinner was to be served. The menu included ‘human flesh, brain of bourgeois and tigress clitorises sautéed in rhinoceros butter.’ ”
Corruption and hypocrisy, the former as lavish as the latter was rank, were the hallmarks of the Second Empire, and the same regime that had prosecuted the obscure degenerate responsible for “Madame Bovary” now fêted the best-selling érudit who had conceived “Salammbô.” The Emperor’s witty cousin Princess Mathilde, whose nickname was Notre Dame des Arts, asked him to her Wednesday receptions, and their friendship generated a correspondence that was ardent though high-minded on both sides. The courier who delivered her dinner invitations, in a uniform “bristling with medals,” Wall notes, “always made a great impression on Flaubert’s Parisian concierge.”
At the Princess’s mansion on the Rue de Courcelles, Flaubert was introduced to the Empress Eugénie, who asked his permission to copy one of Salammbô’s costumes for a ballgown. He also met the Tsar of the Russians (“a slob,” he told George Sand) and many other literary and imperial luminaries. “Elegantly dressed and copiously perfumed,” Wall writes, and “joking that he looked like Almanzor, the worst of de Sade’s old aristos,” Flaubert eventually penetrated even the royal country house at Compiègne. As he paid his respects to the Emperor, he must have recalled—with what bemusement?—that remote banquet of impudence at the Tuileries in 1848. Later, he would use his influence as a courtier to dispense patronage, fixing lawsuits and securing commissions for his friends. And in August of 1866 he received—ostensibly for “Salammbô” but surely also for deploying his powers to make bears dance—the Legion of Honor. I agree with Wall that “the last word” on the paradox of what Flaubert called his “prolonged moral cohabitation with the bourgeois” should be his: “Legion of Honor, Medal of the: To be sneered at, even though you rather covet one.”
In the fourteen years left of his life—he died in 1880—Flaubert consorted with the friends he deserved: Turgenev, Zola, Maupassant, and Sand. But Louis Bouilhet died in 1869, a few months before “The Sentimental Education” was published, and Flaubert mourned the loss not only of a man he had loved for over twenty years but of “my midwife” and “my compass.” Afflicted by syphilis, and perhaps even more so by the remedies prescribed for it, his health declined. France declared war on Prussia, and the ignoble defeat and capture of Napoleon III at Sedan was followed by a murderous civil uprising. “I feel we are entering into darkness,” Flaubert prophesied to Sand. “Perhaps race wars are going to begin again? Over the next hundred years we shall see several million men killing each other at a single sitting. All of the Orient against all of Europe, the old world against the new.” Then he added, typically, “Why not?”
In 1875, the brothers Flaubert discovered that their nephew-in-law, Ernest Commanville—a quintessential Second Empire speculator and profiteer—had accumulated debts of one and a half million francs. In an attempt to avert the ruin of his niece, Flaubert sacrificed his inheritance. Early the next year, he learned that Louise Colet had died. That summer, Sand succumbed to stomach cancer at Nohant. “My heart is becoming a necropolis,” he told Princess Mathilde. He and Sand had exchanged visits to Nohant and Croisset, and some of the most eloquently fraternal letters on the métier of literature ever written, but they had never ceased to argue about his artistic “intransigence” and her metaphysical “idealism.” In one of their last sallies, she begged him—because “you must have a success”—to write something a large public could love. “Retain your cult for form,” she said. But “don’t hold true virtue to be a cliché in literature.” He replied that he had begun a humane “little work” that would show her “I am not as obstinate as you think.”
In writing “A Simple Heart,” his tribute to Sand—a story that makes a true virtue of love but refuses to derive any moral from it—Flaubert briefly experienced a buoyancy he had rarely known and would never recover. It was midsummer, and he was living at Croisset. In the heat of August, he swam in the Seine, parsing phrases in his head, and his sentences came back to him once he fell asleep, rolling “like the chariots of some Roman emperor, and they wake me with a start by . . . their endless rumbling.” He had recently brought his old nurse Julie, now ancient and blind, to live in the country with him. She enjoyed the air, and a child led her around the garden. The week she arrived, Flaubert had also acquired a stuffed parrot—his model for Félicité’s Loulou in the tale. It stood on his writing table and stared at him through a glass eye. “The sight of the thing is beginning to annoy me,” Flaubert told his niece. “But I’m keeping him there, to fill my mind with the idea of parrothood.” ♦