Flaubert: A Life by Geoffrey Wall.
September 1, 2002        

Mozart boasted in his letters that he made music “as easily and abundantly as a pig makes water.” Flaubert’s letters tell a different story. Few authors have complained as much or as eloquently as Flaubert about the agonies of creation. “I hesitate, I worry, I vex myself, I lose my nerve,” he lamented. His “frenzied, perverted love” of perfection aroused a “chronic state of fury,” from which he often lapsed into “impotent tears” or “imbecile inertia.” He deplored “the humiliations that adjectives inflict on me, the cruel ravages of the relative pronoun.” “Art,” he exclaimed despondently, “what a great chasm! And we who are so small go venturing down into it.”

To some extent Flaubert was mocking himself, and to some extent he was craftily keeping an importunate mistress (to whom most of these complaining letters are addressed) at arm’s length. But he really did suffer, he did love perfection, and he did produce in “Madame Bovary” (1857) a nearly perfect novel and in “A Simple Heart” (1877) a perfect short story. His four other novels and two other stories are failures only by Flaubertian standards, and his letters are among the most interesting ever written. The pleasures of reading Flaubert’s fiction insures that there will always be people eager to read a biography of him; and the pleasures of reading his and his brilliant friends’ correspondence and journals insures that there will always be people, like Geoffrey Wall, eager to write one.

Wall’s “Flaubert: A Life” is not a landmark of scholarship or criticism. It offers no important new information about the life or strikingly original ways of reading the work; and Wall’s occasional Freudian speculations don’t compel (or evince) much conviction. But he is an unpretentiously genial, unobtrusively skillful narrator. Telling Flaubert’s life calls for restraint in interpreting his peculiarities and zest for quoting juicy bits from his prose. In these two crucial respects – especially the latter – Wall succeeds admirably.

Gustave Flaubert was born in 1821 in the provincial city of Rouen. In several biographical details he resembles Proust, another immortal perfectionist: his father was an eminent physician; his brother followed in his father’s footsteps; he was devoted to his mother; and he gave in to his parents’ anxieties about his career and briefly attended law school before embracing his literary vocation. Temperamentally, though, the two great novelists could not have been more different: exquisite politesse and wistful idealism on Proust’s side; prickliness and caustic skepticism on Flaubert’s.

In 1844 Doctor Flaubert bought a country house at Croisset, where Gustave spent most of the rest of his life, except for travels and Parisian sojourns. He read constantly and wrote fitfully at Croisset in his twenties. But in that decade his distractions were more compelling and more formative.

First there was his illness. In January 1844 Flaubert suffered the first of the epileptic attacks that shadowed his life. Two years later his father died, followed two months later by his adored sister, Caroline. In another two years his best friend, Alfred Le Poittevin, died, only 30. Flaubert may have despised mankind but he loved those close to him, and he felt these deaths deeply.

There were pleasant distractions, too. Flaubert made a new best friend, Maxime Du Camp, young, bohemian, wealthy, and a fellow aspirant to literature. They had gay times in Paris, watched the 1848 revolution together, and spent an idyllic summer roaming around Brittany. At the end of the decade they embarked on an 18-month tour of North Africa. It is one of literary history’s most famous jaunts, thanks to Flaubert’s uproariously funny and bawdy letters home to their mutual friend Louis Bouilhet. Ten years later this revel in the exotic East inspired Flaubert’s extraordinarily evocative (though now little read) novel “Salammbo” (1862), set in ancient Carthage.

Before (and again after) this visit to the fleshpots of Egypt, Flaubert had an affair with Louise Colet, a beautiful woman with literary ambitions and a dull husband. It was an odd romance, mostly epistolary. Psychologists and feminists have had a great deal to say about the relationship, which leaves Wall free to emphasize its droller aspects. “Within ten days of the beginning of the affair, a thrillingly turbulent pattern of feeling was established. It could deservedly wear the motto coitus semper interruptus . Brief and extravagant scenes of passion, squeezed into a single afternoon, were cut short by Flaubert’s stubbornly insulting departure for Croisset. There followed a separation, lasting weeks or even months and prompting much luxuriously reflective letter-writing.” Louise’s indignation over Gustave’s blunt egoism – “Love is not the first thing in life for me; it comes second” – now seems a little quaint. But we are greatly in her debt: she made Flaubert explain himself in some of the finest letters ever written about the art of the novel.

The novel he was writing while his mistress fretted and fumed was “Madame Bovary,” about a provincial doctor’s wife who is carried away by her amorous fantasies, with disastrous consequences. As George Steiner has explained (in his excellent “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky”), “Madame Bovary” is a little too cold-hearted to rank with the very greatest novels. But it is undoubtedly one of the most influential. At the height of 19th-century romanticism, with its taste for the sublime, the heroic, the dramatic and colorful, Flaubert defiantly composed a flawless novel about banality. “What I’d like to do,” he wrote Louise Colet, “is a book about nothing, a book with no external attachment, one which would hold together by the internal strength of its style … a book that would have no subject at all or at least one in which the subject would be almost invisible. … There are no beautiful or sordid subjects … From the point of view of pure Art there is no such thing as a subject, style being solely itself an absolute way of seeing things.” If literary modernism begins anywhere, it begins here.

“Madame Bovary” was prosecuted for immorality, but Flaubert had friends and admirers in high places and so was acquitted. His reputation grew; he became an intimate of Princess Mathilde; he was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. More satisfyingly, he enjoyed warm friendships with Ivan Turgenev and Georges Sand; and since they lacked email, cell phones, and frequent flyer miles, they left us hundreds of enduringly delightful and touching letters.

In 1880 Flaubert died, apparently of apoplexy. It was, in a way, a fitting end for one had raged so inveterately against stupidity, sentimentality, and mediocrity.