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Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

 

French novelist of the realist school, best-known for Madame Bovary (1857), a story of adultery and unhappy love affair of the provincial wife Emma Bovary. As a writer Flaubert was a perfectionist, who did not make a distinction between a beautiful or ugly subject: all was in the style. The idea, he argued, only exists by virtue of its form – its elements included the perfect word, cunningly contrived and verified rhythms, and a genuine architectural structure. Madame Bovary was first translated into English by Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor Marx.

"Has it ever happened to you," Leon went on, "to come across some vague idea of one's own in a book, some dim image that comes back to you from afar, and as the completest expression of your own slightest sentiment?"
"I have experienced it," she replied.
"That is why," he said, "I especially love the poets. I think verse more tender than prose, and that it moves far more easily to tears."
(from Madame Bovary)

Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen into a family of doctors. His father, Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, a chief surgeon at the Rouen municipal hospital, made money investing in land. Flaubert's mother, Anne-Justine-Caroline (née Fleuriot), was the daughter of a physician; she became the most important person in the author's life. Anne-Justine-Caroline died in 1872.

Flaubert began to write during his school years. At the age of fifteen he won a prize for an essay on mushrooms. Actually the work was a copy. His first published short story was 'Bibliomanie' (1837), which appeared in the pink pages of a Rouen literary journal called Le Colibri. This stylistic exercise in Hoffmannian fantasy about a bookseller's fetishist love of books drew its inspiration from a fabricated trial account published in La Gazette des Tribunaux. The case concerned a former Catalonian monk, a bibliophile who became a serial killer over the possession of rare books. He was found guilty and executed.

A disappointment in his teens – Flaubert fell in love with Elisa Schlésinger, who was married and some 10 years his senior – inspired much of his early writing. His bourgeois background Flaubert found early burdensome, and eventually his rebel against it led to his expulsion from school. Flaubert completed his education privately in Paris.

In the 1840s Flaubert studied law at Paris, a brief episode in his life, and in 1844 he had a nervous attack. "I was cowardly in my youth," Flaubert wrote once to George Sand. "I was afraid of life." He recognized from suffering a nervous disease, although it could have been epilepsy. However, the diagnosis changed Flaubert's life. He failed his law exams and decided to devote himself to literature. In this Flaubert was helped by his father who bought him a house at Croisset, on the River Seine between Paris and Rouen.

In 1846 Flaubert met the writer Louise Colet. They corresponded regularly and she became Flaubert's mistress although they met infrequently. Colet gave in Lui (1859) her account of their relationship. After the death of both his father and his married sister, Flaubert moved at Croisset, the family's country home near Rouen. Until he was 50 years old, Flaubert lived with his mother – he was called ''hermit of Croisset.'' The household also included his niece Caroline. His maxim was: "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."

Although Flaubert once stated ''I am a bear and want to remain a bear in my den,'' he kept good contacts to Paris and witnessed the Revolution of 1848. Later he received honors from Napoleon III. From 1856 Flaubert spent winters in Paris. He had written since childhood, and unable to throw anything away, he stored his manuscripts. But by the age of thirty, his only major work was a prose-poem, La Tentation de Saint  Antoine. Part of its fantastic mode was inspired by a Brueghel painting. His friend, Louis Bouilhet, adviced, "I think you ought to throw it in the fire and never mention it again." In 1871, when the Prussian army destroyed the last monarchical regime in France, Flaubert buried a box full of letters and perhaps other papers in his garden.

Flaubert's relationship with Collet ended in 1855. From November 1849 to April 1851 he travelled with the writer Maxime du Camp in North Africa, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. It took several Egyptian guides to help Flaubert to the top of the Great Pyramid – the muscular, almost six feet tall author was at that time actually relatively fat. "Handsome heads, ugly feet" was his comment upon the Colossi of Abu Simbel. Du Camp made the first known photographs of these sandstone figures.

On his return Flaubert started Madame Bovary, which took five years to complete. Sometimes he spent a week on one paragraph. It appeared first in the Revue (1856) and in book form next year. The realistic depiction of adultery was condemned as offensive to morality and religion. In one cartoon Flaubert was portrayed as a surgeon, wearing a blood-stained apron and holding up the heart of Emma Bovary. Flaubert was prosecuted, though he escaped conviction, which was not a common result during the official censorship of the Second Empire. When Baudelaire's provocative collection of verse, The Flowers of Evil, was brought before the same judge, Baudelaire was fined and 6 of the 100 poems were suppressed.

Madame Bovary was published in two volumes in 1857, but it appeared originally in the Revue de Paris, 1856-57. Emma Bovary is married to Charles Bovary, a physician. As a girl Emma has read Walter Scott, she has romantic dreams and longs for adventure. "What exasperated her was that Charles did not seem to notice her anguish. His conviction that he was making her happy seemed to her an imbecile insult, and his sureness on this point ingratitude. For whose sake, then was she virtuous? Was it not for him, the obstacle to all felicity, the cause of all misery, and, as it were, the sharp clasp of that complex strap that bucked her in on all sides." Emma seeks release from the boredom of her marriage from love affairs with two men – with the lawyer Léon Dupuis and then with Rodolphe Boulanger. Emma wants to leave her husband with him. He rejects the idea and Emma becomes ill. After she has recovered, she starts again her relationship with Léon, who works now in Rouen. They meet regularly at a hotel. Emma is in heavy debts because of her lifestyle and she poisons herself with arsenic. Charles Bovary dies soon after her and their daughter Berthe is taken care of poor relatives. Berthe starts to earn her living by working in a factory. The character of Emma was important to the author – society offered her no escape and once Flaubert said: "Emma, c'est moi." Delphine Delamare, who died in 1848, is alleged to have been the original of Emma Bovary.

Eleanor Marx's translation of Madame Bivary appeared in the same year in which the first volume of Das Kapital was published in English. She committed suicide in 1898 by taking cyanide poison after learning that her common law husband Dr Edward Aveling had entered into a legal marriage with a young actress. Aveling, who had purchased the poison, inherited Eleanor Marx's fortune, including revenues from the translation.

In the 1860s Flaubert enjoyed success as a writer and intellectual at the court of Napoleon III. Among his friends were Zola, George Sand, Hippolyte Taine, and the Russian writer Turgenev, with whom he shared similar aesthetic ideals – dedication to realism, and to the nonjudgmental representation of life. Their complete correspondence was published in English in 1985. ''The thought that I shall see you this winter quite at leisure delights me like the promise of an oasis," he wrote to Turgenev. "The comparison is the right one, if only you knew how isolated I am! Who is there to talk to now? Who is there in our wretched country who still 'cares about literature'? Perhaps one single man? Me! The wreckage of a lost world, an old fossil of romanticism! You will revive me, you'll do me good.'' (from Flaubert & Turgenev. A Friendship in Letters, edited and translated by Barbara Beaumont, 1985)

Flaubert was by nature melancholic. His perfectionism, long hours at his work table with a frog inkwell, only made his life harder. Though he pretended that he did not care how his books were received, he suffered from the effects of negative reviews. Moreover, the profits of Madame Bovary had disappeared into the publisher's pocket. In a letter to Ernest Feydeau he wrote: "Books are made not like children but like pyramids... and are just as useless!"

Flaubert's other, non-literary life was marked by his prodigious appetite for prostitutes, which occasionally led to venereal infections. "It may be a perverted taste," Flaubert said, "but I love prostitution, and for itself, too, quite apart from its carnal aspects." His last years were shadowed by financial worries – he helped with his modest fortune his niece's family after their bankruptcy. Flaubert died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 8, in 1880.

In the 1870s Flaubert's work gained acclaim by the new school of naturalistic writers. His narrative approach, that the novelist should not judge, teach, or explain but remain neutral, was widely adopted. Flaubert himself detested the label Realist – and other labels. Among Flaubert's later major works is Salammbô (1862), a story of the siege of Carthage in 240-237 BC by mercenaries. The novel inspired in 1998 Philippe Fénélon's opera, the libretto was written by Jean-Yves Masson. Also the composers Berlioz and Mussorgsky had planned opera adaptations, but they were never realized. In Orson Welles's film Citizen Kane (1941) Charles Foster Kane produces an opera for his former mistress and second wife, Susan Alexander, based on Salammbô. Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the score, proclaimed in 1972 that "I was fortunate enough to start my career with a film like Citizen Kane. It's been a downhill run ever since!"

L'Éducation sentimentale (1869, A Sentimental Education),  a panorama of France, was set in the era of the Revolution of 1848. Its first version (La première Education Sentimentale) Flaubert had finished in 1845. The story depicted the relationship between a young man and an older married woman. Fréderic Moreau, the hero, is a gifted young man, full of vague longings, but he constantly meets people who have nothing else to offer but pessimism and cynicism. The ironic title, A Sentimental Education, means the education of feeling, and refers to the failure of Flaubert's generation to achieve its ideals.

La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874, The Temptation of Saint Anthony), written between 1848 and 1874, influenced the young Freud. Its story was based on the story of the 4th-century Christian anchorite, who lived in the Egyptian desert and experienced philosophical and physical temptations. There were other writings, novels, and unfinished projects, but this was the work on which Flaubert spent most of his time. Trois contes (1877), a collection of three tales, won Flaubert the greatest acclaim of all his books during his lifetime. The Italian writer Italo Calvino has praised this work as "one of the most extraordinary spiritual journeys ever accomplished outside any religion." 'The Story of a Simple Heart,' which is the most admired of the tales, was an account of the life of simple, pious country girl named Félicité.Some critics have suggested that her confusion  between a stuffed parrot and the Holy Ghost was just a  joke. Flaubert himself said, "This is not at all ironical as you may suppose, but on the contrary very serious and very sad. I want to move tender hearts to pity and tears, for I am  tender-hearted myself."

Flaubert's book on bourgeois stupidity, Bouvard et Pécuchet, was left unfinished at his death, and was first published in La Nouvelle Revue (1880-81), edited by Flaubert's niece Caroline Commanville. The two protagonists, two copy clerks who move to the country, have often been considered forefathers of Beckett's characters. Bouvard and Pécuchet was partly inspired by Bartlémy Maurice's story 'Les Deux greffiers' (1841), which had appeared in the magazine La Gazette fdes tribunnaux. Some of the banalities which Flaubert found unbearable, he had already collected in Dictionary of Received Ideas (1911).

For further reading: Gustave Flaubert: Sa vie, ses romans, son style by Albert Thibaudet (1922, rev. ed. 1935); Gustave Flaubert and the Art of Realism by Anthony Thorlby (1956); The Novels of Flaubert by Victor Brombert (1966); Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty by Jonathan Culler (1974, rev. ed. 1985); Flaubert and the Historical Novel by Anne Green (1982); Flaubert Writing: A Study in Narrative Strategies by Michal Peled Ginsburg ( 1986); Bibliographie des études sur G. Flaubert by D.J. Colwell (1988-90); Gustave Flaubert by William J. Berg, et al (1997); The King & the Adulteress: A Psychoanalytical and Literary Reinterpretation of Madame Bovary and King Lear by Roberto Speziale-Bagliacca, Colin Rice (1998); Flaubert: A Life by Geoffrey Wall (2001) - See also: Guy de Maupassant, Jean-Paul Sartre's biography of Flaubert, L'Idiot de la famille

Selected works:

  • Bibliomanie,  1837  (in Le Colibri)
    - Bibliomania. A Tale (translated by Theodore Wesley Koch, 1929)
    - Bibliomania (suom. Antti Nylén, 2012)
  • Madame Bovary, 1857
    - Madame Bovary (translators: Eleanor Marx-Aveling, 1886; J. Lewis May, 1928; Gerald Hopkins, 1946; Alan Russell, 1950; Francis Steegmuller, 1957; Lowell Bair, 1959; Mildred Marmur, 1964; Paul de Man, 1965; Geoffrey Wall, 1992; Lydia Davis, 2010)
    - Rouva Bovary (suom. Eino Palola, 1928; Anna-Maija Viitanen, 1994)
    - films: Life Number Two, 1917, dir. William Nigh; Unholy Love, 1932, dir. Albert Ray; Madame Bovary, 1934, dir. Jean Renoir; Madame Bovary, 1937, dir. Gerhard Lamprecht, starring Pola Negri; Madame Bovary, 1947, dir. Carlos Schlieper, starring Mecha Ortiz; Madame Bovary, 1949, dir. Vincente Minnelli, starring Jennifer Jones; Die Nackte Bovary, 1966, dir.  Hans Schott-Schöbinger, starring Edwige Fenech; Madame Bovary, 1991, dir.  Claude Chabrol, starring Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Francois Balmer, Christophe Malavoy, Jean Yanne; Maya, 1993, dir.  Ketan Mehta; Madame Bovary, BBC TV series, 2000, dir. Tim Fywell, screenplay by Heidi Thomas, starring Frances O'Connor, Hugh Bonneville; Las razones del corazón, 2011, dir. Arturo Ripstein, starring Arcelia Ramírez, Vladimir Cruz and Plutarco Haza. Also David Lean's film Ryan's Daughter (1970), starring Sarah Miles, Robert Mitchum, Chris Jones, written by Robert Bolt, was inspired by Flaubert's book. The story was set in Ireland in the mid-1910s.
  • Salammbô, 1862
    - Salambo (translated by M. French Sheldon, 1886; J.S. Chartres, 1886; J.W. Matthews, 1901; E. Powys Mathers, 1947; A.J. Krailsheimer, 1977)
    - Salambo (suom. Jalmari Finne, 1908; Annikki Suni)
    - films: Salambò, 1911, dir. Arturo Ambrosio; Salammbô, 1924, dir. Pierre Marodon, starring Jeanne de Balzac; Salambò, 1959, dir. Sergio Grieco, starring Jeanne Valérie
  • L'Éducation sentimentale, 1869
    - A Sentimental Education (translated by D.F. Hannigan, 1898; A. Goldsmith, 1941; Robert Baldick, 1964; Douglas Parmée, 1989)
    - Sydämen oppivuodet (suom. J.A. Hollo, 1958)
    - films: L'éducation sentimentale, 1961, dir. Alexandre Astruc, starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Marie-José Nat and Dawn Addams; L'éducation sentimentale, TV mini-series 1973, dir. Marcel Cravenne, starring Françoise Fabian, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Catherine Rouvel
  • Dernières chansons / Louis Bouilhet, 1872 (editor)
  • Le Candidat, 1874 (play, prod. 1874) [The Candidate: a Humorous Political Drama in Four Acts]
  • Le Château des cœurs, 1874 (play, with Louis Bouilhet and Charkes d'Osmoy, prod. 1874, in Ouvres complètes, 1910)
  • La Tentation de Saint Antoine, 1874
    - The Temptation of Saint Anthony (translated by D.F. Hannigan, 1895; G.F. Monkshood, 1900; René Francis, 1910; Lafcadio Hearn, 1910; Kitty Mrosovsky, 1980)
    - Pyhän Antoniuksen kiusaus (suom. Jorma Kapari, 1970)
    - film: Le Tentazioni di Sant'Antonio, 1911,  prod. Società Anonima Ambrosio
  • Trois contes, 1877 ('Un cœur simple,' 'La Légende de Saint Julien l'hospitalier,' 'Hérodias')
    - Three Tales ('A Simple Heart,' 'The Legend of St Julian Hospitator,' 'Herodias,' translated by George Burnham Ives, 1903; Frederic Whyte, 1910; Arthur McDowall, 1923; Mervyn Savill; Robert Baldick, 1961; A.J. Krailsheimer, 1991)
    - 'Yksinkertainen sydän' (suom. Jalmari Hahl, 1917) / Kolme kertomusta (suom. Kauko Kare, 1955)
    - films: Hérodiade, 1910, dir. Georges Hatot, Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset; Un Cuore semplice, 1977, dir. by Giorgio Ferrara; Un coeur simple, 2008, dir. Marion Laine, starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Marina Foïs and Pascal Elbé
  • Bouvard et Pécuchet, 1881 (ed. by Alberto Cento, reprinted in part as Dictionnaire des idées reçues, ed. by Lea Caminiti, 1966; as The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, 1954)
    - Bouvard and Pécuchet (translated by D.F. Hannigan, 1896; T.W. Earp and G.W. Stonier, 1936; Alban J. Krailsheimer, 1970; Mark Polizzotti, 2005)
    - Bouvard ja Pécuchet (suom. Antti Nylén, 2003)
    - Bouvard et Pécuchet, TV film 1971, dir. by Robert Valey, starring Julien Guiomar, Paul Crauchet; Bouvard et Pécuchet, TV film 1989, dir. by Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe, starring Jean Carmet, Jean-Pierre Marielle
  • Lettres de Gustave Flaubert à George Sand, 1884 (préface Guy de Maupassant)
  • Par les champs et par les grèves, 1886
  • Mémoires d'un Fou, 1901
  • The Complete Works of Gustave Flaubert; Embracing Romances, Travels, Comedies, Sketches and Correspondence; with a Critical Introduction, 1904
  • Le Sexe faible, 1910 [The Feeble Sex]
  • Dictionnaire des idées reçues, 1911
    - A Dictionary of Platitudes (translated by Edward J. Fluck, 1954) / The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas (translated by Jacques Barzun, 1968)
    - Valmiiden ajatusten sanakirja (suom. Mirja Halonen ja Ville Keynäs, 1997)
  • Correspondance I-IX, 1910-1930
  • Complete Works, 1926 (10 vols.)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1926-54 (35 vols., includes correspondence)
  • Correspondance, 1926-33
  • Œuvres, 1946-54 (2 vols., edited by A. Thibaudet and R. Dumesnil)
  • La première Education Sentimentale, 1963
    - The First Sentimental Education (translated by Douglas Garman, 1972)
    - film: Toutes les nuits, 2002, dir. Eugène Green, starring Alexis Loret, Adrien Michaux and Christelle Prot
  • Œuvres complètes I-II, 1964
  • Souvenirs, notes et pensées intimes, 1965 (edited by L. Chevally-Sabatier)
    - Intimate Notebook 1840-1841 (edited by Francis Steegmuller, 1967)
  • November, 1966 (ed. by Francis Steegmuller)
  • Le Second Volume de Bouvard et Pécuchet, 1966 (edited by Geneviève Bollème)
  • Flaubert in Egypt, 1972 (edited by Francis Steegmuller)
  • Correspondance I-IV, 1973-1998 (bibliothèque de La Pléiade; ed. by Jean Bruneau)
  • Letters, 1980-82 (2 vols., edited by Francis Steegmuller)
  • Bibliomanie et autres textes, 1836-1839, 1982
  • Flaubert & Turgenev: A Friendship in Letters, 1985 (edited and translated by Barbara Beaumont)
  • Early Writings, 1991 (translated by Robert Griffin)


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