The modern novel
Gustave Flaubert was born in 1821 in Rouen. His father was a surgeon at the city’s hospital, and he spent his childhood in a rather morbid atmosphere.
Early on he was fascinated by literature and writing, but was bored in school, and even more bored by the prospect of “going to law school” and becoming a lawyer. In 1844, however, a serious nervous breakdown took its toll on the young Flaubert and prevented him from continuing his studies: his family decided to let him write and to give him the means to do so. Two years later, his father and sister died, in quick succession. At the age of 25, he finds himself in an empty house, alone with a mother overwhelmed by grief. Taken along by his friend Du Camp, he made a long journey to the East from November 1849 to May 1851.
On his return to France, he settled permanently in the family property at Croisset and devoted himself to his work, alternating sojourns in Paris and long periods of solitude in Normandy. Thereafter his entire life revolved around writing. “I am a man-pen”, he said. “I feel through the pen, because of the pen, in relation to the pen, and much more with the pen”. From then on, his life would merge with the history of his work. And his correspondence, so lively, so spontaneous, tells of the construction of this work, almost from day to day. Flaubert died in 1880.
« Do you know how many pages I’ve done this week? One, and I’m not saying it was a good one! I needed a quick, light passage, but I was in a heavy, developing mood! What pain and difficulty ! What an atrociously delicious thing we are bound to say writing is -since we keep slaving this way, enduring such tortures and not wanting things otherwise. There is a mystery in this I cannot fathom. »
To Louise Colet, 29 January 1854
Flaubert and his time
He hated his epoch. Flaubert was born during the “Bourbon restoration”, the period of the return of the monarchy after the Napoleonic episode. Despite two revolutions (1830 and 1848), his century was all about moral order and industrial development. In L’Éducation sentimentale, he gave a very profound analysis, far ahead of its time, of the history of his generation, with its hopes and failures.
The 19th century was a century of great certainties: people believed in science, in progress, in technology, in virtue and morality, in civilisation and colonisation. Flaubert will apply himself all his life to dismantle these certainties in order to show that they are only based on illusions, lies and preconceived ideas. But he would go further: mightn’t the criticisms that we address to our epoch be ideas that have circulated during our times and that we thoughtlessly repeat like a parrot? Curiously, he wrote the following article in his Dictionnaire des Idées reçues:
“Epoch (ours): To thunder against it. – To complain that it is not poetic. – To call it an era of transition, of decadence. “
We always remain slightly entangled within our time, even when we think we are judging it. This is the Flaubert’s lesson.
“I am a bear and I want to remain a bear in my den, in my cave, in my skin, in my old bear skin, very quiet and far from the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoises. “
To Caroline Flaubert, 20 December 1843
His place in the history of literature
Lyrical in his oriental-inspired works, but analysing with great precision provincial and Parisian life, Flaubert was able to be claimed by currents as opposed as realism and the nouveau roman of the 1960s.
He owes his acknowledgement as the first of the modern novelists to the renewal he provoked in the novelistic form, to his conception of literature and to his vision of the role of the writer.
He is also of great importance in the evolution of the writer’s place in society. Indeed, very early on, Flaubert placed writing at the centre of his own life, and of life in general, without apologising for doing so, but fully assuming it.
” Away from my table, I am stupid. Ink is my natural element. Nice liquid, by the way, this dark liquid! And dangerous! How we drown in it! How attractive it is !”
To Louise Colet, 14 August 1853
Why Flaubert is an extraordinary writer
No writer has thought, meditated and matured his work more than he did. Writing each book implied at least five years of hard work and 5,000 pages of drafts. This attention to the conception of the whole and to the smallest detail makes each of his works a literary object where each syllable is weighed, where nothing is left to chance: “may I die like a dog rather than hasten the ripening of a sentence by a single second”, he wrote to one of his friends who was pressing him to publish.
Deeply influenced by the Romantic imagination and his experience of the Orient, Flaubert alternated his ‘subjects’ between France of his time and an Orient opposed to it in every respect. His real ambition was actually to achieve perfection in form, in style, “which is in itself an absolute way of seeing things”.
This extraordinary demanding nature of his writing and conception led him to create works that were innovative in their principles of narration (relativity of points of view, refusal to conclude) and that introduced a very new look at language at the time. Contrary to the Romantics, Flaubert considered that the expression of a singular self was not self-evident, as it was difficult to escape from the clichés and preconceived ideas conveyed by language. As a result, his characters give the impression of wading through words. But that is precisely why they also seem very human.
«I think I’m back on my nag [writing]. Will he make any more false moves that will break my nose? Is his back stronger? Will it last long? God forbid! But I seem to have recovered. This week I’ve done three pages which, if nothing else, have at least some speed. It has to work, it has to run, it has to soar, or I’ll die; and I won’t die. »
To Louise Colet, 25 February 1854
Novels and stories
Madame Bovary is one of the masterpieces of world literature. Why is this so? Because in the middle of the 19th century, it heralds our entire modernity, the downgrading of the countryside in relation to the city, the feeling of being on the margins, frustration with reality, and even the consumer society. All of this in an haute couture style, with many revolutions in the narrative processes.
In this novel, Flaubert, after having done a lot of research, after having smoked pipes for a very long time on his sofa, conjures up ancient Carthage: battles, lions, warlords, a woman devoted to worship… After the Norman greyness of his previous novel (Madame Bovary), he needed to refresh his soul in a more colourful world.
The following text is taken from the first of these Tales, A Simple Soul. It tells of the life of a servant, Félicité, devoted to the family that employs her, without calculation or self-reflection. Underneath its apparent simplicity, Flaubert’s text is deeply thought out, worked out very precisely: it is one of the highlights of french prose.
Borges said once that this was Flaubert’s most important work. Here are some letters (in french only)