Nothing is more humiliating than to see idiots succeed in enterprises we have failed in.
Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) achieved instant success and fame, indeed notoriety, with his first novel, ‘Madam Bovary’, published in 1857. He was prosecuted on the basis that the novel was ‘offensive to public morality and religion’. Although found not guilty, Flaubert earned a lecture from the judge on the dangers of ‘realism’. The book was a huge success, and Flaubert came to be considered one of the great novelists of Western literature.
‘The author, in his work, must be like God in the Universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.’ Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert was born in 1821 in Rouen. His father was the chief surgeon at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital and hoped that Gustave would also be a doctor but the son’s passion was for literature: from a very early age he knew that he wanted to write. Flaubert lived most of his life in Normandy, though he travelled often to Paris and in 1851 visited Egypt, the Near East and the Mediterranean. He contracted syphilis on this journey and was also subject to severe epileptic fits. Although he had a long-term mistress, he never married or had a family. His reason for not having children is revealed in a letter dated 11 December 1852, in which he stated that he was opposed to childbirth, saying he would ‘transmit to no one the aggravations and the disgrace of existence.’
In September 1849, Flaubert completed the first version of a novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. He read it aloud to his friends Louis Bouilhet and Maxime Du Camp over the course of four days, not allowing them to interrupt or give any opinions until he had finished. At the end of the reading, his friends told him to throw the manuscript in the fire and forget about the novel, suggesting instead that he focus on day-to-day life rather than fantastic subjects. As a result of this bruising incident, Flaubert took his friends’ advice and in 1851 he embarked on his novel of provincial life, which would turn out to be his masterpiece, Madame Bovary. The immediate inspiration for the plot was the death of a local doctor in Normandy, Eugène Delamare, whose second wife, Delphine, had caused a scandal by taking lovers and running up huge debts. However, at the age of sixteen Flaubert had already written a tale based on a news story in the Rouen newspapers. He called it Passion et Vertu. Its central character is a woman who poisons her husband and children in order to join her lover in America and commits suicide when the lover rejects her. Flaubert gave his murderess and suicide romantic tastes as motivation, whereas the original woman seems to have been driven more by money and a desire to evade trial and execution.
It took Flaubert five years to complete the novel Madame Bovary. He worked in monk-like solitude, sometimes occupying a week in the completion of just one page, never satisfied with what he had composed, violently tormenting his brain for the best turn of a phrase, the most apposite adjective. He believed in, and pursued, the principle of finding ‘le mot juste’(the right word), which he considered the key to achieving quality in literary art. His private letters show that he was not one to whom easy and correct language came naturally; he gained his extraordinary perfection with the unceasing sweat of his brow.
Madame Bovary was his first published work and it became a great success. This novel was the beginning of something new in literature: the scrupulously truthful portraiture of life. The book is regarded as the beginning of the movement known as literary realism.
Following the publication of Madame Bovary, Flaubert began work on Salammbô, a dramatic tale set in ancient Carthage. The novel was completed in 1862 after four years of work. Drawing on his youth, Flaubert next wrote L’Éducation sentimentale (Sentimental Education), an effort that took seven years. This was his last complete novel, published in 1869. He also wrote several plays but none of these works received the acclaim of that Madame Bovary had garnered.
Flaubert died suddenly of an apoplectic stroke in 1880. At the time of his death, he was widely regarded as the most influential French Realist. As such, Flaubert exercised an extraordinary influence over other authors such as Guy de Maupassant (his protégé), Edmond de Goncourt, Alphonse Daudet, and Emile Zola. Even today he continues to appeal to writers because of his deep commitment to aesthetic principles, his devotion to style, and his indefatigable pursuit of the perfect expression.