How Gustave Flaubert captured the turbulent politics of his age

The great French writer loathed corruption, but he didn’t much like people power either.

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Sooner or later, virtually every piece of literary lore is dragged from the popular imagination, stripped of impunity and ritually debunked. For a long time, every­one was busy enjoying Coleridge’s story about the knock on the door that ruined “Kubla Khan” – hunting for a moral, smarting with vicarious frustration. Then biographers arrived to spoil the fun, pointing to the absence of an unwanted visitor from the first version of Coleridge’s preface, wondering what “a person on business” could want with a poet on opium that he would travel more than 20 miles and then detain him for an hour. And you know the one about Jack Kerouac, stabbing out his novel on a hundred-foot “scroll” during a punctuation-phobic three-week Benzedrine haze? Try: years of drafting, yards of Scotch tape, caffeine, commas.

The latest candidate for this treatment is the composition of Gustave Flaubert’s first novel, Madame Bovary, which was serialised (and censored) in 1856. At the end of the previous decade, Flaubert spent 32 hours over a four-day period reading aloud the manuscript of his Oriental epic, The Temptation of St Antony. The audience, his friends Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet, kept their silence until the last full stop, at which point they advised him to stick it in a drawer. The novel’s story was excessive, they said, and its language cloyingly romantic. Instead, they advised that Flaubert should look for a tale of ordinary life – what Michel Winock, in his excellent new biography, calls “a down-to-earth subject, in the style of Balzac”. Bouilhet proposed the case of the Delamares, a bourgeois couple who had killed themselves in quick succession.

After some initial push-back, Flaubert embraced the task with vigour. He set about writing a novel about a farmer’s daughter educated beyond her natural intelligence who marries a country doctor but, itching for a grander life, soon becomes mired in debt and sexual scandal. Then, having settled on a story so far from what he called “the mythological and theological extravagances of Saint Antony”, he sought a voice and a tone to suit these restraints, free of what he called “grand turns of phrase . . . the dazzling bursts of style, in short everything I like”.

Character took precedence; the author, he decided, should resemble God in the universe (“present everywhere and visible nowhere”). His solution was an approach nowadays known as free indirect style, a regimented, highly implicit, outwardly impersonal – though often slyly ironic – form of third person, which accommodates a character’s impressions without quoted speech or thought (this is why it is indirect) and without the tag “he said” or “he thought” (this why it is free).

There was to be no metaphor, no moralising, but also nothing that would offend his tastes. “May I die like a dog rather than hurry by a single second a sentence that isn’t ripe!” he wrote in 1852. To this end, Flaubert composed the novel “pianissimo”, as he put it, one phoneme at a time. He also yelled the results until his throat was raw.

The vision of the towering, walrus-like Flaubert, in his study at Croisset, or in the family garden, day after day, pacing and twitching and belting out passages, ears pricked for idle pronouns and prepositions, ought to be too pathetic, unglamorous and exhaustively well documented to attract the same killjoy, cold-water tendencies as Coleridge’s curtailed daydream and Kerouac’s sleepless bender. Unlike those stories about literary labour, Flaubert’s “gueuloir” (his term for the yelling) is immersed in the idea of writing as a challenge and a craft.

The martyr of literary style – Water Pater’s phrase – is not a role that many would audition for. John McPhee, in “Draft No 4”, the title essay of a forthcoming book on “the writing process”, recalls that when he learned about Flaubert’s struggles during an eighth-grade English class, he considered him to be “heroic”, but saw that most kids found him “weird”.

And Flaubert didn’t compose a public mythology about his habits, in prefaces or prime-time interviews. He confessed his woes (“I sometimes eliminate sentences that took me several entire days”) in a series of letters to his on-off lover Louise Colet and, when things were off, Louis Bouilhet – correspondence that he had no way of guessing would be published within a decade of his death, achieve unrivalled fame in the annals of literary self-portraiture and become a manifesto- cum-manual for at least two generations of European novelists.

Yet a process of chipping away has started to take place, revealing Flaubert not as a fraud but as a failure on his own terms. Michael Fried, in his 2012 book Flaubert’s “Gueuloir”, noted that the writing in Madame Bovary is full of the kind of repeated syllables the novelist yearned to stop at the gate. This is not iconoclastic, or particularly new. Going back, Flaubert’s followers have loved his writing without needing to believe in its perfection. Proust wrote an essay defending Flaubert’s style, but his earlier pastiche clearly associates him with flamboyant metaphors and the alliteration of “P” sounds. Fried worships Flaubert, and he mounts an intricate argument about the creative unconscious – style as a mixture of will and habit – to explain how the guilty words crept in. The martyr didn’t die for nothing; he just didn’t die for what he thought he died for.

The dominant modes in current Flaubert studies are squarely and unbashedly literary. There’s a lot of “genetic criticism” – the study of drafts, manuscript and notebooks, the so-called avant-textes. A French critic has considered the use of the semi­colon in his final, unfinished novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, in which a pair of copy clerks engage in a vast intellectual project that proves to be no more than a series of rabbit holes. Michael Fried’s close-up study is certainly in this vein, but his desire to show that Madame Bovary contains sentences in which the syllable “-ait” figures more than once is also consistent with a wider effort to absolve the novel of the sin of aestheticism and to turn Flaubert into a different kind of writer.

Michel Winock describes his book Flaubert as “a historian’s biography” and an attempt to depict “the life of a man in his century”, and William Olmsted, in his book The Censorship Effect, published last year, argues that Flaubert wasn’t ignorant of his “socio-economic context” but anticipated and even outwitted the displeasure of the censor by using free indirect style as a kind of shelter, putting transgressive ideas into the thoughts of characters who, as likely as not, meet an unhappy end. (The avant-textes enabled Olmsted to trace adjustments of phrasing and emphasis.)

A similar process took place with Henry James back in the 1980s, a practically military manoeuvre that, in the words of one literary historian, “saw the image of the ivory-tower aesthete crumble with great rapidity”. The Flaubert enterprise is less urgent and pointed, the fruit not of a collective project but of a desire to tweak one – though central – aspect of his popular reputation. The aim is to show not that Flaubert didn’t care about words but that he didn’t care about them in quite the way that he (and we) thought he did, and to the exclusion of everything else.

Reviewing Tony Tanner’s Adultery in the Novel – a study containing an exceptional book-length chapter on Madame Bovary – Frank Kermode wondered whether academic books trailing knotty theses “will ever make much contribution to the common wisdom”. In this case, the answer is: not really. Fried and Olmsted make a number of cogent and even ingenious claims. But at this late stage of history – more than 160 years after the novel’s publication – it would require more than good criticism to make the writing of Madame Bovary represent anything other than sweat and tears secreted in a vacuum. (Flaubert said that during his gueuloir sessions he almost spat blood, but not quite.) In Winock’s “Compendium of Flaubert Quotations”, provided at the end of his biography, there are fewer entries under “History” than there are quotations on “Style” from the early 1850s. The Bovary letters retain their resonance. Some lore just won’t budge.

But there is a Flaubert novel that makes easier work of constructing a modern, outward-looking figure. Written at greater speed, based on first-hand observation and empirical research, coinciding with a far more newsy series of letters to a female correspondent (the novelist George Sand) and displaying a more public character, Sentimental Education picks up Frédéric Moreau on his way to Paris, when he falls in love with a married woman he doesn’t know, and follows him over the next few years, which he spends not consummating his passion, not becoming a lawyer and not properly engaging with the social upheaval that culminates in the 1848 revolution.

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In his new study, Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris: the Story of a Friendship, a Novel, and a Terrible Year, Peter Brooks, a renowned academic critic writing here for a popular readership, uses the image of Flaubert’s well-honed political antennae as the conceptual basis for a biography of the novelist’s later years, starting near the end of the 1860s, when Sentimental Education was published (to little acclaim), passing through Flaubert’s experience of 1870-72, during which he wrote furiously and “incessantly” to George Sand, and ending with his death, aged 58, in 1880.

There is fairly little in the book about language or writing. According to Brooks, the central drama of this period, for Flaubert as for France, was the fallout from the Franco-Prussian War between Louis-Napoléon and Bismarck, which Louis-Napoléon provoked and then lost – the series of events that resulted in the Second Empire becoming the Third Republic under a right-wing assembly, based in Versailles, to which the socialist and feminist Paris Commune, propelled by a fear that the new republic was just imperial business as usual, rose in opposition.

This makeshift regime was backed by a citizens’ militia, the national guard, but it proved no match for the Versaillais, and when the communard forces retreated, they set fire to all they could. Following the revolution, the French people had been tossed on a succession of monarchies, empires and republics, ruled by Bonapartes, Orléans and Bourbons. The early 1870s marked the lowest point since the Terror.

Flaubert loathed corruption, but he didn’t much like people power either (he talked about “la democrasserie”). Brooks is especially taken with Flaubert’s alleged claim, when walking through the ruins with Maxime Du Camp, that if the French public had read Sentimental Education, the destruction of Paris never could have happened. In support of this contention, which he takes seriously, Brooks devotes much of the book to an energetic reading of Sentimental Education, which presents the novel’s depiction of 1848 – when Louis-Napoléon had begun his power grab – as a prophecy of mistakes just round the corner. In the hollow beginnings of the Second Empire was its bloody end, though it needn’t have been – if only the public had listened.

Brooks rehearses the argument that appeared in his well-known book Reading for the Plot (1984), in which he pitted the reality-respecting Flaubert against the crowd-pleasing Balzac, as a way of justifying why Sentimental Education can feel so unfocused, rambling, low-key and pointless. But he is more concerned here to align Flaubert with Karl Marx, another analyst of 1848 (in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte), a comparison dating at least as far back as Edmund Wilson’s essay “Flaubert’s Politics” (1937), which, Brooks claims, revealed Flaubert as something other than “an ivory-tower artist concerned only with the perfection of his style”. Out goes art, or art for art’s sake. In comes science, a term that Flaubert, like Marx, deployed in a wide sense, and that Brooks defines as “knowledge, method, wisdom, and the precise measurement of reality”.

A minor logical problem with Brooks’s embrace of Flaubert is that it looks strange alongside the belief that Flaubert really believed that a more sensitive reading of Sentimental Education might have changed things. That surely would buy into the “Romantic perceptions of agency, desire, and progress” that Flaubert was out to deny. What do you call the conviction that a book could stop a coup if not an instance of Romantic “illusionism”?

There is a critical problem, too. At a time of warring fanaticisms, Flaubert might have liked the idea of mental toughness, but in his novels he wasn’t so sure. Among the things he tried to measure with literary exactness was his characters’ pretensions to objectivity as well as their tendency to fantasise; though he established distinctions in his work between doctor and dreamer, notary and poet, these weren’t so he might hail a victor.

Flaubert certainly warned against the rule of sentiment. Emma Bovary and Frédéric Moreau are both undone by the vice sometimes called “Bovarism” – defined as both the ability to misconstrue oneself and the desire to flee mediocre reality into a world of fantasy and imagination. But after the fall of the Paris Commune, Flaubert devoted several years to writing Bouvard and Pécuchet, an attack on the encyclopaedic mentality, systematic in its critique of system-building. And some of the most appalling pages of Madame Bovary show the pursuit of medical science – a cure for club foot – resulting in an emergency amputation.

Flaubert’s cry of “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” – though no doubt apocryphal – carries a ring of truth. He acknowledged that though obsessed with truth and eager to make you feel “almost physically” the things he reproduced, he remained “infatuated with bombast, lyricism, eagle flights, sonorities of phrase, and lofty ideas”.

Making a virtue of this internal division, Flaubert gave his romantic, beauty-seeking impulses to his characters – whom he then portrayed with stony detachment. He could recognise the appeal of both conditions, and his access to one revealed to him the vices of the other. (Brooks mentions the novelist’s unrealised portrait of the Second Empire, Under Napoleon III, but not the novel about the Battle of Thermopylae that he was more immediately contemplating when he died.)

And just as Flaubert’s writing doesn’t portray rationalism simply to embarrass Romanticism, so his writing approach upsets the dichotomies of aestheticism v realism, fastidious technique v worldly engagement. Michel Winock, despite his historian’s agenda, acknowledges what Peter Brooks seems afraid to: that his subject’s undertaking of “significant research” was compatible with “the religion of art”. Flaubert wasn’t only trying to weed out pronouns, after all. He was scouring his memory and dictionary for le mot juste – the right word for what he was burning to express, in a sober, scientific temper, about time-bound, public-facing things such as mores, morality, the failings of his generation and his species.

The perfect sentence was only an end because it was also a means. Flaubert’s true heirs are not icy aesthetes or social chroniclers but writers who treat an exacting style as a tool of evocation and analysis, the best route to confronting the real, however defined: Proust, Conrad, Kafka, Joyce. He doesn’t need rescuing from his ivory tower. It was not a hermitage but a vantage point.

Flaubert
Michel Winock
Harvard University Press, 560pp, £27.95

Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris: the Story of a Friendship, a Novel, and a Terrible Year
Peter Brooks
Basic Books, 288pp, £25

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania