The Demigod

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MAY 22, 2006

The Demigod

, Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke, is the author of
Degas in New Orleans (University of California Press) and The Great
Wave (Random House).

Flaubert: A Biography

By Frederick Brown

(Little, Brown, 628 pp.,$35)

`You lament the monotony of ass," Flaubert wrote to his young
disciple Guy de Maupassant in 1878, two years before the master's
death of a heart attack at age fifty-eight. "There's a simple
remedy for that--don't avail yourself of it. " Maupassant had
complained that he was as bored with women's asses as he was with
men's minds. "Too many whores!" Flaubert admonished him. "Too much
canoeing! Too much exercise! Yes, sir! The civilized man doesn't
need as much locomotion as physicians pretend." Flaubert, himself a
physician's son, offered a more oblique remedy for the second
affliction of which Maupassant complained. The tedium of men's
minds was one of Flaubert's great topics; early and late, from
Madame Bovary to Bouvard and Pecuchet, he avidly collected specimens
of human stupidity. What is his Dictionary of Received Ideas if not
a compendium of mental monotony, each cliche arrayed like an
impaled butterfly for close examination? From Jacques Barzun's
translation: "ACCIDENT. Always `regrettable' or `unlucky'--as if a
mishap might sometimes be a cause of rejoicing." "FULMINATE: Nice
verb." "HYPOTHESIS. Often `rash,' always `bold.'" The only escape
from cliche, Flaubert insisted, was tireless pursuit of the right
word. "I am often hours chasing a word," he told one hasty writer.
"For turns of phrase," he assured Maupassant, "search and you will

In his splendid new biography, Frederick Brown, the author of
well-received lives of Zola and Cocteau, deftly dismantles the most
durable cliche concerning Flaubert himself. The difficult task that
Brown has set himself, nowhere stated but everywhere pursued in
this vigorously researched, intellectually nuanced, and exquisitely
written book, is to challenge the long-standing view that Flaubert
started out as a Romantic writer in the vein of Chateaubriand or
Lamartine, underwent a violent "purge" at the insistence of two wise
friends, and was miraculously transformed into a Realist with the
writing of Madame Bovary. Francis Steegmuller's influential and
recently reprinted Flaubert and Madame Bovary is structured
according to this conceit; its three sections are titled
"Romanticism," "The Purge," and "Realism." The old Penguin
translations by Robert Baldick carry a succinct version of the
myth: "In his early works ... Flaubert tended to give free rein to
his flamboyant imagination, but on the advice of his friends he
later disciplined his romantic exuberance in an attempt to achieve
total objectivity and a harmonious prose style."

The legend of the purge fed the self-importance of its inventors,
those same friends--the poet-librarian Louis Bouilhet and the
photographer-journalist Maxime Du Camp--who were eager to enlist
Flaubert in their own nascent creed of Realism, a label that
Flaubert always resisted. According to Du Camp, they solemnly
gathered in September 1849 as Flaubert read aloud (or rather, "sang
and chanted the phrases") from the first version of The Temptation
of Saint Anthony, his dream vision of a fourth-century ascetic prey
to the successive illusions of humanity. They waited for the plot
to begin; they waited in vain. "There was no progression-- the
scene always remained the same." After four days of reading, eight
hours a day, Flaubert asked for their verdict. "We think you should
throw it into the fire," said Bouilhet, "and never speak of it
again. " They insisted that Flaubert adopt a more "down-to-earth
subject, one of those incidents in which bourgeois life
abounds"--say, adultery among the provincial bourgeois. To their
relief, Flaubert became an updated Balzac, the dry-eyed chronicler
of modern mores whom we meet in such masterpieces as Madame Bovary,
Sentimental Education, and "A Simple Heart."

The only problem with this account is that it doesn't stand up to
scrutiny. Flaubert followed Madame Bovary with Salammbi, his
jeweled fantasy of the Orient (that is, the Middle East), and
paired "A Simple Heart" with "Herodias," his hothouse fantasy of
the story of Salome's mother and John the Baptist. Far from burning
The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Flaubert, "a hoarder rather than
an arsonist," continued to work intermittently on his "revenant," as
Brown calls it, until it was published, in its third version, in
1874. Reviled by reviewers, the hallucinatory prose-poem was
admired by Baudelaire for its "undercurrent of rebellious suffering
... the dark thread that guides one through this pandemoniacal
glory-hole of solitude," and by the young Freud, and found its true
audience in the finde-siecle Symbolist generation of Huysmans and

It is a guiding insight of Brown's lucid account of Flaubert's
writing that it did not so much progress as intensify and
crystallize. Like an architect with a master plan, Flaubert's
program seems to have been set early on. A draft of Sentimental
Education (with an episode set in New York) was complete by 1845,
twenty-five years before the publication of the final version, which
is itself concerned with immobility and drift. The novel's hero,
Frederic Moreau, is "motionless" when we first encounter him on
board a riverboat on the Seine; and after viewing the political
turmoil of 1848 (as Flaubert did) without enthusiasm, and wandering
aimlessly in pursuit of a married woman, he is motionless at the
end, fondly remembering a brothel he was afraid to visit in his
youth. Kafka, whose copy of this novel was, as Brown notes, his
"constant companion," compared the ending to Moses's failure to
enter Canaan. Static tales of ascetic saints--first Saint Anthony
and then the exquisite "Saint Julien l'Hopitalier," inspired by a
stained-glass window in the Rouen Cathedral- -remained at the
center of Flaubert's imaginative universe. There was no
progression. The scene always remained the same.

Brown's biography begins and ends in Rouen, the foul-smelling
industrial city on the Seine between Paris and the English Channel,
where Flaubert was born in December 1821. Rouen was the industrial
hub of Normandy, where ships discharged bales of American cotton
for the looms of the "Manchester of France, " as an English
guidebook dubbed the city. For all his exotic travels in the Middle
East, and his fantasies to flee to America or China, to serve as a
diplomat in Rome or Constantinople, Flaubert was first and last a
Norman. According to Brown, Normandy "was the landscape of his
youth and of all his seasons. It was the taste in his mouth and the
verdant prison where he dreamed of deserts." Flaubert's father was
the leading surgeon in the city; his mother came from a
distinguished Norman family. It was assumed that Gustave would
train for one of the professions, medicine or law, and take his
place in the respectable bourgeois order of the city.

Two things derailed this plan. One was Flaubert's genius--the sheer
power of his shaping imagination--and the superb classical training
that he received in the strict Rouen schools. Of his remarkable
high school teachers, Brown singles out the historian Adolphe
Cheruel, a native Rouennais who had studied under the great
Michelet, Romantic chronicler of witches, the sea, and the Rouen
martyr Joan of Arc. At the very beginning of his career--he would
later occupy a chair at the Ecole Normale Superieure in
Paris--Cheruel inspired his students to consult primary documents
as they surveyed all of Western civilization, and he introduced
them to the revolutionary ideas of Vico and Herder. Brown is right
to suggest that Flaubert might well have become a historian under
this inspiriting regime, like the great historian of ancient cities
Fustel de Coulanges, who studied under Cheruel at the Ecole Normale
Superieure. It is the depth of Flaubert's learning that partially
accounts for the aggrieved tone in Edward Said's pages in
Orientalism (a work that Brown pointedly ignores) devoted to
Flaubert's sexual tourism in the Middle East--where, as Brown
notes, "no whorehouse between Cairo and Nubia was so low" that
Flaubert and Du Camp "wouldn't stoop to enter it." How could
Flaubert, Said wondered, who "came to the Orient prepared for it by
voluminous reading in the classics, modern literature, and academic
Orientalism," conclude that "the oriental woman is no more than a
machine: she makes no distinction between one man and another man"?

The stories that the precocious Flaubert began writing in his teens
derive from his forays into history. An early tale of the plague in
Florence concludes with this impressive sentence: "In every man's
life there are pains and sorrows so keen, mortifications so
poignant, that for the pleasure of insulting his tormentor he will
abandon and contemptuously discard his masculine dignity like a
theater mask." For every piece of writing thereafter, Flaubert
pursued detailed research in primary documents and secondary
sources. In this sense, all his novels were historical novels, even
those set in the recent past. No research was necessary for the
Romantic cliches that stuffed Emma Bovary's imagination: "She
wished she could have lived in some old manor house, like those
chatelaines in low-waisted bodices under their trefoiled Gothic
arches, spending their days, elbows on the parapet and chin in
hand, peering across the fields for the white-plumed rider
galloping toward her on his black steed." Instead she marries a
country doctor, whose botched operation on a stableboy's
clubfoot--an excruciating chapter fully researched by
Flaubert--confirms her sense of his mediocrity. Flaubert attended
an agricultural fair, notebook in hand, to get the details right in
the famous scene that crosscuts a provincial official's spiel about
the virtues of "tillers of the soil" and fertilizer with the rake
Rodolphe's seduction of Emma in an upstairs room nearby. "It makes
for a brilliant counterpoint," Brown notes, "as both councilor and
seducer recite canned ideas, each to a gullible audience."

The other decisive factor in Flaubert's choice of career was
epilepsy, the seizure disorder that plagued him from his early
adulthood until his death. Brown dates the onset of Flaubert's
seizures to New Year's Day in 1844, when Flaubert and his brother
were riding south at night after a visit to the seaside resort of
Deauville. Flaubert, holding the reins, suddenly fell unconscious.
Upon regaining consciousness, his memory was washed clean of
everything except a sensation of being swept off in a "torrent of
flames." He promptly abandoned his legal studies. While his haughty
and retrograde brother succeeded their father as Rouen's chief
medical official, Gustave retreated to the rural family compound at
Croisset, on the Seine outside Rouen, to pursue his scholarly and
literary interests and, according to his new mantra, to "live like
a bourgeois but think like a demigod." Meanwhile he underwent
medical treatment--or rather torture. Brown devotes some
hair-raising passages to what doctors resorted to as remedies for a
disease they associated with sexual dysfunction; Flaubert endured
mercury rubs, leeches applied behind his ears, "syringes thrust up
his rectum," and incisions in his neck held open by a tightened
"subcutaneous leash" to allow the malign "humors" to escape.

Two years later, in 1846, he experienced a double blow, with his
father's death in January and the death of his beloved sister,
Caroline, in March. Flaubert assumed the role of head of the
household in Croisset, watching over his widowed mother and
assuming the care of his niece, also named Caroline. Brown
charmingly relates how Flaubert threw himself into Caroline's
education: "Geography lessons were held in the garden, where,
equipped with a bucket of water and a shovel, he dug up soil to
model islands, peninsulas, gulfs, promontories." Caroline later
wrote of visiting him in his writing retreat, furnished with a
white bearskin and a gilded Buddha. He regaled her with "gobbets of
Plutarch" and seemed genuinely puzzled when she asked him if
Alexander and Alcibiades were good or not. `Good?" he asked. "Well,
they certainly weren't accommodating gentlemen. What difference
does it make anyway?"

A kindred exasperation runs through his famous correspondence with
Louise Colet, the "beautiful, tall, full-bosomed" and well-known
poet eleven years his senior, whom he met in a fashionable
sculptor's studio in Paris during the summer of 1846, and with whom
he began a bumpy affair that lasted until 1854. Their first attempt
at sex, in a hotel, was a failure. They were more successful in a
horse-drawn cab, perhaps because, as Brown dryly remarks, "Louise
may have seemed less daunting, because more sluttish, in a cab than
in bed." In any case, Flaubert was most affectionate when absent.
Like Kafka (to whom Brown compares him) and Emily Dickinson,
Flaubert found the epistolary distance just right for intimacy, and
steadily resisted Louise's demands for more frequent trysts.

He carefully and a little sadistically corrected the poems she sent
him; "his criticism was most implacable," Brown remarks, "when tact
might have been most appropriate." When she complained of his
"sepulchral detachment," he told her that "I always found in you a
tone dripping with sentiment that watered down everything and
spoiled your thought"--a view that Brown, who has little patience
for Colet, seems to endorse. Flaubert lost his temper altogether
when she maligned Musset, another of her lovers, in a section of
her feminist Poeme de la femme. "Who appointed us moral overseers?"
he asked. "This poor fellow never sought to do you in. Why harm him
more than he harmed you? Think of posterity and reflect upon the
shabby figure cut by those who have insulted great men....
Posterity is forgiving of misbehavior. It all but pardons Jean-
Jacques Rousseau for having delivered his children up to a foundling
hospital." Or as Auden wrote in a similar vein, "Time will pardon
Paul Claudel/ Pardon him for writing well."

The considerable interest of Flaubert's correspondence with Colet
lies less in their emotional or sexual incompatibility than in
their continual aesthetic strife. "Ah! Louise! Louise!" he wrote to
her in 1853, as their affair was stumbling to a halt. "How can you
imagine that a man besotted with Art as I am . .. whose sensibility
is sharper than a razor blade and who spends his life scraping it
against flint to make sparks fly ... how can you imagine that such
a man could ever love with a twenty-year-old heart?" It was the
personal nature of her writing that offended Flaubert, who said of
the Musset diatribe that "you wrote it from the skewed perspective
of a personal passion, ignoring the fundamental conditions of every
imaginative work."

Brown identifies two sources for Flaubert's commitment to
"impersonality" in writing: his physician-father's "clinical
method" and his own struggle with epilepsy--"the explosion of
personality in clonic seizures." I suspect that, as with T.S.
Eliot, that other apostle of impersonality, Flaubert found
confirmation for his "sepulchral detachment" in the teachings of the
Buddha, whose statue he kept on his writing table and whose views
he laid out in The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the Asian section
of which he was working on as he held off the increasingly
importunate Louise. Yet another Buddhist fellow traveler, Lafcadio
Hearn, made an excellent English translation of The Temptation,
complete with scholarly footnotes.

Flaubert's autumnal correspondence with George Sand reprises some of
the same conflicts as the Colet correspondence, though on a higher,
less emotional plane. Sand admired Flaubert's aesthetic
stubbornness amid poor sales and punitive reviews, but she begged
him to clarify his attitude toward his characters. She thought he
could do so without authorial intrusion. "No, I don't say that you
should personally take the stage," she wrote in 1876. "But hiding
one's opinion about one's characters and thus leaving the reader
uncertain as to what he or she should think is to bargain for
incomprehension." Flaubert's noble response matched her didacticism
with a higher morality. "You preach in vain," he told her. "I can
have no temperament but my own, nor any esthetic but that which
derives from it.... As for revealing my personal opinion of the
people I put onstage-- no, no! a thousand times no! I don't
recognize myself as having the right to do it. If my reader does not
get the moral drift of a work, then the reader is an imbecile."
Sand died while Flaubert was working on the story he thought was
more in accord with her wishes, his affectionate tribute to the
hopes and sufferings of a dutiful servant, Felicite, the "simple
heart" of his title. But it is doubtful that the ending of the
story would have pleased Sand, as faithful Felicite, in her death
agony, mistakes her stuffed American parrot Loulou for the Holy

Flaubert's creed of impersonality has nothing to do with the macho
reticence of such self-styled disciples as Hemingway and Dashiell
Hammett. He would have been as repelled by Hemingway's stylistic
posturing as he was by Merimee's muscular writing on bullfights and
Spanish passion; Flaubert's friends Turgenev and Zola were shocked
at what Brown calls his "autopsy" of Merimee's prose style. The
extinction of authorial personality was a religious tenet for
Flaubert, as Erich Auerbach recognized when he referred in Mimesis
to Flaubert's "self-forgetful absorption in the subjects of
reality" as "mystical in the last analysis."

Flaubert claimed that while writing of the suicide of Emma Bovary,
he had "a strong taste of arsenic" in his own mouth. Henry Adams
was closer in spirit to Flaubert's asceticism (as he was in much
else, including his passion for historians of decline such as
Tacitus and Gibbon, his sardonic view of "education," his pleasure
in the company of nieces, and his loyalty in friendship) when he
advised the "architectural tourist" in austere Norman churches to
"read a few pages" of Flaubert's letters or Madame Bovary "to see
how an old art transmutes itself into a new one." Adams discerned a
spiritual affinity between Normandy and New England, a "relation
between the granite of one coast and that of the other." Haunted by
his own wife's suicide by poison, the bitter ending of Madame
Bovary must have had a particular poignancy for Adams.

Among American novelists, Willa Cather probably learned most from
Flaubert. Her favorite of his novels was Salammbi--"I like him in
those great reconstructions of the remote and cruel past"--and she
achieved something analogous in Shadows on the Rock, her underrated
novel of early Quebec. Cather modeled the tripartite structure of
Obscure Destinies (as John Hollander has pointed out) on Flaubert's
Three Tales. Having dismissed Kate Chopin's The Awakening as a
"Creole Bovary," Cather proceeded to write a Bovary of her own, set
in Colorado, in her brilliant novella A Lost Lady. By an
extraordinary coincidence, while vacationing in Aix-les-Bains in
1930, Cather made the acquaintance of Flaubert's niece Caroline,
the same woman who, a lifetime before, had followed her uncle
around the garden as he taught her geography with a shovel and a
bucket of water.

"It must have immediately become apparent to Caroline," Brown
observes, "that she had encountered a most unusual American and,
where Flaubert's work was concerned, an interlocutor on equal
terms." When Cather spoke of "the splendid final sentence of
Herodias, where the fall of the syllables is so suggestive of the
hurrying footsteps of John's disciples, carrying away with them
their prophet's severed head," Caroline "repeated that sentence
softly: `Comme elle etait tres lourde, ils la portaient
al-ter-na-tiv-e-ment.'" Brown finds in this "Chance Encounter," as
Cather memorialized it, a perfect ending for his own remarkable

By Christopher Benfey

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