Today is the birthday (1821) of Gustave Flaubert a highly influential French novelist who has been considered the leading exponent of literary realism in France. His name was a source of amusement in my household years ago because of a tale told by my late wife. When my wife (DB) was about 3 years old she had this exchange with her mother (EB) who was a French teacher at the time. They were tidying the living room:
EB: Deb, can you hand me Flaubert?
DB: Flo Bear ?????? (Eyes glistening, and voice ecstatic).
Since she told me that tale, I cannot think of Flaubert without imagining a teddy bear in a chequered gingham dress. I am sure he would not be amused – though, maybe he would, given the French/English play on words.
Flaubert was born in Rouen, the second son of Anne Justine Caroline (née Fleuriot; 1793–1872) and Achille-Cléophas Flaubert (1784–1846), director and senior surgeon of the major hospital in Rouen. He began writing at an early age, as early as 8 according to some sources. He was educated at the Lycée Pierre Corneille in Rouen, and did not leave until 1840, when he went to Paris to study law. In Paris, he was an indifferent student and found the city distasteful. He made a few acquaintances, including Victor Hugo. Toward the end of 1840, he traveled in the Pyrenees and Corsica. In 1846, after an attack of epilepsy, he left Paris and abandoned the study of law.
From 1846 to 1854, Flaubert had a relationship with the poet Louise Colet, and his letters to her have survived. It is frequently claimed that this was his only real love affair, and afterwards his relationships with women were either Platonic, or for sex only (usually with prostitutes, that he made no secret of). After leaving Paris, he returned to Croisset, near the Seine, close to Rouen, and lived there for the rest of his life. He did however make occasional visits to Paris and England, where he apparently had a mistress. With his lifelong friend Maxime Du Camp, he traveled in Brittany in 1846. In 1849–50 he went on a long journey to the Middle East, visiting Greece and Egypt. In Beirut he contracted syphilis. He spent five weeks in Istanbul in 1850. He visited Carthage in 1858 to conduct research for his novel Salammbô. Flaubert never married and never had children. His reason for not having children is revealed in a letter he sent to Coulet, dated December 11, 1852. In it he revealed that he was opposed to childbirth, saying he would “transmit to no one the aggravations and the disgrace of existence.”
Flaubert was a tireless worker and often complained in his letters to friends about the strenuous nature of his work. He was close to his niece, Caroline Commanville, and had a close friendship and correspondence with George Sand. He occasionally visited Parisian acquaintances, including Émile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Ivan Turgenev, and Edmond and Jules de Goncourt.
Prussian soldiers occupied Flaubert’s house during the War of 1870, and his mother died in 1872. After her death, he fell into financial difficulty. His health declined, and he died at Croisset of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1880 at the age of 58. He was buried in the family vault in the cemetery of Rouen.
Flaubert famously avoided the inexact, the abstract, the vaguely inapt expression, and scrupulously eschewed the cliché. In a letter to George Sand he said that he spends his time “trying to write harmonious sentences, avoiding assonances.” Flaubert believed in, and pursued, the principle of finding “le mot juste” (“the right word”), which he considered as the key means to achieve quality in literary art. He worked in sullen solitude—sometimes occupying a week in the completion of one page—never satisfied with what he had written
In Flaubert’s correspondence he intimates this, explaining correct prose did not flow out of him and that his style was achieved through hard work and constant revision. Flaubert’s output over a lifetime was minuscule in comparison with his contemporaries, such as Balzac or Zola. Walter Pater famously called Flaubert the “martyr of style.”