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.”
Here’s some pithy quotes:
Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.
Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.
Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.
Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
At the bottom of her heart, however, she [Madame Bovary] was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.”
Are the days of winter sunshine just as sad for you, too? When it is misty, in the evenings, and I am out walking by myself, it seems to me that the rain is falling through my heart and causing it to crumble into ruins.
One can be the master of what one does, but never of what one feels.
Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers.
Doubt … is an illness that comes from knowledge and leads to madness.
I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.
It’s hard to communicate anything exactly and that’s why perfect relationships between people are difficult to find.
The last quote leads directly to my recipe du jour. Flaubert was very good friends with George Sand who held frequent dinner parties in the 1860s and 70s with guests like Balzac, Dumas, Delacroix and Chopin. But Flaubert was her favorite dinner guest for a number or reasons, and they wrote quite often to one another about food. Sand had a number of digestive problems as did Flaubert, which they corresponded about . She wrote, “In giving up trying to eat REAL MEAT, I have found again a strong stomach . . . I drink cider with enthusiasm, no more champagne! … I live on sour wine and galette.” Guy de Maupassant observed of Flaubert, “Almost never did he eat meat; only eggs, vegetables, a piece of cheese, fruit and a cup of cold chocolate, finding that too much nourishment made him heavy and unfit for work.” Sand wrote to Flaubert often about her meals, and they frequently planned meals together. Once she wrote, “I lunch on two eggs made into an omelet or shirred, and a cup of coffee.” Flaubert wrote, “I don’t like to eat alone. I have to associate the idea of someone with the things that please me. But this someone is rare. What is certain is that I experience a particular sentiment for you and I cannot define it.”
Christiane Sand, descendant of George Sand, collaborated with Pascal Pringarbe and Muriel Lacroix to produce À la table de George Sand, which they believe reflect recipes for dishes she prepared for family and guests even though we have no direct knowledge of her actual recipes, and not much to go on concerning what she actually cooked. She does say that she loved galettes, and this is the recipe (in translation and slightly emended) from the book. Fromage blanc is a creamy soft cheese made with whole or skimmed milk and cream. It is similar to some kinds of quark. It has the consistency of cream cheese, but contains much less fat. Pure fromage blanc is virtually fat free. Boiling the potatoes for only 10 minutes, hoping they will be soft enough to mash is ridiculous. Allow 20 minutes, and test after that time.
2 cups flour
1 egg (plus extra for egg wash)
4 oz butter, cut into small cubes
1½ lb potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
½ cup fromage blanc
½ cup grated gruyère
salt and pepper
1 tbsp fresh thyme or sage, chopped
- On a clean surface, make the flour into a mound with a well in the center. Crack 1 egg into the well, along with a pinch of salt and 1 cup of cold water. Knead the dough until smooth, and let sit for 2 hours.
- Put a large covered pot of water on medium-high heat. When the water is boiling, add the potatoes and cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Mash with a potato masher, then run through a fine sieve or potato ricer. Put in a large bowl with fromage blanc and gruyère, mixing well to combine. Season generously with thyme, salt and pepper.
- While the potatoes cook, roll the dough to ¼-inch thick. Cover half the dough with ¼ of the butter cubes, then fold in half and roll out to the same thickness. Repeat with the remaining butter, then chill in the freezer 30 minutes. [I presume “repeat” means that you do this a total of 4 times].
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut the dough into two 10-inch circles. Spread the potato mixture on one circle, leaving a ½-inch border, then cover with the second circle, crimping the edges closed.
- Lightly beat the remaining egg in a small bowl and brush over the top of the galette. Bake 30 minutes, until the pastry is golden and the potato is cooked.