Book Review

A Viking on the Loose from His Longboat

A few years ago when I was in Paris and wandering around the Sorbonne, I stumbled on a small museum devoted to medical history. I rang at the front door, as instructed, and the middle-aged man who answered told me that the cost of admission was eight euros, or twelve euros if I wished to take photographs. He also explained that he did not make change. When I replied that I did not have the exact change, he went on to say that there was a café behind the museum, and that perhaps I could buy a coffee there in order to get the right change. He then led me through the museum to the café, and when I saw the contents of the place en passant, I decided immediately that photographs were a must. There were hundreds of medical specimens in ancient glass jars, most of them with labels written by hand, as well as a small library that seemed to consist primarily of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books on shelves that ran up the wall almost to the ceiling. I bought a coffee, got the right change, walked back around to the front door, and rang a second time. This time, with the correct change, I was admitted and left to wander. It was an extraordinary place. Among other things, there were brains in jars that had been anatomized by Paul Broca, the neuroanatomist whose name gives us Broca’s Area, the part of the brain where language is processed. Broca was also one of the teachers of Isidore Ducasse, the great poet better known as the Comte de Lautréamont, author of the Chants de Maldoror, the extraordinary proto-Surrealist work that would influence a later generation of French poets including André Breton. The bits in bottles ultimately became too overwhelmingly creepy and sent me hurrying from the museum, after I’d taken many photographs of parts of those who, while long gone, in this odd and eerily touching way, were not forgotten.

This was the Musée Dupuytren, named for Guillaume Dupuytren (1777–1835), who is best remembered for lending his name to Dupuytren’s contracture, a hand disease in which one or more fingers will not lie flat and curl towards the palm, and for the surgery to correct the condition that he invented. I did not know then that he was also the mentor of Gustave Flaubert’s father, Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, whose appointment to the Hotel-Dieu, the main hospital in Rouen, he arranged, and where Flaubert père established himself as a renowned surgeon and professor. Flaubert fils would later have to consult another Dupuytren student, Philippe Ricord, a Paris-based specialist in venereal diseases, after Flaubert contracted syphilis during his long journey in the Middle East with his great friend Maxime Du Camp. The writer Flaubert inherited his physician father’s eye for physical detail, and it is no surprise to learn from the Goncourt brothers’ Journal that Flaubert had a bronze bust of Hippocrates on the fireplace mantle in his study. (A similar bust can be spotted in Dr. Bovary’s home in Sophie Barthes’s 2014 film version of Madame Bovary.) Flaubert the anatomist of French bourgeois life under Louis-Philippe maintained throughout his career that science ought to rule as a force of government and as the basis for civic life, not religion, not utopian theories, and certainly not bourgeois ideals of comfort and achievement. Never a success as a student—he was expelled from high school and flunked out of law school—Flaubert nonetheless turned himself into not just the greatest French writer of his century, but also a major critic of French society. Overt criticism is largely confined to his voluminous correspondence; in his fiction it is up to the reader to interpret character and story and to gage the criticism implicit in the details. It was the details, and the right words to capture them, of which Flaubert was a master.

Despite his hatred for middle-class life and middle-class people, with their bland chatter and their uninspiring aspirations, their philopro­genitive focus on family and their obeisance to the altar, Flaubert was middle class himself in almost every way that mattered. He lived for most of his life on family money, and although he rarely had to struggle to keep himself in modest style (house in the provinces, apartment in Paris, weekly At Homes when he was in the city, and so on), money was always a dominant concern, even as he refused to deal with it directly. He treated his publishers almost like tradesmen, refusing to negotiate contracts with them and assigning others to do this on his behalf. He travelled and ate well and was already showing signs of bourgeois over-indulgence by the time he was thirty: venereal disease, incipient obesity, extensive medical problems, bad teeth, etc. In January of 1851, still only twenty-nine, Flaubert wrote disconsolately to a friend from Naples, as he was making his way back to France, of his “fattened face,” his “double chin and jowls.” He encouraged his niece to marry a man whom she clearly did not love, mainly because he was financially stable and socially acceptable. Of course in other, essential ways, Flaubert held back from bourgeois life, refusing to marry and dedicating himself to writing with an almost sacerdotal devotion. His mother chided his work ethic, and its resultant inhuman coldness, in a famous and stinging insult, when she told him that his “passion for sentences had dried up his heart” (“Ta rage des phrases t’a desséché le coeur”). That was not really true, as Flaubert’s letters amply demonstrate. He was a faithful friend, an honest and valued critic of others’ literary work, and a boon companion and salon attendee. His relationships with women were hardly above reproach, but bourgeois they were certainly not. His long and deep friendship with George Sand proves how capable he was of maintaining a relationship with a woman that was not in the least sexual.

Flaubert’s life has been written many times before now, from early biographical studies such as Émile Faguet’s Flaubert (1899) and John Charles Tarver’s Gustave Flaubert As Seen in His Works and Correspondence (1895), to recent biographies in English by Herbert R. Lottman (1989), Geoffrey Wall (2002), and Frederick Brown (2006). The new English translation of Michel Winock’s Flaubert is most easily distinguished from other studies by the fact Winock is not a literary critic but a historian.[1] Winock, who has also written biographies of Clemenceau and Madame de Staël among other books, is an emeritus professor at Sciences-Po in Paris. His book was published originally in French in 2013 to excellent reviews. The English version by Nicholas Elliott is extraordinarily well done: fluent, stylistically accurate, creative, and always as lively as Winock’s French. Here, for example, is Winock’s brief description of the character Jacques Arnoux from Sentimental Education:

Dans sa boutique de Montmartre, Arnoux reçoit des peintres, qu’il exploite sans vergogne; vend trè cher des toiles sans valeur aux gogos, pour lesquelles il exhibe des factures fausses; fais exécuter des pastiches de grands maîtres pour les “amateurs éclaireés.”[2]

Elliott’s version is spirited and convincing:

In his store on Boulevard Montmartre, Arnoux shamelessly exploits painters; sells suckers his worthless paintings at blue-chip prices, conning them with fake bills of sale; and turns out pastiches of old masters for “ignorant art-collectors.”

“Blue-chip prices” is particularly nice. Of course it is the translator’s job to convince the reader that he or she is reading a text originally written in the target language. Elliott does that superbly well with Flaubert. It is a bit scandalous that the publisher, Belknap Press, did not accord him a brief biographical note on the dust jacket. He richly deserved it.

Flaubert once wrote in a letter to his lover, Louise Colet, of his disdain for “la patrie”:

I am no more modern than I am ancient, no more French than Chinese; and the idea of la patrie, the fatherland—that is, the obligation to live on a bit of earth colored red or blue on a map, and to detest the other bits colored green or black—has always seemed to me narrow, restricted and ferociously stupid.

“Stupid” was a key word for Flaubert. He detested what he denominated stupidity above all, and it was the main theme in Bouvard and Pécuchet, his final novel, even as it had been a less conspicuous but important theme in both Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education. Stupid or not, the influence of France and, in particular, the France of the July Monarchy, the 1848 Revolution, the Second Republic and the coup of 1851, and the Second Empire, on Flaubert as a person and a writer, is indisputable, however much he may have tried to avoid recognition of the impact of his “homeland” or taken fictional refuge in ancient history. (Two of the three stories in Three Tales as well as Salammbô and The Temptation of Saint Anthony are set in Antiquity or Medieval Europe.) It is precisely the historical background of Flaubert’s times, both its conscious and its invisible impingements on the writer’s sensibility, on which Winock is especially revelatory. While never ignoring the oppos­ing force in Flaubert’s development that was the search for style, objectivity, truth, and beauty (words of almost equal frequency in Flaubert’s letters along with “stupid” and “stupidity”), Winock takes great pains to draw the context carefully. French political history during the middle two-thirds of the nineteenth century is complicated, to say the least, with the structure of government changing radically at several points and the role of the legislative assembly, as well as the role of the king/president/emperor, shifting often under varying pressures both internal and external to France. Winock is a master of all of this, and with contemporary French history at the heart of his interest, it is clear that, unlike many readers, his favorite Flaubert novel is not Madame Bovary but Sentimental Education. Frédéric Moreau’s sentimental education is of course focused on what the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot would later famously call la chose génitale, and money —getting it and spending it—is a strong undercurrent in the novel as well. But it is in a world dominated by political events that Frédéric and his acquaintances and friends act out their lives. The hero even decides at one point to run for public office but quits in despair before voting day.

This does not mean that Winock is any less interesting on Madame Bovary, despite its intense focus on character and relationships and its relative lack of political context. The politics of Flaubert’s fictional town of Yonville are primarily local. The apothecary Homais is a town booster—he writes a weekly column about local events for a Rouen newspaper, the Fanal de Rouen—and it is his boosterism that leads to the bungled surgery that Dr. Bovary performs on the unfortunate Hippolyte, just one of the many ways in which the hapless Bovary loses Emma’s faith and affection, as well as his own reputation. At the agricultural fair described in Part II of the novel, the visiting Counsellor, one Lieuvain, invokes Louis-Philippe, “that Monarch, that Sovereign, that dearly beloved King, to whom nothing that touches the public well-being or private prosperity of his people is ever a matter of indifference,”[3] but his invocation is rote and part of a long speech that is notable for its fustiness and tiresome clichés. He and the other digni­taries present are described as all dressing exactly alike, as all looking exactly alike, and as all acting exactly alike. His dreary speech is intercalated with the scene of Emma and Rodolphe sitting in the unoccupied council chambers of the town hall, watching the proceedings, and its emptiness is clearly meant to cast a dismissive light on the growing intimacy of the two soon-to-be lovers. This is about as far as national politics impinge on the world of Madame Bovary. Dr. Bovary “has no political ideas for the simple reason that he has no ideas at all,” as Winock points out. The local priest “is a simpleton without the slightest sense of human psychology,” much less any informed sense of the wider world. Even Homais, whose opinions are presented in some depth, becomes a symbol of what Flaubert despised about French society: an adorer of the lowbrow verses of Pierre-Jean de Béranger (the Rod McKuen of his time and place), and, ultimately, a recipient of the Legion of Honor. The recognition from the state comprises the novel’s concluding line, and respect is the very last thing we are meant as readers to feel toward Homais. “Honors dishonor, titles degrade, employment makes stupid,” as Flaubert later said.

Not surprisingly, given his bent to historical accounting, Winock is very thorough in tracing the critical and popular response to Flaubert’s books. He quotes extensively from the newspapers of the time, which reviewed new books at length in a way that by our standards today is almost inconceivable. But the reviews in fact began even before the novelist submitted his manuscripts to his publishers (first Michel Lévy and later Georges Charpentier), for Flaubert would both send portions of his unpublished drafts to friends and read them aloud in his house at Croisset and elsewhere. Winock cites Maxime Du Camp’s testimony that he spent three weeks with Flaubert listening to and reading the manuscript of Sentimental Education, arguing about grammar and style; he also affirmed that the novelist often preferred what sounded well to what was grammatically correct. (This from the greatest stylist of his century!) With publication of the novel in November of 1869, com­ments from friends who had received inscribed copies constituted the second wave of reader reaction. (Victor Hugo told him he had insight and style, unlike Balzac, who only had insight.) Compliments from friends were clearly welcome, since the press was almost uniformly hostile to the novel. George Sand published a rave review in La Liberté, but she wrote the piece as a friend in response to Flaubert’s plea for a positive critique. Most critics complained vociferously about the charac­ters (irredeemably motivated by selfishness), their actions (immoral and unworthy), and the supposed artlessness and “plotlessness” of the writing. The novelist Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, who had also denigrated Madame Bovary twelve years earlier, went so far as to call Flaubert “just a bric-a-brac maker,” surely one of the greater purblind critical appraisals in French literature. Zola, whose review was not precipitated by a request from Flaubert, knew better. Flaubert was “a poet transformed into a naturalist, Homer turned into Cuvier.”

In that same review, Zola went on to comment on the music of Flaubert’s prose. For his part, Winock several times comments on Flaubert’s deliberate avoidance of poetic/musical techniques like assonance and alliteration in his writing. It is of course a staple of the Flaubert story that he was exceedingly self-critical, often supposedly spending hours on a single sentence or days on a single page, frequently discarding pages of writing because of his Olympian standards. If assonance and consonance, not to mention alliteration, were a bugbear, however, what are we to make of the opening paragraph of Madame Bovary?

Nous étions à l’étude, quand le Proviseur entra, suivi d’un nouveau habillé en bourgeois et d’un garçon de classe qui portait un grand pupitre. Ceux qui dormaient se réveillèrent, et chacun se leva comme surpris dans son travail.[4]

Read aloud, consonance and alliteration above all are remarkably audible here: three “e” words in the first two phrases, ten “s” sounds if you elide the first two words, and a general mellifluousness that, admittedly, is not atypical of even the least literary French prose, given the nature of French vowels. This passage sounds to my ear at least like prose from which the writer has definitely not attempted to exclude the music of language. In summing up the route by which it came to be recognized as a masterpiece and a provocative early example of the anti-hero novel, Winock describes Sentimental Education as “atonal” (“this—shall we say—atonal novel that follows the mediocre lives of ordinary human­ity”). It is a strange word to choose. Certainly the book has a sort of picaresque plot, a story somewhat without a center, as atonal music also does; but in terms of the linguistic music of Flaubert’s novel, atonal, with its specific musical reference to routine dissonance and formal unpredictability, seems inappropriate. George Sand recognized that her great friend was a troubadour, or so she often addressed him in her letters, a poet whose poems were meant to be sung. Proust and Kundera would both later state that, with Flaubert, the novel became the equal of the poem. Poetic techniques were an essential aspect of the evolution.

The latter part of Flaubert’s life was dominated by death—the death of his mother (he was fifty when she died) and the deaths of friends. Winock tells us that the writer coined a word to describe his increasing certainty through the 1870s that life was becoming unbearable: insupportation, from insupportable, the French word for intolerable. Louis Bouilhet, a close friend from Flaubert’s earliest days, died in 1869, Théophile Gautier in 1872, and George Sand in 1876.There were others. Flaubert’s last decade was also roiled by financial disaster. He had allowed his niece’s husband, Ernest Commanville, to look after much of his money, and Commanville lost it, coming close to bankruptcy. (A report in a newspaper informed readers that Flaubert “lost nearly his entire fortune in a commercial enterprise he had entered into purely out of kindness for a relative.” The papers were critical of his books, but they could be charitable to him as a person.) There were compensations in friends still living: Zola, Turgenev, the surviving de Goncourt brother, Edmond, the young Guy de Maupassant, who was a disciple as well as a companion. But the writer who had always borne a streak of cynicism and loathing for life on earth, grew even more melancholy as the end neared. His desperate cri de cœur in a late letter—“Where is there anyone who relishes a good sentence?”—is funny but also pitiable.

Michel Winock has written a compelling and stylish biography, and Nicholas Elliott has brought it into English with flair and skill. Almost without blemish—Albert de Broglie unaccountably becomes Alfred on p. 385, and there are a handful of typographical errors in the text—the English translation is a pleasure to read. Some quotations lack refer­ences, and a few persons named in the text are not identified. (Who, for example, was Paul Collardez, one of the “three great minds in my life” referred to in his journal by Edmond de Goncourt, along with artist Paul Gavarni and chemist Marcellin Bertholet?) The illustrations, taken wholly from the French edition but not reproduced in color as some of the latter were, contain only one photograph of Flaubert. Winock states that “photographs and portraits of Flaubert are rare,” but surely one or two others could have been included. Finally, the artist who painted the scene from an opera based on Salammbô—whose composer, Ernest Reyer, is not credited—is not identified in the cutline beneath the photograph, but only in the illustration acknowledgements at the end of the book. (He was Giuseppe de Nittis, an Italian painter who showed at the very first Impressionist exhibition in Paris.) These are very minor cavils about a book that, in French, can stand on the shelf with others by Flaubert scholars such as Jean Bruneau and René Dumesnil, and in English, with books by Francis Steegmuller and Geoffrey Wall—all very good company for a book about “the most meticulous craftsman of prose fiction the world had ever seen,”[5] who once said, “One must divide one’s existence into two parts: to live as a bourgeois and to think as a demigod.”
[1] Flaubert, by Michel Winock, trans. by Nicholas Elliott. Belknap Press. $35.00. I take my title from one of the many critical characterizations of Flaubert recorded by the Goncourt brothers in their Journal.
[2] Michel Winock, Flaubert (Paris, 2013), pp. 298–299.
[3] Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, trans. by Gerard Hopkins (Oxford, 1981), p. 134.
[4] Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, in Œuvres I, ed. A. Thibaudet and R. Dumesnil (Paris, 1951), p. 293. Gerard Hopkins translates the passage in this way: “We were in the preparation room when the head came in, followed by a new boy in ordinary day clothes, and by a school servant carrying a large desk. Those of us who were asleep woke up, and we all rose to our feet doing our best to give the impression that we had been interrupted in the midst of our labours.” Op. cit., p. 1.
[5] Hugh Kenner, “Gustave Flaubert: Comedian of the Enlightenment,” in Gustave Flaubert, ed. by Harold Bloom (New York and Philadelphia, 1989), p. 12.