Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait
Flaubert: The Making of the Master
Madame Bovary and the Critics
The relationships between an author’s life and his work, between biography and literary criticism, are always puzzling. Does it matter what kind of a man he was? And if so, just how much and in what ways does it matter? This is particularly difficult in the case of Flaubert, because of his famous saying “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” In a preliminary study (Search for a Method, 1963) Sartre attacks the problem with verve and ingenuity: “going back to his biography, I discover his dependence, his obedience, his ‘relative being,’ in short all the qualities which at that period were commonly called ‘feminine.’ At last I find out, a little late, that his physicians dubbed him a nervous old woman and that he was vaguely flattered. Yet it is certain that he was not to any degree at all an invert.” (Sartre’s italics)
Unfortunately for Sartre’s theory, this turns out to be wrong. Dr. Starkie, on the basis of unpublished passages in Flaubert’s letters to Louis Bouilhet, thinks it probable that he had experience of “some homosexual practices”; and Professor Bart agrees that Flaubert was to some degree bisexual. It therefore becomes impossible to follow Sartre’s theory any further along this line; the moral of that would seem to be that if you are committed to a biographical theory, you have to master all the documentation.
In Flaubert’s case this is apparently very difficult, so enormous is the mass of letters and papers he left, some of it unpublished and some only recently available to scholars. Mr. Steegmuller has had to make many changes in his admirable book since it was first published in 1939, while Dr. Starkie and Professor Bart have dug out a mass of new material. From them we learn first a great deal about the gross body of the “Norman giant”: his chronic syphilis and other venereal diseases, his obesity and his epilepsy. Bart is especially interesting on the last: it can be diagnosed as temporal lobe epilepsy, a kind of petit mal with visual disturbances. Flaubert put the experience of his attacks to good use in the Temptation of Saint Anthony and less obviously, as John C. Lapp points out in an essay in Madame Bovary and the Critics, in his greatest novel. Harry Levin mentions Flaubert’s shingles, “more appropriately diagnosed in his case as Saint Anthony’s fire.” I think that all these and many other clinical details really do matter, since Flaubert, the doctor’s son, who as a child peered in at the window to watch his father dissecting cadavers, believed in casting “le coup d’oeil médical” over everything—one remembers the operation of Hippolyte’s club-foot and Hanno’s leprosy. His belief that spirit was inseparable from matter, his faith in positivism and science lie at the heart of his fiction: “être la matière” is the final temptation to which his Saint succumbs. It is appropriate that his biographers should follow his example …