‘Think Like a Demigod’

“Madness and debauchery are two things that I have probed so deeply, where I have found my way so well by my own willpower, that I shall never become (I hope) either a madman or a Marquis de Sade.”

—Flaubert to Louise Colet, July 7, 1853

“…live like a bourgeois and think like a demigod.”

—Flaubert to Colet, August 21, 1853


Most cultivated readers, critics, and literary historians would, I believe, rank Gustave Flaubert among the ten best novelists of all time. He earned that honor toward the close of the Romantic era primarily on the basis of a single book, Madame Bovary, in which he harnessed and disciplined the effusiveness of his early writing. Behind Madame Bovary stands a corpus of less-known writing and a surprisingly eventful life.

We recognize Flaubert in one composite image based on two Nadar photographs taken about 1865. Flaubert was then in his mid-forties. The photographs show a well-tailored, mostly bald, middle-age man with a bedraggled walrus moustache and a dreamy expression. He looks like Grover Cleveland. This may be Flaubert’s spit-and-image, but it is also a near incognito for the author of Madame Bovary writing in his early thirties. For we know that in his prime, Flaubert was tall and robust, with long blond hair and a beard. Maxime du Camp described him as “of heroic beauty.” Other friends referred to him fondly as “mon géant” and even as an Adonis. Flaubert also had a strong, well-modulated voice which could dominate a room and, in day-long sessions of reading his works aloud, hold his listeners.

This was the striking figure who survived many serious encounters with epilepsy beginning at age twenty-two, who on the advice of two friends gave up hopes of publishing his first novel, who traveled for a year and a half in Egypt and the Near East, and who wrote to his absent mistress a vividly revealing, almost daily account of the five-year labor to compose Madame Bovary.

The incognito produced by Nadar’s photographs is mostly of Flaubert’s own making. He refused to let Madame Bovary be illustrated; pictures, he said, would usurp the essential work of the reader’s imagination. Similarly, he showed great reluctance over letting himself be photographed or sketched. The paucity of portrait images of him is not fully redeemed by the caricatures hurled at Flaubert by the Paris press, most of them delighting in his walrus moustache.

Partly because he occupied all three of the principal nineteenth-century literary roles—the Romantic, the realist, the art-for-art’s-sake aesthete—Flaubert’s reputation has grown dramatically since his death in 1880. But, compared to Dickens and Chekhov and Balzac, the number of straightforward biographies devoted to Flaubert is unexpectedly small. Two seminal works appeared in French by Albert Thibaudet (1922) and by René Dumesnil (1932). After a pause during which extensive new materials, particularly letters, were amassed and collated, the British took over with Enid Starkie’s two-volume study (1967 and 1971) and…

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