Flaubert: The Tragic Historian


by Michel Winock, translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott
Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press, 549 pp., $35.00
Gustave Flaubert, circa 1860; carte-de-visite portrait by Étienne Carjat
Collections de la Bibliothèque municipale de Rouen
Gustave Flaubert, circa 1860; carte-de-visite portrait by Étienne Carjat

“The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” That’s Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, paying homage to Gustave Flaubert as James Joyce’s literary godfather. In Flaubert’s version, in a letter to Louise Colet written in 1852 during the composition of Madame Bovary: “The author in his work should be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”

We may have lost sight of how radical this doctrine of artistic impersonality and impassivity was, and how much contested by Flaubert’s contemporaries; it has now become standard advice handed out in American writing programs. We tend to forget also that the novel that would change literature was the work of a provincial Frenchman in his mid-thirties who up to that point had published absolutely nothing. Not only Joyce but all the major novelists of the twentieth century learned from Madame Bovary (as, one might add, radical innovators such as Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett found inspiration in Flaubert’s late, unfinished Bouvard and Pécuchet). Madame Bovary was published after much agony over its composition in La Revue de Paris in 1856 (with passages expurgated by the editors), then in book form in 1857. In the meantime Flaubert was put on trial for outrage to public morals—which assured the public success of his novel.

The Flaubert–Colet correspondence is in part responsible for the legend of Flaubert as the hermit of the small town of Croisset—near Rouen, where he shared a house with his aged mother—since he expended so much ink explaining why he couldn’t find time for more frequent erotic rendezvous. His art, he insisted, left little room for women. The laborious hours devoted to writing were true enough, testified to by many of his acquaintance, including the dearest friends of his mature years, Ivan Turgenev and George Sand. “I beg you, don’t get so absorbed in literature and erudition,” Sand wrote him in 1872.

Get out, move about, have mistresses, or wives, as you wish, and during these phases, don’t work, because you don’t want to burn the candle at both ends, you need to change the end you’re lighting.

He had many friends, but not so many mistresses: the stormy liaison with Louise Colet was the longest-lasting, except possibly the episodic top-secret tender affair with Juliet Herbert, his niece’s English governess; there were also a few actresses such as Béatrix Person and Suzanne Lagier and the fashionable courtesans Jeanne de Tourbey and Aglaé Sabatier. No wife ever. He told Sand that the very idea of a wife seemed “fantastic,” for reasons he didn’t understand. “There is an ecclesiastical…

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