Tortured labours of an 'absent author'

April 5, 2002

Nearly 200 pages into his life of Flaubert, Geoffrey Wall writes: "With every conceivable advantage in life, Flaubert had reached 30 and so far he had done absolutely nothing." It would not take an over-sceptical reader to wonder why it was appropriate to examine this apparent inactivity at such length.

Unlike his elder and younger literary compatriots, Victor Hugo and Emile Zola, Flaubert kept his distance from the turbulent political spectacle offered by 19th-century France. The civil upheavals of 1830 and 1848 have the status of little more than a backdrop to this account. Only the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 seems to have come close enough to home to disrupt his routines.

Nearer to the heart of Flaubert's activities was the trial in 1857 of Madame Bovary - "a tragic-satiric vision of desire and destiny" - on the grounds of immorality, in the context of which Wall ingeniously identifies the prosecutor as the first perceptive reader of the novel. Shortly thereafter, Flaubert was to write: "I have been attacked by the government, by the priests and by the newspapers. My triumph is complete."

Salammbô followed in 1862, to wide acclaim. Flaubert was gradually integrated into high society, notably by virtue of his relationship with Princess Mathilde Bonaparte and, like his despised pharmacist Homais in Madame Bovary , was awarded the Légion d'Honneur. L'Education Sentimentale , whose title caused him particular dissatisfaction, appeared in 1869. His sudden death in 1880 was followed by an undignified funeral.

The biography that emerges from this relatively uneventful story is thus focused on the private domain, on the inner life of an unmarried man, fond of food and prostitutes, who lived with his mother at Croisset, in the countryside near Rouen. The son of an affluent Normandy doctor, Flaubert was supported by a private income until a combination of misfortunes reduced him to poverty near the end of his life. Wall patiently charts the novelist's early days in the Hotel-Dieu at Rouen, where his father was a surgeon, his travels, first to Corsica and Brittany, then to Egypt, Palestine, Greece and Italy, all nourishing his lifelong interest in the exotic. What thereafter gives the life its interest arises from three sources: Flaubert's reading, his friendships and sexual alliances, and his physiological and psychological disorders.

In the literary field, the names of Voltaire and Chateaubriand are soon accompanied by an equally important but more unexpected model, that of the Marquis de Sade. This is consistent both with Flaubert's early understanding that there is a "moral density to be found in certain forms of ugliness" and with his enduring fascination with the grotesque and the morbid. Other periods in his life find him reading the classical epics, as well as Cervantes, Goethe, Shakespeare and Dickens. Contemporaries such as Lamartine, Musset, Vigny, Gautier and Maupassant all have walk-on parts. Alongside writing, other major catalysts for his imagination were painting, engraving and sculpture. All his work was fed by a ferocious capacity for research, nowhere more so than in the meticulous preparation for his last work, the unfinished "encyclopedia of human stupidity", Bouvard et Pécuchet .

Affectively, after his sexual initiation in Marseille, his maturity is dominated by a tempestuous affair with the writer Louise Colet, by intense male friendships (with Alfred Le Poittevin, Maxime du Camp and Louis Bouilhet inter alios ) - "an insistent, cherished theme" - and finally by an "autumnal intimacy" with the older, intellectually incompatible figure of George Sand. The extracts from their correspondence provide some of the book's most moving pages.

But the highest drama in Flaubert's life lies in his frenetic struggle with the written word, and this biography spares the reader nothing of the tortured creative adventures that produced his masterpieces, punctuated by the symptoms of epilepsy and syphilis, exhaustion and depression. Only the late and relatively painless achievement of the Trois Contes seems to afford any relief from the superhuman effort of composition.

Wall is refreshingly circumspect in two ways: in his readiness to acknowledge the existence of variant interpretations of episodes in his subject's life, and of the cause of his death, not just glossing over contentious hypotheses but allowing the reader to assess their validity; and in refraining from making simplistic transferrals from life to fiction. If tentative parallels are offered between the lived and the invented, it is always with a welcome degree of hesitancy in proposing direct equivalences.

The major source of Wall's information is Flaubert's correspondence and journals, which he reproduces in a vigorous and at times racy English prose. (Given the inaccurate transmission of French in the text and in the bibliography, it is probably best that the original language is used sparingly.) The style is initially somewhat folksy and anecdotal, no doubt to accord a degree of liveliness to the unavoidable genealogical run-up, but it settles quickly into a well-paced narrative, with the extensive scholarship integrated into the movement of the story.

More disappointing, and crucially important for Flaubert, relatively little detail is given of the authorial processes that resulted in his perfectly cadenced manipulation of the language, or his mastery of tense and tension. Also, perhaps because the reader is assumed to have some familiarity with the novels, no real sense of their peculiar qualities, what another critic has called their "impossible fusion of emotion and irony", is conveyed. In this respect, the faded reproduction of Flaubert on the cover and the reticent indefinite article of the subtitle better convey the true relationship of the lived to the written in Flaubert's story, as articulated in his desire, at once frustrating for and frustrated by his biographers, to be the "absent author". For what stood at the apex of Flaubert's hierarchy of values was not a life, but the book.

Richard Parish is professor of French, University of Oxford.

Flaubert: A Life

Author - Geoffrey Wall
ISBN - 0 571 19521 0
Publisher - Faber
Price - £25.00
Pages - 413

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