The Black Hole of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet

December 20, 2012

B and P

[I just realized, this is my 1000th post!  How appropriate that it should be about Bouvard and Pecuchet!]

I read through most of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet again over the last few weeks.  Flaubert didn’t finish the book, and the conclusion is simply an outline assembled from his notes.  It is a very difficult book to get a grip on, unless you are well versed in the Flaubertian world view:  This blogger, however, is on to something when she remarks that she read the entire thing with the childrens’  book, Frog and Toad in mind!

The ‘novel’ tells of two clerks, nobodies is how Flaubert referred to them in his original title for it, who take up a life of ease in the country after one of them comes into an inheritance.  In fact, the life they adopt is what I plan for myself in retirement: reading, travelling, ‘intellectual’ hobbies, and so on.  But this is Flaubert, remember.

B & P is Flaubert’s revenge on human culture, his ever-ticking time bomb of a black hole that sucks in everything that has been thought and said about anything, and makes it disappear with a ‘poof!’  He remarked in his letters that he hoped that after reading it, people “would be afraid to say anything,” because of course, anything they could say would be reflected in some imbecility or other in this book.  At last, people might just shut up, forever!

The book is not about anything, other than the endless mental and recreational diversions of the two clerks.  You could say it’s a book about nothing, more than one hundred years before Seinfeld hit on that theme as a platform for mass entertainment.  Of course, Flaubert’s spirit, if it watches television, recognizes and accepts the inevitability of the recuperation of his work.

People comment on this book a lot, in rather grand ways.  Christopher Hitchens reviewed a recent translation and got this off, my emphasis:

This novel was plainly intended to show its author’s deep contempt, however comedically expressed, for all grand schemes, most especially the Rousseauean ones, to improve the human lot. Such schemes founder because the human material is simply too base to be transmuted. Even Bouvard and Pécuchet receive a glimpse of this, if only through their own solipsism: “Then their minds developed a piteous faculty, that of perceiving stupidity and being unable to tolerate it. Insignificant things saddened them: newspaper advertisements, a burgher’s profile, an inane comment overheard by chance. . . . They felt upon their shoulders the weight of the entire world.”

Earnest fellow that Hitchens is, it doesn’t occur to him that Flaubert is here talking about himself.  As he said of his most famous character, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!”  Read his entertaining and outrageous letters, and that much is clear.

In the forward to my edition, Lionel Trilling has this to say:

The more we consider Bouvard and Pecuchet, the less the novel can be thought of as nothing but an attack on the culture of the nineteenth century.  Bourgeois democracy merely affords the setting for a situation in which it becomes possible to reject culture itself.  The novel does nothing less than that:  it rejects culture.  The human mind experiences the massed accumulation of its own works…and arrives at the understanding … that all are weariness and vanity, that the whole vast superstructure of human thought and creation is alien from the human person.

Sometimes I get so sick of culture I could scream…but what’s the alternative?   Here’s a passage with my favorite part in blue:

Pécuchet, without bestowing a thought on them, took up the argument:

“Excuse me, M. Jeufroy. The weight of the atmosphere, science demonstrates to us, is equal to that of a mass of water which would make a covering ten metres around the globe. Consequently, if all the air that had been condensed fell down in a liquid state, it would augment very little the mass of existing waters.”

The vestrymen opened their eyes wide, and listened.

The curé lost patience. “Will you deny that shells have been found on the mountains? What put them there, if not the Deluge? They are not accustomed, I believe, to grow out of the ground of themselves alone, like carrots!” And this joke having made the assembly laugh, he added, pressing his lips together: “Unless this be another discovery of science!”

Bouvard was pleased to reply by referring to the rising of mountains, the theory of Elie de Beaumont.
“Don’t know him,” returned the abbé.

Foureau hastened to explain: “He is from Caen. I have seen him at the Prefecture.”

“But if your Deluge,” Bouvard broke in again, “had sent shells drifting, they would be found broken on the surface, and not at depths of three hundred metres sometimes.”

The priest fell back on the truth of the Scriptures, the tradition of the human race, and the animals discovered in the ice in Siberia.

“That does not prove that man existed at the time they did.”

The earth, in Pécuchet’s view, was much older. “The delta of the Mississippi goes back to tens of thousands of years. The actual epoch is a hundred thousand, at least. The lists of Manetho——”

The Count de Faverges appeared on the scene. They were all silent at his approach.
“Go on, pray. What were you talking about?”
“These gentlemen are wrangling with me,” replied the abbé.
“About what?”
“About Holy Writ, M. le Comte.”
Bouvard immediately pleaded that they had a right, as geologists, to discuss religion.
“Take care,” said the count; “you know the phrase, my dear sir, ‘A little science takes us away from it, a great deal leads us back to it’?” And in a tone at the same time haughty and paternal: “Believe me, you will come back to it! you will come back to it!”

“Perhaps so. But what were we to think of a book in which it is pretended that the light was created before the sun? as if the sun were not the sole cause of light!”
“You forget the light which we call boreal,” said the ecclesiastic.

I love the way the local class system is limned with such economy: the Count approaches, and they all await his words.  He lets fall a few clichés supportive of the status quo.  The dialog of the deaf continues…

A note on climate change from Bouvard and Pecuchet

November 30, 2012
by Guy Davenport

by Guy Davenport

From Flaubert’s story of the two clerks:

 …[they] bought M. Depping’s work on The Marvels and Beauties of Nature in France…But soon there will be no more to discover.  …burning mountains are becoming extinct, natural glaciers are getting warmer

Written over a period of twenty years, but published only after his death in 1880.  He claimed to have read over 1500 books in preparation for writing it.

Information Superhighway

July 19, 2010

At last, here by popular demand! The original text of the amazingly prescient essay on Flaubert and the Internet from 1994!!

Madame Bovary – Chabrol

February 20, 2010

In a post several years ago, I commented negatively on Claude Chabrol’s take on Madame Bovary, saying it was too faithful to the book to be interesting.  It seemed a slow-paced, Masterpiece Theater sort of treatment.  On watching it again, I’m not so sure.

A lot of reviewers felt as I did, and the film is not rated among Chabrol’s finest.  Yes, Isabelle Huppert is too old for the character, and her light hair and freckles are not Emma at all, but she’s lovely.  More interesting, is the complaint I read in many places that she, and the film, are too cold, controlled, lacking the sentimental passion of Emma, the passion that destroys her.

Certainly the film is restrained. Consider the scene in which Emma meets her old (Platonic) flame, Léon, in the Rouen cathedral, and he takes her for a ride in a hired cab.  He tells the driver to drive through the streets of the town,  and the citizens of the fair city are left to puzzle over this meandering cab that occasionally rocks back and forth rather wildly.  Inside, rapturous lovemaking.  The action is described in an almost cinematic way, yet the film gives us just this, with one brief glimpse of passion:

Not much for a literary passage that surely inspired the passionate sex-in-the-backseat scene of that masterpiece, Titanic.  The sculptural group on the right in the image above is a nice touch, though.

Still, I think Chabrol is on to something here.  The crucial thing about the novel is the control of tone – a touchstone of Flaubert’s writing.  Emma is shallow and sentimental, and a prey to passion, but it’s childish passion.  On the other hand, she’s an adult, a woman who is trapped in a dull marriage in a dull town in a dull epoch, and it’s not her fault.  Another woman who is the victim of men, and she knows it.  In the film, she comments frequently on things men might do that a woman has no chance of doing.  She sees her situation clearly, and she wants to rebel against it, yet she is fiercely restrained by her own ingrained sense of social propriety. [Compare to Flaubert’s other sentimental “hero,” Frederic Moreau.]  She was never a wanton bohemian or heedless character, at least not at first.  She must calculate – as a woman, she is always being watched.  In that sense, Huppert’s portrayal is just right.

Emma’s passionate nature is displayed before her marriage.  She has no hesitation at sucking her pricked finger despite the presence of Charles, the doctor.  Later, when their marriage is in the offing, she drinks a liquer with more than the normal relish, sticking her tongue into the glass to get the last drop.  After marriage, as her boredom and disposable income grow, her clothes get more and more elaborate.

On the left, Charles Bovary, the oafish husband.  On the right, Homais, the pharmacist, the man of reason.  His tiresome and superficial political, scientific, and philosophical patter are an ironic counterpoint throughout much of the story.  Even when you share his opinions about the clergy, the gentry, the capitalists, you want to throttle him to shut him up.  His stupid grasping for acclaim leads him to stampede Charles into a foolish and disastrous operation on a well young man who happens to have a club foot that needs “correcting.”

Is Charles the hero of the novel?  In a way, he is.  Only he has genuine, sincere, and deep emotional responses to his situation.  He is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he truly loves Emma, though he can’t make her happy with that.

Emma is tempted by the local notary’s assistant, Léon, a callow and romantic young man who is obviously in love with her.  She seeks spiritual help from the local priest in one of the most powerful passages of the novel.  The priest is absolutely tonedeaf to what ails her.  She has fine clothes, food, fire to warm her – the notion that she could be gravely suffering is totally alien to his mind and he shoos her away to deal with the urchins who must learn their stultifying catechism.  “What is a Christian?”  “One who is born and baptized!”  A fine verbal irony, pointing out the total lack of Christian love that comes Emma’s way in the church.

There’s not much to do if you live in a small French town in 1840, but the local aristocrat gives a grand ball and invites the Bovarys since Charles cured his abscess.   The waltz is absolutely dizzying, especially for a relative novice.  Emma says it was the most beautiful day of her life, and she daydreams about it endlessly.  At least the local draper, always willing to sell on credit, has some beautiful fabrics to show her to occupy her mind.

Rodolphe, a local gentleman and ladykiller shows up just as the town gets to host the annual country fair, a real boost for the place!  He seduces Emma with a steady torrent of romantic cliches and appealing hurt and angst.  Taking a window seat to the official proceedings, his words are intercut with prize awards for pigs, manure, and cows.  The bullshit is flying hot and heavy, and Emma is powerless to resist.  At last, someone who understands her!

They have a passionate love affair, but Rodolphe drops her because she’s becoming inconvenient.  Emma is shaken, but eventually picks up in earnest with Léon, leading to the cab ride and three days of bliss in an hotel room in Rouen.  She throws caution to the wind, and she actually scares her lover a bit, she’s so intense.  Her clothes get sharper and sharper, and the friendly merchant always has fancy stuff to sell on credit.  Finally he comes up with some promissory notes to sign and tells her to keep all the cash for now.  She can pay him pack later.  You can see the thought balloon above her head, filled with lists of things to buy.

It had to end.  The bills come due.  The bailiffs come to take back all the stuff in the house.  Notices are posted in the square – dishonor and utter humiliation await her, unless she can get 3,000 francs fast!  Won’t the draper help her out with a stay of a few days?  Her hand on his knee gets no results – he cares for francs, not fucking.  Was she really willing to do that with him? She is appalled at his insinuations, and at herself?

Of course, Rodolphe, he will help her!  He must help her!  She runs across the fields to his mansion – so difficult to do in the female costume of the day.  Standing outside his bedroom door, she is out of breath and desparate, but composes herself.

She opens the door.  “Oh, it’s you!”  There she is, in the mirror, smaller than the man of course.  She is only what she is in mens’ eyes.  Maybe she can rekindle their old love – they will run away together, of course.  She is so beautiful!

Building castles in the air is fine, but there is the matter of those 3,000 francs.  Rodolphe sees how it is, and he’s having none of it.  Cooly he tells her, “I don’t have it.” Surrounded by the accessories of wealth, in a mansion, on an estate, Emma finds it hard to believe him.  The awful truth dawns on her.  Nobody cares, nobody loves her.  She is alone.

She escapes by poisoning herself.  Charles loves her.

By the numbers…

May 20, 2009


214,753 bloggers, 211,733 new posts, 51,364,877 words today.

That’s the news at the WordPress dashboard today.  Now, I like the Internet, and blogging…obviously, but a dyspeptic critic might look at that line and say, echoing Gustave Flaubert’s apocryphal remark,

 “The Internet allows lots of people to meet and be stupid together!”

Could you ask for a better statement of the essence of mass society?  Nothing matters but numbers.  Quality?  Only numbers.  See how many words we have!

The eternal subjectivity

May 9, 2009

Logo as colorblindness test

This is a new shirt of mine.  It’s from a line called ‘Penguin.’  That’s the logo, there on the front.  Can you see it?  Clearly?  As a colorblind person, this shirt appealed to me so much, I put aside my usual prohibition of wearing clothes with designer logos on them.subjectivity_det

I can make it out, barely, but then I know what to look for.  I don’t know if it’s a real colorblindness test chart:  Real ones don’t have dots that are clearly divided into different colors – see the little image here.  Dvided dots make the edges of the figure easier to see.

I show it to people, and they say they can make it out perfectly.  A strong pattern.  Are they messing with me?  Do they really see it differently?  How would I know?   Are we even speaking the same language about color?  Are we speaking the same language at all?  How can I, could I, ever know…anything?

Tear-jerking Episodes from
Life of a Young Philosopher

Kindergarten Teacher: Why have you colored the water with silver and white crayon?  Water is blue.
Me: Not when it comes out of the faucet.

Mother: What time does the clock say?
Me:I don’t know.
Mother: Look at the clock!
Me: But it’s always a little bit before or a little bit after whatever time I say it is.  Even if it’s exactly noon, it’s never really noon.  It’s a itty bitty second before or after…
Mother: Oh you…..!

Me: Yeah, so I see colors better in strong light. Everyone does. The less light we have, the less color there is. So if there’s almost no light, there’s almost no color. SO, in the dark, everything must be without color. Everything is colorless. Everything is clear, transparent!!
Sixth Grade Teacher and ClassmatesUproarous and derisive laughter. In the background, a few students are heard to start up a chorus of stamping feet and the shout of “Bovary, Bo-va-ry, Bo-VA-ry!”

Sentimental Revolution – 1848

March 19, 2009


The Sentimental Education (L’Education sentimentale) by Gustave Flaubert is a bleak and depressing book.  It is also a confusing and difficult book in some ways.  I have just read it for the third or fourth time.  Supposedly, Ford Maddox Ford said that one cannot consider oneself educated until one has read it fourteen times…I’ve a ways to go.

The plot is simple:  A young man, Frederic Moreau, comes to Paris from the country, ostensibly to study law.  On a river boat, he meets a married woman, Madame Arnoux, and falls in love with, develops a monumental crush on, becomes infatuated with her.  How you describe his feelings has a lot to do with how you make sense of the book.  The rest of the story unwinds over the years as he periodically falls in and out of love with her, always from a distance, for she is a respectable woman, and is not interested in an adulterous affair.  Frederic satisfies his amorous longings elsewhere.  Meanwhile, the upheaval of the Revolution of 1848 comes and goes.  Frederic runs through all his uncle’s money that he inherited and ends up moving back to the country. C’est tout!


The subtitle of the novel is “The story of a young man.”  Frederic is a sort of anti-hero, i.e., as the main character of the novel, he is not very inspiring.  He is good looking, has a sense of humour, is generous, intelligent, and reasonably well educated.  He is also weak, without direction, a bit spoiled, given to useless romantic day dreaming, incapable of forming an honest relationship with a woman, and rather superficial.  In the course of the book, he accomplishes absolutely nothing with his life.  It is clear that were it not for his inheritance, which gives him material comfort and social status, he would be nothing at all.

Stange to have such an unappealing character as a protaganist, but that is Flaubert’s way.  When asked how he knew about women like his “heroine” Emma Bovary, he replied, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”  He identifies with his characters, he sympathizes with them, but he does not spare them or flatter them.

Madame Bovary

At times, reading this book, I felt that Frederic was a sort of male Emma.  That is, if Emma Bovary had had the freedom that being male and having money brought in that society, instead of being a provincial petty bourgeois woman trapped in a dull marriage and dying of boredom, only able to dream about the things that Frederic does, she would have been like him.  In many ways, they share a profound superficiality.  Frederic ends by becoming a provincial non-entity.  Emma stuffs her mouth with arsenic and dies a horrible death.  Women have it pretty bad in a lot of nineteenth century novels.  [The image here shows Isabelle Huppert playing Emma in a recent film version of Madame Bovary.]

woman_1840sThroughout the novel, women are treated pretty much as whores or bank accounts.  If they have money, men try to marry them.  If they are good looking, they try to get them in bed.  Some make their living that way, at various levels of classiness, like Rosanette, Frederic’s mistress, who has a large stable of lovers at one time or another, and whom Frederic “shares” with Arnoux, the husband of his true love.  This irritates Frederic, but of course, he does nothing about it.  Frederic’s lack of honesty with himself and lady friends about his feelings is absolutely typical of all the men in the book, and perhaps of most men of that time.  Women are interchangeable. His love for Madame Arnoux often seems childish, almost like an incestuous mother-fixation, he idealizes her so much.  At other times, his erotic longings take on a darker cast:

Another thirst had come to him the thirst for women, for licentious pleasure, for all that Parisian life permitted him to enjoy…Already the dream had taken hold of him. It seemed to him that he was yoked beside Arnoux to the pole of a hackney-coach, and that the Marechale sat astride him, and disembowelled him with her gold spurs.

The confusing aspect of the novel is the way it presents the everyday reality through which Frederic moves.  The progression of time is not clear – we rarely know what year it is or when things happened.  We are dropped into dinner parties and meetings at which we are given snatches of conversation, references to ideas and controversies in the air, often without quite knowing who is saying what.  The characters say things in conversation that don’t get answered – remarks are left hanging in the air.  Many exchanges have ambiguous meanings for us, and for the characters?


Of course, the tumultuous events of the revolution come in for a good deal of scrutiny by Flaubert.  In one of the more cinematic sequences, Frederic makes his way through some contested streets, men die next to him, he steps on a hand, two people are arguing on the sidewalk, it all seems like a show.  Later, in bed with his mistress, he hears the sounds of carts and marching in the streets below.  He is sobbing – “I’ve wanted you for so long!”  Of course, it’s a lie.  He has just dashed all his hopes of ever becoming intimate with Madame Arnoux.  His dissembling is something of a metaphor for the political chaos and disillusion to come.

Flaubert operates on the stupidity of revolutionary politics and reaction with a sharp scalpel:

At a gathering of well-to-do citizens:

Most of the men present had served at least four governments; and they would have sold France or the human race in order to preserve their own incomes, to save themselves from any discomfort or embarrassment, or even through sheer baseness, through worship of force. They all insisted that political crimes were inexcusable. It would be less harmful to pardon those which were provoked by want.

The omnipresent cliche, doing service for thought:

And they did not fail to put forward the eternal illustration of the father of a family stealing the eternal loaf of bread from the eternal baker.

The utopian naivete of the workers:

“Still, you ought to take care of yourself.”

“Pooh! I am substantial! What does this matter?  The Republic is proclaimed! We’ll be happy henceforth!  Some journalists, who were talking near me just now, said they were going to liberate Poland and Italy! No more kings! You understand? The entire land free ! the entire land free ! “



This idealistic young man, befriended by Frederic, is shot down in the end, while protesting on the steps of a monument.  Frederic’s jaw drops when he sees that the soldier who killed him is Senecal, the one-time fiery and puritanical socialist revolutionary.  He’s gone over to the forces of reaction – power is his ultimate good.

In several set-pieces, Flaubert depicts the chaotic looting that took place in Paris when the insurgents gained control:

A vulgar curiosity made them rummage all the dressing-rooms, all the recesses. Liberated convicts thrust their arms into the beds of princesses, and rolled themselves on the top of them, to console themselves for not being able to embrace their owners. Others, with sinister faces, wandered about silently, looking for something to steal, but too great a multitude was there. . . The heat became more and more suffocating; and the two friends, afraid of being stifled, seized the opportunity of escaping. . .In the antechamber, standing on a heap of garments, appeared a girl of the town [common whore]  as a statue of  Liberty, motionless, her grey eyes wide open a fearful sight.

The forces of order fare no better in the text – they treat the beaten insurgents with terrible brutality:

There were nine hundred men in the place, huddled together in the midst of filth, with no attempt at order, their faces blackened with powder and clotted blood, shivering with ague and breaking out into cries of rage ; those who were brought there to die were not separated from the rest. . . The lamp, suspended from the arched roof, looked like a stain of blood, and little green and yellow flames fluttered about, caused by the emanations from the vault. Through fear of epidemics, a commission was appointed. When he had advanced a few steps, the President recoiled, frightened by the stench from the excrements and from the corpses.

As soon as the prisoners drew near a vent-hole, the National Guards who were on sentry, in order to prevent them from shaking the bars of the grating, prodded them indiscriminately with their bayonets.

As a rule they showed no pity … for the fascination of self-interest equaled the madness of want, aristocracy had the same fits of fury as low debauchery, and the cotton cap did not show itself less hideous than the red cap.

And everywhere, there is the shadow of received wisdom – people “thundering against”this and that, using phrases that would be echoed later in his Dictionary of Received Ideas, a compendium of cliches and common stupidity:

Then Property attained in the public regard the level of Religion, and was confounded with God. The attacks made on it appeared to them a sacrilege; almost a species of cannibalism.

“It’s a law written on the face of Nature! Children cling to their toys. All peoples, all animals have the same instinct. The lion even, if he were able to speak, would declare himself a proprietor! I myself, messieurs, began with a capital of fifteen thousand francs. Would you be surprised to hear that for thirty years I used to get up at four o’clock every morning? I’ve had as much pain as five hundred devils in making my fortune ! And people want to tell me I’m not the master, that my money is not my money ; in short, that property is theft ! “


And it ends in a fizzle.  Frederic and Deslauriers, both failures, having watched their dreams and their illusions crash, but still friends, recall an incident from their school years when they visited the town brothel.  Frederic was so timid and embarrassed that he got spooked and ran, and since he had the money, Deslauriers had to follow.  “Those were the best times!”  Is this a final, ironic rapier thrust into the belly of their self-delusion and triviality?  Is it a nostalgic surrender to the age of innocence?  Or is it an ambiguous recognition and acceptance of both, and more?

Here is a link to the full text of the novel, albeit, in a rather stuffy translation from the 1920’s.

Let us copy, as before…

March 24, 2005

That’s what Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet said at the end of their novel. They run through their money, exhaust all of western culture, and decide that they are best off back at their desks, side by side, practicing their trade as clerks. The Dictionary of Received Wisdom was published as a sort of appendix to this novel.

From the Dictionary:

Abelard: No need to have any notion of his philosophy, nor even to know the titles of his works. Just refer discreetly to his mutilation by Fulbert. The grave of Abelard and Heloise: if someone tells you it is apocryphal, exclaim: “You rob me of my illusions!”
Academy, French: Run it down, but try to belong to it if you can.
Accident: Always “regrettable” or “unlucky”—as if a mishap might sometimes be a cause for rejoicing.
America: Famous example of injustice: Columbus discovered it and it is named after Amerigo Vespucci. If it weren’t for the discovery of America, we should not be suffering from syphilis and phylloxera[grape disease]. Exalt it all the same, especially if you’ve never been there. Lecture people on self-government.
Baldness: Always “premature,” caused by youthful excesses—or by the hatching of great thoughts.
Classics: You’re supposed to know all about them.
Descartes: Cogito ergo sum.
Earth: Refer to its four corners since it is round.
Eunuch: Never can have children…Fulminate against the castrati singers of the Sistine Chapel
Funeral: About the deceased: “To think that I had dinner with him a week ago.” Called obsequies if it’s a general; inhumation if it’s a philosopher.
Gordian Knot: Has to do with antiquity. (The way the ancients tied their neckties.)
Ideals: Perfectly useless.
Idiots: Those who differ from you.
Illiad: Always followed by Odyssey.
Imperialists: All honest, polite, peaceable, charming people.
Impiety: Thunder against.
Italy: Should be seen immediately after marriage. Is very disappointing–not nearly so beautiful as people say.
Laconic: Idiom no longer spoken.
Louis XVI: Always: “that unfortunate monarch.”
Medical Students: Sleep next to corpses. Some even eat them.
Newspapers: One can’t do without–but must be thundered against
Pyramid: Useless edifice.
Sybarites: Thunder against.

Mr. Madame Bovary

March 2, 2005

Flaubert remarked, when asked about the origin of his ‘heroine’, Madame Emma Bovary, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” If he can say that, then Emma and his works can take many forms, and so she has. First, Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes – that memoir?, novel?, runimation? of a Flaubert fanatic that is delightfully odd; and now Gemma Bovery, a graphic novel that is freely inspired by the novel and is a wickedly funny and witty work in its own right by Posy Simmonds. That’s Gemma, up there with Gustave. (I saw the movie version of Bovary with Isabelle Huppert, and it seemed to me that it followed the book too faithfully to be interesting as a film.)

Flaubert didn’t write much, but he sweated famously over every word, looking for “le mot juste.” He was also a great letter writer, and if you want the full flavor of his personality, you must dip into his correspondance, where you will find gems like this:

To Guy De Maupassant [his protege, working as a clerk for the Navy at the time]
You must—do you hear me, young man?–you must work more than you do. I’ve come to suspect you of being something of a loafer. Too many whores! Too much rowing! Too much exercise! Yes, sir: civilized man doesn’t need as much locomotion as the doctors pretend. …You are living in an inferno of shit, I know, and I pity you from the bottom of my heart. … sacrifice everything to Art. Life must be considered by the artist as a means, nothing more, and the first person he shouldn’t give a hang about is himself.

In his fiction, Flaubert walks the finest of lines, and creates a unique tone, something he considered the essential element of his work. He objectively depicts stupidity, greed, tragedy, cruelty, and simple, naive goodness, but without nostalgia, sentimentality, snobbism or condescension. He understands that the cliche, unbearably trite though it may be, holds within it a truth which has been worn nearly to nothing by thoughtless use.  That truth, concealed, hidden, revealed unwittingly by those who know only error – whether it is error due to ignorance or too much education – that truth is what he seeks to display to the reader.  He is one of the first writers to grapple with the phenomena of modern mass society: the dreams of the consumerist citizen; political double-talk; the deluge of kitsch into the cultural marketplace; and, of course, ‘modern sex.’ That’s why Madame Bovary was declared obscene by the French government.

I wonder, was that scene in “Titanic” where the young hero and heroine couple in the back seat of a sedan parked in the lower-deck garage, showing us one (female) hand slapping the rear window in a hot-moist passion – was that inspired by Emma’s tryst as she rode around Rouen in a carriage, wobbling with love, as she drops handkerchiefs out the window?  Was Jabba the Hutt of “Star Wars” inspired by a reading of his Salammbo? Think of Hanno, the general, carried in his litter, behind veils to conceal his hideous, bloated form from which disease is busily rotting his skin.  Princess Lea, scantily clad, bound in chains, strangling Jabba to escape while distracting him with a sexy dance – that could have been right out of the novel.

He was a stoic, a martyr to his art, a cynic, a romantic, a spoiled gentleman, perhaps a bit of a pervert, though in his fantasies only.  Here’s a juicy sample of his fin-de-siecle yearnings from the Temptation of Saint Anthony:

Her wide sleeves, garnished with emeralds and birds’ feathers, allow a bare view of her little round arm, ornamented at the wrist by an ebony bracelet, and her ring-laden hands are tipped with nails so sharp that her fingers finish almost like needles. A flat golden chain passing under her chin runs up along her cheeks, spirals around her blue-powdered hair, and then dropping down grazes past her shoulder and clinches over her chest on to a diamond scorpion, which sticks out its tongue between her breasts. Two large blonde pearls pull at her ears. The edges of her eyelids are painted black. On her left cheek-bone she has a natural brown fleck; and she breathes with her mouth open, as if her corset constricted her.

He was also something of a nihilist. What’s the point of anything when the sum total of human stupidity never decreases? And that includes all those who think they’re so smart as well…includes him! What happens to his heroes? Emma: suicide; Salammbo: miserable death and rape, if I recall correctly; Moreau: a life of mediocrity after a Sentimental Education in Paris, his story concluding with a trite, “Those were the days!” And Bouvard and Pecuchet – what do they do in the end? They go back to copying as clerks after ‘sampling’ western culture in its entirety, and Flaubert loves them for it. Trillling put it well:

The more we consider Bouvard and Pecuchet, the less the novel can be thought of as nothing but an attack on the culture of the nineteenth century. Bourgeois democracy merely affords the setting for a situation in which it becomes possible to reject culture itself. The novel does nothing less than that: it rejects culture. The human mind experiences the massed accumulation of its own works…and arrives at the understanding…that all are weariness and vanity, that the whole vast superstructure of human thought and creation is alien from the human person.

Vanity – something Saint Anthony knew about. I think about those lions in the valley, lazily dispatching the remaining Carthaginian soldiers with a swipe of the paw, then ripping out their entrails. Culture…how deep does it go?