"The more humanity advances, the more it is degraded." -- Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert () (December 12, 1821 – May 8, 1880) was a French writer who is counted among the greatest Western novelists. He is known especially for his first published novel, Madame Bovary (1857), and for his scrupulous devotion to his art and style.
"A friend who dies, it's something of you who dies.""A memory is a beautiful thing, it's almost a desire that you miss.""A superhuman will is needed in order to write, and I am only a man.""All one's inventions are true, you can be sure of that. Poetry is as exact a science as geometry.""Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.""Art requires neither complaisance nor politeness; nothing but faith, faith and freedom.""Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything.""As a rule we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use.""Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.""But the disparaging of those we love always alienates us from them to some extent. We must not touch our idols; the gilt comes off in our hands.""Caught up in life, you see it badly. You suffer from it or enjoy it too much. The artist, in my opinion, is a monstrosity, something outside of nature.""Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.""Everything one invents is true, you may be perfectly sure of that. Poetry is as precise as geometry.""Exuberance is better than taste.""Happiness is a monstrosity! Punished are those who seek it.""Here is true immorality: ignorance and stupidity; the devil is nothing but this. His name is Legion.""Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.""I am a man-pen. I feel through the pen, because of the pen.""I believe that if one always looked at the skies, one would end up with wings.""I hate that which we have decided to call realism, even though I have been made one of its high priests.""I have come to have the firm conviction that vanity is the basis of everything, and finally that what one calls conscience is only inner vanity.""I have the handicap of being born with a special language to which I alone have the key.""I love good sense above all, perhaps because I have none.""I love my work with a frenetic and perverse love, as an ascetic loves the hair shirt which scratches his belly.""It seems to me that I have always existed and that I possess memories that date back to the Pharaohs.""Judge the goodness of a book by the energy of the punches it has given you. I believe the greatest characteristic of genius, is, above all, force.""Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.""Life must be a constant education; one must learn everything, from speaking to dying.""Love is a springtime plant that perfumes everything with its hope, even the ruins to which it clings.""Madame Bovary is myself.""Nothing is more humiliating than to see idiots succeed in enterprises we have failed in.""Of all lies, art is the least untrue.""Of all possible debauches, traveling is the greatest that I know; that's the one they invented when they got tired of all the others.""Oh, if I had been loved at the age of seventeen, what an idiot I would be today. Happiness is like smallpox: if you catch it too soon, it can completely ruin your constitution.""One arrives at style only with atrocious effort, with fanatical and devoted stubbornness.""One can be the master of what one does, but never of what one feels.""One must always hope when one is desperate, and doubt when one hopes.""One mustn't always believe that feeling is everything. In the arts, it is nothing without form.""One mustn't ask apple trees for oranges, France for sun, women for love, life for happiness.""One mustn't look at the abyss, because there is at the bottom an inexpressible charm which attracts us.""One never tires of what is well written, style is life! It is the very blood of thought!""Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times.""Poetry is as precise a thing as geometry.""Read much, but not many books.""Reality does not conform to the ideal, but confirms it.""Stupidity is something unshakable; nothing attacks it without breaking itself against it; it is of the nature of granite, hard and resistant.""Style is as much under the words as in the words. It is as much the soul as it is the flesh of a work.""Success is a consequence and must not be a goal.""The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.""The artist must be in his work as God is in creation, invisible and all-powerful; one must sense him everywhere but never see him.""The author, in his work, must be like God in the Universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.""The better a work is, the more it attracts criticism; it is like the fleas who rush to jump on white linens.""The cult of art gives pride; one never has too much of it.""The deplorable mania of doubt exhausts me. I doubt about everything, even my doubts.""The faster the word sticks to the thought, the more beautiful is the effect.""The future is the worst thing about the present.""The heart, like the stomach, wants a varied diet.""The most glorious moments in your life are not the so-called days of success, but rather those days when out of dejection and despair you feel rise in you a challenge to life, and the promise of future accomplishments.""The only way to avoid being unhappy is to close yourself up in Art and to count for nothing all the rest.""The true poet for me is a priest. As soon as he dons the cassock, he must leave his family.""The whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeois.""There are neither good nor bad subjects. From the point of view of pure Art, you could almost establish it as an axiom that the subject is irrelevant, style itself being an absolute manner of seeing things.""There is no truth. There is only perception.""To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.""What an elder sees sitting; the young can't see standing.""What is the beautiful, if not the impossible.""Woman is a vulgar animal from whom man has created an excessively beautiful ideal.""Writing is a dog's life, but the only life worth living.""You can calculate the worth of a man by the number of his enemies, and the importance of a work of art by the harm that is spoken of it."
Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821, in Rouen, Seine-Maritime, in the Haute-Normandie region of France. He was the second son of Achille-Cléophas Flaubert (1784—1846), a surgeon, and Anne Justine Caroline (née Fleuriot) (1793—1872). He began writing at an early age, as early as eight according to some sources.
He was educated in his native city and did not leave it until 1840, when he went to Paris to study law. In Paris, he was an indifferent student and found the city distasteful. He made a few acquaintances, including Victor Hugo. Toward the close of 1840, he traveled in the Pyrenees and Corsica. In 1846, after an attack of epilepsy, he left Paris and abandoned the study of law.
From 1846 to 1854, Flaubert had a relationship with the poet Louise Colet (his letters to her survive). After leaving Paris, Flaubert returned to Croisset, near the Seine, close to Rouen, and lived with his mother in their home for the rest of his life; with occasional visits to Paris and England, where he apparently had a mistress. Flaubert never married. According to his biographer Émile Faguet, his affair with Louise Colet was his only serious romantic relationship. He sometimes visited prostitutes. Eventually, the end of his affair with Louise Colet led Flaubert to lose interest in romance and seek platonic companionship, particularly with other writers.
With his lifelong friend Maxime du Camp, he traveled in Brittany in 1846. In 1849—1850 he went on a long journey to the Middle East, visiting Greece and Egypt. In Beirut he contracted syphilis. He spent five weeks in Constantinople in 1850. He visited Carthage in 1858 to conduct research for his novel Salammbô.
Flaubert was very open about his sexual activities with prostitutes of both sexes in his writings on his travels. He suspected that a chancre on his penis was from a Maronite or a Turkish girl. He also engaged in intercourse with male prostitutes in Beirut and Egypt; in one of his letters, he describes a "pockmarked young rascal wearing a white turban" whom he had anal sex with. He had intercourse with a 14-year-old Maronite boy in 1850. He also attempted to have intercourse with a 16-year-old girl at a brothel, but when the girl demanded to see his penis to check for venereal diseases, his marched out in false indignation that she would accuse him of such a thing...he was hiding an induration on his penis and was afraid she would see it.
Flaubert was a tireless worker and often complained in his letters to friends about the strenuous nature of his work. He was close to his niece, Caroline Commanville, and had a close friendship and correspondence with George Sand. He occasionally visited Parisian acquaintances, including Émile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Ivan Turgenev, and Edmond and Jules de Goncourt.
The 1870s were a difficult time for Flaubert. Prussian soldiers occupied his house during the War of 1870, and his mother died in 1872. After her death, he fell into financial straits. Flaubert suffered from venereal diseases most of his life. His health declined and he died at Croisset of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1880 at the age of 58. He was buried in the family vault in the cemetery of Rouen. A monument to him by Henri Chapu was unveiled at the museum of Rouen.
His first finished work was November, a novella, which was completed in 1842.
In September 1849, Flaubert completed the first version of a novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. He read the novel aloud to Louis Bouilhet and Maxime du Camp over the course of four days, not allowing them to interrupt or give any opinions. At the end of the reading, his friends told him to throw the manuscript in the fire, suggesting instead that he focus on day to day life rather than on fantastic subjects.
In 1850, after returning from Egypt, Flaubert began work on Madame Bovary. The novel, which took five years to write, was serialized in the Revue de Paris in 1856. The government brought an action against the publisher and author on the charge of immorality, which was heard during the following year, but both were acquitted. When Madame Bovary appeared in book form, it met with a warm reception.
In 1858, Flaubert traveled to Carthage to gather material for his next novel, Salammbô. The novel was completed in 1862 after four years of work.
Drawing on his youth, Flaubert next wrote L'Éducation sentimentale (Sentimental Education), an effort that took seven years. His last complete novel, it was published in 1869.
He wrote an unsuccessful drama, Le Candidat, and published a reworked version of La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, portions of which had been published as early as 1857. He devoted much of his time to an ongoing project, Les Deux Cloportes (The Two Woodlice), which later became Bouvard et Pécuchet, breaking from the obsessive project only to write the Three Tales in 1877. This book comprised three stories: Un C?ur simple (A Simple Heart), La Légende de Saint-Julien l'Hospitalier (The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller), and Hérodias (Herodias). After the publication of the stories, he spent the remainder of his life toiling on the unfinished Bouvard et Pécuchet, which was posthumously printed in 1881. It was a grand satire on the futility of human knowledge and the ubiquity of mediocrity. He believed the work to be his masterpiece, though the posthumous version received lukewarm reviews. Flaubert was a prolific letter writer, and his letters have been collected in several publications.
At the time of his death, he may have been working on a further historical novel, based on the Battle of Thermopylae
Flaubert scrupulously avoids the inexact, the abstract, the vaguely inapt expression which is the bane of ordinary methods of composition. As a writer, Flaubert was nearly equal parts romantic, realist, and pure stylist. Hence, members of various schools, especially realists and formalists, have traced their origins to his work. The exactitude with which he adapts his expressions to his purpose can be seen in all parts of his work, especially in the portraits he draws of the figures in his principal romances. The degree to which Flaubert's fame has extended since his death presents an interesting chapter of literary history in itself. He is also accredited with spreading the popularity of the colour Tuscany Cypress, a colour often mentioned in his chef-d'oeuvre Madame Bovary.
Flaubert was fastidious in his devotion to finding the right word ("le mot juste"), and his mode of composition reflected that. He worked in sullen solitude...sometimes occupying a week in the completion of one page...never satisfied with what he had composed, violently tormenting his brain for the best turn of phrase, the final adjective. His private letters indeed show that he was not one of those to whom correct, flowing language came naturally. His style was achieved through the unceasing sweat of his brow. Flaubert’s just reward, then, is that many critics consider his best works to be exemplary models of style.
Flaubert's lean and precise writing style has had a large influence on 20th century writers such as Franz Kafka through to J. M. Coetzee. As Vladimir Nabokov discussed in his famous lecture series:
The greatest literary influence upon Kafka was Flaubert's. Flaubert who loathed pretty-pretty prose would have applauded Kafka's attitude towards his tool. Kafka liked to draw his terms from the language of law and science, giving them a kind of ironic precision, with no intrusion of the author's private sentiments; this was exactly Flaubert's method through which he achieved a singular poetic effect.
This painstaking style of writing is also evident when one compares Flaubert’s output over a lifetime to that of his peers (see, for example Balzac or Zola). Flaubert published much less prolifically than was the norm for his time and never got near the pace of a novel a year, as his peers often achieved during their peaks of activity. The legacy of his work habits can best be described, therefore, as paving the way towards a slower and more inspective manner of writing.
The publication of Madame Bovary in 1856 was followed by more scandal than admiration; it was not understood at first that this novel was the beginning of something new: the scrupulously truthful portraiture of life. Gradually, this aspect of his genius was accepted, and it began to crowd out all others. At the time of his death he was widely regarded as the most influential French Realist. Under this aspect Flaubert exercised an extraordinary influence over Guy de Maupassant, Edmond de Goncourt, Alphonse Daudet, and Zola. Even after the decline of the Realist school, Flaubert did not loseprestige in the literary community; he continues to appeal to other writers because of his deep commitment to aesthetic principles, his devotion to style, and his indefatigable pursuit of the perfect expression.
He can be said to have made cynicism into an art form, as evinced by this observation from 1846:
To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness; though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless.
His ?uvres Complètes (8 vols., 1885) were printed from the original manuscripts, and included, besides the works mentioned already, the two plays, Le Candidat and Le Château des c?urs. Another edition (10 vols.) appeared in 1873–1885. Flaubert's correspondence with George Sand was published in 1884 with an introduction by Guy de Maupassant.
He has been admired or written about by almost every major literary personality of the 20th century, including philosophers and sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu and Jean Paul Sartre whose partially psychoanalytic portrait of Flaubert in The Family Idiot was published in 1971. Georges Perec named Sentimental Education as one of his favourite novels. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is another great admirer of Flaubert. Apart from Perpetual Orgy, which is solely devoted to Flaubert's art, one can find lucid discussions in Vargas Llosa's recently published Letters to a Young Novelist.