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The cracked kettle of Flaubert.

In the summer of 1930, Willa Cather chanced to form a brief friendship with an elderly lady at the Grand Hotel d'Aix in Aixles-Bains. As they chatted, Cather realized that her companion was Caroline Commanville, Flaubert's beloved niece, then in her eighties. At one of their meetings, the novelist mentioned how much she admired "the splendid final sentence of Herodias" which Caroline then recited from memory, "Comme elle etait tres lourde, ils la portaient al-ter-na-tive-ment," drawing out that final adverb which, in Cather's words, "is so suggestive of the hurrying footsteps of John's disciples, carrying away with them their prophet's severed head." In English this would become something like "as it was very heavy, they took turns carrying it," and the effect, which in the original accentuates the dead weight of the grisly relic, would be lost.

The anecdote is illuminating, not only because it demonstrates the reverence of car which sophisticated French readers once brought to cherished texts--and Caroline was far from unique in her attentiveness to such cadences--but because it furnishes an apt example of what the French call "la melodie de la phrase," the music of a sentence. This is not merely a question of euphony, even if Flaubert himself, in one of his many pronouncements on style, declared good style largely a matter of "harmonious sentences." Rather, such music depends upon a particular form of exactitude by which the elements of the sentence accord not only factually but melodiously with their subject. Thus, the celebrated mot juste of Flaubert involves far more than lexical correctness; it entails discovering the one word or phrase which fits the thing evoked with absolute accuracy while simultaneously linking it with the other words in the passage in a manner that pleases the discerning ear. There is nothing mystical about this conception; no hidden harmonies, no music of the spheres, no Rilkean singing implicit in things themselves, but, rather, a dogged, grubby, almost grease-stained attentiveness to the mechanics of language. In this respect, far from being a Pythagoras of the word, Flaubert is more of a Mr. Goodwrench, tinkering obsessively with the nuts and bolts of French, weighing up syllables, swatting obstreperous conjunctions, overhauling verbs, and cocking his impossible ear to the purring of every syntactical piston. The adverb at the slow, grave close of Herodias, with its stagger of syllables, shows the result. It sets off a flutter of reverberations which continue beyond the tale.

Willa Cather's account of her meeting with Caroline forms the conclusion of Frederick Brown's admirable new biography of Flaubert. (1) Though his book comes close on the heels of Geoffrey Wall's fine 2001 biography, Brown's life of the contradictory master of Croisset adds not only an abundance of fresh facts but also a density of detail almost Flaubertian in effect. Here, for perhaps the first time since Albert Thibaudet's pioneering biography, we can see Flaubert firmly embedded in his social, political, and artistic context. Brown vividly recreates the mercantile fortunes of Rouen, with its drastic ups and downs, especially after cotton became paramount; he is excellent at evoking the stiff, ambitious, and censorious mores of bourgeois life in such a provincial city, against which Flaubert chafed all his life. He offers a full and often pungent description of the medical profession of the day; this was a decisive influence on the young Flaubert, as his father, the dramatically named Achille-Cleophas Flaubert, was a leading surgeon, and the novelist, as he often remarked, spent his childhood in a hospital. (Gustave's brother Achille also became a surgeon and assisted Flaubert with medical information, especially when he was writing the gruesome scene in Madame Bovary in which Charles operates, to disastrous effect, on the village idiot's clubfoot.)

Closer to home, when Gustave suffered mysterious black-outs and convulsions--apparently a form of epilepsy--in 1884, his father intervened but in vain. No wonder: as Brown notes, epileptics at the time "might have been prescribed wild valerian, peony root, mistletoe, digitalis, quinine, white dittany, rue, narcissus, opium, asafetida, garlic, camphor, cantharides, copper, zinc, lead, antimony, mercury, iron, silver, carbonic acid or phosphorus." When these failed to work, bloodletting or cauterization of nerves, blistering or the use of cathartics might be employed; sometimes, "in extreme cases, physicians, including the famous neurologist Brown-Sequard, might recommend castration." The latter seems an unusually extreme remedy until one realizes that many nineteenth-century physicians thought epilepsy caused by excessive masturbation. To the stigma of the disease was added the shame of suspected onanism. As Brown shows well, this affliction served to isolate and estrange the young Flaubert even further from the bourgeois society he so despised, but it also had the happy consequence of excusing him from following a career in the law and of allowing him the leisure to write.

But it is not only in such quite specific subjects as the medical or legal professions of the time--his account of the law illumines the lives of many other nineteenth-century French writers since it was the favored career for those with literary aspirations--that Brown excels, perhaps better than any previous biographer, but also in the huge and convulsive historical events through which Flaubert lived, and in which he often participated, such as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 and the horrific Paris Commune. During the war, for example, Flaubert became, improbably enough, a National Guardsman, and Brown provides an unforgettable and rather comical portrait of the novelist on bivouac:
 Neighbors elected him lieutenant, and he
 played the part enthusiastically. At riverside
 drills, his big, sonorous voice barked commands
 that must have travelled clear across the
 Seine. A drawing of Flaubert in baggy, blue
 dress with an ill-fitting kepi perched on his large
 head suggests that the would-be warrior cut a
 Falstaffian figure marching his men back and
 forth, or, toward the end of September when
 German troops surrounded Paris, leading them
 on night patrols through the Canteleu woods.
 "Just now," he wrote to Caroline, "I gave 'my
 men' a paternal lecture, in which they were told
 that anyone who retreated would find nay saber
 thrust through his belly."


I'd always envisioned Flaubert, on the evidence of his fiction and his incomparable letters, as a rather drastically sundered individual who sought through the "agonies of art" ("les affres de l'art," as he put it) to reconcile his own extremes. There was Flaubert the sedentary hermit of style, putting in twelve hours a day at his nocturnal desk in Croisset, and there was Flaubert the traveller and explorer, ranging through Greece and the Near East, smoking hookahs and coupling with courtesans, such as the "wide-shouldered, bosomy, coffee-colored Syrian" Kuchiuk-Hanem, whose "beautiful kneecaps" the horny Flaubert especially admired and with whom he spent a memorable flea-nibbled night in Cairo. (In a letter worthy of a Rouen accountant, to his beloved friend Louis Bouilhet, Flaubert bragged that in seventeen hours, he had "survived five rounds of copulation and three more of oral sex.") There was Flaubert the stern and almost ascetic recluse, living solely for his art; there was the wilder, more extravagant Flaubert, prone to transports, raptures, and exotic fantasies. These double selves appeared reconciled in the works: on the one side, Madame Bovary, The Sentimental Education, Bouvard and Pecuchet, and on the other, Salammbo, The Temptation of St. Anthony, and Herodias, with the torrential letters forming a kind of hovering and riotous gloss on the finished work.

As Brown demonstrates, there were many other Flauberts, and he gives indelible portraits of them all. He is particularly astute on Flaubert's friendships, which formed so central a part of his life. He considers not only his affectionate relations with the celebrated, such as Victor Hugo or Ivan Turgenev or George Sand, and his proteges Zola and de Maupassant, but also his deeper, more formative bonds with Louis Bouilhet and Alfred Le Poittevin (with the latter, whose early death in 1848 devastated Flaubert, he was virtually in love). Brown provides a moving account of Flaubert's relationship with his mother, perhaps the most crucial of his life, but also of his tender mad solicitous concern for his niece Caroline and for many others. And then, as if these were not enough, there is Flaubert engage, embroiled in politics and literary, intrigue, and of course, Flaubert enrage, fulminating against all and sundry, not merely hack writers and reviewers but publishers, editors, theater folk, the military, the rabble, in short, the whole human race, not forgetting the bourgeoisie whom he detested with an ardor almost indistinguishable from love.

To this factual density Brown brings another, equally Flaubertian tendency, and it is this, I think, which distinguishes his biography from its predecessors. He has a marked gift for mordant and startling characterizations, as well as a refined instinct for dramatic contrasts. For example, in describing the dreamy young Flaubert, he remarks, "Like a palaeontologist excited by fossil remains rather than by creatures in the flesh, Gustave loved to embrace absences." Or again, in describing a party, Flaubert gave in 1866, he notes of one guest, "Two or three hours later they proceeded to Croisset, where the female party, which included Mme. Vasse de Saint-Ouen, could not have been more incredulous had an elderly mermaid risen from the Seine and glided into their parlor on her fishtail, trailing water weeds." Finally, in his description of Flaubert's funeral--he died of a stroke on May 8, 1880--Brown uses small sordid details to make the event come before us:
 Bells tolled as the cortege, unravelling and
 dusty, wended its way uphill on a road that
 skirted fields of wheat. Canteleu did all it
 could for Flaubert at its decrepit little church.
 Five rustic cantors wearing soiled surplices
 struggled through the Latin liturgy. They
 were so inept that the crowd looked forward
 to what followed--a seven-kilometer walk to
 the Cimetiere Monumental in Rouen, where
 Flaubert would join his parents and Louis
 Bouilhet.


The mingling of the heard with the seen, and especially those "five rustic cantors wearing soiled surplices," shows the true Flaubertian touch.

Despite its numerous virtues, Brown's biography seems to me weak in at least two areas. The first of these pertains to Flaubert's relations with Louise Colet, the volatile and tenacious poet with whom he carried on a sporadic but fervent affair while he was writing Madame Bovary. Flaubert called her his "Muse"--and often his "Cornemuse," or "bagpipe"--and though she drove him to distraction with her moods (his were worse, in any case) and demands, he incorporated many facets of her personality, and intimate details of their liaison, in creating the character of Emma Bovary, to Colet's mingled gratification and dismay. Of course, there is a biography of the poet, Francine du Plessix Gray's Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet (1994), which Brown does draw on, but his chapter on Colet--and indeed, on the writing of Flaubert's masterpiece--seems slight compared to such earlier accounts as Francis Steegmuller's classic, and perhaps unsurpassable, Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait (1968, revised edition) which is still, in my opinion, the best book on Flaubert ever written.

Flaubert praised Colet's verse--well, he was sleeping with her--but the snippets I've seen are pretty vapid. She did inspire some of his most memorable letters, those especially in which he postures and pontificates to magnificent effect, and in some indefinable way, he became Emma Bovary through her. Not only through her words but through certain objects, such as the jewelled and inscribed cigar-case which she gave him and which plays a significant role in the relationship between Emma and Rodolphe, her first lover. Flaubert was supremely tactile; almost like a medium, he could sense the auras of things and through them capture their owners, and not only the cigar-case but Louise's hackneyed and impassioned utterances, as well as the very touch of her skin, afforded him entry into her innermost being.

Of course, Louise Colet was something of a nineteenth-century groupie. When her affair with Flaubert collapsed, she began courting Alfred de Musset. That too proved disastrous, as Louise found when she paid him a call and was told by the concierge that the poet had left her the message, "Monsieur de Musset has gone to Lake Como, in America" (geography was not de Musset's strongest subject!). Again, in courting the formidable Sainte-Beuve, the most powerful critic of the day in the fervid hope of getting a notice from him in exchange for her favors, she encountered only the adroit rejoinder, "Allow me to admire you in silence."

This is a life of Flaubert and not a literary study and yet Brown might have commented more fully about Flaubert's work; after all, fascinating as he was, it is because of the several masterpieces he created that we find him so compelling. Though it is certainly suggestive, and illuminating, to have so sharp a portrait of the age in which Flaubert flourished, and so swarming and colorful an account of the social, historical, and literary milieu out of which the great novels emerged, there still remains a certain teasing sense of enigma. How did this improbable "Norman giant" come to bring forth one masterpiece after another, each one distinguished not only by profound psychological and social insight but also by such sovereign stylistic expression?

Brown does give strong hints. He has an eye for the telling citation. One such which he adduces comes from Zola, who remarked:
 [In Flaubert] the most trivial objects acquire
 voices; they are alive, they speak and all but
 move. A very curious example of this may be
 found in Madame Bovary. Leon, the love-struck
 clerk, is mutely courting the doctor's
 wife one evening at M. Homais's place. He
 notices Emma's dress trailing on the floor
 around her chair. And the author adds, "When
 Leon felt cloth under the sole of his boot, he'd
 recoil as if he had stepped on someone." There
 we have human nerves being observed by an
 author whose eye for such detail is the most
 remarkable feature of his talent.


This seems to me to strike at the heart of Flaubert's conception of style. For it isn't something wholly literary that animates this conception. For Flaubert, style was something physical. In a letter he remarks, "I have abscesses of style, I itch with sentences." For Flaubert, too, there is always the despairing sense of the ultimate inadequacy of language, however tempered and hammered into justness of expression.

In Madame Bovary, after one crucial episode between Emma and Rodolphe, Flaubert the invisible and "godlike" author suddenly speaks in his own voice and says (in Gerard Hopkins's translation), "After all, no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, of his thoughts or his sorrows. Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity." Perhaps this is why, throughout his fiction, mute objects--Charles Bovary's ridiculous school-cap or Emma's parasol or Felicite's parrot or even that too heavy head carried from hand to hand, and hundreds more--rival the human protagonists in their eloquence. Not a page of Flaubert's fiction is without these dumb but articulate witnesses who serve neither as symbols nor as emblems but as speechless players in the drama that unfolds. His world, whether of ancient Carthage or of nineteenth-century Rouen, teems with such presences.

From his letters it seems clear that Flaubert was often inundated by impressions. Style provided a means of ordering the world. And style was not only physical in some vague sense; it was acoustic. Night after night he would shout his sentences out to the stunned flower-beds and dumbstruck nightingales in his Croisset garden. Words must connect justly with other words, but they must echo in actuality as well. Style was not only a barricade, imposing limit and order on the unruly; it was also the slow, stubborn, patient mending of that irreparable crack in the kettle.

(1) Flaubert: A Biography, by Frederick Brown; Little, Brown, 640 pages, $35.
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Title Annotation:Flaubert: A Biography
Author:Ormsby, Eric
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2006
Words:2664
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