Flaubert: A Life

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in Scotland on Sunday


Flaubert: A Life
Frederick Brown
Heinemann, £25

This massive and authoritative biography tackles the problem highlighted by Julian Barnes more than twenty years ago in his novel Flaubert’s Parrot. There, Barnes offered two potted chronologies of Flaubert’s life, both factual, yet completely opposite in the impression they gave.

On one hand we have the respectable middle-class son of a highly successful Rouen doctor, who achieved acclaim with Madame Bovary and Salammbo , won the Legion Of Honour, and became an idol to Zola and Maupassant before his death in 1880 at the age of 59.

On the other hand, there is the lifelong bachelor who could never escape his mother, suffered from epilepsy, doubted himself constantly, was savaged for such works as The Sentimental Education and The Temptation Of Saint Anthony, and detested the citizens of Rouen almost as much as they despised him.

All biographers must pick and choose to create their own version of the truth, but Brown appears to want to get round Barnes’s paradox by doing as little selection and interpretation as possible. Instead we are given the data – an awful lot of it – and largely left to make up our own minds. While this has the virtue of fairness and an appearance of objectivity, it does have the disadvantage that Flaubert himself almost disappears beneath the weight of erudition brought to bear on his life.

Brown’s approach is to set Flaubert in the context of his time, and the question then is how much of that context needs to be fleshed out. A very substantial part of this book deals with the turbulent political events that occurred during Flaubert’s life – such as the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune whose suppression killed more Parisians than the Terror of the French Revolution. Those events were certainly relevant to Flaubert, whose house was occupied by Prussians. But readers who already feel sufficiently well versed in French history – or simply want to know about the author’s life – may feel that the contextualising here goes a little too far.

Flaubert’s literary acquaintances – George Sand, Victor Hugo, Turgenev – inhabit the pages too, adding further complexity to the texture and also further opportunity for digression, none of which can fully pin down the elusive, pipe-smoking writer whose complaints about his inability to write filled countless fluently penned letters.

There is, though, something aptly Flaubertian about Brown’s approach, since Flaubert was a writer for whom the researching of a novel was just as important as its composition. Madame Bovary is his least typical novel in that it is his most unscholarly; by contrast, in preparing for his last, uncompleted novel, Bouvard and Pecuchet, Flaubert boasted that he read fifteen hundred books.

The Sentimental Education, thought by many to be his masterpiece, was panned for its formlessness; yet this was Flaubert’s point, for he wanted to show, as Brown says, that “lives go on and on, wearing out or wearing thin, but never making sense.” Brown gives Flaubert’s life this same impression of infinite entanglement, and what his biography lacks in punch, it makes up for in abundance of detail, including the comic irony that attended Flaubert’s funeral. Six feet tall and weighing two hundred and twenty pounds, the deceased writer was found too large for the grave that had been dug for him – his coffin refused to lie flat.