Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  7

  Flaubert and Madame Bovary

  (1)

  If, as I believe, the sort of books an author writes depends on the sort of man he is, and so it is well to know what is relevant in his personal history, this, as will presently appear, in the case of Flaubert is essential. He was a very unusual man. No writer that we know of devoted himself with such a fierce and indomitable industry to the art of literature. It was not with him, as it is with most authors, an activity of paramount importance but one that allows for other activities which rest the mind, refresh the body or enrich experience. He did not think that to live was the object of life; for him the object of life was to write: no monk in his cell more resolutely sacrificed the pleasures of the world to the love of God than Flaubert sacrificed the fullness and variety of life to his ambition to create a work of art. He was at once a romantic and a realist. Now, at the bottom of romanticism, as I said in speaking of Balzac, is a hatred of reality and a passionate desire to escape from it. Like the rest of the romantics, Flaubert sought refuge in the extraordinary and the fantastic, in the Orient and in antiquity; and yet, for all his hatred of reality, for all his loathing for the meanness, the platitude, the imbecility of the bourgeois, he was fascinated by it; for there was something in his nature that horribly attracted him to what he most detested. Human stupidity had a revolting charm for him, and he took a morbid delight in exhibiting it in all its odiousness. It got on his nerves with the force of any obsession; it was like a sore on the body that is pain to touch and that yet you can’t help touching. The realist in him pored over human nature as though it were a pile of garbage, not to find something he could value, but to show to all and sundry how base, for all their outward seeming, were human beings.

  (2)

  Gustave Flaubert was born at Rouen in 1821. His father, a doctor, was head of the hospital and lived there with his wife and children. It was a happy, highly respected and affluent family. Flaubert was brought up like any other French boy of his class; he went to school, made friends with other boys, worked little but read much. He was emotional and imaginative, and, like many another child and boy, was troubled by that sense of inner loneliness which the sensitive carry with them all their lives. ‘I went to school when I was only ten,’ he wrote, ‘and I very soon contracted a profound aversion to the human race.’ This is not just a quip; he meant it. He was a pessimist from his youth up. It is true that then romanticism was in full flower and pessimism the fashion: one of the boys at Flaubert’s school blew his brains out, another hanged himself with his necktie; but one cannot quite see why Flaubert, with a comfortable home, affectionate and indulgent parents, a doting sister and friends to whom he was devoted, should have really found life intolerable and his fellow-creatures hateful. He was well-grown and to all appearance healthy.

  When he was fifteen, he fell in love. His family went in summer to Trouville, then a modest village by the sea with one hotel; and there, that year, they found staying Maurice Schlesinger, a music publisher and something of an adventurer, with his wife and child. It is worth while to transcribe the portrait Flaubert drew of her later: ‘She was tall, a brunette with magnificent black hair that fell in tresses to her shoulders; her nose was Greek, her eyes burning, her eyebrows high and admirably arched, her skin was glowing and as if it were misty with gold; she was slender and exquisite, one saw the blue veins meandering on her brown and purple throat. Add to that a fine down that darkened her upper lip and gave her face a masculine and energetic expression such as to throw blonde beauties into the shade. She spoke slowly, her voice was modulated, musical and soft.’ I hesitate to translate pourpré with purple, which does not sound alluring, but that is the translation, and I can only suppose that Flaubert used the word as a synonym for bright-hued.

  Elisa Schlesinger, then twenty-six, was nursing her baby. Flaubert was timid, and would never have summoned up the courage even to speak to her if her husband had not been a jovial, hearty fellow with whom it was easy to make friends. Maurice Schlesinger took the boy riding with him and, on one occasion, the three of them went for a sail. Flaubert and Elisa sat side by side, their shoulders touching and her dress against his hand; she spoke in a low, sweet voice, but he was in such a turmoil that he could not remember a word she said. The summer came to an end, the Schlesingers left, the Flauberts went back to Rouen and Gustave to school. He had entered upon the one genuine passion of his life. Two years later, he returned to Trouville and was told that Elisa had been and gone. He was seventeen. It seemed to him then that before he had been too stirred really to love her; he loved her differently now, with a man’s desire, and her absence only exacerbated his passion. When he got home, he took up again a book he had started and abandoned, Les Mémoires d’un Fou, and told the story of the summer when he fell in love with Elisa Schlesinger.

  At nineteen, to reward him for having matriculated, his father sent him with a certain Dr. Cloquet on a trip to the Pyrenees and Corsica. He was then full-grown and broad-shouldered. His contemporaries have described him as a giant, and so he called himself, though he was not quite six feet tall, which nowadays is no great height; but the French at that time were a good deal shorter than they are now, and he evidently towered over his fellows. He was thin and graceful; his black lashes veiled enormous, sea-green eyes, and his long fair hair fell to his shoulders. Forty years later, a woman who knew him as a youth said that then he was as beautiful as a Greek God. On the way back from Corsica, the travellers stopped at Marseilles, and one morning, coming in from a bathe, Flaubert noticed a young woman sitting in the courtyard of the hotel. He addressed her, and they got into conversation. She was called Eulalie Foucaud and was waiting till the ship sailed to take her back to her husband, an official, in French Guiana. Flaubert and Eulalie Foucaud passed that night together, a night, according to his own account, of that flaming passion which is as beautiful as the setting of the sun on the snow. He left Marseilles and never saw her again. The experience made a deep impression upon him.

  Shortly after this, he went to Paris to study law, not because he wanted to be a lawyer, but because he had to adopt some profession; he was bored there, bored by his law-books, bored by the life of the university; and he despised his fellow-students for their mediocrity, their poses and their bourgeois tastes. While in Paris, he wrote a novelette called Novembre in which he described his adventure with Eulalie Foucaud. But he gave her the high arched eyebrows, the upper lip with its bluish down and the lovely neck of Elisa Schlesinger. He had got in touch with the Schlesingers again by calling on the publisher at his office, and was asked by him to dine with him and his wife. Elisa was as beautiful as ever. When last Flaubert had seen her, he was a hobbledehoy; now he was a man, eager, passionate and handsome. He was soon on intimate terms with the couple, dined with them regularly and went on little trips with them. But he was no less timid than before, and for long he hadn’t the courage to declare his love. When at last he did, Elisa was not angry, as he had feared she might be, but made it plain that she was not prepared to be anything more to him than a good friend. Her story was curious. When first Flaubert met her, in 1836, he thought, as did everyone else, that she was the wife of Maurice Schlesinger; she was not; she was married to a certain Emile Judéa who through dishonesty had got into serious trouble, whereupon Schlesinger had come forward with the offer to provide money sufficient to save him from prosecution on the condition that he left France and gave up his wife. This he did, and Schlesinger and Elisa Judéa lived together, there being at the time no divorce in France, till Judéa’s death in 1840 enabled them to marry. It is said that, notwithstanding his absence and death, it was this abject creature that Elisa continued to love; and it may be that this, and a sense of loyalty to the man who had given her a home and was the father of her child, combined to make her hesitate to accede to Flaubert’s desires. But he was ardent, Schlesinger was flagrantly unfaithful, and perhaps she was touched by Flaubert’s boyish devotion; at length he persuaded her to com
e one day to his apartment; he awaited her with feverish anxiety; she never came. Such is the story that Flaubert’s biographers have accepted on the strength of what he wrote in L’Education Sentimentale, and since it is plausible, it may well be a faithful account of the facts. What is certain is that Elisa never became his mistress.

  Then, in 1844, an event occurred that was to change Flaubert’s life and, as I hope to show later, affect his literary production. One dark night he was driving back to Rouen with his brother from a property of their mother’s which they had been visiting. His brother, nine years older than he, had adopted his father’s profession. Suddenly, without warning, Flaubert ‘felt himself carried away in a torrent of flames and fell like a stone to the floor of the trap’. When he recovered consciousness, he was covered with blood; his brother had carried him into a neighbouring house and bled him. He was taken to Rouen, where his father bled him again; he was dosed with valerian and indigo, and he was forbidden to smoke, drink wine or eat meat. He continued for some time to have fits of great violence. For days after, his shattered nerves were in a state of frantic tension. A great deal of mystery has surrounded this illness, and the doctors have discussed it from various points of view. Some have frankly said it was epilepsy, and that is what his friends thought it was; his niece in her recollections has passed the matter over in silence; M. Réne Dumesnil, himself a doctor and the author of an important work on Flaubert, claims that it was not epilepsy, but what he calls hystero-epilepsy. But whatever it was, the treatment was very much the same; Flaubert for some years was given enormous doses of quinine sulphate, and later, and more or less for the rest of his life, potassium bromide.

  It is possible that the attack did not come as a complete surprise to Flaubert’s family. He is reputed to have told Maupassant that he had first had auditory and visual hallucinations when he was twelve. When at the age of nineteen he was sent on a journey, it was with a doctor and, since change of scene was part of the treatment his father afterwards prescribed, it does not seem unlikely that he had already had something in the nature of a fit. The Flauberts, though rich, were provincial, humdrum and thrifty: it is hard to believe that they would have thought of letting their son go on a trip, with a medical man, merely because he had passed the examination which every educated French boy has to undergo. Even as a lad, Flaubert had never felt himself quite like the people with whom he came in contact, and it seems probable that the sombre pessimism of his early youth had its cause in the mysterious disease which, even then, must have been affecting his nervous system. Anyhow, he was faced now with the fact that he was afflicted with a terrifying malady, the attacks of which were unpredictable, and it was necessary to change his mode of life. He decided, willingly enough, it may be supposed, to abandon the law, and made up his mind never to marry.

  In 1845 his father died, and two or three months later Caroline, his only sister, whom he adored, after giving birth to a daughter died also. As children they had been inseparable, and till her marriage she was his dearest companion.

  Some time before his death, Dr. Flaubert had bought a property, called Croisset, on the banks of the Seine, with a fine stone house two hundred years old, a terrace in front of it and a little pavilion looking over the river. Here the widow settled with her son, Gustave, and the baby daughter of Caroline; her elder son, Achille, was married and succeeded his father at the Rouen hospital. Croisset was to be Flaubert’s home for the rest of his life. He had been writing off and on from a very early age, and now, unable through his illness to live a normal life, he made up his mind to devote himself wholly to literature. He had a large work-room on the ground floor, with windows on the river and the garden. He adopted methodical habits. He got up about ten, read his letters and the papers, lunched lightly at eleven and, till one, lounged about the terrace or sat in the pavilion reading. At one, he set to work and worked till dinner at seven, then he took another stroll in the garden and went back to work till far into the night. He saw nobody but the few friends whom, now and then, he invited to stay with him so that he might discuss his work with them. They were three: Alfred Le Poittevin, older than Flaubert, but a friend of the family; Maxime du Camp, whom he had met when reading law in Paris; and Louis Bouilhet, who earned his meagre living by giving lessons in Latin and French at Rouen. They were all interested in literature, and Bouilhet was a poet. Flaubert had an affectionate disposition and was devoted to his friends, but he was possessive and exacting. When Le Poittevin, who had had a considerable influence over him, married a Mademoiselle de Maupassant he was outraged. ‘It meant to me,’ he said later, ‘what the news of a great scandal caused by a bishop would have meant to a believer.’ Of Maxime du Camp and Louis Bouilhet I shall have something to say presently.

  When Caroline died, Flaubert took a cast of her face and hands, and some months later went to Paris to commission Pradier, then a well-known sculptor, to make a bust of her. At Pradier’s studio he met a poetess called Louise Colet. She was one of those writers, far from rare in the world of letters, who suppose that push and pull are an adequate substitute for talent; and, with beauty to help, she had acquired something of a position in literary circles. She had a salon frequented by celebrities, and was known as ‘the Muse.’ Her husband, Hippolite Colet, was a professor of music; her lover, by whom she had a child, was Victor Cousin, philosopher and statesman. She wore her fair hair in ringlets that framed her face, and her voice was passionate and tender. She acknowledged to thirty, but was in fact some years older. Flaubert was twenty-five. Within forty-eight hours, after a slight contretemps owing to his nervousness and excitement, he became her lover, not of course displacing the philosopher, whose attachment, though according to her by then platonic, was official; and three days later, leaving Louise in tears, he returned to Croisset. The same night Flaubert wrote to her the first of as strange a series of love letters as ever lover wrote to his mistress. Many years later, he told Edmond de Goncourt that he had loved Louise Colet ‘furiously’; but he was always prone to exaggeration and the correspondence hardly bears out the statement. I think we may surmise that he was proud to have a mistress who was in the public eye; but he lived a rich life of the imagination and, like many another day-dreamer, found that he loved his mistress more when he was away from her than when he was with her. Somewhat unnecessarily, he told her so. She urged him to come and live in Paris; he told her that he could not leave his mother, broken by the death of her husband and her daughter; then she begged him at least to come more often to Paris; he told her that he could only get away if he had a reasonable excuse, whereupon she answered angrily: ‘Does that mean that you’re watched over like a girl?’ That is, in point of fact, pretty well what it did mean. His epilepti-form fits left him for days weak and depressed, and it was natural that his mother should be anxious. She would not let him swim in the river, which was his delight, nor go in a boat on the Seine, without someone to look after him. He could not ring the bell for a servant to bring him something he wanted without his mother rushing upstairs to see if he was well. He told Louise that his mother would raise no objection if he proposed leaving her for a few days, but he could not bear the distress it would cause her. Louise can hardly have failed to see that, if he loved her as passionately as she loved him, that would not have prevented him from joining her. Even at this time of day, it is easy to think of plausible reasons he could have given that made it essential for him to go to Paris. He was a very young man, and if he consented to see Louise so seldom, it is likely enough that, constantly under the influence of powerful sedatives as he was, his sexual desires were not pressing.

 
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