Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham

  ‘Your love isn’t love,’ Louise wrote, ‘in any case it doesn’t mean much in your life.’ To this he replied: ‘You want to know if I love you. Well, yes, as much as I can love; that’s to say, for me love isn’t the first thing in life, but the second.’ Flaubert prided himself on his frankness; it was indeed brutal. His tactlessness was amazing. On one occasion, he asked Louise to find out from a friend of hers who had lived at Cayenne what had happened to Eulalie Foucaud, the object of his adventure at Marseilles, and even asked her to have a letter delivered to her; he was frankly astonished when she accepted the commission with irritation. He even told her of his encounters with prostitutes, for whom he had, according to his own story, an inclination which he frequently gratified. But there is nothing men lie about so much as about their sex life, and it is probable that he was boasting of powers which he did not possess. He certainly treated Louise cavalierly. Once, yielding to her importunity, he suggested a meeting at a hotel at Mantes, where, if she started early from Paris and he from Rouen, they could spend an afternoon together, and he could still get home by nightfall. He was astounded when the proposal excited her indignation. In the two years the affair lasted they met six times and it was apparently she who broke it off.

  Meanwhile, Flaubert had been busy writing La Tentation de St. Antoine, a book that he had long had in mind; and it had been settled that as soon as he was through with it, he and Maxime du Camp should go on a jaunt to the Near East. Madame Flaubert’s consent had been obtained because her son, Achille, and Dr. Cloquet, the medical man who had years before accompanied Flaubert to Corsica, agreed that a sojourn in warm countries would benefit his health. When then the book was finished, Flaubert summoned du Camp and Bouilhet to Croisset so that he might read it to them. He read for four days, four hours in the afternoon and four hours at night. It was decided that no opinion should be given till the whole work had been heard. At midnight on the fourth day, Flaubert, having read to the end, banged his fist on the table and said: ‘Well?’ One of them answered: ‘We think you ought to throw it on the fire and not speak of it again.’ It was a shattering blow. They argued for hours, and finally Flaubert accepted their verdict. Then Bouilhet suggested that Flaubert, taking Balzac as his model, should write a realistic novel. By this time it was eight in the morning, and they went to bed. Later in the day, they met again to continue the discussion and, according to Maxime du Camp in his Souvenirs Littéraires, it was then that Bouilhet proposed the story that eventually became Madame Bovary; but since, on the journey on which Flaubert and du Camp soon after set out, Flaubert in his letters home mentioned various subjects for novels that he was considering, but not Madame Bovary, it is pretty certain that du Camp was mistaken. The two friends visited Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Greece. They returned to France in 1851. Flaubert was still undecided about what he should try his hand at, and it is probably then that Bouilhet told him the story of Eugène Delamare. Delamare had been an interne, house surgeon or house physician, at the hospital at Rouen, and he had a practice in a small town nearby. On the death of his first wife, a widow much older than himself, he married the pretty young daughter of a neighbouring farmer. She was pretentious and extravagant. She soon grew bored with her dull husband and took a series of lovers. She spent on clothes money she could not afford and ran hopelessly into debt. Finally she took poison, and eventually Delamare killed himself. As everyone knows, Flaubert followed this mean little story very closely.

  Soon after his return to France, he again met Louise Colet. During his absence things had gone badly with her. Her husband had died, Victor Cousin had ceased to assist her financially, and she could get no one to accept a play she had written. She wrote to Flaubert that she was passing through Rouen on her way back from England; they met, and their correspondence was renewed. After a while he went to Paris and again became her lover. One wonders why. She was by now in her forties, a blonde, and blondes don’t wear well, and at the time women with any pretentions to respectability did not make up. Perhaps he was touched by her feeling for him; she was the only woman who had ever been in love with him, and perhaps, sexually uncertain as he seems to have been, he felt at his ease with her on the rare occasions on which they had sexual intercourse. Her letters were destroyed, but his remain. From them you can gather that Louise had learnt nothing: she was as domineering, as exacting and as tiresome as she had been from the first. Her letters seem to have become increasingly acrimonious. She continued to press Flaubert to come to Paris, or to let her come to Croisset; and he continued to find excuses not to do the one nor to let her do the other. His letters are chiefly concerned with literary subjects, and they end with very perfunctory expressions of affection; their chief interest lies in the remarks he makes on the difficult progress of Madame Bovary, which he was by then absorbed in. Every now and then Louise sent him a poem she had written. His criticism was harsh. It was inevitable that the affair should come to an end. Louise brought it about by her own rashness. It appears that, for the sake of their daughter, Victor Cousin had offered to marry her, and she seems to have let Flaubert know that it was on his account that she had refused. She had in point of fact made up her mind to marry Flaubert, and very imprudently told friends that she was going to. When it came to his ears, he was aghast; and after a series of violent scenes, which not only frightened but humiliated him, he told her that he would never see her again. Undeterred, however, she arrived at Croisset one day to make yet another scene; he threw her out so brutally that even his mother was outraged. Notwithstanding the stubborn determination of her sex to believe only what they want to believe, ‘the Muse’ was at last obliged to face the fact that Flaubert was finished with her for good and all. She revenged herself by writing a novel, said to be very poor, in which she drew a vicious portrait of him.


  Now I must hark back. When the two friends returned from the East, Maxime du Camp settled in Paris and bought an interest in the Revue de Paris. He came to Croisset to urge Flaubert and Bouilhet to write for him. After Flaubert’s death, du Camp published two stout volumes of reminiscences which he called Souvenirs Littéraires. All who have written about Flaubert have made free use of them, and it seems ungrateful that they should have treated their author with contumely. In this book du Camp wrote: ‘Authors are divided into two classes: those for whom literature is a means, those for whom literature is an end. I belonged, I have always belonged, to the former category; I have never asked from literature more than the right to love it and to cultivate it as best I could.’ The class of literary men to which Maxime du Camp was satisfied to belong has always been a large one. These are the men who have literary inclinations, a love of literature, and often talent, taste, culture and facility; but no gift of creation. In their youth they are apt to write accomplished verse or an indifferent novel, but after a while they settle down to what they find comes more easily to them. They review books, or become editors of literary magazines; write prefaces to the selected works of dead authors, biographies of eminent persons, essays on literary subjects; and in the end, like du Camp, their reminiscences. They perform a useful function in the world of letters, and since they often write with elegance, their productions are generally pleasant to read. There is no reason to regard them with the scorn with which Flaubert came to regard du Camp.

  People have said, I think unjustly, that du Camp was jealous of Flaubert. In his reminiscences he wrote: ‘Never has the thought come to me of so exalting myself as to compare myself with Flaubert, and never have I allowed myself to dispute his superiority.’ No man could say fairer than that. As lads in the Latin Quarter, when Flaubert was reading law, they had been intimate; they had eaten in the same inexpensive restaurants, and interminably talked of literary subjects in the same cafés. Later, on their travels in the Near East they had been sea-sick together in the Mediterranean, got drunk together in Cairo and whored together when they had the opportunity. Flaubert was not easy to get on with, for he was impatient of contradictio
n, irritable and overbearing. For all that, du Camp felt a sincere affection for him and thought highly of him as a writer; but he knew the man too well to be unaware of his weaknesses; it is not in human nature that he should have looked upon the boon-companion of his youth with the veneration with which he was regarded by his fanatical admirers. For this the poor wretch has been unmercifully abused.

  Du Camp thought that his old friend made a mistake in burying himself at Croisset; and on one of his numerous visits urged him to settle down in Paris, where he could meet people, and by mixing in the intellectual life of the capital, by exchanging ideas with his fellow writers, widen his mind. On the face of it, there was much to say for the notion. The novelist must live among his raw material. He cannot wait for experience to come to him; he must go in search of it. Flaubert had lived a very narrow life. He knew little of the world. The only women with whom he had been more than casually acquainted were his mother, Elisa Schlesinger and ‘the Muse.’ But he was impetuous and imperious. He resented interference. Du Camp, however, would not let well alone, and in a letter he wrote from Paris went so far as to tell Flaubert that if he continued to lead that constricted life he would soon suffer from softening of the brain. The remark infuriated Flaubert and he never forgot it. It was of course an unfortunate one to make, since he was always afraid that these epileptiform attacks of his would result in something of the sort. In fact, in one of his letters to Louise he said that in four years he might become an idiot. Flaubert replied to du Camp with an angry letter, in which he told him that the life he led was exactly what suited him, and that he had only contempt for the wretched hacks who composed the literary life of Paris. An estrangement ensued, and though later the old friends renewed relations, they were never cordial. Du Camp was an active, energetic man, and he quite frankly wanted to make his way in the literary world of his day; but that he should wish to do this seemed to Flaubert disgusting: ‘he is lost to us,’ he wrote, and for the next three or four years never mentioned his name without contempt. He found his productions despicable, his style abominable and his borrowings from other authors scandalous. Flaubert was glad, all the same, that du Camp should print in his magazine the poem in three thousand lines that Bouilhet had written on a Roman subject, and when Madame Bovary was finished, he accepted du Camp’s offer to serialise it in the Revue de Paris.

  Louis Bouilhet remained his only intimate friend. Flaubert, mistakenly it is held now, thought him a great poet and trusted his judgment as he trusted that of no one else. He owed a great deal to him. Except for Bouilhet, Madame Bovary would very likely never have been written, and certainly would not have been the book it is. It was he who after interminable arguments persuaded Flaubert to write a synopsis, which Mr. Francis Steegmuller in his excellent work, Flaubert and Madame Bovary, has printed. Bouilhet found it very promising and at last, in 1851, Flaubert, being then thirty, set to work. With the exception of La Tentation de St. Antoine, the more important of his early works had been strictly personal; they were, in fact, novelisations of his amorous experience: his aim now was to be strictly objective. He determined to tell the truth without bias or prejudice, narrating the facts and exposing the characters of the persons he had to deal with without comment of his own, neither condemning nor praising: if he sympathised with one, not to show it; if the stupidity of another exasperated him, the malice of a third outraged him, not to allow word of his to reveal it. This, on the whole, is what he succeeded in doing, and that is perhaps why many readers have found a certain coldness in the novel. There is nothing heartwarming in this calculated, obstinate detachment. Though it may be a weakness in us, my impression is that, as readers, we find comfort in knowing that the author shares the emotions he has made us feel.

  But the attempt at complete impersonality fails with Flaubert, as it fails with every novelist, because complete impersonality is impossible to achieve. It is very well that the writer should let his characters explain themselves and, as far as may be, let their actions be the outcome of their natures, and he may easily make a nuisance of himself when he draws your attention to his heroine’s charm or his villain’s malevolence, when he moralises or irrelevantly digresses, when, in short, he is a personage in the story he is telling; but this is only a matter of method, one that some very good novelists have used and, if it happens to have gone out of fashion at the moment, that is not to say it is a bad one. But the author who avoids it keeps his personality only out of the surface of his novel; he reveals it willy-nilly by his choice of subject, his choice of characters and the point of view from which he describes them. Flaubert eyed the world with gloomy indignation. He was violently intolerant. He had no patience with stupidity. The bourgeois, the commonplace, the ordinary filled him with exasperation. He had no pity. He had no charity. Most of his adult life he was a sick man, oppressed by the humiliation which his distemper caused him to feel. His nerves were in a constant state of perturbation. He was, as I have said, at once a romantic and a realist; and he flung himself into the sordid story of Emma Bovary with the fury of a man revenging himself by wallowing in the gutter because life has not met the demands of his passion for the ideal. We are introduced to many persons in the course of the novel’s five hundred pages, and but for Dr. Larivière, a minor character, they have hardly a redeeming feature. They are base, mean, stupid, trivial and vulgar. A great many people are, but not all; and it is inconceivable that in a town, however small, there should not be found one person at least, if not two or three, who is sensible, kindly and helpful. Flaubert failed to keep his personality out of his novel.

  His deliberate intention was to choose a set of characters who were thoroughly commonplace, and devise incidents that would inevitably arise from their nature and their circumstances; but he was well aware of the possibility that no one would be interested in persons so dull, and that the incidents he had to relate would prove tedious. How he proposed to deal with this I will come to later. Before doing so, I want to consider how far he succeeded in his attempt. The characters are drawn with consummate skill. We are persuaded of their truth. We no sooner meet them than we accept them as living creatures, standing on their own feet, in the world we know. We take them for granted, as we take our plumber, our grocer, our doctor. It never occurs to us that they are figures in a novel. Homais, to mention one, is a creature as humorous as Mr. Micawber, and he has become as familiar to the French as Mr. Micawber is to us; and we believe in him as we can never quite believe in Mr. Micawber, for, unlike Mr. Micawber, he is always consistently himself. But Emma Bovary is not by any means the ordinary farmer’s daughter. That there is in her something of every woman and of every man is true. We are all given to extravagant and absurd reveries, in which we see ourselves rich, handsome, successful, the heroes or heroines of romantic adventures; but most of us are too sensible, too timorous or too unadventurous to let our day-dreams seriously affect our behaviour. Emma Bovary was exceptional in that she tried to live her fantasies; she was exceptional in her beauty. As is well known, when the novel was published author and printer were prosecuted on the charge that it was immoral. I have read the speeches of the public prosecutor and of the defending counsel. The prosecutor recited a number of passages which he claimed were pornographic: they make one smile now, they are so restrained in comparison with the descriptions of sexual intercourse to which modern novelists have accustomed us; but one cannot believe that even then (in 1875) the prosecutor was shocked by them. The defending counsel pleaded that the passages were necessary, and that the moral of the novel was good because Emma Bovary suffered for her misconduct. The judges accepted this view, and the defendants were acquitted. It is evident, however, that if Emma came to a bad end, it was not, as the morality of the time demanded, because she had committed adultery, but because she ran up bills that she hadn’t the money to pay, and if she had had the notoriously thrifty instincts of the Norman peasant, there was no reason why she should not have gone from lover to lover without coming to harm.

  On publication, Flaubert’s great novel was enthusiastically received by readers and immediately became a bestseller, but the critics were, when not hostile, indifferent. Strange as it may seem, they were more inclined to attach importance to a novel called Fanny by a certain Ernest Feydeau, which was issued about the same time; and it was only the deep impression that Madame Bovary made on the public, and the influence it had on subsequent writers of fiction, that obliged them in the end to take it seriously.

  Madame Bovary is a hard-luck story rather than a tragedy. I should say that the difference between the two is that in a hard-luck story the events that occur are brought about by chance, whereas in a tragedy they are the result of the characters of the persons engaged. It was bad luck that, with her good looks and charm, Emma should have married such a dull fool as Charles Bovary. It was bad luck that when she was pregnant and wanted a son to make up for the disillusionment of her marriage, she should have a daughter. It was bad luck that Rodolphe Boulanger, Emma’s first lover, was a selfish, brutal fellow who let her down. It was bad luck that her second was mean, weak and timorous. It was bad luck that when she was desperate, the village priest, to whom she went for help and guidance, should be a callous and fatuous dolt. It was bad luck that when Emma found herself hopelessly in debt and, threatened with proceedings, so far humiliated herself as to ask Rodolphe for money, he couldn’t give it her, though we are told he would have been ready to do so, because he didn’t happen to have any by him. It was bad luck that it never occurred to him that his credit was good and his lawyer would immediately have given him the required sum. The story Flaubert had to tell necessarily ended in Emma’s death, but it must be confessed that the means by which he brought it about strains the reader’s credulity to the breaking-point.

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