Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham

  Some have found it a fault that, though Emma is the central character, the novel begins with an account of Bovary’s early youth and his first marriage, and ends with his disintegration and death. I surmise that Flaubert’s idea was to enclose the story of Emma Bovary within that of her husband, as you enclose a painting in a frame. He may have felt that thus he rounded off his narrative and gave it the unity of a work of art. If this was his intention, it would have been more evident if the end were not hurried and arbitrary. Throughout the book, Charles Bovary has been shown to be weak and easily led. Flaubert tells us that after Emma’s death he changed utterly. That is very summary. Broken as he was, it is hard to credit that he should have become quarrelsome, self-willed and obstinate. Though a stupid man, he was conscientious, and it seems strange that he should have neglected his patients. He badly needed their money. He had Emma’s debts to pay and his daughter to provide for. The radical change in Bovary’s character requires a good deal more explanation than Flaubert has given it. Finally he dies. He was a robust man in the prime of life, and the only reason one can give for his death is that Flaubert, after fifty-five months of exhausting labour, wanted to be done with the book. Since we are expressly told that Bovary’s memories of Emma with time grew dim, and so presumably less poignant, one cannot but ask oneself why Flaubert did not let Bovary’s mother arrange a third marriage for him, as she had arranged the first. It would have added one more note of futility to the story of Emma Bovary, and accorded well with Flaubert’s ferocious sense of irony.

  A work of fiction is an arrangement of incidents devised to display a number of characters in action and to interest the reader. It is not a copy of life as it is lived. Just as in a novel conversations cannot be reproduced exactly as they take place in real life, but have to be summarised so that only the essential points are given, and then with clearness and concision, so facts have to suffer some deformation in order to accord with the author’s plan and to hold the reader’s attention. Irrelevant incidents must be omitted; repetitions must be avoided – and, heaven knows, life is full of repetitions; isolated occurrences and events that in real life would be separated by a passage of time may often have to be brought into proximity. No novel is entirely free of improbabilities, and to the more usual ones readers have become so accustomed that they accept them as a matter of course. The novelist cannot give a literal transcript of life, he draws a picture for you which, if he is a realist, he tries to make life-like; and if you believe him he has succeeded.

  On the whole, Madame Bovary gives an impression of intense reality, and this arises, I think, not only because Flaubert’s characters are eminently lifelike, but because he has described detail with extreme accuracy. The first four years of Emma’s married life were passed in a village called Tostes; she was hideously bored there, but for the balance of the book this period had to be described at the same pace and with the same detail as the rest. Now, it is difficult to describe a boring time without boring the reader; yet you read the long passage with interest. Flaubert has narrated a series of very trivial incidents, and you are not bored because you are reading something fresh all the time; but since each little incident, whether it is something Emma does, feels or sees, is so commonplace, so trivial, you do get a vivid sensation of her boredom. There is a set description of Yonville, the little town in which the Bovarys settled after leaving Tostes, but it is the only one; for the rest, the descriptions of country and town, beautifully done all of them, are interwoven with the narrative and enforce its interest. Flaubert introduces his characters in action, and we learn of their appearance, their mode of living, their setting, in a continuous process; as, in fact, we come to know people in real life.


  I remarked a few pages back that Flaubert was aware that in setting out to write a book about commonplace people he ran the risk of writing a dull one. He desired to produce a work of art, and he felt that he could only surmount the difficulties presented by the sordid nature of his subject and the vulgarity of his characters by means of beauty of style. Now, I do not know whether such a creature exists as the natural born stylist; certainly Flaubert was not; his early works, unpublished in his lifetime, are said to be verbose, turgid and rhetorical. It is generally stated that his letters show little sign that he had a feeling for the elegance and distinction of his native tongue. I don’t think that is true. They were, for the most part, written late at night, after a hard day’s work, and sent to their recipients uncorrected. Words are misspelt and the grammar is often faulty; they are slangy and sometimes vulgar; but there are in them brief descriptions of scenery so real, so rhythmical, that they would not have seemed out of place in Madame Bovary; and there are passages, when he was moved to fury, that are so incisive, so direct, that you feel no revision would have served to improve them. You hear the sound of his voice in the short, crisp sentences. But that was not the way in which Flaubert wanted to write a book. He was prejudiced against the conversational style, and was blind to its advantages. He took for his models La Bruyère and Montesquieu. His aim was to write a prose that was logical, precise, swift and various, rhythmical, sonorous, musical as poetry, and yet preserving the qualities of prose. He was of opinion that there were not two ways of saying a thing, but only one, and that the wording must fit the thought as the glove fits the hand. ‘When I find an assonance or a repetition in one of my phrases,’ he said, ‘I know that I am ensnared in something false.’ (As examples of assonance, the Oxford Dictionary gives man and hat, nation and traitor, penitent and reticent.) Flaubert claimed that an assonance must be avoided, even if it took a week to manage it. He would not allow himself to use the same word twice on a page. That does not seem sensible: if it is the right word in each place, it is the right word to use, and a synonym or a periphrase can never be as apt. He was careful not to allow the sense of rhythm which was natural to him, as it is to every writer, to obsess him (as George Moore in his later works was obsessed) and took pains to vary it. He exercised all his ingenuity to combine words and sounds to give an impression of speed or languor, lassitude or intensity; in short, of whatever state he desired to express.

  When writing, Flaubert would sketch out roughly what he wished to say, and then work on what he had written, elaborating, cutting, re-writing, till he got the effect he wanted. That done, he would go out on his terrace and shout out the words he had written, convinced that if they did not sound well, there must be something wrong with them. In that case, he would take them back and work over them again till he was satisfied. Théophile Gautier thought that Flaubert attached too great a value to the cadence and harmony with which he sought to enrich his prose; they were, according to him, only evident when Flaubert in his booming voice read them aloud; but a phrase, he added, is made to read to oneself, not to be bellowed. Gautier was inclined to mock at Flaubert’s fastidiousness: ‘You know,’ he said, ‘the poor chap suffers from a remorse that poisons his life. You don’t know what the remorse is; it’s to have put two genitives together in Madame Bovary, one on the top of the other: une couronne de fleurs d’oranger. It tortures him, but however hard he tried, he found it impossible to avoid.’ It is fortunate for us that by means of our English genitive we can escape this difficulty. We can say: ‘Where is the bag of the doctor’s wife’; but in French you would have to say: ‘Where is the bag of the wife of the doctor.’ It must be confessed that it is not pretty.

  Louis Bouilhet would come to Croisset of a Sunday; Flaubert read to him what he had written during the week, and Bouilhet criticised. Flaubert stormed and argued, but Bouilhet held his ground, and in the end Flaubert accepted the emendations, the elimination of superfluous incidents and irrelevant metaphors, the correction of false notes, which his friend insisted on. No wonder the novel proceeded at a snail’s pace. In one of his letters Flaubert wrote: ‘The whole of Monday and Tuesday was taken up with the writing of two lines.’ This does not mean that he wrote only two lines in two days, he may well have written a dozen pa
ges; it means that with all his labour he only succeeded in writing two lines to his satisfaction. Flaubert found the strain of composition exhausting. Alphonse Daudet believed that this was attributable to the bromide that his malady obliged him to make constant use of. If there is anything in this, it may account for the effort it evidently was to him to set down on paper in coherent order the huddle of ideas in his mind. We know how laborious a task he found it to write the well-known scene in Madame Bovary of the agricultural show. Emma and Rodolphe are seated at a window of the local inn. A representative of the préfet has come to deliver a speech. What Flaubert wanted to do he told in a letter to Louise Colet: ‘I have to situate together in the same conversation five or six people (who talk), several others (of whom one hears), the spot where this occurs, the feel of the place, while giving physical descriptions of people and things, and to show in the midst of all a man and a woman who begin (by their common sympathies of taste) to feel a little attracted to one another.’ That does not seem a very difficult thing to do, and Flaubert has in fact done it extremely well, but, though it was only twenty-seven pages long, it took him two solid months. Balzac would have written it in his own way no less well in the inside of a week. The great novelists, Balzac, Dickens and Tolstoy, had what we are accustomed to call inspiration. It is only in a scene here and there that you feel that Flaubert had it; for the rest he seems to have depended on sheer hard work, the advice and suggestions of Bouilhet, and his own acuteness of observation. This is not to depreciate Madam Bovary; but it is strange that so great a work should have been produced, not as we feel Le Père Goriot or David Copperfield was produced in the free flow of an exuberant fancy, but by almost pure ratiocination.

  It is not unreasonable to ask oneself how near Flaubert came, by taking the immense pains I have described, to achieve the perfect style at which he aimed. Style is a matter of which a foreigner, even though he knows a language pretty well, can be but an uncertain judge: the finer points, the music, the subtlety, the aptness, the rhythm, can hardly fail to escape him. He must accept the opinions of the native born. For a generation after Flaubert’s death his style was highly regarded in France; now it is less admired. The French writers of to-day find in it a lack of spontaneity. He had, as I have before mentioned, a horror of ‘this new maxim that one must write as one speaks’. And of course one must no more write as one speaks than one must speak as one writes; but written language has life and vitality only if it is firmly grounded on current speech. Flaubert was a provincial, and in his prose was apt to use provincialisms which offend the purists; I don’t suppose that a foreigner, unless they were pointed out to him, would be aware of them; nor would he notice the grammatical mistakes of which Flaubert, like nearly every writer who ever wrote, was sometimes guilty. Few Englishmen, though able to read French with ease and pleasure, could point out what is grammatically wrong with the following phrase: ‘Ni moi! reprit vivement M. Homais, quoiqu’il lui faudra suivre les autres au risque de passer pour un Jésuite’; and fewer still could tell how to put it right.

  The French language tends to rhetoric, as the English to imagery (thereby marking a profound difference between the two peoples), and the basis of Flaubert’s style is rhetorical. He made abundant, even excessive, use of the triad. This is the sentence of three members which are arranged, as a rule, either in an ascending or descending scale of importance. It is both an easy and a satisfying way of achieving balance, and orators have taken full advantage of it. Here is an example from Burke: ‘Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention.’ The danger of this sort of sentence, and one from which Flaubert did not escape, is that when used too often it is monotonous. Flaubert in one of his letters wrote; ‘I’m devoured with similes as one is with lice, and I spend all my time crushing them, my phrases swarm with them.’ Critics have observed that in his letters the similes are spontaneous, whereas in Madame Bovary they are too studied, too neatly balanced, to be natural. Here is a good example: Charles Bovary’s mother has come to pay Emma and her husband a visit. ‘Elle observait le bonheur de son fils, avec un silence triste, comme quelqu’un de ruiné qui regarde, à travers les carreaux, des gens attablés dans son ancienne maison.’ This is admirably put, but the simile is in itself so striking that it distracts your attention from the mood it is supposed to illustrate; the object of a simile, however, is to add force and importance to a statement, not to weaken it.

  The best French writers of to-day, so far as I have been able to discover, deliberately avoid rhetoric. They attempt to say what they have to say simply and naturally. They eschew the effective triad. They avoid similes, as though they were indeed the vermin to which Flaubert likened them. That, I believe, is why they are apt to hold his style in small esteem, at least the style of Madam Bovary, for when he came to write Bouvard et Pécuchet he abandoned every form of ornament and decoration; and that is why they prefer the easy, flowing, animated and natural manner of his letters to the laboured manner of his greater novels. This is, of course, merely a matter of fashion, and justifies us in forming no judgment on the merits of Flaubert’s style. A style may be stark, like Swift’s, flowery, like Jeremy Taylor’s, or grandiloquent, like Burke’s: each is good, and whether you prefer one to another depends merely on your individual taste.


  After the publication of Madame Bovary Flaubert wrote Salammbô, which is generally considered a failure, then another version of L’Education Sentimentale, in which he again described his love for Elisa Schlesinger. Many men of letters in France look upon it as his masterpiece. It is confused and hard to read. Frédéric Moreau, the hero, is partly a portrait of Flaubert, as he saw himself, and partly a portrait of Maxime du Camp, as he saw him; but the two men were too different to make a plausible amalgam, and the character remains unconvincing. He is singularly uninteresting. The book, however, begins admirably, and towards the end there is a parting scene between Madam Arnoux (Elisa Schlesinger) and Frédéric (Flaubert) of rare beauty. Then, for the third time, he wrote La Tentation de St. Antoine. Though Flaubert said he had enough ideas for books to last him to the end of his life, they remained vague projects. It is curious that with the exception of Madame Bovary, the story of which was given him ready-made, the only novels he wrote were founded on ideas he had had early in life. He aged prematurely. At thirty he was already bald and potbellied. It may well be, as Maxime du Camp said, that his nerve storms and the depressing sedatives he took to counteract them impaired his power of imaginative creation.

  Time passed, and Caroline, his niece, married. Flaubert and his mother were left alone. His mother died. For some years he had had an apartment in Paris, but there he lived almost as solitarily as at Croisset. He had few friends, except the literary men who met once or twice a month to dine together at Magny’s. He was a provincial, and Edmond de Goncourt said that the more he lived in Paris the more provincial he became. When dining at a restaurant, he insisted on a private room, because he could not bear noise or to have people near him; and he could not eat at his ease without taking off his coat and his boots. After the defeat of France in 1870, Caroline’s husband found himself in financial difficulties, and finally, to save him from bankruptcy, Flaubert handed over his entire fortune. He was left with little except his old home. The worry of this brought on again the fits from which for some years he had been free, and when he dined out, Guy de Maupassant went to fetch him to see him safely home. Goncourt describes him at this time as irritable, sarcastic, irascible and quick to take offence at anything or nothing; but, he added in another note in his journal, ‘so long as you give him the principal part and let yourself catch cold because he keeps on opening the windows, he’s an agreeable companion. He has a ponderous gaiety and the laughter of a child, which is contagious, and in the contact of every day life a hearty affectionateness which is not without charm.’ There Goncourt did him no less than justice. Du Camp said of him: ‘This impetuous, imperious
giant, exploding at the least contradiction, was the most respectful, the gentlest, the most attentive son that a mother could dream of.’ And you have only to read his charming letters to his niece to see of what tenderness he was capable.

  Flaubert’s last years were lonely. He spent most of the year at Croisset. He smoked too much. He ate too much and drank too much. He took no exercise. His means were straitened. Friends eventually got him the offer of a sinecure which would bring him in three thousand francs a year, and though it deeply humiliated him, he was obliged to accept it. He did not live long enough to profit by it.

  The last work he published was a volume of three stories, one of which, Un Coeur Simple, is of a rare excellence. He engaged upon a novel called Bouvard et Pécuchet, in which he determined to have still another fling at the stupidity of the human race, and with his usual thoroughness he read fifteen hundred books to provide himself with the material he thought necessary. It was to be in two volumes, and he almost reached the end of the first. On the morning of May 8, 1880, the maid went into the library at eleven to bring him his lunch. She found him lying on the divan, muttering incomprehensible words. She ran for the doctor and brought him back with her. He could do nothing. In less than an hour Gustave Flaubert was dead.

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