Pursuing Mot Juste
By Charles Matthews
San Jose Mercury News, 2006
A Review of “Flaubert: A Biography” by Frederick Brown
Brown is no slouch himself when it comes to research. His new biography of Flaubert is almost as much a cultural history of France in the mid-19th century as it is a life of the author. We learn copious amounts about the history and topography of the city of Rouen, the practice of medicine in early 19th-century France, the rigors of French secondary education and law school, treatments for epilepsy, prostitution in the Middle East, spa life at Vichy, the revolution of 1848, the transformation of Paris under Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann, the Franco-Prussian war, the seige of Paris, and the rise and bloody fall of the Commune. But however fascinating the world in which he moved, Flaubert doesn’t get lost in his own biography. He emerges from the pages of Brown’s book as a wonderfully complex blend of the passionate and the persnickety – or as Brown puts it, “glorifying unruly, sociopathic, large-lunged genius or fussing over stylistic minutiae as obsessively as a Byzantine grammarian.”
The real test of a literary biography is how well it illuminates the writer’s works. Flaubert’s famous declaration “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (“Madame Bovary is me”) threw down the gauntlet to biographers, challenging them to explore how much of Emma Bovary really is Gustave Flaubert, and vice versa. But Brown mostly stays off of this well-raked turf, preferring to explore Flaubert’s works through the world in which they were created and the torturous process of exhaustive research and painstaking writing that brought them into being.
Flaubert’s legendary pursuit of the mot juste – the exactly right word or phrase – kept him in a constant two-steps-forward, one-step-back process of composition. “I brood more over an ill-suited word than I rejoice over a well proportioned paragraph,” he told a correspondent. In six weeks, he said, he had written only 25 pages of “Madame Bovary.” Later, he reported that he had 120 “acceptable pages,” but had written “at least” 500. And in January 1853 he said that he had added only 65 pages in the past five months. No wonder his young niece thought that “Bovary” was a synonym for “work.”
These glimpses of the persnickety Flaubert are balanced with stories of the passionate Flaubert – or, sometimes, the randy Flaubert. For example, Brown gives us a detailed account of Flaubert’s journey to Egypt with his friend Maxime Du Camp, in which Africa becomes “the id of human continents” and “a dreamworld innocent of moral constraints upon the imagination.” It was a trip on which, Brown tells us, “to judge by Flaubert’s notes, no whorehouse between Cairo and Nubia was so low that they wouldn’t stoop to enter it.” (Brown is more than generous in depicting how low they could go.)
Refreshingly, after so many post-Freudian biographies, Brown is content to present Flaubert’s life to us uninterpreted, rather than try to shrivel down his complexities of character with psychological “explanations.” Did Flaubert’s perfectionism and his eagerness to shock the bourgeoisie have something to do with his relationship with his father, a successful provincial physician, and with his older brother, who followed in their father’s profession? Perhaps, but Brown doesn’t rush to find the roots of genius in Oedipal neurosis. Flaubert’s legal studies, which he hated, were ended by the onset of epilepsy. Brown isn’t one to proclaim that Flaubert’s illness was psychosomatic. Sometimes a seizure is just a seizure.
And then there are the never-married Flaubert’s friendships, infatuations, and/or affairs with older women, including Élisa Schlesinger, 11 years his senior, who was the model for Marie Arnoux in L’Éducation sentimentale; Louise Colet, also 11 years older, who was his lover and inspired some aspects of Emma Bovary; and George Sand, 17 years his senior, whose literary counsel he welcomed. Again, Brown touches on the obvious Freudianisms – Schlesinger was “well upholstered and dark, like Mme Flaubert” – but doesn’t belabor us with them.
If the book has a flaw, it’s that Brown can be show-offy about his erudition, too often indulging his weakness for big fat words. It’s amusing when he refers to the “malodorous penumbra” of the sanitation-challenged city of Rouen. But he also likes to use unfamiliar words like “otiose” when “useless” or “superfluous” would do the same work with more efficiency. And referring to the “edulcorated religion taught to young girls” is just tiresome, verging on pretentious. You won’t find “edulcorated” in standard desk dictionaries; you need an unabridged one to learn that it means “purified by eliminating harsh or acid properties.” How this applies to the religion that girls learned remains unexplained.
Nevertheless, the narrative drive of the book, the keen insights into character, and the abundant richness of its portrait of 19th-century France are more than enough to help the reader over any small speed-bumps of style and vocabulary. Brown has previously written biographies of Jean Cocteau and Émile Zola, and he paints a rich portrait of Flaubert’s circle of friends and acquaintances, a Who’s Who of 19th-century French writers that includes Zola, the Goncourt brothers, Ivan Turgenev, Guy de Maupassant, Théophile Gautier, and Charles Sainte-Beuve. But best of all, he gives us Flaubert and his world in all their grand, complicated messiness, the better to appreciate the skill with which Flaubert brought literary order out of the chaos of existence. ●