This is not your standard biography. Translator Andrew Brown abandons the usual chronological approach in favour of an entertaining, thematic narrative that moves through Flaubert's life by a kind of free association. The first chapter, for example, is on the spire of Rouen cathedral, and the second on the spiral of Flaubert's life, "a matter of many returns, not always happy (or even unhappy). I found it worked really well, giving more of an insight into Flaubert's character than a standard "life and times" approach would have done.
I learned that Flaubert was an iconoclast:
"I don't want to be part of anything, to belong to any academy, any corporation, any association whatsoever. I hate the herd, the rule and the norm. A Bedouin, yes, as much as you like; a citizen, never."
Yet he was also against strongly-held opinions, because he could always see both sides of the argument. He lived through revolutionary times in France (both 1848 and 1870), but was as distrustful of communards as royalists. He detested stupidity, but found it everywhere, even in himself. He was always correcting, pointing out mistakes, tearing down the grand ideas and ideologies in which the 19th century abounded. He loved opposites and contradictions. When he wrote to his lover from Egypt she berated him for describing the bedbugs in too much detail; he replied that they were a part of the beauty, just as the lemon trees he saw in Jaffa formed a "complete poetry" with the rotting corpses half-exposed in the cemetery there. He could be quite vulgar in some of his writing - he refused to edit out anything (I was reminded here of Milan Kundera talking about "kitsch" - Flaubert would have had zero tolerance for kitsch!).
Flaubert was very well-read, and got through enormous amounts of research for anything he wrote, and yet he was resolutely anti-intellectual. He seemed to grasp that no matter how much you know, there's always an enormous amount you don't know, or can't ever know. Perhaps that's why he chose fiction, where ideas and facts are inherently less firm than in non-fiction. His writing took a huge toll on his health, as he stayed up long into the night and described in his letters the physical effects of his labours. Yet he also realised that for all his research and hard work, an important ingredient of his fiction came from outside. Here's a prayer he wrote in his notebook while visiting Carthage:
"May all the energies of nature which I have breathed in penetrate me, and may they be breathed out into my work. Come to me, powers of creative emotion! To me, resurrection of the past, to me, to me! Through the Beautiful, something living and true must also be made. Have pity on my willpower, God of souls! Give me Strength and Hope!"
Flaubert's last book, Bouvard et Pecouchet, was his final indictment of all the stupid ideas that great men had uttered throughout history. He hoped that "once people have read it they won't dare speak again, for fear of uttering quite naturally one of the phrases in it." Or, as he wrote in a letter:
"I sense floods of hatred for the stupidity of my period, and I'm drowning in them. Shit keeps rising to my mouth, as in strangulated hernias. But I want to keep that shit, fix it, harden it; I want to make it into a paste with which I'd smear the 19th century, in the same way that they decorate Indian pagodas with cow dung."
By the end of this quite short book, I felt I knew Gustave Flaubert very well (perhaps too well!), thanks to the thematic approach and the extensive use of Flaubert's personal letters and notebooks. This is what I want from a biography, much more than the dates and formalities of his public life. I'd recommend this book, even if, like me, you have no particular prior interest in Flaubert.
Causes Andrew Blackman Supports
Amnesty International, World Development Movement, Sight Savers International