December 13, 2021

“Everyone thinks I am in love with reality,” wrote Gustave Flaubert, in a letter about the response to his most famous book. “Actually I detest it. It was hatred of realism that I undertook this book.”

Madame Bovary was set in the place he hated most: his home. He was born 200 years ago, in Normandy, to the distinguished and fabulously named doctor Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, and his saturnine wife Caroline. The region is famous for the Franco-Viking rovers who conquered England and Sicily; exquisite Gothic architecture; and the city where Joan of Arc was put to death. But it’s also a maritime region connected to the English Channel: wet, windy and grey. It is a place that is both exotic and drab, dramatic and domestic.

This second son got struck with nerves and epilepsy and instead of becoming a lawyer, became one of the most influential novelists of the nineteenth century. “Flaubert established, for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible,” according to James Wood, one of Britain’s foremost literary critics.

But Flaubert was also a luminous stylist. “The morality of art”, he wrote in a letter, “consists in its beauty, and I value style even above truth.” It is odd that an author best known for realism emphasised style above truth. Finding “le mot juste” was his priority. And this subordination of the world as it is to a perfect expression of it points to an important paradox in Flaubert. He became the father of realism by accident.

Flaubert hated the world, mediocre and imperfect as it is, and wanted to transfigure it through his beautiful art. But, in order to do this, he needed to dirty his smooth fingers. Madame Bovary was accused of obscenity, because it was too realistic for the time, but was later acquitted by a French court. “The entire value of my book if there is any,” Flaubert wrote, “will consist in having been able to proceed straight on a hair suspended over the double abyss of lyricism and vulgarity.” This letter was addressed to a woman who played a pivotal role in his life.

In the summer of 1846, the 24-year-old Flaubert, briefly staying in Paris, met Louise Colet. She was a catch: beautiful, 11 years older, a prize-winning poet, and the mistress of the famous philosopher and statesman, Victor Cousin. Over the next ten years, their romance would consist of pregnancy scares and a rich trove — the ones that weren’t destroyed — of erotic, philosophical and literary letters. These letters, like his novel, would seesaw between the lyrical and the vulgar.

By the time he started Madame Bovary, when he was 29, Flaubert had been travelling through the East for two years. He had grown fatter and clumps of hair had fallen from his head. His face was distinguished by his blonde, drooping moustache. He wanted to write a novel about the classical world, or about the East, something with a flavour of otherness. But his best friend, Louis Broilhet, told him about an old lady he had met in Normandy. She was visiting Flaubert’s mother.

The old lady had had a son named Eugéne Delamare, a former medical student of Flaubert’s father. Delamare had eventually qualified as an officier de santé rather than an official doctor, and, after marrying an older widowed woman who subsequently died, he married a pretty young woman named Delphine. She cheated on him, squandered all his money, and ultimately killed herself. Delamare committed suicide later, leaving their only child in the care of his impoverished mother, who shared her story with Broilhet, who shared it with Flaubert. Madame Bovary was born.

It seems strange that, after a few years of travelling through the Orient, and writing manuscripts about the East and the classical world, Flaubert would dedicate the next five years to writing about a domestic housewife in provincial France. But he kept returning to Normandy. He was a Parisian on and off, but Normandy was his home; while writing Madame Bovary, he lived with his mother and young niece in a house in Croisset. There was a symbiotic relationship between the drab surroundings and the intensity of his imagination. As he put it: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Julian Barnes has described Madame Bovary as the “first great shopping and fucking novel”. Emma Bovary, bored by being shacked up with a mediocre man in provincial France, dreams of Paris. She wants the life of cities, with their “unlimited opportunities for deep emotions and exciting sensations”. Instead, she’s stuck in the small town of Yonville, which is as boring as it sounds, with a bloke who’s not interested in the theatre, can’t swim or fence or shoot. And who can’t make her laugh.

But Emma meets Léon Dupuis, a young clerk. Soon after meeting, they have, in Francis Steegmuller’s brilliant translation, “vague conversations in which every new subject that comes up proves to be one more aspect of a core of shared feelings”. In other words, they fall in love.

Léon and Emma bond in particular over their shared love of reading: “Have you ever had the experience”, he asks her, “of running across in a book some vague idea you’ve had, some image that you realize has been lurking all the time in the back of your mind and now seems to express absolutely your most subtle feeling?”

Bovary is, among other things, a novel about the experience of reading novels. Léon is reflecting the experience of reading back to us, making us feel, along with Emma, recognised. “Yes”, we think, “we read exactly for that reason: to have our most subtle feeling absolutely expressed.” Emma wants to be recognised by Charles. And she reads her romance novels not because she recognises herself in them — these women lead genuinely exotic lives — but because she recognises her desires through them. They tap into what she wants. The lyrical is tugging away at the mundane.

Dupuis, frustrated by bourgeois conventions, departs to study law in Paris, leaving Emma alone in Yonville. She is then seduced by an aristocratic rake called Rodolphe Boulanger. And after their first kiss, she remembers the “heroines of novels she had read, and the lyrical legion of those adulterous women began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her. Now she herself was one of the amoureuses she had so envied: she was becoming, in reality, one of that gallery of fictional figures.”

These descriptions seem so affected that they invite the reader to question the authenticity of Emma’s feelings. Rodolphe, too, distrusts her pleas for love: “The more flowery a person’s speech, he thought, the more suspect the feelings, or lack of feelings, it concealed.” We are rapt by this tension between Emma’s enchanting fantasies and the devastating blandness that surrounds her. It makes her idealism seem thin.

There is always a cynical gravitational force beneath the lyricism of Flaubert’s prose; everything is brought back down to earth. Rodolphe gets bored of Emma, who “was like all his other mistresses; and as the charm of novelty gradually slipped from her like a piece of her clothing, he saw revealed in all its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always assumes the same forms and always speaks the same language”.

It is the violence of Emma Bovary’s imagination that, among other things, undoes her. Her wish to escape from provincial Normandy is shown to be pointless: the romantic fantasies she longs for are just as disheartening as the mediocre life she lives. Although Flaubert hated “realism”, he also wrote that “I equally despise that false brand of idealism which is such a hollow mockery in the present day”. He rejected the seductive charm of the Orient, and willingly came back home; he hated Normandy, but the alternative was not better. As a man, he at least has greater freedom to travel than his heroine — he is physically and materially free. But, like Emma, he is spiritually trapped. As he famously said: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.

This is what all novelists essentially aim to do: to simultaneously present the world as it is and the world as the characters want it to be. Flaubert achieved this because he was so disgusted by reality, yet the attempt to utterly transfigure it exhausted him. He was annoyed by his finished product. Madame Bovary was serialised in Revue de Paris in the autumn of 1856. Things got off to an inauspicious start when the first ad for the novel printed the author’s name as “Gustave Faubert”. After the first instalment appeared, Flaubert was typically cheerful about seeing his work published for the very first time. In a letter to his friend Louis, he wrote, “Everything in it seems bad.”

If Flaubert believed in anything, it was perhaps the chimera of perfection. He wrote and rewrote in search of it. The early drafts of Madame Bovary amount to 4,500 pages of text; the completed version is just over 300 pages. But, in the end, he was never satisfied. His wish for a complete sentence degenerated into destructive fury. Of Madame Bovary, a work many consider to be one of the finest novels of all time, Flaubert wrote later in his life: “I would like to find some way of making a lot of money so I could buy up every copy of Madame Bovary in existence, throw them all into the fire, and never hear of the book again.”