It’s the birthday of Gustave Flaubert, born in Rouen, France (1821). His father was a surgeon, and the family was one of the most respected in Rouen. He was nonplussed about the prospect of leaving Rouen for to Paris to go to law school. He wrote to a friend:
“I’ll go study law, which, instead of opening all doors, leads nowhere. I’ll spend three years in Paris contracting venereal diseases. And then? All I want is to live out all my days in an old ruined castle near the sea.”
Although he enjoyed Paris for its brothels, he didn’t like much else. He failed his law exams and ended up collapsing, dizzy and then unconscious. It was the first of many such episodes throughout his life, probably epilepsy, and Flaubert gave up on law, left Paris, and moved to a house in Croisset, near Rouen.
He worked hard on his first novel, The Temptation of St. Anthony, and he thought it was a masterpiece. He spent four days reading it aloud to two friends, and he wouldn’t let them comment until the end, at which point they suggested that he burn it. So he stopped working on it although it was eventually published in its finished form more than 25 years later, and even then, he considered it his best novel.
Flaubert traveled for a while, and then he started a new project, a novel about a doctor’s wife named Emma who tries to fill her empty life by having affairs. He wrote carefully, working long hours, agonizing over each word. He wrote to his mistress, the poet Louise Colet: “Happy are they who don’t doubt themselves and whose pens fly across the page. I myself hesitate, I falter, I become angry and fearful, my drive diminishes as my taste improves, and I brood more over an ill-suited word than I rejoice over a well-proportioned paragraph.” But after five years of work, he finished his novel, which he published in installments in 1856, and it was Madame Bovary.
In 1911, The New York Times reported that Madame Bovary had been voted by the French as the “best French novel.” In 2007, editor J. Peder Zane published a book called The Top Ten, in which he asked 125 contemporary writers to name what they consider “the ten greatest works of fiction of all time,” and Madame Bovary was number two, after Anna Karenina.
Gustave Flaubert, who said, “I can imagine nothing in the world preferable to a nice, well-heated room, with the books one loves and the leisure one wants.”
From The Writers’ Almanac
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