This Day In Literary History
On December 12th, 1821, the legendary French writer Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen, France. His father, Achille-Cléophas, was a surgeon. According to some sources, the young Gustave began writing stories at the age of eight.
After being educated at Lycée Pierre-Corneille, Flaubert went to Paris to study law. He didn't care much for law and preferred his hometown in Normandy to the City of Lights. He did make some friends in Paris, including fellow writer Victor Hugo.
In 1846, at the age of 25, Flaubert suffered an epileptic attack and left Paris. He settled in Croisset, near Rouen, where he would live with his mother for the rest of his life.
Flaubert was openly bisexual, but preferred women. His one and only great love was the poet Louise Colet. When their passionate affair came to an end, he lost interest in romance and never married.
He wasn't lonely. He caroused with prostitutes of both sexes, (often suffering from venereal disease as a result) he was close to his niece Caroline, and enjoyed the company of other writers, including Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, George Sand, and Ivan Turgenev.
Gustave Flaubert's first published work of fiction was a semi-autobiographical novella called November (1842). The narrator is a schoolboy who meditates on his life, including his determination to become a man both physically and sexually.
The narrator ultimately loses his virginity to Marie, a worldly-wise courtesan who enthralls him with stories of her erotic experiences. Later, the narrator decides to see her again, only to find that she and her brothel have vanished.
Flaubert's first full length novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, written in 1849 but not published in its final version until 1874, was based on St. Anthony the Great's alleged temptation by supernatural forces in the Libyan Desert.
After completing his first draft, Flaubert read the novel aloud to his friends, writers Louis Bouilhet and Maxime Du Camp, over a period of four days, after which, he asked for their opinions on it. They encouraged him to burn the manuscript.
In 1857, Flaubert published what is considered his masterpiece, the classic, controversial novel Madame Bovary. It first appeared in a serialized form in the French literary magazine Le Revue de Paris, published from October 1st through December 15th, 1856.
The novel was considered scandalous and attacked for its alleged obscenity and immorality; Flaubert was accused of glorifying adultery. In January of 1857, the novel went on trial for obscenity. On February 7th, it was acquitted - found not legally obscene.
Flaubert's novel told the unforgettable story of Emma Rouault, a young woman who falls in love with a country doctor, Charles Bovary. Although a decent man, he turns out to be awkward, weak, and an insufferable bore. Emma becomes disillusioned and despondent.
When wealthy libertine landowner Rodolphe Boulanger seduces her, Emma finds the passionate romance she'd been craving. She risks exposing her affair with her indiscreet love letters and visits to her lover.
Emma plans to elope with Rodolphe, but he has no intention of marrying her. He dumps her, ending the relationship with a dear john letter enclosed in a basket of apricots. Her romantic fantasy world suddenly shattered, Emma falls severely ill.
After recovering her health, Emma seeks happiness in material possessions. The crafty merchant Monsieur Lheureux manipulates Emma into buying lots of luxury items from him on credit, and she quickly accrues a crushing amount of debt.
Lheureux arranges for Emma to get power of attorney over her husband's estate, then calls in her debt. Desperate for money, she tries prostituting herself to Rodolphe Boulanger. When that fails, she swallows arsenic. The romance of suicide even fails her; she dies an agonizing death.
As a writer, Flaubert's prose combined romanticism with realism. A perfectionist, he strictly avoided cliches and determined to find le mot juste - the right word. He worked in solitude and could spend a whole week writing and rewriting a single page.
With the publication of Madame Bovary, scandal would follow Flaubert for most of his life, but he continued to write great novels. Salammbô (1862) was a historical novel set in 3rd century Carthage amid the Mercenary Revolt, which took place shortly after the First Punic War broke out.
At the time Flaubert wrote his novel, this was a rarely studied period in history. The author went to Carthage to do his research; his primary source was book one of The Histories by the legendary ancient Greek historian Polybius.
Salammbô proved to be a masterpiece that restored the reputation of Flaubert as one of France's greatest writers. He had been denounced by the conservative establishment and the Church as a mere pornographer.
Gustave Flaubert's last great novel, Sentimental Education (1869) was set amid the French revolution of 1848 and the founding of the Second French Empire - the regime of Napoleon III, which would rule from 1852 to 1870 - as seen through the eyes of a young man named Frederic Moreau.
Flaubert died of a stroke in 1880 at the age of 58.
Quote Of The Day
"Writing is a dog's life, but the only life worth living." - Gustave Flaubert
Today's video features a complete reading of Gustave Flaubert's classic short story, A Simple Heart. Enjoy!