As touched on in our first issue, Gustave Flaubert’s genius lie in his ability to paint the most realist of pictures primarily because of the surreality of day-to-day living. While Madame Bovary is largely considered the pinnacle of his literary prowess, his entire canon of work offers something of the extraordinary.
Flaubert, who grew up in Rouen but found himself in Paris after high school, had originally intended to study law, but then succumbed to his creative tendencies upon traveling to the Pyrenees and Corsica and subsequently suffering a fit of epilepsy. His contempt for Paris was undoubtedly part of why he held such disdain for law, associating it with the frivolities of pursuing wealth and power.
Perhaps this is why Flaubert felt compelled to return to a place near his hometown. Croisset, a small settlement right next to the Seine, is where Flaubert would spend the rest of his life, writing all of his major works and drawing from the experience of living a pastoral existence. By shirking the entanglements of the modern world, Flaubert was able to focus solely on writing. Moreover, the only romance he ever allowed himself was with poet Louise Colet for six years. Other than that, Flaubert’s sole source of having a sexual outlet came in the form of visiting prostitutes (who tend to generally serve as muses for the majority of authors).
November, his debut novella, was an autobiographical piece detailing a young man’s sexual awakening and his subsequent heartbreak after the courtesan he falls in love with becomes a prostitute (again, always a go-to topic for authors). Following this, Flaubert began work on The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a book written in the form of a play that prompted his friends–Maxime Du Champ and Louis Bouilhet included–to give up writing and stick to his legal pursuits. Needless to say, he didn’t listen to them, and spent five years writing and perfecting Madame Bovary after this insult was wielded at him.
Unlike the writers of today, Flaubert was meticulous in his process. There were times when he would spend a week writing and perfecting one page. The example he set with his perfectionism and will to succeed were unmatched, and proven by his lack of prolificness in comparison to his peers. While other writers of his time could churn out a novel a year, Flaubert had only a total of twelve original works, all taut beacons of what literature should be.