- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

FLAUBERT

By Frederick Brown

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35, 640 pages, illus.

MADAME BOVARY

By Gustave Flaubert

Translated by Margaret Mauldon

Oxford World’s Classics, $9.95, 368 pages (paperback)

BOUVARD AND PECUCHET

By Gustave Flaubert

Translated by Mark Polizzotti

Dalkey Archive, $13.95, 350 pages (paperback)

REVIEWED BY BRUCE ALLEN

When asked to name the best novel I’ve ever read, I waffle, mumbling critical cliches regarding “Moby Dick,” “Anna Karenina,” and “Great Expectations.”

If the question becomes, “What’s the most perfect novel?” it’s hard to deny pride of place to Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 masterpiece “Madame Bovary,” a tale of provincial adultery and romantic self-delusion possessed of a page-by-page (virtually sentence-by-sentence) structural and rhetorical perfection — which neither its meticulous author nor any other novelist has since equalled.

Both Flaubert’s devotion to “le mot juste” (recorded in numerous anecdotes that picture him spending an entire day calibrating the most effective positioning of a single word within a sentence) and the accumulating effects of a self-imposed artistic discipline that dwarfed every other aspect of his life are unforgettably recorded in Frederick Brown’s superlative biography.

As a portrait of a writer’s life, it belongs on the same shelf as Leon Edel’s life of Henry James, Richard Ellmann’s of James Joyce, and Mr. Brown’s own recent book on Flaubert’s younger contemporary Emile Zola. I can think of no higher or more appropriate praise.

Opening with a capsule history of Rouen, the city in Normandy where Gustave Flaubert was born (in 1821) and spent his early childhood, Mr. Brown moves smoothly on to a rich discussion of the complex intellectual climate in which Flaubert pere Achille-Cleophas became a respected surgeon, Gustave’s older brother Achille followed successfully in their father’s footsteps, and the writer-to-be was enabled to indulge a passion for reading (including a lifelong interest in history) and a penchant for lurid melodramatic tales, indulged and protected by his strong-willed mother and adoring younger sister Caroline.

Mr. Brown gives a lively account of “The Grand Tour,” which was Gustave’s gift for graduating from collegiate school, and which initiated a habit of compulsive foreign travel punctuated by “bibulous ramble,” varied sexual adventures, and an increasing sophistication that led the young author beyond melodramatic historical juvenilia to the completion of his virtually plotless first novel (“November”) and — fortuitously — beyond a wavering commitment to succeed in law school, abandoned by health problems which have been retrospectively diagnosed as epilepsy.

For better and worse, the literary life absorbed him. Despite his own physical limitations (exacerbated by pronounced hypochondria), and a succession of family tragedies (notably, the frail Caroline’s early death in the wake of her first childbirth), Flaubert thrived as an essentially self-created all-purpose intellectual.

He enjoyed the comradeship and correspondence of a number of congenial soul mates, begun by his boyhood friendship with highborn Alfred Le Poittevin; including intellectually focused relationships with suave boulevardier Maxime Du Camp (who shrewdly observed of Gustave’s hard-won literary maturity, that “epilepsy had transformed affluent writer into a famously deliberate one”) and unassuming Louis Bouilhet; passionate bluestocking Louise Colet; prolific sibling authors Edmond and Jules de Goncourt ; the great Russian writer (and inveterate Francophile) Ivan Turgenev; and feminist author-sibyl George Sand, who emerges from these pages as a worldly paragon of good sense and generosity.

Mr. Brown compellingly relates their individual and intertwined histories, in a lucid style that effortlessly assembles disparate materials into eloquently expressive statements. He’s a master of simple declarative sentences shaped and energized by pointed contrasts (e.g., of the schoolboy’s maiden literary efforts: “As swords abound in Gustave’s stories, so scalpels abounded at home”).

And he’s often very amusing, both on the subject of Gustave’s imperious egoism (in his maturity, “Flaubert declared himself to be his own man, endowed with free will, and, alas, ‘radically’ incapable of making any woman happy”) and when discussing such secondary or contextually involved personages as celebrated temptress “Lola Montez,” whose several lovers included King Ludwig I of Bavaria (“over whom she held absolute sway”).

Though it’s understandably more firmly focused on its subject’s intriguingly patchwork character and personality, this excellent book has incisive things to say about Flaubert’s small but (generally) enduringly important oeuvre, even if it does include the blithely impious novel (over which its author labored for years) “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” and the North African romance “Salammbo” (a feat of sedulously organization sunk into near-inconsequence by the weight of its painstakingly researched exotic materials).

Mr. Brown patiently reconstructs the trial for immorality and other indignities occasioned by “the serialized publication of ‘Madame Bovary’ under a regime that did not gladly suffer floutings of artistic and moral convention,” but leavens the story of that book’s sufferings by noting the respectful attention it was almost immediately granted by such influential luminaries as France’s most prominent critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve and notorious poet Charles Baudelaire.

The final pages are darkened by Flaubert’s grim awareness of lingering political turmoil and economic instability (the residue of the Franco-Prussian War), his own increasingly poor health, and virtual penury resulting from his (rather surprisingly heroic) shouldering of the financial burdens that afflicted his beloved niece (another Caroline).

Nor was his literary standing a consolation. Despite the acclaim that greeted his splendid story collection “Trois Contes” (Three Tales), the late novel “Bouvard and Pecuchet” was another critical failure, and their author died (in 1880) a disappointed man unsure of how (or indeed whether) he would be remembered.

Two recent translations of Flaubert’s fiction should persuade most readers that Frederick Brown’s infectious affection for this flawed, engagingly hyperbolic genius is not misplaced.

Margaret Maudon’s new English-language version of “Madame Bovary,” attentive on every page to Flaubert’s exacting precision, creates enthralling word pictures in such episodes as provincial doctor Charles Bovary’s botched operation on a clubfooted stableboy (which increases his young wife Emma’s alienation from him), the Vaubyessards’ ball at which Emma is transported into the “romance” she yearns for, and every appearance of Babbitt-like pharmacist Homais, the common man who embodies the dull reality that eventually overwhelms her.

Mauldon’s renderings of accreting images of overindulgence, exhaustion, imprisonment, paralysis and death strikingly underscore this great novel’s implacable revelatory momentum.

A different Flaubert emerges in Mark Polizzotti’s crisp translation of the unfinished “Bouvard and Pecuchet,” which builds an anatomy of human folly out of the friendship of the eponymous “two nobodies” (frequently likened to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, even Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy), autodidacts who set out to master all human knowledge, but fail at everything they attempt.

Though the novel is discursive and very nearly inert, there’s a kind of nobility in the stubbornness with which its protagonists persevere — secure in their conviction that good will and tireless effort will accomplish everything of which they dream. We catch a hint of Flaubert’s determination to show life, not as it is imagined and dreamed, but in all its sometimes sordid, sometimes ridiculous imperfection. The stories told by both his books and his life remain well worth hearing again and again.

Bruce Allen lives in Kittery, Maine and writes regularly for the Boston Globe, Raleigh News & Observer, Kirkus Reviews and other publications.

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