The Definitive Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert died on this day in 1880, aged fifty-eight. Although he enjoyed a small circle of friends — George Sand, Zola, and Maupassant among them — and Frederick Brown’s recent biography Flaubert (2006) finds a convivial streak, most agree that ordinary living was not Flaubert’s strength. A lifelong contempt for bourgeois attitudes took full blossom in his last work, the unfinished novel Bouvard et Pécuchet. This he subtitled “An Encyclopedia of Human Stupidity,” and there is some evidence that he intended to append to it another social slap, his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas. This is a compendium of contemporary platitudinous beliefs, the sort of tiresome thinking Flaubert was horrified to encounter whenever he did venture out into the world. Some entries from early on:

ARISTOCRACY Despise and envy it.
ARMY The bulwark of society.
ART Leads to the workhouse. What use is it since machines can make things better and quicker?
AUTHORS One should “know a few authors”: no need to know their names.
BASES (OF SOCIETY). Id est property, the family, religion, respect for authority. Show anger if these are attacked.
BEDROOM In an old chateau, Henry IV is sure to have slept there.
BEETHOVEN Don’t pronounce Beatoven. Be sure to swoon when one of his works is being played.
BIRD Wish you were one, saying with a sigh:”Oh, for a pair of wings!” This shows a poetic soul.
BLONDES Hotter than brunettes. (See BRUNETTES.)
BOOK Always too long, whatever the subject.

Such attitudes, and the infamous Madame Bovary, made Flaubert a target for the cartoonists, and one memorable detail from his funeral gave the anti-Flaubertians new material for their lampoons. Because the grave was dug too small, the coffin got stuck, and the mourners were forced to depart with Flaubert’s feet still sticking up in the air. But the Flaubertians also claimed the image as their own, depicting the stuck coffin as Flaubert’s refusal to go quietly and conventionally away. (BURIAL: Too often premature. Tell stories of corpses which had eaten an arm off to appease their hunger.)


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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