The New York Times
Flaubert: A Biographyby Frederick Brown
From the highly acclaimed author of Zola: A Life comes the definitive biography of Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary.Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), whose Madame Bovary outraged the right-thinking bourgeoisie, is now brought to life as the singular person and artist he was. As Frederick Brown reveals, Flaubert was fraught with contradictiona
From the highly acclaimed author of Zola: A Life comes the definitive biography of Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary.Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), whose Madame Bovary outraged the right-thinking bourgeoisie, is now brought to life as the singular person and artist he was. As Frederick Brown reveals, Flaubert was fraught with contradictiona sedentary man who took epic voyages through Egypt and the Middle East; a man of genius who could be flamboyantly uncouth, but was fanatically devoted to beautifully cadenced prose. While making much of his camaraderie with male friends, Flaubert depended upon the emotional nurture of maternal women, notably George Sand, with whom he engaged in a justly celebrated correspondence. His assorted mistressesFrench, Egyptian, and Englishfed both his richly erotic imagination and his fictional characters, and his letters provide a record of them.Flaubert's time and place literally put him on trial for portraying lewd behavior in Madame Bovary. His milieu also made him a celebrity and, indirectly, brought about his financial ruin. Flaubert died suddenly at the age of fifty-nine, and soon afterward, his beloved retreat near Rouen was torn down and converted into a distillery to cover his niece's debts. He privately dreamed of popular success, which he in fact achieved with Madame Bovary, but never sacrificed to it his ideal of artistic integrity. Frederick Brown's magisterial biography honors his subject's life, times, and legacy.
The New York Times
One of the virtues of Frederick Brown's quietly persuasive biography is its careful documentation of Flaubert's always agonized search for a literary idea to match his aesthetic ideals. Another is its sensitivity to the complexities of his artistic personality...[Brown] has put together a judicious work that sticks to the record and relies on expertly chosen passages from Flaubert's brilliant letters and the works of his contemporaries to develop a convincing portrait, brushstroke by brushstroke.
Brown is no slouch himself when it comes to research. His new biography of Flaubert is almost as much a cultural history of France in the mid-19th century as it is a life of the author...But however fascinating the world in which he moved, Flaubert doesn't get lost in his own biography. He emerges from the pages of Brown's book as a wonderfully complex blend of the passionate and the persnicketyor as Brown puts it, 'glorifying unruly, sociopathic, large-lunged genius or fussing over stylistic minutiae as obsessively as a Byzantine grammarian.'...He paints a rich portrait of Flaubert's circle of friends and acquaintances, a who's who of 19th-century French writers that includes Zola, the Goncourt brothers, Guy de Maupassant, Théophile Gautier and Charles Sainte-Beuve. But best of all, he gives us Flaubert and his world in all their grand, complicated messiness, the better to appreciate the skill with which Flaubert brought literary order out of the chaos of existence.
Frederick Brown's Flaubert is both valuable and fascinating...Brown provides an exemplary biography, brilliantly detailed and exhaustively researched. Particularly impressive is Brown's ability to convey a welter of intriguing facts eloquently and articulately...Equally impressive are Brown's brilliant analyses of particular scenes from the novel. He is a superb literary analyst and critic. His thoroughness, articulateness and critical mastery combine to make this work at once a remarkably informative and brilliantly incisive portrait of a man and his era.
A beautifully written book with the kind of commitment to Flaubertian detail that few fiction writers achieve, let alone biographers...[A] delightfully overwhelming biography...[Brown's] lucid histories and deeply detailed psychological construction of a literary giant are deserving of the widest audience.
The most immediate effect of Brown's book is an urgent desire to read absolutely everything Flaubert published...Biographers are handmaids in the literary world, and since Brown's book will win Flaubert many new or returning readers, it is, for this reason alone, a resounding success...Brown's biography [is] funny, racy, gossipy and erudite by turns.
[A] wonderfully rich and enjoyable book...There have, of course, been biographies of Flaubert before...and, if Frederick Brown's account can add only a small amount to the record, it offers a new richness of context. Showing a positively Flaubertian diligence of research, he has woven his subject into the fustian of his timesliterary, social and political. The vicissitudes of French public life from the Revolution of 1848 to the Paris Commune are lucidly laid out.
[A] massive and authoritative biography.
[A] splendid new biography...[A] vigorously researched, intellectually nuanced, and exquisitely written book...[A] remarkable book.
Frederick Brown has written a monumental biography of Flaubert...An astounding work of literary biography that scrupulously avoids critical commentary, allowing the documentary evidence speak for itself...[An] encyclopedic work...If you fancy discovering the motivation and inner world of this brilliant, if esoteric, French novelist; if you wish to gently acquaint yourself with the labyrinthine revolutions of French politics in the 19th century; if you like reading biographies of artists or great writers and you are curious to read about the overlapping lives of the literati in the social whirl of 19th-century Paris, then your toil will be richly rewarded.
Because Flaubert, like his details, is so visible and invisible, he needs to be cleaned of the glaze of his renown every so often and shown afresh; and he needs to be treated by someone who has himself a good eye for detail. Frederick Brown is the right candidate...He is an impeccable scholar with a talent for historical narrative, and the owner of a rich, flexible prose style. His magnificent new book is at once a history of 19th-century France and a brilliant exercise in character animation. A huge amount of research is the private income that gives this book its well-dressed assurance, and that encourages the reader to absorb it greedily; splendid mini-histories of 19th-century medicine and of the law, of relations between French governments and the people, of the development of Paris under Haussmann, of European attitudes toward the Orient, dissolve in the larger fizz of his vivacious story. Brown's biography will clearly be the Life for this generation.
An absorbing book.
[A] superb, full-length portrait...Flaubert is a superb biography, not least because it gives us the portrait of a man embedded in his country and his age even as he rebels against its values and mores. Brown is masterly at drawing the background to his subject, social and political, writing with authority and an eye for the telling detail that compel fascination as well as respect.
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By Frederick Brown
Little, BrownCopyright © 2006 Frederick Brown
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Surgeon at the Hotel-Dieu
ACHILLE-CLEOPHAS Flaubert hailed from a corner of Champagne bordering on the Ile-de-France where Flauberts, or "Floberts," as civil records often identify them, inhabited at least sixty villages. The epicenter of this swarm was Bagneux, a riverine hamlet situated between Troyes and Nogent-sur-Seine, one hundred kilometers southeast of Paris. Had he concerned himself with genealogy, Achille-Cleophas could have traced his line back to seventeenth-century syndics who represented the community before royal deputies. But he undoubtedly knew little of any past more remote than his paternal grandfather, Constant-Jean-Baptiste, a marechal-expert by trade-that is, a farrier, or combination blacksmith-veterinarian-and the father of three sons destined also to earn their livelihoods treating sick animals.
In his sons, Constant had not fathered pious apprentices, as he would surely have done several decades earlier. All three belonged to a generation that profited from the influence of the Enlightenment on rural mores. After 1750, animal husbandry was increasingly coupled with farming in a political economics that held land to be the fount of national wealth; government ministers who invoked this creed, menknown as physiocrats, envisioned science as agriculture's handmaiden. Science became urgently relevant during the second half of the century, when cattle plague, or rinderpest, swept across France like mad cow disease. By 1766 two veterinary programs had been established, one at Alfort, near Paris, for training a professional cadre whose expertise would benefit domestic animals. The aim was to supplant the guild of marechaux-experts, which considered the horse alone truly worth a farrier's ministrations and schooled apprentices in that feudal bias, but also to rescue beasts of the field from folk doctors-so-called empirics-applying remedies of every grotesque description. The new curriculum was based upon the same precepts that had begun to transform the study of human medicine. At the recently chartered College de chirurgie (formerly the College de Saint-Come) in Paris-where an amphitheater, from which barber wig makers were banned, often overflowed with students who found the operations performed by surgeons of note more captivating than the lectures on Galen recited at the Medical Faculty-observation was the watchword. So too was it at Alfort. To learn about sick bodies, one looked inside them, and at the veterinary school, anatomy lessons counted for a great deal. To be sure, Galen's or any other systematic theory of disease would have ill served country boys whose peasant clientele, if they succeeded in acquiring one, regarded with great suspicion all medicine except familiar local nostrums. Indeed, Alfort's first director kept instruction basic, lest excessively sophisticated alumni flee the hinterland from which they had already been uprooted and yield to the temptation of practicing human medicine, or surgery, in Paris. Even so, a ladder had been planted in rural France for boys impelled, like Stendhal's Julien Sorel, by dreams of elevation. Science, however modest his provision of it, set the state-educated veterinarian's son-the artiste-veterinaire-apart from his farrier father, rather as Julien's small Latin distinguished him from his illiterate siblings. And that intellectual distance, despite efforts to thwart its consequences, fostered social mobility.
More common than the arrivistes who clambered up to Paris were the graduates suspended in midair, who found themselves, on returning home from Alfort, shunned as alien by entrenched craft guilds and superstitious peasants. But more common still, perhaps, were artistes-veterinaires who, successful or not in their practice, helped hoist the next generation out of country wallows. Such was the case with Constant-Jean-Baptiste's middle son, Nicolas. Known in the provincial administration (which hired him to treat horses at a state-owned stud farm) for his exorbitant fees as much as for his undoubted competence, and perhaps even for his 726-page herbal describing plants ordinarily used in animal medicine, Nicolas spent some considerable portion of his income on tuition at the College de Sens in Burgundy, where his own son, Achille-Cleophas, studied academic subjects between 1795, when he was eleven, and 1800. This commitment may seem especially remarkable in light of the fact that Nicolas had languished in a Paris jail throughout 1794 after the Revolutionary Tribunal convicted him of making "counter-revolutionary pronouncements." It was undoubtedly some time before he reestablished himself at Nogent-sur-Seine. The stigma of political incorrectness hung over him. And it didn't help to have a mildly deranged sister-in-law, nicknamed "la mere Theos," who preached against the godless republic on village squares and stood proxy for banished priests in conducting Sunday church service, singing the Latin hymns and baptizing newborns until threatened with long imprisonment or worse.
By July 1800, when Achille-Cleophas left the College de Sens at age fifteen, Nicolas had petitioned the communal subprefect for financial assistance on behalf of his son. Only the commonweal could justify any such request, and so he declared that he, virtuous father that he was, had impoverished himself to make the boy a "useful" citizen. Well-grounded in mathematics, as well as in those other "primary" sciences that "form the basis of a solid education," Achille-Cleophas would soldier through life with a burden of gratuitous knowledge unless the state paid his way at Alfort or Polytechnique. It would be an "act of justice," wrote Nicolas. The subprefect concurred and urged Paris to let Achille-Cleophas compete, after his sixteenth birthday, for entrance to Polytechnique (the prestigious school of military engineering) or to admit him at Alfort as a scholarship nominee from the Aube region.
How Achille-Cleophas came to reject these alternatives and at whose expense he entered medical school are unanswered questions. Although the Revolutionary government had decreed in 1794 that every district should select an eleve de la patrie for the reorganized medical school, our one archival source indicates only that the young man was admitted on scholarship to Alfort. It is possible that a second scholarship was awarded or that Nicolas Flaubert, with his heart set on having a son study medicine in Paris, acknowledged Achille-Cleophas's own strong inclination and somehow raised enough to pay tuition. What one knows for certain is that the young man began his career at a seminal moment in the history of French medicine. Amid the rubble left by revolutionaries bent on smashing institutional structures that safeguarded privilege and consecrated traditional authority, adventurous minds found room to maneuver. The empirical method flourished, students sought instruction at Paris's Hotel-Dieu on the Ile de la Cite, and in this movement toward hospital medicine, surgeons held the torch for physicians. They who once trailed behind academic luminaries contemptuous of their intimacy with the human body now constituted a brilliant, scientific vanguard.
The reversal had occurred slowly. Although France had produced the great surgeon Ambroise Pare in Rabelais's time, it took most of the eighteenth century and a battalion of philosophes challenging well-entrenched pieties to clear the ground for clinical medicine. Set against it were not only the church but a high culture whose apologists felt impelled to frame the physical or sensual world in rationalist hypotheses. Behind its ogives on the rue de la Bucherie, the Medical Faculty, where lectures were given in Latin and readily understood by youths, mostly wellborn, who had earned a master of arts degree, restricted its teaching to humane letters, to natural philosophy, and to medical theory derived from classical texts. Never dissecting a dead person or laying hands on a sick one, future physicians became thoroughly conversant with Hippocrates and Galen but remained largely ignorant of humanity in the flesh. Proud to be called antiquarum tenax, this establishment, which scoffed, for example, at William Harvey's discovery that blood circulates, regarded surgery as a subordinate discipline, a manual or "mechanical" trade, fit for the dexterous and inarticulate. Here, as in the culture at large, much was predicated upon the superiority of head over hand. When Louis XIV's premier physician, Guy-Crescent Fagon, survived a lithotomy in 1701, receiving advice on a postoperative regimen from the surgeon, whom he dismissed with "I needed your hand, but I do not need your head," proved more painful than having stones removed from his bladder. In this curt rejoinder, he formulated the prejudice of almost all of his colleagues. Threatened as they increasingly were, they sought shelter from modern times in the distinction conferred upon humanists by their knowledge of the language that gave one access to medical scripture. However skillful the artisan, without Latin he spoke without intellectual authority. So it was that the faculty, unable in 1724 to veto royal patents endowing public courses for five eminent surgeons at the amphitheater of Saint-Come, persuaded the crown to have those five appointed as "demonstrators" rather than "professors." It thus maintained the settled order of things by ensuring, titularly, that ignoramuses whose text was the body should not profess but, like children or nominal mutes, "demonstrate," show, point. An event even more portentous occurred twenty years later, when Louis XV's chancellor, concurring with petitioners from Saint-Come who argued that "knowledge of the Latin tongue and the study of Philosophy" would greatly improve them-that a thorough command of logic, rhetoric, and grammar would broaden their professional horizon-declared the master of arts degree to be a requirement for the surgical mastership. With its very identity at stake, the faculty proclaimed from its bully pulpit the existence of an inherent difference between physician and surgeon. Did surgeon not derive from the Greek word meaning "manual operation"? asked a professor at the medical school. Literary culture, which had previously been seen as the surgeon's deficiency, was henceforth pictured as an encumbrance certain to dull the cunning of his hand. The hand that cut would now scribble, the mouth that demonstrated would now orate. "The [surgeon] demonstrators will have the title of professors," an alarmed opponent of reform exclaimed in 1743. "No longer will they demonstrate anatomy and operations by word of mouth, they will read from books; they will give lessons and not examples; they will play the part of orators to be listened to, instead of offering a model to be imitated." When one eminent physician argued that the hospital should serve as the surgeon's library and cadavers as his books, he wasn't voicing enthusiasm for dissection or the clinical method. He was simply putting a subordinate in his place. And, inversely, when the Revolutionary government proposed that the patent laws of 1791 (levying a tax on businesses) should include medicine, the umbrageous faculty declared itself, in what would prove to be its dying breath, a priestly caste, a transcendent corporation whose stock-in-trade was its aptitude for hermeneutics. "Nothing can legally verify the practice of a profession which is purely intellectual, and which is performed exclusively by verbal means, without the intermediary of any material object."
How far the values informing the conflict between surgeon and physician reached into cultural life beyond medicine may best be seen in the realm of theater. Here a battle raged throughout the eighteenth century between the King's Players and actors who earned their livelihood on the popular or fairground stage. Chartered in 1680 by Louis XIV, the Comedie-Francaise had been given, as its birthright, hegemony over Parisian theater. To "render more perfect the performance of plays," in language closely monitored for barbarisms, was its mission. It alone could utter French; the spoken word was banned from every other stage, and transgressions by the profanum vulgus would not go unpunished. At the Saint-Germain fair, police regularly dismantled jerry-built playhouses in which ingenious devices were used to circumvent the taboo against speech. A theater full of antic mischief, with personae descended straight from commedia dell'arte, marshaled its zanies against the classical company (whose members, nicknamed "Romans" in fairground parlance, dared never run onstage, much less tumble). In language necessarily gestural, Harlequin's slapstick matched the surgeon's scalpel, emblemizing a primitive world, at once older and childish, outside the precincts of culture. While officialdom beat a retreat under Louis XV, it did so in the same tactical spirit as the Medical Faculty declaring that erudition would cramp a surgeon's style. In time the censor came to allow speech on fairground stages, provided only that it be distasteful; judgments delivered thereafter show greater tolerance of smut than of literate badinage. Perverse as this may seem, it was consonant with a desire to keep high essentially distinct from low, to safeguard the one by preserving the other. Let Shakespeare marry eloquence and scatology, intellectual delight and visual excitement. In France, order hinged on their separation. "The crude multitude can derive no pleasure from a serious, solemn, truly tragic discourse and ... this many-headed monster can know at most only the ornaments of theater," affirmed a noted esthetician.
Excerpted from Flaubert by Frederick Brown Copyright © 2006 by Frederick Brown. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
?Frederick Brown is Professor Emeritus at the Department of European Languages and Literatures, the State University of New York at Stonybrook. He is the author of the classic biography of Zola.
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