I’m a big fan of biography, particularly those that concern writers and artists, but I do have one complaint: the majority of them are far too long. So many are guilty of sagging in the bulky middle section in which a famous person is of necessity rather busy, scurrying hither and thither in a maelstrom of activity, recounted in its entirety to satisfy the standards of the genre, but too confusing to evaluate in terms of its significance to the life. And so this is how come I’ve developed a real taste for the Brief Lives series from Hesperus. Being obliged to sum up a life in 150 pages rather than 450 focuses the mind, and encourages a biographer to decide in advance what really mattered and what was peripheral detail. Or in some case, which peripheral details were the ones that were truly symbolic of the life.
A little while back I finished Brief Lives: Flaubert by Andrew Brown and it quickly shot into my list of top ten biographies. This isn’t a steady, all-encompassing tour through the minutiae of a life, instead, whilst it furnishes all the details you might expect to ground a biography, it feels much more like an insertion into the mindset of Flaubert – it’s a book about who he was rather than just what he did. The material is organized into a series of brief chapters, each one focused on an important element in Flaubert’s life – his friends, his books, his preoccupations. And the writing is amazing, rich and eloquent and full of vibrant texture. The experience of reading the book was akin to eating a box of Belgian truffles with studied gluttony.
So what do we learn about Flaubert? The son of a doctor, who was permanently disquieted in childhood by the fact they lived above the combined hospital, asylum and morgue, he began life in comfortable, bourgeois fashion and inherited enough money to live without the worry of work (until near the end of his life when financial disaster struck). He made tentative venturings out into a career in the law, which he hated, until epilepsy, or some similar malady, gave him the excuse he needed to back out of working life and into an altogether more passionate, frustrated, engaged combat with literature. From early days Flaubert’s character demonstrated the necessary paradoxes for a writerly temperament. He was a wonderful friend, he loved people devotedly and was at times a keen traveler, but nothing scraped the surface of his essentially solitary, reclusive nature. He had a terrible self-image, or perhaps an astute one that he phrased in a comically self-deprecating way (the borderline is hard to distinguish). He described himself as: ‘a lake or “a stagnant pool where nothing moves and nothing can be seen”. As he feared passion and movement, this was a good thing, for “if happiness is to be found anywhere, it’s in stagnation. Ponds never suffer from storms.”’ This was Gustave the bear, a ‘gross, plodding creature’, who reviled all societies and communal ways of thinking, who chose inertia, apathy, contemplation, resistance, slowness, but managed at the same time to be a most jolly friend and a prolific writer.
His temperament naturally made for a rather unsuccessful love life. The supposed love of his life was Louise Colet, a published poet, single mother and political revolutionary. Flaubert was utterly seduced, but ultimately exhausted by all that dazzling action. This account of the affair’s cooling-off really made me laugh: ‘he told her he felt old and jaded [he was 24]; he had his work to do; she could not come to Croisset (his ailing mother needed peace and quiet), he could not come to Paris (he needed the peace and quiet of Croisset, where he had to nurse his ailing mother and, later, his ailing novel); he would check the rail timetable and see whether he could maybe fit in a few hours to see her in Mantes, between Paris and Rouen. (His dislike of rail travel was intensified when there was a possessive mother at one end and a possessive lover at the other.)’ Flaubert’s reluctance to embrace the tumultuous energy of the love affair is so blatant; he wanted to stay peaceful, selfish and working undisturbed. In the end Louise called him a ‘cowardly, gutless scumbag’, but then, she was upset. Their friendship, conducted through a lot of letters, was important to both of them for almost ten years.
Where this biography really excels is in weaving the spirit, the zest, the gist, of Flaubert’s work throughout the account of his life. You can really feel the outline forming of the man who wrote Madame Bovary and A Sentimental Education, just as you begin to discern under that gloriously smooth cloth of his prose, the nubs and flaws of the author. If anyone knew how to suffer for his art, it was Flaubert. He was a slow, painful writer, with exquisite standards for his prose and a complicated perspective on the world. Like most great authors, he received very little recognition for his novels until he was nearing death. He didn’t take this well; he suffered cruelly from criticism, even though a negative, profoundly critical viewpoint infused all his writing. I can’t resist quoting once more, as this paragraph I thought went to the heart of Flaubert’s work quite brilliantly:
‘When, towards the end of Flaubert’s life, everyone was taking up positions, and curious to discover where he stood in the field of cultural production, he shrugged. ‘All dogmatism exasperates me’, he wrote, dogmatically, exasperatingly. Realism? He wrote Madame Bovary out of hatred for it (just as he wrote, more generally, out of hatred for reality). Naturalism? ‘Me no comprenez,’ he pidgined; too many coarse words – and why on earth did Zola have to write the same way his workers and peasants spoke? […] Never has such a major French writer taken ideas so seriously (his reading – on history, on politics, on philosophy – was staggering; just for the sake of a few details in Saint Anthony he ploughed his way through Plotinus’ complete Enneads – which he loathed) while being so resolutely anti-intellectual. He loved – or hated – ideas too much to chose between them. Any idea that had ever been entertained was still alive, and could spiral back into view. […] If ideas darkened the pages of a novel, it was to be as mere bric-à-brac, on a par with a piece of furniture or an item of clothing’.
Flaubert’s work was so often about people pitted against the wonderful superabundance of resources in the world that always seem to be just out of reach. Imagination, happiness, enlightenment, fulfillment, all exquisite promises that never quite seemed to come good over the course of his narratives. Instead, their shadow side loomed large. His interest was irrevocably drawn towards stupidity and folly, in its myriad forms, but not from the perspective of authority over it. It was more of a ‘been there, done that’ project, rich with tender contempt for the whole of humanity. It’s the contradictions that fuel Flaubert’s writing, the beauty of his prose recounting the sordid, pathetic things people do; the aspiration of an idea matched only by its vulgar debasement in the hands of the local village idiot. And it’s these contradictions that this little book handles so very well.
I will make a brief confession – I do know the author. He was my favourite supervisor when I was an undergraduate and, for a while, we were colleagues in the French department. He was quite amazing to work with. For instance, we were both examiners for the viva of an M.Phil student working on something like Kafka and Blanchot, I can’t quite recall now. But at one point the student wanted to refer to something he’d read in Hegel, and as he began to stutter over a paraphrase of the quote, Andrew produced the whole thing perfectly in the original German. I remember sitting there, trying to wipe the ‘ZOMG!’ expression off my face. So, you see, I knew I’d be in safe hands with this biography. It’s witty and pithy as well as erudite and charming. Flaubert would have loved it, I think.
Well, this is my last post for a while – have a wonderful Christmas, full of good things and I’ll see you all out the other side to compare new books, with a bit of luck. Happy Holidays to you all!