Peter Brooks's excellent Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris: The Story of a Friendship, a Novel, and a Terrible Year is the perfect companion for reading Flaubert's Sentimental Education. Flaubert believed his novel, published in 1869, anticipated the "terrible year" of summer 1870-71, when France suffered defeat by Prussia, followed by bloody internal strife. Brooks's book also reveals small yet meaningful details from the correspondence between Flaubert and George Sands. Here, Brooks ranks his favorite Flaubert works.
Gustave Flaubert had published absolutely nothing before his mid thirties—and then opened with a masterpiece, Madame Bovary, published first in serial form (with some passages censored by the editors of the periodical La Revue de Paris), then as a book in 1857, but not before being dragged into court on charges of outrage to public morality. He escaped conviction, and the novel profited mightily from the publicity. Nothing he published subsequently made the same hit as Madame Bovary, but there are several items that are must reading. Flaubert is after all the first “modernist,” the writer who taught so many twentieth-century novelists their craft—Henry James, Joyce, Kafka, Proust, Woolf, Beckett all learned from him. He brought to the art of fiction the kind of attention poets give to composing a sonnet. And he demonstrated that the novel—up to his time so often considered a form of light entertainment—could engage the most serious issues of existence.
1. Madame Bovary
This remains as fresh and pertinent today as it was at publication—and it is still a shocker. We have seen plenty of adultery in the novel, but Emma Bovary’s experience of love and sex both marital and extra-marital is captured with extraordinary vividness and immediacy. The material world and the world of sensations are given to us in stunning detail. You might say this is the first truly “realist” novel in its detailing of the sights, smells, touches of everyday life. It is also the story of a longing that we all share to break out of the everyday, to experience the rare and significant. Emma Bovary may be deluded in her search for rapturous happiness, but it makes her a creative spirit, like the man who created her. “Madame Bovary is me,” Flaubert is supposed to have exclaimed. Yes, in that he has so well imagined an imprisoned spirit seeking adventure and release. There are two good translations of Madame Bovary available: by Geoffrey Wall (Penguin), and (even better, I think) by Lydia Davis (Viking).
2. A Simple Heart
This novella, one of the Three Tales Flaubert published late in life, is justifiably a perennial favorite. As Flaubert wrote to a friend who thought his choice to focus on a Norman peasant woman who spends her life as a servant must have been for satiric purposes, the story is devoid of irony. It is instead “serious and sad”—the story of the “hidden life” of a country girl “tender like fresh bread.” We know the world in this story through the sensations of a simple soul who experiences nature, and love, and religion, and language itself in a primal, sensuous manner. She outlives all her human attachments—her mistresses’ two children, her nephew, even her parrot, then her mistress herself—and ends up alone with the parrot, now stuffed, but the object of an intense spiritualism. A truly amazing tale. There are a number of translations of Three Tales available; one of the best is by A.J. Krailsheimer (Oxford World Classics).
3. Sentimental Education
My personal favorite, not because I think it greater than Madame Bovary—which has a kind of unmatched perfection—but because it is more ambitious in scope. Flaubert described it as the moral, or more accurately, the sentimental history of his own generation. “Sentimental” here means an education in what they don’t teach you at school: learning about love, friendship, betrayal, all the life of the emotions. The generation at issue is Flaubert’s own, and his protagonist, Frédéric Moreau, undergoes the great experience of that generation, the Revolution of 1848 and its aftermath. The first two parts of the novel engage Frédéric’s romantic longings—for love and for art—but simultaneously prepare the coming of a momentous historical event. 1848 would unseat the monarchy, lead to a short-lived progressive Republic, and then to the coup d’état of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte that would result in the Second Empire, and death of aspirations to freedom and self-determination. Flaubert, among other talents, proves a stunningly scrupulous historical novelist, bringing us a richly textured account of the aspirations, illusions, and defeats of the insurgents. Really the only available translation is from Penguin, by Robert Baldick, revised by Geoffrey Wall. Some publisher should commission a new one—it’s needed.
4. The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller
Back to the Three Tales: this one unfolds in a medieval setting—the narrator claims he has told the story as he found it on a stained-glass window in Rouen Cathedral (in Normandy, Flaubert’s homeland). Like A Simple Heart, the story is recounted with simplicity, but here it is like the art of the middle ages. The realism here is magical, taking us through dreamlike sequences of hunting, and murder, and eventually what appears to be redemption. A stunning performance, unlike anything else I have ever read. Again, the A. J. Krailsheimer translation is recommended.
5. Bouvard and Pécuchet
Flaubert’s strangest but in some ways most characteristic work—left unfinished at his death—in which he exercises a kind of cosmic irony on the pretentions of his time and his contemporaries. His main figures, Bouvard and Pécuchet—seemingly Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but they do eventually become distinguishable one from another—are copyists who retire and move to Normandy and undertake a number of do-it-yourself projects studied up in books—always with dire results. From farming to horticulture to history writing to child rearing, all their experiments tend to prove the fatuousness of most human knowledge. Yet their comic misadventures eventually lead them to a mentality like their creator’s: perceiving human stupidity and no longer being able to tolerate it. The work of a master ironist no longer restraining himself in unleashing his contempt for his surroundings. There is a really great translation of the novel by Mark Polizzotti, published by Dalkey Archive.
An almost indescribable historical novel set in ancient Carthage, a city completely destroyed by the Roman armies in 146 BCE. Flaubert read countless source books on archaeology and history, and visited the site (in present-day Tunisia) before undertaking his book. The story stages the battles between Carthage and its mercenary armies—complete with charging elephants and brutal siege tactics—and the strange sexual adventure of the young, exotic Salammbô, daughter of Hamilcar Barca. Not for every taste, but a remarkable reconstruction of a lost world.
7. The Selected Letters of Gustave Flaubert
Edited and well translated by Francis Steegmuller (two volumes, Harvard University Press). Flaubert was one of the greatest correspondents of all time: unbuttoned, funny, profane, profound. He never wrote critical essays—it’s in the letters that you find all the remarks on the art of the novel that inspired later writers. See especially those to Louise Colet, his lover at the time he was writing Madame Bovary; and to his dear friend, the novelist George Sand; and also to the great Russian, another close friend, Ivan Turgenev.