Gustave Flaubert … the martyr of style

Gustave Flaubert … the martyr of style

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Gustave Flaubert (1821~1880) was an influential French novelist who was perhaps the leading exponent of literary realism in his country. He is known especially for his first published novel, Madame Bovary (1857), for his Correspondence, and for his scrupulous devotion to his style and aesthetics.

Flaubert believed in, and pursued, the principle of finding “le mot juste” (“the right word”), which he considered as the key means to achieve quality in literary art. He worked in sullen solitude—sometimes occupying a week in the completion of one page—never satisfied with what he had composed. In Flaubert’s correspondence he intimates this, explaining correct prose did not flow out of him and that his style was achieved through work and revision.

This painstaking style of writing is also evident when one compares Flaubert’s output over a lifetime to that of his peers (for example Balzac or Zola). Flaubert published much less prolifically than was the norm for his time and never got near the pace of a novel a year, as his peers often achieved during their peaks of activity. Walter Pater famously called Flaubert the “martyr of style.”

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In his book Daily Rituals author Mason Currey describes Flaubert’s daily routine …

Flaubert woke at 10am each morning and rang for the servant, who brought him the newspapers, his mail, a glass of cold water and his filled pipe. At about 11am he would join his family in the dining-room for a late-morning meal that served as both his breakfast and his lunch. Then the family moved outdoors for a stroll. In the afternoon he commenced his daily lesson to his niece Caroline, which took place in his study. After an hour of instruction, Flaubert dismissed his pupil and settled into the high-backed armchair in front of his large round table and did some work – mostly reading. After a meal at 7pm he sat and talked with his mother until she went to bed. At about 10pm his real work began. Hunched over his table while the rest of the household slept, he struggled to forge a new prose style, one stripped of all unnecessary ornament and excessive emotion in favour of merciless realism rendered in precisely the right words. This word-by-word and sentence- by-sentence labour proved almost unbearably difficult:

Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brain doesn’t melt away. I am leading an austere life and am sustained only by a kind of permanent frenzy. I love my work.

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Often he complained of his slow progress.

Bovary is not exactly racing along: two pages in a week! Sometimes I’m so discouraged I could jump out a window.

This momentous daily struggle continued, with few breaks, until June 1856, when, after nearly five years of labour, Flaubert finally mailed the manuscript to his publisher.

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3 responses to “Gustave Flaubert … the martyr of style

  1. Exactly. Such a lesson for us all. He kept going and didn’t quit. Thanks for dropping by. 😀

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