Snippets of French History. Great writers: Gustave Flaubert.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Flaubert did not write much. Other French writers of the time, some of whom were known personally to Flaubert, were prolific – Zola, Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant … to name but a few.
Flaubert was fanatic about each sentence he wrote, even each word, and would regularly spend an entire week over just one sentence. He almost certainly had some kind of syndrome/illness or personality disorder. He was intense in his approach to life in general, always dissatisfied, pernickety in his choice of words and highly critical.
The result of this was that each of the books he wrote took him years. “Madame Bovary”, published in 1857, his best-known novel about the wife of a doctor in provincial France, took him no less than five years to write. “L’education Sentimentale” took him seven years ! “Salambo” took him four years. As a writer myself, I can confirm that this really is excessive. He was sullen, fastidious, and a perfectionist. I bet he was tedious to live with !
Ironically, he wrote letters to his friends and acquaintances constantly, and these letters now make up two entire volumes. In his letters we can see how he was a martyr to his own fastidiousness, constantly striving for le mot juste. He was forever starting on one thing and then continuing on another, rarely seeing anything through in one hit. Although he was eternally at his desk writing, he produced really very little.
Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen in 1821, the second son of a doctor and his wife. He was only eight years old when (he claimed) he started to write little stories (unpublished – none survive). He went to a lycee in Rouen till he was eighteen and from there went to Paris to study law.
Flaubert disliked both Paris and his studies. He was anyway a very mediocre student and seemed to excel in nothing, nor be interested in anything. He had an epileptic fit while living in Paris (it is not known whether this was a solitary episode, but it is unlikely) and he returned to Rouen, to a house in the village of Croisset, just outside the town.
As was the fashion, Flaubert travelled to Corsica, Egypt, Greece, Beirut (where he caught syphillis) and to Carthage. He had several short-lived flings with both men and women. He never married, nor had any children.
Flaubert always had money and health problems. He had venereal disease in one form or another throughout most of his adult life, and probably died of precisely that. He died in his cottage in Croisset, aged only 58.
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