A Lesson in Persistence: Flaubert’s Struggle with Madame Bovary

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It’s easy to think that books now considered classics must have been, in some sense, inevitable. That the authors intuited they were onto something vital. Their toil was propelled by the mental flow that, at the best of times, animates human endeavor.

This idea is discouraging to one struggling with his art and divining in that struggle a premonition of failure. If this were “right,” one might say, “I wouldn’t agonize over it so much. The pieces would fit.”

But those souls can take comfort in the history of Madame Bovary, over which Flaubert toiled for four and a half years.

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This background borrows from Lydia Davis’s introduction to her acclaimed translation of the novel, which I’ve just finished reading.  (Only the quotation in block format is Flaubert’s own.)

Madame Bovary was a departure for Flaubert, who was an unproven unknown at the time. He had written other manuscripts, but he’d never been published. A friend found one of these earlier works too “lyrical and effusive” and suggested that the writer “take as subject for his next novel something quite mundane.” Flaubert yielded to the advice. For his new work, he would write “about shallow, unsympathetic people in a dreary setting, some of whom make bad choices and come to a horrific end.”

Flaubert labored at this unusual project. Perhaps because it was such a departure, the new work did not come easily. Flaubert struggled immediately, explaining in a letter:

Yesterday evening, I started my novel. Now I begin to see stylistic difficulties that horrify me. To be simple is no small matter.

Flaubert was not yet thirty.

He discarded much of what he wrote, scrapping whole passages and relentlessly scrubbing metaphor. He did this as he went, and his pace was slow. He worked full days, beginning in early afternoon and continuing late into the night, but at times produced only a single finished page per week.

Much of the struggle arose from his dedication to an “objective” style that depended almost entirely on the selection and arrangement of details and events. This was a new invention. His aim was “to present the material without comment,” under the theory that “a painstaking objective description – of a ridiculous object, for instance – should be comment enough.”

Illustration for Madame Bovary by Albert Fourié (1885)

Flaubert wasn’t certain this would work. It was a monumental gambit. Remember, he wasn’t yet published; becoming an author was still an aspiration. Against this uncertainty, he spent nearly five years laboring in an unorthodox style that didn’t come naturally – and told friends that he was afraid he wouldn’t pull it off.

Of course, Flaubert did pull it off. The historical background has been preserved precisely because it tells the origin story of a literary classic. Madame Bovary “is now viewed as the first masterpiece of realist fiction.”

The lesson here is not that dogged pursuit of a goal will pay off in the end. In fact, the opposite. Success is never certain; failure is always possible. And even masterpieces start as a gamble. But the gamble is necessary. Madame Bovary was grueling work, but the result was sublime.

Read it: Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, trans. Lydia Davis

Additional notes:

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