Sweet Nothing


Flaubert is singular enough to ditch the first name. When canonical authors get this sandwiched by synecdoche and critical back catalogs, discovering a biography as absorbing and surprising as Frederick Brown’s Flaubert is more or less miraculous. Published 150 years after Madame Bovary, Flaubert has historical sweep, micro-tidbits, and colorful correspondence. The narrative arcs spend ample time on Flaubert’s precocious Rouen childhood, as the son of a heroic doctor and migraine-prone mother who “spent half her life in a black lace bonnet as if perpetually mourning her dead babies.” We glimpse juvenile plays staged, his jokester “proto-Ubu” alter ego “le Garçon,” and Lovecraftian weirdness and Sadean prose penned before he mastered life-hiding authorial distance. Brown abuts tiny details (“carbuncles came and went”) with hugely intriguing notions, e.g., a “language of seizures” and Flaubert’s addiction to absence. Discussing the master stylist, he also showcases whiz-bang prose à la “Rabelaisian spunk” or linking “black humor, acid-etched caricature, and white-gloved nihilism.”

Brown gives less space to Flaubert’s finale, Bouvard and Pécuchet (freshly republished by Dalkey Archive) than Sentimental Education and Bovary. This is no diss: Complete the bio then read Flaubert’s self-described “dog of a book,” the obsessively researched story of copy clerks gone wild—it feels like a complimentary summation or epilogue. Mark Polizzotti’s smooth, expanded translation comes with additional blasts in the “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas,” a hyper-spare “Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas,” and an apt introduction by Queneau. Sentence by sentence, it’s hard to say if Polizzotti knocks out A.J. Krailsheimer’s earlier edition, but I imagine those, like me, who enjoyed Lydia Davis’s Swann’s Way will approve of the shimmering newbie.

Following middle-aged dimwits into the country, B&P is part medieval mystery play, part slapstick implosion. Flaubert’s staunchest correspondents at that time, George Sand and Turgenev (“you’re at work kneading dough”) showed reservations, but as climax-free page-turning, it’s the “bourgeoisophobe” ‘s realist ambush, Gargantua and Pantagruel as Dumb and Dumber. Well, sort of. Critics highlight B&P’s structural repetitions, that our Seinfeldian Frenchman desired to write a book about nothing, but despite B&P‘s fixation on quick intellectual fixes and its geometric alignments, it’s more than bitter masturbation. As Flaubert writes in B&P, “Art, on some occasions, can move mediocre spirits, and worlds can be revealed by its most heavy-handed interpreters,” and in an 1876 letter to Sand, a “Thing is good if it is true. Obscene books are immoral because untruthful. When reading them, one says: ‘That’s not the way things are.’ ”

In that sense, dear Google addicts, B&P aren’t Laurel and Hardy prototypes: Here, more than anywhere in Flaubert’s oeuvre, Madam Bovary‘s “cracked kettle” of human speech is no longer “tap[ping] crude rhythms for bears to dance to,”—it’s aimed, Punch and Judy–style, directly at our craniums.