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A FLÂNEUR, THE FRENCH describe, is a stroller, an idler, an observer of life. Gustave Flaubert was a French novelist, for whom we celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth. And “Flaubert at Two Hundred” is Julian Barnes’ essay in the London Review of Books, December 16, 2021. 

It’s no surprise that such a lengthy essay (6657 words) is replete with tidbits. Here are several.

Gustave Flaubert, 1821–1880, French novelist regarded as a leading exponent of literary realism. Madame Bovary, 1857, was his first and most celebrated work.

On Reading Madame Bovary the First Time. “I would have been fifteen or sixteen,” Barnes writes. “And I had high hopes of Madame Bovary. It still had the reputation of being a hot book—after all, it had been prosecuted for ‘outraging public morals’ when it first appeared serially in the Revue de Paris. France, a married woman, adultery: as we didn’t say then, what’s not to like?”

Barnes found that “The book was too subtle for me, of course, and I failed to find it at all erotic.” 

I’m reminded of my first reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment at about the same age. Psychological? Deeply soul-searching? Nah, it was a good detective yarn. 

Obsessing on Bovary. “One of the more arcane items of Flaubertiana is Ambroise Perrin’s Madame Bovary dans l’ordre (2012),” Barnes observes. This book “lists, in alphabetical order, every single word, number and punctuation mark that occurs in the 1873 Charpentier edition of the novel. And by ‘list’, I mean list: the book has six vertical columns to a page, and prints out the word each time it occurs.”

“So,” Barnes continues, “the word et, which features 2812 times in the novel, is printed out 2812 times, occupying almost nine full pages.… In the same way, you could look up the names of Emma Bovary’s two lovers, Rodolphe and Léon, and discover that Léon’s name occurs 140 times and Rodolphe’s a mere ten fewer.” 

“It is all vaguely witty,” Barnes says, “yet mind-numbingly useless.” 

Du Versus Son. In Part III, Chapter 6,” Barnes says, “Flaubert wrote one of the most desolate lines in the novel. Emma is coming to the end of her affair with Léon: ‘She was as disgusted by him as he was tired of her. Emma was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.’ This is harsh and terrifying news for both  the adulterous and the loyally married…”

Flaubert and the Revue de Paris were put on trial in 1857, and the prosecutor said, “Such, gentlemen, are the situations which M. Flaubert loves to paint, and unfortunately he paints them only too well.” 

When the book was published later that year, the phrase “toutes les platitudes du mariage” was replaced with “toutes les platitudes de son mariage.” That is, the more specific “of her marriage” replaced the universal sentiment.

“But,” Barnes notes, “Flaubert was nothing if not stubborn, and in 1873 reverted to du, making Emma’s bleak condition universal once again.”

On Famous First Books. Barnes cites, “… most knew that Flaubert’s first novel was his best, and always would be. At times he resented this, once expressing the view that he would like to buy up every copy of the book and burn them all.”

Barnes also observes, “A more phlegmatic response to the Famous First Book dilemma was that of Kingsley Amis, who in later years was asked if Lucky Jim hadn’t been a bit of an albatross around his neck. ‘It’s better than having no albatross at all,’ he replied.”

This stuffed parrot perched on an alleged Flaubert likeness celebrates Barnes’ novel Flaubert’s Parrot, 1984. Image from London Review of Books, December 16, 2021.

On Literary Criticism. Barnes says, “I did, for a long time, have an index card a foot or two from where I write, bearing this consoling line from Ford Madox Ford: ‘It is an easy job to say that an elephant, however good, is not a good warthog; for most criticism comes to that.’ ”

On a Concept’s Development. Before writing Bouvard et Pécuchet, Flaubert nurtured the novel’s idea for 30 years. (He died one year before its 1881 publication.) This long gestation reminds Barnes of “a story about Schoenberg showing his violin concerto to Jascha Heifetz, who told him that in order to play a certain passage he would need to grow a sixth finger, to which the composer had apparently replied: ‘I can wait.’ ”

It’s for tidbits such as this that I avidly await each issue of London Review of Books and its fine writing by the likes of Julian Barnes. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022 

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