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Gustave Flaubert

Born into a family of doctors and assumed to follow in their footsteps, Gustave Flaubert made his Grand Entrance on the Planet Earth on December 12, 1821.  Born in Rouen, France, he was a novelist of the realist school of writing who is best remembered for his monumental work, Madam Bovary (1857), a novel about a doctor's wife who commits suicide because of her husband's infidelity and debt. 

The book was first published in installments in the periodical, Revue de Paris (October 1 to December 15, 1856).  The French government denounced the story as immoral and brought Flaubert to trial the following year.  He was not convicted, although six months later, the court found poet Charles Baudelaire guilty of the same charges.

Flaubert's father, Achille-Cléophas, chief surgeon at the Rouen city hospital, made most of his fortune investing in land.  His mother, Anne-Justine-Caroline (Fleuriot), a physician's daughter, soon became the most influential person in her son's life. 

Flaubert flaunted his bourgeois upbringing by rebelling against societal rules.  For fun, he created a "dictionary" that defined the worst offenders.  Expelled from school for childish pranks, he finished his education privately in Paris.  He was ultimately forced to quit law school because of a "nervous disease" that is assumed today to have been epilepsy.  He moved into a house that his father bought him and began writing.  When his father died in 1846, he moved in with his mother.

In 1846, Flaubert met writer Louise Colet.  She was a stunningly beautiful poet and feminist, 11 years older than he and married.  They corresponded for a short time before their relationship developed into a turgid affair that lasted nearly a decade.  He called her his muse, and they discussed everything together, from writing and literature to science and art.  She later wrote an account of their affair in Lui in 1859. 

After the death of both his father and his married sister, Flaubert moved to Croisset, which was the family's country home near Rouen.  He lived there with his mother and his niece, Caroline, and stayed until he was 50 years old.  Flaubert said, "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."

Colet is sometimes thought to be the inspiration for the main character in Madame Bovary, although Flaubert denied it, saying that the inspiration had been himself.  Of the book, Henry James wrote, "Madame Bovary has a perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost alone."  William Faulkner claimed that he loved the novel so much, he read Madame Bovary once a year.

In the 1860s, Flaubert savored his successes as a writer and an intellectual in the court of Napoleon III.  His friends included authors Emile Zola, George Sand, Hippolyte Taine, and Russian writer Turgenev, with whom he shared similar beliefs about nonrepresentational literature. 

Flaubert, often stricken with melancholy and depression, wrote to his Russian compatriot, ''The thought that I shall see you this winter quite at leisure delights me like the promise of an oasis.  The comparison is the right one, if only you knew how isolated I am!  Who is there to talk to now?  Who is there in our wretched country who still 'cares about literature'?  Perhaps one single man?  Me!  The wreckage of a lost world, an old fossil of romanticism!  You will revive me, you'll do me good.''

Flaubert once said, "Mediocrity cherishes rules; as for me, I hate them; I feel for them and for every restriction, corporation, caste, hierarchy, level, herd, a loathing which fills my soul, and it is in this respect perhaps that I understand martyrdom."

Gustave Flaubert, the "Hermit of Croisset," spent his final years obese, in ill health, and in relative poverty.  He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 8, 1880.

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