Gustave Flaubert’s daily writing routine was, in a word, tortuous. He worked meticulously, crafting each word and phrase with such painstaking precision that a single page sometimes took a week finish. He woke late in the day, usually around 10 a.m., though he wouldn’t sit down at his large, round writing table until 1 p.m, he would often write into the wee hours of the morning, past 1 a.m. In 1852, while working on his first (and arguably greatest) novel, Madame Bovary, he wrote to Louise Colet, a fellow writer and occasional mistress: “Sometimes I wonder why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brain doesn’t melt away. I am leading an austere life, stripped of all external pleasure, and am sustained only by a find of permanent frenzy, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but never abates.”
Flaubert began work on Madame Bovary in 1851. It is the story of Emma Bovary, a doctor’s wife, who strives to escape the dullness of her normal existence by living beyond her means and engaging in adulterous affairs, if only to briefly experience the pleasures of high society: wealth, passion, beauty. Because of his fastidiousness, Flaubert only managed, at most, a few paragraphs a day. The novel took five years to complete and the first installment was published on this day, October 1, 1856 in “Revue de Paris.”
His agonizing, late-night writing routine was an indication of how harsh a critic he was of his own work. Occasionally, he expressed those feelings in writing, saying of great work, “There are times when I could be physically sick, the stuff’s so low.” However, most critics and fellow writers disagree with Flaubert’s assessment, and Madame Bovary is often cited as a ‘perfect’ work of fiction. Henry James said, “Madame Bovary has a perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost alone; it holds itself with such a supreme unapproachable assurance as both excites and defies judgment.”
Madame Bovary is available in several formats at the McCracken County Public Library: book, ebook, and audio. Other works by Flaubert are also available as well as a brilliant book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, which details the routines and habits of 161 creative folks, Gustave Flaubert among them.
To learn more about great books, visit us at the Local and Family History Depart…or heck… visit any of our fine departments at the McCracken County Public Library. We’ll help you find a masterpiece.