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Reflections of a working writer and reader



She is me.

“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

So ran the maxim of Gustave Flaubert, which is probably why, after his father’s death, he lived with his mother in their country home until he was fifty years old. Despite this he maintained his contacts in Paris and witnessed the revolution of 1848.

After travelling in North Africa, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy, Flaubert began writing his masterpiece, Madame Bovary, which took five years to complete and eventually appeared in book form in 1857. The author was immediately prosecuted for producing a work offensive to morality and religion. Flaubert conducted his own defence in court and escaped conviction.

The book portrays Emma Bovary, a middle-class woman married to a physician. She has romantic dreams and longs for adventure, seeing herself as a heroine in a Walter Scott novel. She is bored by her husband who believes her to be happy and contented and she seeks solace by conducting affairs with two different men. When everything eventually falls apart Emma poisons herself with arsenic.

Although we regard Flaubert as a realist writer, it is a label that he himself rejected. He disliked and fought against the concept of labels. But in a historical context he was dedicated to realism, a perfectionist who wished his writing to reflect a nonjudgmental representation of life. His narrative approach, by the 1870s was widely accepted by other writers.

When he was asked who was his model for Emma Bovary, Flaubert replied: “Emma, c’est moi.” (Emma, that’s me.)

4 Responses to “She is me.”

  1. Andrew Kenneally says:

    I wonder does there have to be a kind of inner revolution in the artist’s life at some stage before Flaubert’s regular life kicks in? That one’s mind has been stoked by some form of awakening epiphany and from then on, the mind will look after its own inspiration as long as the perspiration stuff is going on.

    jb says: From what I know of Flaubert he was a workhorse, not the kind of man to wait around for inspiration. He would spend hours searching for the right word. Refuse to pass on to the next phrase until the present one was perfect.

  2. Andrew says:

    Reminds me of criticism I’ve seen aimed at Jimi Hendrix occasionally- that he was a perfectionist. What kind of artist isn’t a perfectionist? From personal experience, ever being content with what I know is a bit slapdash will certainly be regetted later. Though I suppose what’s interesting with what you say of Flaubert is his artistic technique…trying to get that particular draft perfect as opposed to working with broad brush strokes and refining later on.

    jb says: When I say he was a perfectionist, I have neither a positive nor negative image in mind. Flaubert himself wouldn’t have made a judgement about it. I was particularly interested in his assertion that he used himself as a model for Emma Bovary.

  3. I read recently that that comment, Emma, c’est moi, was related secondhand, which to me means only that perhaps Flaubert tossed it off, not intending it to be the final word on Emma Bovary. Perhaps all he meant was that he could understand her, through some small similarities of character, those we suppress, for example. I feel like that about the characters in one of my (unpublished) novels. They’re all me — the me who became a corporate VP, the me who rejected society and lived in the woods, etc. A friend of mine insisted that one of my characters was actually her, which is how I realized that no, they’re all me.

    jb says: Hi Ann, I’ve also thought about this in reference to some of my own characters. And it is true that in one sense all of the characters are aspects of self. But I also believe that that doesn’t exclude having an external model of some kind. Stevenson’s model for Long John Silver was a personal friend, and the writer stripped away many of the original’s positive features to arrive at the one-legged pirate. I’ve used the model of someone I once glimpsed in a crowded bar, and this meant doing the opposite of Stevenson, and adding something to an unknown framework. All of the combinations must be possible. The only unlikely thing is a character composed out of nothing. A character who isn’t any aspect of the writer, or of the writer’s family or friends, and neither is that character someone glimpsed in the street or culled from fiction or the movies . . . that character hasn’t been written yet.
    As for your friend who insisted that one of your characters was her. That’s happened to me also. Twice. But in neither case was the friend right. In one case the friend was used as a model for someone in the novel, but it wasn’t the character that she picked out and was certain that was her. It seems it is quite difficult for us to pick ourselves out in a lineup. We’re always the other guy.

  4. Jessica says:

    And what about the theory that whomever we dream about – we are dreaming of ourselves, no matter the gender, color or setting? Our subconscious has stores of experiences or memories, culled from daily life, and it exerts itself into our characters perhaps.

    jb says: Hi Jessica. Anything goes in this realm, methinks . . .