Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | December 12, 2013

Quote for the Day

Henry James, writing about Gustave Flaubert some time after Flaubert’s death in 1880:

The horror, in particular, that haunted all his years was the horror of the cliché, the stereotyped, the thing usually said and the way it was usually said, the current phrase that passed muster. Nothing, in his view, passed muster but freshness, that which came into the world, with all the honors, for the occasion. To use the ready-made was as disgraceful as for a self-respecting cook to buy a tinned soup or a sauce in a bottle.

From James’ essay “Gustave Flaubert,” republished in Essays in London and Elsewhere (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1893) (see this post by Michael Gilleland).

Hat tip for this quote to Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, which informs us that December 12 was Flaubert’s birthday.

By the way, speaking of bad multiple-choice questions, Joseph Epstein begins this critical article on Flaubert with the following rhetorical question:

Which name does not belong in the following list: 1. Stendhal, 2. Balzac, 3. Flaubert, 4. Proust?

(He then spends the next paragraph explaining why, in his opinion, the correct answer is “3. Flaubert” — i.e., he explains why Flaubert “simply isn’t of the same calibre as the other three great French writers.”)



  1. ” One of them, A Sentimental Education, has powerful scenes, especially towards its close, but otherwise feels sketchy and underdeveloped.”

    Uh, what? “Sketchy and underdeveloped”? WTF???

    Flaubert’s body of work isn’t any smaller than Stendhal’s – I like Stendhal better as a matter of taste, but Flaubert wrote two brilliant novels that I would take over the complete works of Balzac in a heartbeat. Epstein can get away with that b.s. about Sentimental Education (which he mistitles: the French has a definite article) because so regrettably few people have read it.

    • I could count on one hand the French novels I have read, and still have fingers left. If you were to recommend a place to start in Stendhal or Flaubert, where would it be? (I picked up a copy of Salammbô a few years back, b/c Orwell mentions it in his essay on Arthur Koestler, but the book has just been collecting dust since then.)

  2. I hate losing a reply when I use that pop-up at the top of the page …

    Stendhal basically has two masterpieces. The Red and the Black follows an ambitious kid from the provinces as he tries to worm his way into the corridors of power; The Charterhouse of Parma is a melodrama of political intrigue & romance in Italy. The new Penguin & Oxford World’s Classics translations are good; avoid the old Penguins (“Scarlet & Black”???). (Lowell Bair’s Charterhouse is also good, an old Bantam Classic.)

    Mme Bovary is of course the great one by Flaubert – I like the Geoffrey Wall translation for Penguin, Lydia Davis also good, DO NOT read it in Steegmuller …. Sentimental Education (get the Penguin version by Baldick, revised recently) follows a slacker in Paris against a meticulously researched historical background culminating in the revolutions of 1848 & 1851 … I would read either of those before Salammbô, which is equally researched but a weird little romp of Flaubert’s.

    All four are really great novels, so you can’t go wrong.

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