Question: who would apologise for being too “maimed by extravagance”, and who would else would say “exuberance is better than taste”? Why it is no other than witty Wilde and flamboyant Flaubert. This week, we will need elocution, a dictionary and a touch of dapper as we float inside the minds of these two whizz kids...or should I say virtuosos of language...
In the realist corner supporting a Charvet necktie we have Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) who settled at nothing less than “le mot juste”. And in the other corner, posing on a Chesterfield, sits a candid Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) who needs only to lift a finger and the trends of London would change once more. How can two characters be apart yet have the same ideals in the literary world? (Well, it is because Wilde’s second language was French, bien sûr!)
“Pour avoir du talent, il faut être convaincu qu’on en possède”
Amongst the ripest cider apples in Normandy is where our Flaubert story starts. Despite his family background of surgeons, Flaubert was cultivated in the literary gardens. Graduating from the “Lycée Pierre Corneille” (whose strict Jesuit education was passed from Pierre Corneille, Guy de Maupassant; not to forget the only and only Jean Rochefort) Flaubert whisked away to Paris faster than you can say “perfectionist”.
Oh and what a perfectionist he was. The overwhelming flaws of Paris, plus an epilepsy attack in 1846, drove him east. He ventured across Egypt, Greece and Beirut all in search for the missing key to his happiness. Well, it was not found in love and Flaubert found himself living a frivolous lifestyle. Yet how can I forget the “brief” fling with paramour with Louis Colet (1810-76), the said muse for ‘Madame Bovary’. However, as all writers know, two negatives do not make a positive. She was a Romantic, he was a Realist and let’s just say Flaubert was not one for “emphasising stimulation”...in literature.
“Il faut que les endroits faibles d'un livre soient mieux écrits que les autres”
Literary-wise, Flaubert was also one for perfectionism. From travelling to Carthage in 1862 for ‘Salammbô’ fostering to a four-day-non-stop read of ‘La Tentation de Saint Antoine’ in 1849. Flaubert’s literature still catches the abstract in a net and does what we all brush over: “finding the right word” ...or more sophisticatedly in French “le mot juste”. Flaubert invented realism and left a legacy of precision. What strikes me most is that this legacy was always alive: even when ‘Madame Bovary’ received petty contemporary criticisms his literary prestige remained untouched.
“I can resist everything except temptation.”
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was quite a character. This Irishman was born into intellectualness and was tutored at Oxford by none other than John Ruskin (1819-1900). Now if this wasn’t abstract enough, Wilde helped formulate the movement of aestheticism. Similarly to Flaubert, Wilde was not held back by the metaphysical boundaries of politics science and religion. No no, this chap used flamboyance and extravagance to charm his intellectual audience and throw the dire “lecture-style” journalism out of the window...his personality alone is an art
“I am so clever that sometimes I don't understand a single word of what I am saying.”
Now this Wilde was a magician. Have you ever met somebody who combines French syntax with the dry satire of English? (Personally, I know only one...newsreader John Snow). ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (1895) pretty much encapsulates the “burdensome” social facade of sipping tea and gossip. But why should we stop there? The play itself was a transition from high society to Pentonville. Let’s just say it involved a bouquet of rotten vegetables, a court case and the reveal of his homosexuality.
So, what do we have to say about these two? Both were recognised in their day and age and perhaps that is what tortured them the most. Unlike the late recognitions of Beethoven and Van Gough, society bowed at the feet of Wilde and Flaubert. Their legacies still stand today enveloped in decadence, debauchery and excess; except one hid behind realism, the other didn’t.
Next week, there’s a surprise in store: a twist of scene with this blog...times-a-changin’. I leave you with a clue, which is better, Katie Price or Carla Bruni?