Vladimir Nabokov’s mention (in his partial-autobiography Speak, Memory) of the French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s debut novel Madame Bovary (1857) as “unsurpassed”, led me to read it and see whether his use of the superlative was justified.
It was. Having read the book for the first time I can see Flaubert may have had more than a minor influence on Nabokov’s writing style and subject matter.
Take for example, the scene in which the druggist. Homais, chastises his simpleton of a servant, Justin, after discovering him in possession of a volume of pornography, but then softens his attitude, adding:
“It is not that I entirely disapprove of the work. Its author was a doctor! There are certain scientific points in it that it is not ill in a man should know, and I would even venture to say that a man must know.”
This, and Flaubert’s portrayal of Emma, his female protagonist, as a woman with carnal desires is illuminating, especially when you learn that Flaubert, no stranger to brothels, suffered from venereal disease for most of his life.
As well as pursuing women, Flaubert believed in, and pursued, the principle of finding “le mot juste” (“the right word”).
According to Amazon, there are 117, 120 of them, and the average reader will spend 7 hours and 48 minutes reading Madame Bovary at 250 WPM (words per minute).
Time well spent!