Chapter 1 Summary

The narrator begins his observations in Rouen, France, the birthplace of Gustave Flaubert. The great novelist's statue stands tall atop a pedestal, looking almost disdainful, holding its head aloof and turned in the direction of the cathedral. At its base, six North Africans are playing boules, a game of skilled ball throwing, and the thrower—stylish, ecstatic, alive—is contrasted with the bronze Flaubert—frumpy, "straggle-mustached," a toilet for pigeons. The Flaubert statue in Trouville is chipped and his house in Rouen—Croisset—has been demolished, as was his childhood home. The narrator muses that all things Flaubertian decay except his writings, which is in keeping with the novelist's wishes.

The narrator's goal is not to write a thorough biography of the great French writer but to compose a leisurely meditation on the man. The narrator is a retired doctor, widower, father of scattered adult children who keep in touch "when guilt impels." His Flaubertian odyssey begins in Rouen in the mid-1980s, forty years after the Nazis had seized the original casting of the statue. Evidence of the war is still abundant, but it has taken on a historical character and strikes the tourist as "not at all sinister." He recalls his own wartime memories without emotion and compares the Normandy invasion with the Norman Conquest: "one too distant to be true, the other too familiar to be true." The past, he says, is like a greased pig, making those who try to grasp it look ridiculous.

Like the narrator, Flaubert's father was a doctor, and the Flaubert museum in the Hôtel-Dieu is also a museum of medical history. Gustave was born in a room there. In later photographs, he seems an old man, but it is not clear whether it was syphilis that devoured his youth or simply life in the nineteenth century. There is a cartoon of Flaubert dissecting Emma Bovary, her heart on a fork. It is in the Hôtel-Dieu that the...

(The entire section is 585 words.)