Romantic Documents

Flaubert: Correspondence Tome I, 1830-1851

edited by Jean Bruneau
Gallimard (Paris), 1,177 pp., 68F

Byron's Letters and Journals, Vol. 1: 'In my hot youth,' 1798-1810, Vol. 2: 'Famous in my time,' 1810-1812, Vol. 3: 'Alas! the love of Women!' 1813-1814

edited by Leslie A. Marchand
Harvard, Vol. 3: 285 pp., $11.50 each


Writing to his exasperated and exasperating mistress, Louise Colet, the twenty-five-year-old Flaubert makes a sharp distinction between his taste in art and life:

autant j’aime dans l’art les amours désordonnées, et les passions hurlantes, autant me plaisent dans la pratique les amitiés voluptueuses et les galanteries sentimentales. Que tu trouves ça rococo ou ignoble, c’est possible. Avec de l’ardeur il y a moyen que ce ne soit pas ennuyeux, avec du coeur que ce ne soit pas sale. [To Louise Colet, February 27, 1847, p. 443]

(…as much as I want in art disordered loves and howling passion, just so much in practice do I like sensual friendships and sentimental affairs. You may find this rococo or ignoble. With some warmth it does not have to be boring: with some heart, it does not have to be dirty.)

This separation between art and life is made to order for keeping Louise Colet at bay. Elsewhere, and a few years later, Flaubert makes the distinction more definitive:

Quand on veut, petit ou grand, se mêler des oeuvres du bon Dieu, il faut commencer, rien que sous le rapport de l’hygiène, par se mettre dans une position à n’en être pas la dupe. Tu peindras le vin, l’amour, les femmes, la gloire, à condition, mon bonhomme, que tu ne seras ni ivrogne, ni amant, ni mari, ni tourlourou. Mêlé à la vie, on la voit mal, on en souffre ou en jouit trop. L’artiste, selon moi, est une monstruosité,—quelque chose de hors nature. [To his mother, December 15, 1850, p. 720]

(When one wants, small or great, to meddle with the works of God, one must start, if only for hygienic reasons, by finding a vantage point from which one cannot be fooled. You can paint wine, love, women, glory only if you yourself, old fellow, are not a drunkard, nor a lover, nor a husband, nor a soldier boy. Involved in life, we see it badly, suffer or enjoy it too much. The artist, as I believe, is a monstrosity—something outside nature.)

Posterity has played tricks with Flaubert’s distinction: many of his admirers today consider the greatest of his masterpieces to be his letters, entangled in his immediate affairs and innocent of the single-minded purity of line and form that he worked so hard to impose on his novels.

The editor of the new edition of the correspondence (of which the first volume has recently appeared), Jean Bruneau, wishes to put things back in their proper categories, to restore the barrier between life and art. He makes, however, a curious but revealing slip. Flaubert, he claims, would have been dismayed by our view of his correspondence as a work of art. We may converse with Flaubert, through his letters, as Flaubert himself conversed with the Essays of Montaigne, but—Bruneau adds—there is a fundamental difference: the Essays of Montaigne are a work of art, and the correspondence of Flaubert is not.

Montaigne, however, would…

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