The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1830-1857
selected, edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 250 pp., $12.50
That experienced Flaubertian Francis Steegmuller now replaces an earlier selection of the novelist’s famous letters between 1830 (when he was nine) until 1857 when he published Madame Bovary. There is a second volume to come. His translations are admirable and overcome the difficulty of catching the tune of Flaubert’s prose; and the connecting narrative has more substance than a merely useful biography.
The volumes of Flaubert’s correspondence are the monumental, almost dangerous, rival to the novels and, as Mr. Steegmuller says, there is an irony in this. Flaubert—like Balzac—once called himself a mountebank or, more romantically, a troubadour. In the letters the torments of style are abandoned; the troubadour becomes spontaneous:
How often, in the letters, [Flaubert] laments that the art he produces is not the art he most admires. [His] own great heroes among the artists are, in their prodigious spontaneity, his very opposites…. “How easily [Flaubert writes] the great men achieve their effects by means extraneous to Art. What is more badly put together than much of Rabelais, Cervantes, Molière and Hugo? But such quick punches! Such power in a single word! We must pile up a mass of little pebbles to build our pyramids; theirs, a hundred times greater, are hewn in monoliths.”
It is well known that when they were children, Flaubert and his sister used to climb the trellis and look into the dissecting room of the hospital where his father was the chief surgeon and look at the corpses:
The sun shone on them, and the same flies that were flitting about us and about the flowers would light on them and come buzzing back to us.
The hospital casts its shadow. At eleven, already a dreamer, Flaubert turns his back on it and to literature and is making notes on Don Quixote. He has written thirty little plays which he and his sister act before the family and friends. At eighteen, bored by law studies, he is in fine form, boasting that he will never practice, except perhaps to defend a famous criminal. His heroes are Nero and Sade. “If I ever do take an active part in the world it will be as a thinker and de-moralizer. I will simply tell the truth: but that truth will be horrible, cruel, naked. Still, how do I know? For I am one of those people always disgusted from one day to the next, always thinking of the future, always dreaming, or rather day-dreaming, surly, pestiferous, never knowing what they want, bored with themselves and boring to everyone else. I went to the brothel for some fun and was merely bored.” Of course, he knows the handsome young Normand is romancing.
At twenty-two there is the breakdown; it seemed to be an epileptic fit and baffled the doctors for there was no foam on his mouth. The fits were repeated. Something like a “tangle of filaments or a burst of fireworks” came to his eyes. There were “cavorting images.” The …