The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1830-1857
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 soul seemed to be snatched from the body. Several times he thought he was dead, yet all the time, though speechless, he was conscious and in agony. “My soul was turned back entirely on itself, like a hedgehog wounding itself with its own quills.” The recurring attacks guarantee his freedom from the Law and the fate of becoming a petty district attorney in some place like Dieppe; henceforth he can give himself entirely to his friends, to literature, and to antiquity.
We see “our” Flaubert emerging in the passionate letters to LePoittevin, the young tubercular voluptuary and alcoholic, on the embarrassing journey to Switzerland and the Mediterranean. To Flaubert’s disgust his sister has married, and the whole family travel with the couple on their honeymoon! Flaubert hates his brother-in-law. No one is happy. It is a trip “too crass from the poetic point of view.” What Flaubert wants is to travel alone or with LePoittevin: “Then I let my thoughts flow without hindrance or reticence before they cool off; giving themselves time to boil away at their ease” and flow into reverie. In Genoa, he thinks of Don Juan as he strolls in Italian churches where the women come in to confession. “It might be good to fuck there, in the evening, hidden behind the confessionals, at the hour when they’re lighting the lamps. But all that isn’t for us. We are made to feel it, to talk about it, but not to do it. How is your novel?… Think only of Art, of that and that alone, because that’s all there is. Work! God ordains it.”
Then comes family disaster. The father has bought Croisset and suddenly dies two months later. Caroline, the dear sister, slowly dies soon after giving birth to a daughter—the niece Flaubert will teach and cherish as she grows up. One must remember how deep his family affections were. He sits by the bedside:
What grace there is about the sick, what strange movements they make! The baby sucks and cries. Achille says nothing, not knowing what to say. What a house! What a hell!
My own eyes are dry as marble. It is strange how sorrows in fiction flood me with facile emotion, while actual sorrows remain hard and bitter in my heart, crystallizing there as they come.
(Emotion will crystallize in his writing.)
It seems that calamity is upon us, and that it will not leave us until it has glutted itself upon us.
When the sister was interred he wrote to his friend Maximo DuCamp that he was as tearless as a tombstone, but seething with anger, for the grave was too small and the gravedigger had to tread on the coffin—“just above Caroline’s head”:
I wanted to tell you all this, thinking it would give you pleasure. You are sufficiently intelligent, and love me enough, to understand that word “pleasure,” which would make the bourgeois laugh.
A frightening remark, but one that catches truthfully the anger in grief. In a later letter to Louise Colet he added something else about his sister’s death.
I was reading Montaigne; my eyes kept turning from my book to the corpse; her husband and the priest were snoring; and I kept telling myself that the idea alone remains and I kept feeling thrills at turns of phrase in the Montaigne and reflected that he too would be forgotten.
And, still later:
My recent bereavements have saddened me but not surprised me. Without feeling them any less acutely, I have analyzed them as an artist. This has revived my grief in a melancholy way. Had I expected better things of life I should have cursed it. That is just what I have not done.
Four months after his sister’s death, after two years of chastity, he is in the arms of Louise Colet. His letters to her are his only known erotic effusions. He is full of warnings about his character as a lover. She had better not go on with the affair. In their abrupt tactlessness, their edge of sadism, his love letters can hardly be surpassed. He had always been in love with the stage; if he had been born poor he would have been an actor.
Even now, what I love above all else is form, provided it be beautiful, and nothing beyond it.
He will act out love, but really he prefers whores.
He is as “fatalistic as a Turk…it makes no difference at all if we do everything we can for humanity or if we do not. Modern tyranny is stupid and weak”; he prefers the ancient tyrants. In love, now he has “the cravings of wild beasts.” Perhaps this is not love? “Perhaps in my case it’s the heart that is impotent.” For him, he says, love is not and should not be “in the foreground of life; it should be in the backroom.” The rewards of love are “immensely pitiful compared with the rewards of art.” And “the finest things God ever made are the sea, Hamlet and Mozart’s Don Giovanni.” Naturally the poetess so concerned with fame and her career and so admiring of Corneille was offended. He pretended to belittle himself:
Among navigators there are some who discover worlds, who add new continents to the earth and new constellations to the heavens…. I am the obscure and patient pearlfisher, who dives deep and comes up empty-handed and blue in the face.
A fatal attraction draws him down to “the abysses of thought.” He entertains himself “by plunging to the bottom in search of green or yellow shells. No one will want them, so I’ll keep them for myself alone, and use them to cover the walls of my hut.” Back he goes as soon as he can to Croisset after a week or two in Paris, delights in the new armchair he has bought and in which he hopes to spend years working. It is hard for a vehement, possessive woman, jealous of all the women he has known, and the men, indeed even of the solitary chair. If she frightens him by saying that she may be pregnant, he tells her he is horrified that a man like himself should become a father. She makes scenes in the streets, at railway stations when he leaves her. It is notorious that she had stabbed one of her lovers in the back with a knife. The love affair with Louise Colet has its physical excitement; but it is really a display of chaotic epistolary contradictions. As she said bitterly, he was concerned only with Shakespeare and himself. There was little about her feelings and on the subject of her personality she was demanding. He was turning her into literature and for a pretty woman that was not enough.
The letters about the famous journey to Egypt and the Middle East, to Louis Bouilhet and occasionally to his mother, are far better. Here is the human orgy, far surpassing the hellishness of bourgeois love. Here is the bawdy and fantastic East which was Napoleon’s present to the romantic movement. If the romantics of Flaubert’s generation had not known Napoleon’s glory, which had been eclipsed by the rise of the bourgeoisie, they could reinstate the Orient, seething, glittering raw and shamelessly human in their imagination. Flaubert is entranced by the brothels and boasts of the number of times he “fired off.” Yet he “abstained” in one quarter in order
to preserve the sweet sadness of the scene and engrave it deeply on my memory. In this way I went away puzzled and have remained so. There is nothing more beautiful than these women calling to you. If I had gone with them, a second picture would have been superimposed on the first and dimmed its splendor…. I haven’t always made such sacrifices on the altar of art. At Esna one day I fired five times and sucked three.
There is the celebrated scene when he had the spectacular courtesan Kuchuk Hanem, who arrives escorted by a sheep all spotted with henna and with a black velvet muzzle on its nose. Her bosom gives off a smell of sweetened turpentine, and after dancing, she was covered with sweat. “My night was one long, infinitely intense reverie” as he listened to her snoring and covered her with a rug.
The common daily scenes of the journey as he and Maxime DuCamp go on to Beirut are even more vivid than the lubricious and exotic. The detail is casual yet minute: when a pearl fisher comes back to the surface he notices the man bleeding from the ears, nostrils, and eyes. That may be useful to the novelist. When he bathed in the Red Sea, he lolled on its waters “as though I were lying on a thousand liquid breasts that caressed my entire body.” Back in Cairo “the palm trees looked to me like the brooms used for public lavatories.” Seeing human beings living as they had done for centuries he reflects on the pettiness of the bourgeois triumph, his century’s mania for Utopias, progress, and answers to problems:
Yes, stupidity consists in wanting to reach conclusions. We are a thread, and we want to know the whole cloth…. What mind worthy of the name, beginning with Homer, ever achieved a conclusion? Let us accept the picture.
And soon after comes that phrase—the artist’s, not the man’s—that has been held against Flaubert as a novelist by those who think him less than great:
I hate life…. Yes everything that reminds me that life must be borne…. I have dragged my hatred everywhere I have been….
Maxime DuCamp explained to him that his hatred came from the dependency on his mother: this has made him hate not life but his own life.
What is extraordinary, after the romantic orgy in the Middle East, is that his first masterpiece should be placed in the Rouen of the bourgeois. The second phase of the affair with Louise Colet begins as, almost shrewdly, he draws from her so much of the detail—though not the character—of a heroine corrupted by her hand-me-down dreams. Mr. Steegmuller has selected here the letters that bear on the writing of the book. Louise Colet was not the model. He still bores her with Shakespeare and Don Quixote, but what does he get from her? Well, so much of the impedimenta in a woman’s life. The letters of this phase of the affair are far more interesting than the earlier ones to the critical reader because now he is working and in command of himself. He catalogues his century. Industrialism has multiplied ugliness. “We must raise our voices against gloves made of shoddy, against office chairs, the mackintosh, cheap stoves, imitation cloth, imitation luxury, imitation pride”—the proliferation of things. He laughs at the mercantile catalogue he is insinuating into his book:
The fashion for corsets must go—hideous things, revoltingly lubricious and excessively inconvenient at certain moments. I have suffered grievously because of corsets!!!
There are certain borders on curtains that “make me sick.” The reveries of the “bourgeois” are furnished with paraphernalia, life and language are being debased; our civilization is disintegrating in its drift toward materialism and meaningless clichés.
And then the break with Louise Colet comes: he hears that her real object has been, all along, to marry him. Never was a break more abrupt:
Madame: I was told that you took the trouble to come here to see me three times last evening.
I was not in. And, fearing lest persistence expose you to humiliation, I am bound by the rules of politeness to warn you that I shall never be in.
Even metaphysically, that is true of him.