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In Flaubert’s Laboratory

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1857-1880

selected, edited, and translated by Francis Steegmuller
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 309 pp., $15.00

The second volume of Mr. Steegmuller’s selection from Flaubert’s letters shows Flaubert’s thought and character in the years after Madame Bovary and up to his death. In these years Flaubert was living secluded in his mother’s house at Croisset in Normandy, making occasional visits to Paris, attending the Magny dinners, and talking there to the Goncourts, Turgenev, Maupassant, Hugo, visiting and being visited by George Sand, who became an intimate friend in 1866. Writing to her, he defined his own philosophy against her humanism. The volume also includes the famous clairvoyant letters about the Franco-Prussian War and the German occupation. To Turgenev he wrote, “I feel barbarism rising from the bowels of the earth”; and to George Sand, “These officers who smash your mirrors with white-gloved hands, who know Sanskrit and fling themselves on your champagne,…they horrify me more than Cannibals.”

Lucretius and Spinoza were Flaubert’s models, with whom only Shakespeare and Byron were comparable. “One must no longer be spiritualist or materialist, but naturalist,” he wrote to George Sand. The novel itself should be scientific, that is, it should strive after general truths. Time and again in these letters Flaubert claims to have overcome in himself any tendency to subjectivity and self-expression, and to the mindless optimism and philanthropy which were left over from the high tide of romanticism. He expresses his admiration for Taine because of the sense of history and the resolute detachment that were realized in Taine’s studies of literature:

The anatomy of the human heart is as yet uncharted, so how can you expect it to be cured? To have embarked on such studies will remain the nineteenth century’s sole claim to fame. The historical sense is a very new thing in the world. Ideas will now be studied like facts, beliefs dissected like organisms.

His fiction was to have the hard surface of the natural sciences, purged of egoism. He is moving in these letters from the supreme attainment of Madame Bovary toward experiment, and each of his succeeding works was designed as an experiment—Salammbô, L’Éducation sentimentale, Trois Contes, Bouvard et Pécuchet.

The letters explain his refusal to repeat himself and weakly to indulge his genius; he knew very well the risks that he ran of boring his readers in each of his new ventures, and most of all in the last, Bouvard et Pécuchet. In these letters he is remarkably specific and accurate about the points at which most normal readers could be expected to rebel and to close the book forever. He knew that Salammbô was liable to appear unreal, heavy and clotted with luxuriant description and detail, a gorgeously contrived surface without human substance. He knew that L’Éducation sentimentale was liable to seem dry and drained of feeling, austere in style, and heartless, strangled by its own cleverness and control. Many of his letters throughout his life, including these last years, are cries of despair in the throes of composition; he did not know how it would come out, or even whether he would be able to finish. Like an original scientist in his laboratory, he could not be sure that he would discover something authentically new and significant: for him this would be a literary form precisely adapted to his conception of his theme, in each case an entirely new one.

One needs to be reminded that prose, in any serious sense, was only born yesterday: so Flaubert claimed. Verse was the primary form in ancient literatures, and all the variations and combinations in prosody, he believed, had already been realized in verse; but how far this was from being true of prose. Therefore he had to invent more supple rhythms for his sentences, with cadences and inversions, and the famous past tenses accurately adapted to their immediate contexts: a new prose prosody. Stendhal had written continuously and self-consciously in Stendhalian style, just as Chateaubriand had written in his characteristic expressive manner, from a different egoism. Flaubert’s ambition was to make the drag of a sentence, and the weight or lightness of an epithet, an independent expressive resource: independent, that is, of the unconstrained movement of his own mind and temperament.

A reader of these letters sees over and over again the ethical ideal that lies behind Flaubert’s careful variation of cadences within paragraphs and the contrived shift of tenses and adverbs. It is the ideal of a naturalism that is to achieve objectivity without the loss of passion and so to let the egoism of the romantics finally slip away. Flaubert had also a political motive in trying to purge the language of its unthinking rhetoric by his example. Justice demands clear thought, and clear thought is inseparable from clear sentences. The romantic movement had been the precursor of modernism, but not the real thing, which was, in his conception, to be the idealized spirit of natural science. Flaubert thought himself unfortunate to live in a moment of transition, a difficult and inglorious fate. Soon the majestic impersonality of the natural sciences would purge the vapors from men’s minds.

There was glory in the splendors of the ancient world and there would be opportunity of glory again when, as he predicted, a coming generation of men would travel among the stars. Born either too early or too late, in the flat lands of the bourgeois epoch, he and his contemporaries could escape banality and pursue glory only through dedication to art and through the necessary struggle and self-abnegation in work: a new kind of hero, alone and groaning over his scholarly research and writing at Croisset.

He was not deceived about the original nature of his own genius, and this is clear in several letters of this last period as also earlier in his life. The truly great writers—Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes—often write badly, he observes, and so much the better for them. Their masterpieces are like the unthinking productions of nature, like great mountains, or a lazy beast with a tranquil face; the masters of the first rank do not need to fret about style and form. Prolific in their free inventions, they can take any risk, and are able to resume in a single imagined personality the scattered features of humanity. Don Quixote is as real to us as Julius Caesar, a vivid impression in the consciousness of men and not just an idea. It is writers of the second rank, such as La Bruyère, who give lessons in style and form and care, and whose cleverness and talent are visible whereas they are invisible in Shakespeare. Lesser men, including Flaubert himself, are of value only in virtue of success in execution, a hard finish with no weakness or slack anywhere.

In his letters, particularly in the earlier letters to Louise Colet, but also here in letters to George Sand, Flaubert allows himself to throw out self-indulgent phrases in the style of the classical aphorist. He is strumming on the instrument that he has been using with intense concentration all day; and it is finally a relief to denounce humanity, socialists, journalists, the bourgeoisie, and to write about himself. Mr. Steegmuller seems to me faithful and good in his translations, but of course something of intimacy and the tone of voice is, even for an Englishman, unavoidably lost. Perhaps only Byron surpasses Flaubert in the pleasure that his letters give to the reader who goes straight on from one volume to another. Flaubert’s harsh, grinding intelligence sticks to its theme in letter after letter: how are modern men and women to be made through literature fully conscious of themselves, to be forced to see their own faces without the veils that journalism, demagogy, and bad writing are keeping in place?

To George Sand he rails against democracy and equality—“Axiom: hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of virtue. As for me, I include in the word ‘bourgeois’ the bourgeois in overalls as well as the bourgeois in frock coat. It’s we, we alone—that is, the educated—who are the People, or, to put it better, the tradition of Humanity.” Or typically: “The individual has been so negated by Democracy that he’ll be reduced to complete effacement, as under the great theoretic despotisms.” These are familiar cries of despair, not in a balanced tone, as in Arnold, in face of the revolt of the masses and of the idea of progress; some similar disgust can easily be found in Eliot and Yeats and in many lesser modern writers after Flaubert, who with Baudelaire had initiated the modern movement.

The reason for this disdain felt by the new aristocracy of letters is not hard to find and is not concealed. In pre-literate ages the writer, intoxicated with words, could elaborate and develop his inherited language and through his writing forge a common speech usable in later literature. Then in the earlier ages of literacy, and up to roughly 1830 in France and England, the common speech of “us” still had a tolerably fresh vocabulary, and new sentence forms were ready to be invented within the idiolect of the educated. Then came the dissemination of political speeches, the rise of effective journalism, the deluge of printed matter, the spread of literacy and of popular magazines and fiction. In Flaubert’s ears the vocabulary of his language, and even more its grammar and sentence structures, were becoming dirty, worn, obscene, smothered by the detritus from lazy minds.

This is why prose had to be born for the first time. The universal dissemination of images from the painting of the past and, later, the dissemination of reproduced music led painters and composers into the modern movement, because they had to purify their medium and start again in some manner, eliminating cliché and the now accepted banalities. So also for prose. The ordinary rhythms were corrupted, and Flaubert tells his correspondents that the forms of sentences must be reinvented. The idea of progress was for such reasons detestable to Flaubert. As the modern world goes, the authentic arts, and particularly literature, must be driven further and further into some dark corner, where through restless experiment the materials of art may be strenuously renewed.

It is perhaps wrong to infer too much from a writer’s letters, which are the usual outlet for groans, self-deprecation, complaints, jeremiads: the letters of Byron, Lawrence, Virginia Woolf are examples recently prominent of literary jeremiads and groanings. To present one’s character and fate in the worst possible light is acceptable in a letter, and is a normal form. Flaubert blackens himself and his fate and he pities himself, throughout this volume, except when he writes to his niece Caroline, who after his mother’s death in 1872 was his closest attachment. Mr. Steegmuller includes some of the letters which trace Caroline’s wretched marriage, one more source of unhappiness for Flaubert, who had unwisely promoted the marriage against her will.

By 1860 he is rather irritated to be pinned down as the author of Madame Bovary and wishes to escape from its success. Perhaps his marvelous self-consciousness fails him here, because Madame Bovary lives forever, as solid and three-dimensional as in the days when she was invented, as no other character in Flaubert does. She passes Flaubert’s own test of reality alongside Don Quixote, on whom she is modeled, as the modern instance of the inversion of fact and literary fantasy: of the transition from chivalry to skepticism, from romanticism to social realism. Her bonnet remains as real as the accoutrements of Don Quixote.

In the splendid set of letters to George Sand he tries to restrain and to add dignity to his despair; Mr. Steegmuller prints a few of her replies, and the argument between the two contributes to the nobility of their friendship. George Sand has the standard opinions of the progressive humanitarians of her time, and her letters here have a rather dull rhetoric. But she surprisingly seems to have the better of the argument, partly because her opinions appear to be at one with her character and not to be forced and too much cultivated and displayed, as Flaubert’s sometimes were: as when he writes dramatically (not to George Sand) about “the royal chamber” of his heart, concealed from all the world. Generous, affectionate, quick to understand Flaubert’s poses, George Sand believed that his fiction would suffer from his willed desiccation, and Un Coeur simple, intended to refute the suggestion, scarcely succeeds in doing so.

Finally Joyce in Ulysses was to design the book of the modern city on the old, grand scale, which had been close to Flaubert’s ambition, because Joyce combined strong populist feelings with his aestheticism. Stephen, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom are at least as real as Mr. Pickwick or Charlus, and there is a naturalness, a poetic objectivity, in the story of the Dublin day, alongside the advertised artifice, a naturalism that is missing from L’Éducation sentimentale.

Correspondence with Baudelaire and Zola in this selection show Flaubert’s breadth of vision in literature, and the moral purposes he wants art to serve in the nineteenth century. Zola writes (in a letter Mr. Steegmuller includes), “You are the best of us all. You are our teacher and our father.” From Flaubert to Baudelaire:

In a study [Les Paradis artificiels] that marks the beginning of a new science, a work of observation and induction, you have (and repeatedly) insisted too much on “the Spirit of Evil”…. I would have preferred you not to condemn hashish, opium, overindulgence. How do you know what may ultimately come of all that?

To Turgenev about War and Peace,

Thank you for getting me to read Tolstoy’s novel…. Sometimes he seems Shakespearean. I cried aloud with admiration as I read—and it’s a long novel. Tell me something about the author. Is it his first book?

As I think many have done before me, I used to collect Flaubert’s aphorisms and reflections, mainly from the correspondence, and even to collect collections of them. His pleasure in phrase making, often in the manner of La Bruyère, is infectious, e.g., “La mélancolie elle-même n’est-qu’un souvenir quis’ignore“—or on his art—“Il ne suffit pas d’avoir de l’esprit. Sans le caractère, les oeuvres d’art, quoi qu’on fasse, seront toujours médiocres.” His own character is evident here.

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