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

Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert; drawing by David Levine

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…

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