The Letters of Gustave Flaubert
Not all great writers are also great correspondents—witness the preoccupation with trivia by William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, and the pomposity of Thomas Mann as he sends resonant messages to the Muse of Posterity. Gustave Flaubert, however, is a magnificent letter writer—perhaps the finest of that small group of literary men who also excelled as correspondents; only John Keats, Lord Byron, Stendhal, Henry James, and Anton Chekhov belong in his company. This volume is therefore of first-rate importance, particularly since it admits the reader into Flaubert’s creative laboratory during the years, 1851-1856, that he was sweating out the tortured progress of the novel that would forever alter the form of its genre: Madame Bovary.
Francis Steegmuller, the editor-translator, is an old Flaubertian. His translation of Madame Bovary has long been admired; it remains available in a Modern Library edition. In 1939, he published a double biography, Flaubert and Madame Bovary, analyzing both the genesis of the novel and the accompanying course of its creator’s difficult liaison with Louise Colet. In 1953, he edited a selection of Flaubert’s letters for the Great Letters series. And, in 1972, he edited Flaubert in Egypt, a narrative of Flaubert’s travels of 1849-1851 as drawn from both his letters and journals and the writings of this trip companion, Maxime DuCamp.
The present volume is announced as the first of two that will draw from the new Pléiade edition of Jean Bruneau (volume 1, 1973). The previous standard edition, Conard’s of 1902, had been supervised by Flaubert’s niece Caroline, who had brutally bowdlerized a great deal of bawdry from Flaubert’s letters. Moreover, Steegmuller’s 1953 selection includes about one third fewer letters from the 1830-1857 period, and has a far scantier apparatus of summaries, bridging passages, introductions, and footnotes. To be sure, Steegmuller’s edition is still a stringent one compared to its source: it includes 160 letters, while the Pléiade edition, so far published to the year 1851, has 389, plus more than one hundred replies to Flaubert’s correspondence. Since Steegmuller is himself a fine stylist, his new edition reads naturally. It convincingly captures Flaubert’s tone and content.
Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen’s municipal hospital, second son of its distinguished chief surgeon. He was slow to learn the alphabet and to write, causing his demanding family premature concern (and Jean-Paul Sartre to title his study of Flaubert L’Idiot de la Famille). Once started, however, the boy became a brilliantly profuse writer, with his early notebooks and letters exhibiting a fine flow of adolescent rhetoric; Steegmuller includes ten precocious letters written between the ages of nine and eighteen.
When he was almost fifteen, Gustave fell into his first infatuation with a married woman of twenty-six, Elise Schlesinger, who gave him the nourishing love his own rigid and frigid mother had denied him. As with other people, he cherished the memory of her over many years, finally portraying her as Mme. Arnoux in A Sentimental Education, published when he was almost fifty. Yet, Flaubert resisted love far oftener than he admitted it to his morose, caustic, pessimistic temperament. From age eighteen on, his erotic preference was for whores and brothels, the seamier and sleazier the better. “For me,” he wrote when he was twenty-five, “love is not and should not be in the foreground of life; it should remain in the back room.”
What consistently did remain in the foreground of Flaubert’s life was his devotion to his dour mother, in whose Croisset house he lived out much of his adulthood, and to several male friends. He wrote effusive letters to a trio of them: Alfred Le Poittevin, Maxime DuCamp, and Louis Bouilhet. These epistles manifest a marked homosexual streak—or, perhaps more precisely, femininity. Le Poittevin played elder brother to Gustave. Their parents were close friends; both became reluctant law students; both cultivated romantic languor, extensive whoring, and pervasive cynicism. In his letters to Alfred, Gustave often opened his heart and pen to intimate declarations of his disgust with ordinary life. Here is a good example, written in 1845:Do as I do. Break with the outside world, live like a bear—a polar bear—let everything else go to hell—everything, yourself included, except your intelligence. There is now such a great gap between me and the rest of the world that I am sometimes surprised to hear people say the most natural and simple things. It’s strange how the most banal utterance sometimes makes me marvel. There are gestures, sounds of people’s voices, that I cannot get over, silly remarks that almost give me vertigo. Have you sometimes listened closely to people speaking a foreign language you didn’t understand?
When Le Poittevin decided to marry in 1846, Flaubert felt betrayed and devastated. He turned for intimacy to Maxime DuCamp, also a law student, whose worldliness and efficiency contrasted with Flaubert’s reclusiveness and aversion to practical affairs. DuCamp lent himself to the office of go-between when Gustave began his liaison with the married Louise Colet, but was jealous of her, soon finding her vapid and exasperating. From 1849 to 1851, Gustave interrupted his affair with Louise and traveled to the Middle East with Maxime. The route included Egypt, Palestine, Greece, and Turkey. Everywhere the two made a triumphal tour of not only aesthetic antiquities and ruins but also verminous brothels catering to both sexes and polymorphous sensations from buggery to bestiality. Flaubert writes here of sexual couplings involving not only whores but transvestites, bardashes, monkeys, donkeys, even ostriches. One day, he proclaims, he “fired five times and sucked three.” What added exotic excitement to this performance, achieved with a locally famous courtesan, was a regiment of bedbugs on the wall which he amused himself killing without changing his position with the woman. When Louise Colet was later to assert her disgust with Flaubert’s description of the bedbugs, he wrote her in 1853:... You tell me that Kuchuk’s bedbugs degrade her in your eyes; for me they were the most enchanting touch of all. Their nauseating odor mingled with the scent of her skin, which was dripping with sandalwood oil. I want a bitter undertaste in everything—always a jeer in the midst of our triumphs, desolation in the very midst of enthusiasm... .
Most of Flaubert’s Oriental correspondence is addressed to Louis Bouilhet (1822-1869), whose friendship with Gustave was to be termed a “liaison” by Louis. The two, Steegmuller informs the reader, “grew to look strikingly alike.” Bouilhet’s affection and admiration for Flaubert consoled him for Le Poittevin’s “defection” to marriage and death of tuberculosis in 1847, but also created an adversarial situation between not only Bouilhet and Louise Colet, but also Bouilhet and DuCamp. Yet, both friends agreed in advising Flaubert not to publish the bloated version of The Temptation of Saint Anthony that he read to them for no less than thirty-two hours...
(The entire section is 2962 words.)