The Letters of Gustave Flaubert

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)
0111201547-Flaubert.jpg Gustave Flaubert (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

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The Letters of Gustave Flaubert

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1857-1880 is the second of two volumes of Gustave Flaubert’s correspondence in a selection drawing on the recently issued Pléiade edition of Jean Bruneau. Francis Steegmuller, who has selected, edited, and translated these letters for the Belknap Press, is the leading American Flaubertian; his previous books include a fine translation of Madame Bovary (revised Modern Library edition, 1982); a double biography, Flaubert and Madame Bovary (1939), analyzing both the genesis of the novel and the accompanying course of its creator’s difficult liaison with Louise Colet; an earlier selection of Flaubert’s letters (1953); Flaubert in Egypt (1972), a narrative of Flaubert’s travels there from 1849 to 1851; and the first volume of the Belknap Press edition of Flaubert’s letters (1980), covering Flaubert’s life up to the age of thirty-six, when the novelist achieved fame at one bound with the publication of Madame Bovary (1857) and his subsequent trial for alleged obscenity.

After the popular and literary success of Madame Bovary, Flaubert continued his cloistered life in his mother’s country house in Croisset, Normandy. He increased the number of his friends, acquaintances, and admirers, yet refused to become a public figure in the conventional way by starring in Parisian literary salons. Although he occasionally spent a week or two in a leased apartment in Paris, he preferred to pursue his unremitting aestheticism in his country retreat, with no guiding stars save for his own judgment and the advice of a few carefully chosen friends.

None of Flaubert’s later works approached the popularity or influence of Madame Bovary, yet his reputation as a writer of enormous integrity and magnificent talent shone steadily. Steegmuller points out that “a curious and growing public sympathy was extended to this uncompromising artist who held himself aloof.” His melancholia and misanthropy—a generalized disgust with what he regarded as humanity’s dominant stupidity and vulgarity—intensified in his later years, encouraged his literary and social seclusion, and led to such splenetic texts as Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881) and Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues (1913; Flaubert’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas).

Flaubert suffered, sometimes stoically but more often cholerically, a number of severe disappointments and trials. His sparse literary production was often misunderstood; his attempts to write for the stage failed miserably; the deaths of his closest friend, Louis Bouilhet (1869), and of his beloved mother (1872) left him inconsolable; the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871 and subsequent harsh struggles between radicals and reactionaries embittered him; worst of all, he helped to ruin the life of his beloved niece, Caroline, by pushing her into a loveless marriage with an apparently respectable bourgeois whose business failures cost Flaubert considerable sums. No wonder his letters are replete with such exclamations as, “Everything moves me, everything lacerates and ravages me.”

The main course of this edition is a generous helping from the celebrated correspondence between Flaubert and George Sand, which contrasts in its mellow sensitivity and mutual respect with the sensual turmoil of the Flaubert-Louise Colet letters in the first volume of Steegmuller’s edition. (The entire corpus of Flaubert-Sand letters was published in 1981 in Paris, edited by Alphonse Jacobs, but has not yet been issued in English.)

The friendship between Flaubert and Sand began in February, 1866, at a brilliantly attended dinner where she found him “more sympathetic” than the other guests. It developed rapidly, so that by May, she dedicated her newest novel to him, and in August, he had her visit his Croisset home for several days. From then on, they regularly exchanged letters between her home in Nohant, his in Normandy, and their respective apartments in Paris. His customary salutation to her was “chère maître,” combining the feminine form of the adjective (“dear”) with the masculine noun (“master”)—because, he told her, he admired the man in her.

Interestingly enough, their aesthetic ideals were at considerable variance, and their political and social views were wholly at odds. Yet they respected each other’s devotion to their craft and capacity for hard labor at it. More significantly, they were deeply fond of each other. He admired her candor, directness, and good temper, and the high level of her intelligence: “She has insights that evince very keen good sense, provided she doesn’t get on to her socialist hobby horse.” Additionally, both agreed on the desirability of leading intense, risk-taking lives. Wrote Flaubert in one of his most eloquent passages:Everything has its price! Large natures (and those are the good ones) are above all prodigal, and don’t keep such strict account of how they expend themselves. We must laugh and weep, love, work, enjoy and suffer—vibrate as much as possible, to the whole extent of our being. Thus it is, I believe, to be truly human.

Flaubert complained mildly to Sand that her writing was too confessional and rhapsodic, too infused with her own experiences, ideas, and...

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The Letters of Gustave Flaubert Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The Atlantic. CCL, November, 1982, p. 167.

Library Journal. CVII, September 15, 1982, p. 1756.

National Review. XXXIV, October 1, 1982, p. 1226.

The New York Review of Books. XXIX, December 16, 1982, p. 26.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, October 17, 1982, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LVIII, November 22, 1982, p. 196.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, September 17, 1982, p. 103.

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