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Life and Letters

Flaubert Versus the World

The writer’s collected letters are a glorious escape from the annoyances of social life into the splendor of prose.

Josse/Leemage/Corbis Historical/Getty Images
Portrait of Gustave Flaubert by Eugene Giraud (1806–1881)

The last time I tried to “teach” Madame Bovary was in an advanced undergraduate course at a London university, and I had expected better results. The students either hated it or found it “boring,” and even when they did “sort of like” it, they hated the central character and said things like: “How can I like someone who cheats on their husband?” Or “That woman had everything and she was never happy.” They found Emma completely unsympathetic—a problem I never had teaching other novels about adulterous women, such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (which was, of course, inspired by Flaubert’s earlier and much better novel).

For while Bovary is one of the undisputed classics of Western literature, it’s hard to think of a famous novel that is disliked with such intensity by the common reader. To a large extent, it may be because Emma is almost completely unapologetic about her betrayals; all she ever really cares about is herself and indulging in her endless reveries about living the beautiful life in Paris that she read about in mediocre novels. But of course it is Emma’s selfishness, and her impossible yearning for a world better than awful middle-class Rouen, that makes her so alive and almost heroic. In many ways, she lives more fully on the page than many of us do in life.

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert
Edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller
New York Review of Books, 720 pp., $24.95

Flaubert despised the middle-class desire to confirm moral lessons and comfortable truths in its entertainments; he is also very broadly disliked by the sorts of readers who go looking for such things. For him, both the reading and writing of great fiction meant staging a retreat from the demands of society and even from social life itself. What this large, chronologically arranged selection of his letters to friends and family shows is just how avowedly and self-consciously he spent his career becoming as “désengagé” as possible. (The more politically attuned Sartre, whose unappreciative biography of Flaubert was titled The Family Idiot, once referred to him as a “talented coupon clipper.”) It is safe to say Flaubert didn’t like the world he wrote about as much as he liked creating fictional alternatives to it. And he didn’t simply struggle to find the right word for each of his lovely, intricately beautiful sentences; he continuously sought to invent an aesthetically pleasing world that was composed almost entirely of such perfect words, sentences, and paragraphs.

Turning away from the world was a big part of Flaubert’s literary method. Each of his books—and to some degree, each of his effusive, emotionally intense letters to friends and lovers—is an opportunity to shut all the distracting doors and windows and bathe in the splendor of great literary prose.

Flaubert was born in 1821 in Rouen, a provincial town he despised and yet rarely left. His father was a celebrated local physician, and as a consequence Flaubert grew up witnessing the most tragic extremes of human existence. As Francis Steegmuller described in Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait (1939), Flaubert and his sister would climb the trellises outside their house and watch “their father and his assistants and students peeling and dissecting cadavers. Their bodies, covered with flies, lay on their marble slabs; on the trunks of what had once been human beings the students carelessly rested their burning cigars.” At other times, while playing in the garden, they saw wild dogs running about clutching “bits of human debris” in their teeth. During the 1832 cholera epidemic, the sick and dying often gathered in the streets.

From an early age, Flaubert preferred the beautiful vistas he discovered in books, and yet he could never avoid the most awful truths of human existence: disease, disintegration, illness, and death. He felt both a cynical distrust of bourgeois fantasies—that individuals could, through education and hard work, rise above the animal limitations of their bodies—and a deep abiding sympathy for those human beings foolish enough to believe them.

His parents wanted Flaubert to pursue everything about bourgeois professional life that he despised; and it is perhaps only because of several illnesses and tragedies that Flaubert escaped the fate they mapped out for him. In the midst of his miserable adventures as a law student in Paris (“What a marvelous idea it was of somebody’s to invent the Law School for the express purpose of boring the shit out of us!”), he began suffering a series of epileptic seizures that sent him home for weeks at a time; he was afflicted with huge painful boils on his neck and body, bad teeth, gout, and very probably syphilis; then, over a miserable couple of years, those closest to him began dying—first his father, then his beloved sister, and finally the dearest friend of his youth, Alfred Le Poittevin. Without these misfortunes and ailments, he might never have cultivated his solitary nature. As he wrote Le Poittevin in May 1845, “The only way not to be unhappy is to shut yourself up in Art and count all the rest as nothing.”

I have said an irrevocable farewell to the practical life. My nervous illness was the transition between two states. From now until a day that is far distant I ask for no more than five or six quiet hours in my room, a good fire in winter, and a pair of candles to light me at night.

By shutting himself up with “Art” (a word he always capitalized), he could just as firmly shut his door on the world. “I hate life,” he wrote to another youthful friend, Maxime Du Camp. “There: I have said it; I’ll not take it back. Yes, life; and everything that reminds me that life must be borne. It bores me to eat, to dress, to stand on my feet, etc. I have dragged this hatred everywhere, wherever I have been: at school, in Rouen, in Paris, on the Nile.” The world’s temptations stopped being so tempting as Flaubert grew older. Partly it was his faulty body falling apart. But in reading his letters, it is clear that much of the passion was simply knocked clean out of him.

This was especially evident in his correspondence with Louise Colet. Eleven years Flaubert’s senior, she was already a subject of gossip in Paris before they met in the Paris studio of a mutual friend. (She once replied to a detractor by trying to stab him with a kitchen knife.) For Flaubert, however, she was the only brief lapse into romantic pleasure that he ever allowed himself, and his first letters are filled with the gushings of a young man. After their first night together, in the summer of 1846, he wrote her at midnight:

Twelve hours ago we were still together, and at this very moment yesterday I was holding you in my arms! Do you remember? How long ago it seems! Now the night is soft and warm; I can hear the great tulip tree under my window rustling in the wind, and when I lift my head I see the moon reflected in the river.… What memories! And what desire! Ah! Our two marvelous carriage rides; how beautiful they were, particularly the second, with the lightning flashes above us. I keep remembering the color of the trees lit by the streetlights, and the swaying motion of the springs. We were alone, happy: I kept staring at you, and even in the darkness your whole face seemed illumined by your eyes. I feel I am writing badly—you will read this without emotion—I am saying nothing of what I want to say. My sentences run together like sighs, to understand them you will have to supply what should go between. You will do that, won’t you?

In these early letters, Flaubert indulges himself in all the romantic hyperbole that will so preoccupy (and eventually doom) his greatest creation, Emma Bovary; and while Flaubert is often remembered as being cynical about romantic love, it’s clear from his correspondence that he wasn’t always that way. He could create Emma Bovary because he knew her from the inside out and, as he reportedly (and famously) remarked: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi, d’aprés moi!” (“Madame Bovary is myself—drawn from life.”)

But within weeks, Flaubert is already telling Louise how incompatible his feelings for her are with his desire to shut himself away. In a letter dated August 9, 1846, he instructs her to “be more sparing with your cries; they are torturing me.” He writes that he wants “to live in a place where no one loves me or knows me, where the sound of my name causes only indifference, where my death or my absence costs no one a tear” and complains, “I have been too much loved, you see; you love me too much.”

Until finally their passion lies bloodless in a series of letters that are cold, angry, accusatory, and threatening; and the more emotional Louise gets, the more Flaubert retreats into an indifference to both women and, almost as importantly, Paris. Before the end of their first month together, he writes:

Anger! Good God! Vituperation, invective! Lurid language! What does it mean? That you like disputes, recriminations, all the bitter daily wrangling that ends by making life a real hell? I don’t understand. You complain of my hard words, but it seems to me that I never sent you any to equal these. Perhaps you’ll say I have written you even more harshly: everyone has his illusions. But in your letter of this morning I see something more, a deliberate intent to be nasty, or to seem so. Who knows?

Flaubert lived a lifetime of passion, rage, and hurt feelings in his intense relationship with a very intense woman. But while the relationship lingered on for several years, during which time Flaubert often reported to her his daily progress on Bovary, he eventually shut the door on Louise as firmly as he did on the rest of the world. In a letter dated March 6, 1855, he writes:

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.



While it’s hard not recognize Emma Bovary in the adolescent romantic who yearned for better-than-this-world adventures, it’s just as easy to see the more methodical, womanizing rogue, Rodolphe, who could produce the required tears to place telltale stains on his last letter to Emma, and subsequently smokes his pipe and goes to bed.

“Am I really to have a goal other than Art itself?” he asked his close friend Maxime Du Camp in 1851—and by this point, it was a rhetorical question. “It alone has been sufficient for me until now; and if I need something more, that is proof that I am deteriorating. And if I enjoy the additional something, that is proof that I have deteriorated already.”

With the death of his mighty initial passion for Louise, Flaubert grew deliberately indifferent to the world beyond provincial Croisset, where he recuperated from various ailments and, when he wasn’t writing Madame Bovary, read his work in progress out loud to visitors. It was as if Flaubert were building his own reality, word by word, just as his characters are driven to devise an existence more beautiful than their mundane routines of jobs, political appointments, financially advantageous liaisons, and disappointing marriages. Certainly Flaubert did all he could to escape these predicaments himself. He never married. He avoided becoming a literary institution in his old age. And rather than sire children, he inspired the future of French letters through his greatest admirers: Maupassant, Zola, and Proust.

Which is probably why the characters who most intrigued Flaubert were those who lived their lives largely apart from social responsibilities, if only inside their own minds: Emma Bovary, with her romance novels, her liaisons, and her passion for fine clothes and fabrics; St. Antony with his tantalizing, multifarious demons; or even the servant girl, Félicité, in his most moving and memorable story, “A Simple Heart,” who finds her pleasures in attending church services, collecting knickknacks, and conversing with her most dependable companion, a stuffed parrot. (At one point, Flaubert describes her private room in a moldering old house as containing “such a quantity of religious bric-à-brac and miscellaneous oddments that it looked like a cross between a chapel and a bazaar.”) There is something ridiculous, wildly aspirational, and pathetic about the characters for whom Flaubert feels the strongest emotional connection; and in the letters, he sees himself in similar terms.

Late in life he advised his friend (and the nephew of his adored Le Poittevin) Guy de Maupassant: “Too many whores! Too much rowing! Too much exercise! Yes, sir: civilized man doesn’t need as much locomotion as the doctors pretend. You were born to write poetry: write it! All the rest is futile.”

It’s impossible to think of any other writer who proved such a large influence on two seemingly antithetical schools of fiction—both the “realistic novel” and the “romance.” In his two major works—Sentimental and Bovary—he focuses on individuals driven by finance, sex, and politics even while they seek something more aesthetically fulfilling. On the other hand, Flaubert’s two lesser-known works—St. Antony and Salammbo—are extravagant, zaftig, phantasmagoric visions. But in both types of novel, Flaubert constructs his unique fictions from the ground up and according to literary techniques that he either perfected or invented.

His characters almost uniformly fail to escape either their desires or the hard embrace of economic realities, and they are ultimately dragged down to earth by either a painful death (poor self-poisoned Emma) or the blunt ironies of comfortable bourgeois life (Frédéric in Sentimental Education). The only characters who aren’t thus dismantled are the comic protagonists, Bouvard and Pecuchet, who never fail since they never see beyond the idiocies of their middle-class educations or the “truisms” (examples of which Flaubert cataloged in his Dictionary of Received Ideas) they continually spout at one another like parrots in an echo chamber (such as that nightmares “come from the stomach” or that novels “corrupt the masses”).

Which may be why Flaubert expresses such a mixed admiration for religious ceremonies—for while their stories about gods and salvation may be nonsense, they were the closest to “Art” that most people ever got. He describes his own withdrawal from social life as a sort of mystical yearning, and after the loss of his sister and father, he told Louise that he was “turning toward a kind of aesthetic mysticism.”

When you are given no encouragement by others, when the outside world disgusts, weakens, corrupts, and stupefies you, so-called “decent” and “sensitive” people are forced to seek somewhere within themselves a more suitable place to live. If society continues on its present path, I think we shall once again see mystics, such as existed in all dark ages. Unable to expand, the soul will concentrate on itself. The time is not far off when there will be a resurgence of melancholy fantasies, the expectation of a Messiah, beliefs in the approaching end of the world. But lacking any theological foundation, what will be the basis of this fervor? (It will certainly be ignorant concerning itself.) Some will seek it in the flesh, others in the ancient religions, still others in Art.

It was the closest to prophetic words that Flaubert ever spoke—imagining a future in which the bourgeoisie, or the working class, felt so betrayed by the silly things they dreamed of achieving that they could only be disappointed; at which point they might turn to darker, de Sadean dreams of power and cruelty. But at the end of the day, Flaubert expressed little interest in where the political and socioeconomic world would take humanity; he was more concerned with either creating his own immaculate fictions or escaping to the parlor with his small circle of friends.

Soon after the death of his mother, Flaubert wrote to a similar soul, Ivan Turgenev:

But alas! My ailment is incurable, I fear. Besides my personal reasons for grief (the death during the last three years of almost everyone I loved), I am appalled by the state of society. Yes, such is the case. Stupid, perhaps, but there it is. The stupidity of the public overwhelms me …

The bourgeoisie is so bewildered that it has lost all instinct to defend itself; and what will succeed it will be worse. I’m filled with the sadness that afflicted the Roman patricians of the fourth century: I feel irredeemable barbarism rising from the bowels of the earth. I hope to be gone before it carries everything away. But meanwhile it’s not very gay. Never have things of the spirit counted for so little. Never has hatred for everything great been so manifest—disdain for Beauty, execration of literature.

I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.

It was a complaint Flaubert would continue raising through the final days of his life—that a world overly concerned with who ran things and who profited by them would have no time for the beauties he had spent his life creating. And it may be the final irony of his existence that readers who grow up today knowing his name rarely have the patience and attention to enjoy his work as much as it deserves.