Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Appreciation: Flaubert's Letters

I think the question whether you love Flaubert may be a function of whether you see yourself as a novelist.

That is: I admire Flaubert: I admire his discipline and his precision. But I can't say I've ever really liked him all that much. He's just too chilly. I suppose that distinguishes me for somebody like, say James Joyce, for whom Flaubert became a passion.

One difference between me and James Joyce: Joyce wanted to become a novelist; I never did. So the example of Flaubert could serve as a liberating experience for Joyce as it never did for me.

But I'll make an exception--one work in which Flaubert combines his formidable technical and observational skill with at least a minimal glint of humanity. That would be his personal letters where, off the public stage. he finds he can be for a moment (as you might say) himself.

Moving some books around this week, I ran across my old copy of the one-volume selection of Flaubert letters assembled by Francis Steegmuller, another devotée (but one who, to the best of my knowledge, himself did not want to become a novelist [WRONG--see David Lull comment infra]). They're packaged with some of the most tactful and precise (Flaubertian?) editing, so as to present him in the best possible light.

This is only a selection: some 271 pages in one volume, compared to nine volumes on his home turf. But almost any page gives you a good sample. Here, for example, we have Flaubert in 1847, writing to his beloved Louise Colet:
....You reproach me for speaking of art with you "as though we had nothing more important in common." Am I to gather that you are in the habit of speaking about art with people you care nothing about? For you the subject of art is of minor importance, a kind of entertainment, something between politics and the day's news? Not for me! The other day I saw a friend who lives outside France. We were brought up together; he reminisced about our childhood, my father, my sister, the lycée etc. Do you think that I spoke to him about the things that are closest to me, or at least that I have the highest regard for--about my loves and my enthusiasms? I was careful not to, I assure you, for he would have trampled them underfoot. The spirit observes the proprieties too, you know. He bored me to death, and at the end of two hours I was longing for him to go--which doesn't mean that I'm not devoted to him, and don't love him, if you call it loving. What is there worth talking about except Art? But who is there to talk about Art with? The first person who happens along? You are luckier than I, if such is the case with you, for I never meet anyone with whom I can discuss it.

--Gustave Flaubert, Letters of Gustave Flaubert 84
(Francis Steegmuller ed. Vintage paperback ed. 1957)
I wonder if the boring friend might be his schoolmate Ernest Chevalier, who remained a friend to the end of his life, even as their politics drove them apart. The first letter in the Steegmuller collection is to Chevalier, from Flaubert at the age of nine.

1 comment:

Dave Lull said...

A list of Francis Steegmuller's novels can be found here.