At the time, George Sand was the celebrity, a retired amorist and noted cross-dresser now publishing without strain two or three novels a year of the improving, marketable kind. Flaubert, too, had had an episode of scandal, when he and Madame Bovary were taken to court in 1857 for obscenity; but he by now was labouring retentively away once again in the service of Apollo, the Olympian specially refurbished by him as ‘the god of crossings-out’. Sand’s oeuvre was enormous on its way to filling 77 volumes in the collected edition; Flaubert’s was heroically small, some six books in all by the end of his life, a costive bequest but one that was to be gloriously increased later on by the volumes in which the Apollonian toiler is released on parole, to indulge himself with Dionysiac abandon and create the most uninterruptedly enjoyable correspondence of any French writer: Flaubert’s masterpiece, as André Gide rightly thought it.
The third volume of the splendid new Pléiade edition covers ten calendar years and the exchange with Sand begins a little before halfway through, in 1863, routinely at first but gaining in style and idiosyncrasy as it becomes more regular, though without ever dominating this third volume as the wonderful letters Flaubert wrote to his mistress Louise Colet dominated the second. The hectic and intrusive Colet is by this date gone from Flaubert’s life, a ‘bonne Muse’ no longer requiring to be fended off by letter but sacrificed once and for all to the autonomy of Work. She resurfaces only in her fits of vengeance, as the author of Lui, the second novel, following Une histoire de soldat, in which she worked off her animus against her unbiddable lover (Flaubert to Ernest Feydeau: ‘Since you’ve read Lui, read Une histoire de soldat. I assure you it will amuse you. It’s much better, because I’m in the foreground’), and of an anonymous letter to him years later accusing him of, among other failings, having sucked up to the emperor, Napoleon III. As an addressee the turbulent Colet is a real loss, because Flaubert’s letters to her are the most vigorously and drolly intimate he ever wrote. Sand is a replacement of a soberer kind, a mother-figure almost twenty years older than him, and of a seemingly contagious serenity after all the rough weather she had been through in her earlier days: ‘Such character! Such strength! And at the same time there is no one whose company is more soothing’ is Flaubert’s comment after Sand has been to stay with him. Writing to her, he is on his best behaviour, mild-mannered by his standards, sympathetic, confiding, envious in his low moments of her uncomplicated domesticity and innocent of the comradely bawdy and fecal tropes with which he seasons his letters to his men-friends (and one or two other women-friends).
Only through letters could two natures as discordant as those of Sand and Flaubert have entered into this prolific a friendship; any greater closeness would surely have tried it fatally. They coincided occasionally in Paris, where Sand was the only woman to be invited to the celebrated dinners ‘chez Magny’, and there were rare visits, by her to him in Croisset or by him to her in Nohant. These went better than had seemed likely beforehand. After Sand had stayed with him for a first time some three years into their correspondence proper, a relieved Flaubert wrote to Edma Roger des Genettes:
My illustrious friend left me on Saturday evening. Never was there a better woman, more good-natured and less of a bluestocking. She worked all day, and in the evenings we chattered like magpies till three in the morning. Though she’s a bit too benevolent and free with her approval, she has subtle and sensible insights, provided she doesn’t get astride her socialist hobby-horse.
In return, three years later, Flaubert proved a surprisingly agile and hearty guest at Christmas-time, dressing up as a woman and dancing a Spanish dance – though when he visited again al Nohant Sand rather went off him, deciding he was by this time too ‘literary’ and conversation-hogging from living on his own and less fun to be with than Turgenev, her other house-guest.
Mainly they trusted to a long-distance meeting of minds, rather than putting their friendship at risk from the small annoyances of a cohabitation, however brief. Flaubert was not in any case the man to share a house with; he tells the Princesse Mathilde at one point not to be fooled by his ‘gross gendarme’s envelope’, that the least thing gets on his nerves and that he lives in greater dread ‘of a squeaking door than of being betrayed by a friend’ (a comparison speaking more to some of us than that made in an opposite direction by E.M. Forster). As correspondents he and Sand may agree on such matters as the avariciousness of the bourgeoisie or the harm Catholicism has done and continues to do to the condition of France, but more profitably they diverge, writing at a tangent rather than directly to one another, and sparing us too many of the mortifying politenesses of corroboration.
Sand was the positive, sentimental one of the two, the one who believed in things: in the fundamental goodness of people, in family (with the exception of her difficult daughter Solange), in nature, in immortality, in some vague but assured upward movement of the human race. Flaubert would have none of all that. He believed in Beauty, as a Platonic principle or ‘virtue’ realisable by ascesis in his own prose, and in the facts proven by Science; but he was revolted by tame, as he thought them, Christian conceptions of God and morally and politically was a rabid deteriorationist, for whom all historical movement was downwards. In the most exuberantly anti-social moments of his correspondence he writes as Disgusted of Croisset, whose opinion it is in the very first letter of the new Pléiade volume that ‘we are dancing about on the rotten boards of a vast latrine. Humanity, for my part, makes me want to vomit.’ The latrine image is a favourite to which he returns, being ready in his letters to allow himself the repetitions of words and sounds he spent days on end grumblingly removing from his other writing
It was ironic that he and Sand should have struck up their correspondence in earnest when they did, at a time when he was starting to work through his punishing agenda of historical research for his new novel. L’Education sentimentale. For the political background to that book he undertook to read the left-wing literature – Fourier, Proudhon, Saint-Simon – that had helped to shape the ideas of the insurrectionists of 1848, and hence of some of his characters, for whom the great political events of that year in Paris come as a catalyst, separating the active members of a generation from the passive. This dutiful reading was a trying experience for Flaubert, who saw socialism as regressive, and as a dangerous concession to the aspirations of the uneducated. He was outrageously elitist in his politics, prepared to grant to Sand that everyone should have one vote on election day but only so long as he had 20 votes. The rise of socialism was the fault of the arch-sentimentalist Rousseau, who had somehow got the better of his own cynical hero Voltaire, for whom Justice counted for everything and Fraternity was a sham. After ploughing through the idealistic guff of Proudhon (‘that latrine’) and Co he writes to Amélie Bosquet: ‘How all these people weigh me down! Such despots! And such clodhoppers! Modern socialism stinks of the classroom.’ But it was from just such sources as these that Sand had derived her own democratic principles and her meliorist faith that by writing didactically she might persuade the privileged in society to act more fraternally towards the downtrodden. To Flaubert all that was anathema: but he puts up with it from Sand as he couldn’t have done from anyone else. She has a hold over him, she is exempt from his anger – family, you might say, along with the mother and niece to whom he was unfailingly good.
The disastrous events of 1870-71 bring out as nothing else in their correspondence the deep temperamental divide between them. Sand suffers, her beliefs totter but in the end they survive: Flaubert lives extravagantly up to his doctor’s diagnosis, that he was ‘a male hysteric’. In France’s darkest hour Sand’s optimism found a quaint official recognition. In October 1870, with the Empire already at an end, the Republican Government under siege in Paris sent up two montgolfiers, carrying the person of its doughtiest minister Gambetta along with encouraging messages for the provinces, which were then caving in to the Prussian armies. One balloon bore the name of George Sand, its companion on the flight to Tours that of Armand Barbès, a high-minded radical and gallant ‘comrade’ of Sand who had been imprisoned and nearly guillotined for his socialist views. (He was among those Flaubert had gone to for help in authenticating the descriptions of 1848 in L’Education sentimentale.) Had he not been in a state of such incandescent pessimism Flaubert must have found the infant republic’s futile adventure with balloons both laughable and apt, with a writer like Sand, whose hopeful doctrines he thought perfectly fantastic, lending her name to a vehicle propelled exclusively by hot air. Hope, however, was what the buoyant Sand never lost, even during the excesses of the Commune and its ghastly suppression, and what Flaubert refused ever publicly to feel. But by now, seven years into their acquaintance, she had come to see the instinctive sympathies and emotional timidity that had found shelter beneath his pseudo-brutal manner, and was able to discount the explosions of his misanthropy.
As provincials, both were onlookers, not participants, in the siege of Paris. Sand was at Nohant in the west of France, a scene of pastoral as she describes it in her letters, where she bathes in the icy river, gets up charades with her naturalist son, cherishes her granddaughters and writes without any of the crippling fastidiousness of her friend. ‘The novel’s galloping ahead, but I can sprinkle the local colour on afterwards’ – how he must have groaned when he read that terrible admission of facility. Flaubert meanwhile was at Croisset, outside Rouen, his workplace, which was about to have ‘forty Prussians’ billeted on it, driving its owner out to Dieppe, to be with his mother and niece. He is all of a sudden the patriot, appalled by the speed and completeness of his country’s defeat, and, even while bellowing against the stupidity of all and sundry – ‘Such cowardice! Such ignorance! Such presumption! My compatriots made me want to vomit’ – first volunteers to be a male nurse in his brother’s hospital in Rouen and then reports for duty as a junior officer in the militia there. Sand’s as ever is the easier, the millennial view; she looks on the military fiasco of 1870 as a setback, not as the end of everything:
We mustn’t despair of France: she’s expiating her own folly, but she’ll be reborn no matter what. Perhaps we ourselves will be carried off. What difference does it make whether we’re killed by a bullet or by pneumonia? We die just the same. Let’s die without cursing our own species!
She knew well enough that as a correspondent Flaubert thrived on cursing his own species, though less boisterously to her than to others of those to whom he wrote regularly, to old habitués of his invective like Louis Bouilhet or Ernest Feydeau. On this occasion though he is unusually forthright in squashing Sand’s attempts at uplift:
What a collapse! What a fall! What wretchedness! What abominations! Is it possible to believe in progress and civilisation in the face of all that’s happening now? ... There’s no lack of ready-made slogans. ‘France will rise again!’ ‘Do not despair!’ ‘It’s a salutary punishment! We were really so immoral!’ Etc. Oh, eternal nonsense! No! One does not recover from such a blow.
Flaubert had not believed that the war with Prussia would come, or so at least he assures his niece Caroline in his affectionately simple, parochial letters to her. When it did come it was at an already bad moment for him, on top of a melancholy sequence of deaths of those close or well known to him, of Bouilhet, his dearest friend and most valued literary confidant since the death of Alfred le Poittevin, of the critic Sainte-Beuve, of Jules Deplan who had done research and negotiated with his publisher for him, of Jules de Goncourt, one half of a fraternal duo so inseparable they are always written to as one in the many piquant letters Flaubert addresses to them.
This thinning out before its time of the literary society of which, his reputation as the ‘hermit of Croisset’ notwithstanding, he was a convivial member during his seasonal and often prolonged stays in Paris, heightened his sense of himself as a ‘fossil’, a survivor into an age that had no more time for him than he for it. Unlike another proudly alienated writer of an earlier generation, Stendhal, Flaubert did not comfort himself for the misapprehensions of the present by imagining his success in a more intelligent and hospitable future. He comforted himself by taking the present on, as a weak, effeminate age that called for violent literary remedies to be applied to it. ‘Let’s pour eau-de-vie on this sugar-water century. Let’s drown the bourgeois in an eleven-thousand degree grog and may his gullet burn with it, may he roar with pain!’ he tells Feydeau. Not that the bourgeoisie is the whole or even the main trouble with the century; Woman is worse. There are some rare flights of misogyny in Flaubert’s letters, in which he accuses women of having turned contemporary men into cowards and given them a debilitating ‘horror of strong things, of solid nourishment’. The ‘latrine’ Proudhon has at least had one right thought: ‘Woman is the desolation of the just man’. Not that this sort of thing finds its way into the letters to George Sand, she of the man’s pen-name or of ‘the third sex.,’ as Flaubert intriguingly puts it, who would not have warmed to his view of women writers, that ‘everything truly elevated and lofty eludes them.’
If Flaubert’s Croisset was an ivory tower, it was one from whose meurtrières many barbed volleys were fired by its one-man garrison, convinced as he was of the utter mediocrity of what currently passed for literature, of the ignorance and wrongheadedness of critics, of the greed and illiteracy of publishers: in fact, of the root-and-branch corruption of the literary times. The great names are not spared: except, that is, if they have to be written to, when Flaubert can be as glibly sycophantic as Marcel Proust, false praise being for him a coded way of showing contempt. But if he slates the work – of the great historian Jules Michelet, for example, or of Victor Hugo, whose Les Misérables he sees as directed at ‘all that philosophico-evangelical vermin’ – he usually admires the man, Hugo especially, who in the 1870s he was to find one of the very few people left in Paris worth talking to.
With Sand, Flaubert is tactful: she sent him her books as they came out, and though he can’t have liked what he read of them there are no treacherous eulogies, only believable praise. Years later, after her death, her best-known novels appeared on the reading-list of Bouvard and Pécuchet, when those ‘two woodlice.’ as Flaubert is already calling them here in anticipation, turn in their autodidactic mania to the improvement of their literary education. Reading Sand, one of them enthuses over ‘the lovely adulteries and the noble lovers’ while the other is ‘seduced by the defence of the oppressed, the social and republican side, the theses’. Fit matter for woodlice but certainly not for Flaubert, in whose novels adulteries are not lovely and lovers are less than noble, and for whom the intrusion of a ‘thesis’ into the objectivity of a fiction meant the end of its claims to be Art.
Sand the invincible humanist never stops reproaching him for his lack of a philosophy, of ‘a broad and definite view of life.’ Had he had one, she believes he would have been a happier man and, naturally, a more successful writer. But Flaubert will recognise only the need people feel for a metaphysic or a big Idea, not the horribly little ideas they are asked to bear with by way of satisfaction in the real world.
You won’t illuminate my darkness – mine or anyone else’s – with metaphysics. The words Religion or Catholicism on the one hand, Process, Fraternity, Democracy on the other, no longer satisfy the spiritual demands of our time. The brand-new dogma of Equality, preached by radicalism, is demonstrated to be untrue by Physiology and History. I don’t see how it is possible today to establish a new Principle any more than to respect the old ones. Hence I keep seeking – without ever finding – that Idea from which all the rest must proceed.
To be without an Idea is not to be without ‘convictions’, however. On the contrary, he is only too full of those, he is ‘constantly bursting with suppressed anger and indignation’. Suppressed? The reader of Flaubert’s letters may well blink at that. But then, this is what his letters surely were for him: they celebrate the return of the suppressed. The anger and indignation he had to keep to himself when in decent company, and which could find its way into his novels only obliquely, in the form of the godlike author’s implicit contempt for certain of his creatures, is magisterially vented in the correspondence, where the constraints of society and those of literature as practised by Flaubert are both equally relaxed.
Sand can’t understand the terrible self-denial of his literary creed. ‘You’re keeping an exuberant nature shut up in jail!’ she writes to him. Flaubert for his part restates it as an absolute: ‘I feel an unconquerable aversion to putting anything of my heart on paper. I even think that a novelist hasn’t the right to express an opinion on anything whatsoever. Has God ever expressed an opinion?’ Sand’s was the sensible view, that by taking his lead from God he was denying himself to his own disadvantage, addressing himself to ‘a literary audience ... that doesn’t really exist’. But Flaubert exults in the knowledge that his audience doesn’t exist, because scarcely anyone shares his purism in respect of Literature. ‘There are so few people who love what I love, who are concerned with the things that are my chief care. Do you know, in all the vastness of Paris, a single house where the talk is about Literature? And when it is alluded to incidentally, it is always in connection with its minor, external aspects – the question of success, morality, utility, relevance, etc.’
Work was the thing, then, not what eventuated from it in worldly terms. To Feydeau: ‘The impatience literary people have to see themselves printed, swindled, known, extolled, amazes me like a madness. It seems to me to have as much connection with their task as with the game of dominos or politics.’ This unconcern wears a little thin, it must be said, when Flaubert is in the throes of publication. The big event of the first half of the Pléiade volume is the finishing of Salammbô, the historical novel about Carthage, in the researching and writing of which he had spent nearly six years. The place and period had to be as exactly right as contemporary scholarship could make them and in the winter of 1860 he is telling a correspondent he has read fifty books in two months so as to be able to reconstruct – or was it invent? he admitted he couldn’t always remember where facts ended and conjecture began – the commercial life of ancient North Africa. This manic thoroughness was no penance but a comfort, because long immersion in such alien matter was what Flaubert needed if he wasn’t to succumb to his indignation at the world around him: ‘If I go so slowly, it is because a book for me is a special way of living. Concerning a word or an idea, I do my researches, I lose myself in endless reading and reverie. Thus ... I have been reading medicine, et caetera.’ The barbarities of Carthage as patiently reconstructed were to their author a form of sedative, and all the sweeter for knowing how repellent they would be found by many of his bien-pensant readers. The novel’s unsuccess was as good as ensured. But he worries over the text and appearance of what he has written up until the very last moment, changing words, checking facts, furiously rejecting the idea of illustrations, demanding just the right openness of circumflex over the o of Salammbô on the title-page.
And once the novel is out, he is far from indifferent to its reception. He would have been happy to make some money from it for one thing, since by his own account Madame Bovary has earned him nothing, his copyist and the defence lawyer having had to be paid off. But Salammbô was not much liked at the time any more than it is much liked now. It brought out how much more modern Flaubert was in his understanding of Literature, than both readers and the critics who advised those readers. The most powerful of these, Sainte-Beuve, ever the pluralist, managed to review the novel in three different places, with varying levels of distaste. Flaubert enjoyed knowing he had ‘made his flesh creep’ but wasn’t prepared to let the critic suppose he didn’t mind what had been said about the book. He knew what was wrong with it: in his own celebrated judgment, ‘The pedestal is too large for the statue,’ meaning there was too much of Carthage and too little of humanity. But that wasn’t what the salonnard Sainte-Beuve had complained about: he had argued that the subject-matter of Salammbô was ‘disagreeable in itself’, hardly fit to be put before civilised readers. Of the writer’s extraordinary achievement, in re-creating ancient Carthage to such clearly excellent effect, nothing: Sainte-Beuve had too amateur and urbane a view of literature to understand it in terms of Poetics. Flaubert wrote him an immense letter in defence not just of Salammbô but of his own practice of fiction, explaining that he had ‘wanted to fix a mirage by applying to Antiquity the procedures of the modern novel,’ and adding for good measure that, barbaric or not, he personally would rather have lived in Carthage than in Port-Royal, the 17th-century Jansenist community that had been the subject of the critic’s own best-known work. The letter is a masterpiece of constructive spleen.
The same story is pretty much repeated when he moves on to L’Education sentimentale. Again, there are the years of research: of reading – 27 books read and annotated in six weeks; and of making enquiries – into how porcelain is made, into typical menus for the Café Anglais in 1847, into the effects of whooping-cough, enquiries that Flaubert likes to measure in cab-hours spent crisscrossing Paris. Then there is the slowness of the writing – 11 hours’ work for only two usable lines; and a chronic anxiety that with this book, too, the setting may overwhelm the action. And when that wonderful novel appeared, in 1869, his anxiety proved to have been sound, for the critics fell into the two classes of the tactfully silent and the panning. ‘I don’t care in the least, but it does surprise me that there should be so much hatred and dishonesty,’ the injured author writes to Sand. She sympathises but in truth she never managed to grasp the coherence of Flaubert’s method. In 1876, the year of her death, she is still able to tell him: ‘L’Education sentimentale was misunderstood. I kept telling you, but you wouldn’t listen. It needed either a short preface, or some expression of disapproval, if only a significant word here or there, to condemn evil, call weakness by its right name, and draw attention to endeavour.’
Along with which obtuse comments there arrived complimentary copies of the three new books which his 72-year-old friend was just publishing. Flaubert was none too happy with her, telling Turgenev he found the books ‘most upsetting’. (Turgenev’s own comment long ago on L’Education sentimentale had been the shortest and most sensible of all: ‘change the title.’) But right from the start Sand had found the way to lecture Flaubert without arousing his resentment and at the same time to draw admissions from him he could not have made to anyone else:
What you wrote in your last letter about your beloved granddaughters moved me profoundly. Why do I have none of that? And yet I was born with every capacity for affection. But one doesn’t choose one’s destiny. One submits to it. I was a coward in my youth. I was afraid of Life. Ultimately, all accounts are rendered.
‘Je m’oursifie,’ I am turning into a bear, Flaubert wrote to Feydeau in 1861, and the image has stuck. But this was a bear made bearish by having a very thin skin. Sand soon saw that, and it comes out in his letters to her as in the many he wrote to his niece. Most of all perhaps it comes out in those he wrote over many years to Mlle Leroyer de Chantepie whose letters to him the editor of the Pléiade edition has done well to include. This unlikely correspondent first wrote to the novelist just after Madame Bovary had been published, to say, not quite ‘Madame Bovary c’est moi’ but (alluding to the novel’s subtitle), ‘Yes, those indeed are the moeurs de province where I was born, and where I have spent my life.’ And the correspondence between them is still going in 1868, when the third Pléiade volume ends. If Flaubert could be Disgusted of Croisset, then this unhappy woman invariably writes as Depressed of Angers. Every letter de Chantepie sends him is morbidly packed with new, or else variations on the same old evidence of her low spirits. She is lonely, without occupation, sickly and with a peculiar neurosis that prevents her from making her confession, so that she is cut off also from the Church and from God. Flaubert is thoughtful and benevolent well beyond the call of duty. The man without hope enters on the business of providing hope for a fellow sufferer He doesn’t pretend life is good but urges her to wake up from the trance of passivity in which she lives and find something to do: ‘You need some forced labour, something difficult and obligatory to be carried out every day.’ He has had depressions; work was then his ‘cataplasm’, let it be hers too. Flaubert’s willingness to write back at such length and so amicably to this monotonous intruder is an act of charity to be set against any self-inflicted notion of him as a bear whose one mode of welcome to the encroaching world was the growl.
The Flaubert-Sand Correspondence has been excellently translated by Francis Steegmuller and Barbara Bray, and the work divided mimetically between them by gender, with Steegmuller doing Flaubert’s letters and Bray Sand’s. Just about everything that calls for it is footnoted, and there is a running commentary to fill in the gaps between letters. My one criticism of the translation would have to be of Bray’s choice of colloquialisms when Sand is being slangy: to have her writing that she ‘knows what makes them tick’ or of ‘dossing down’ is to carry her too obtrusively into the 20th century.
Steegmuller’s elegant 1958 translation of Madame Bovary has also now reappeared, in the Everyman’s Library, within the same twelve-month as the new Penguin Classics translation of the novel. Of the two versions Steegmuller’s is the freer, at times rather surprisingly so. Geoffrey Wall’s a far stricter alternative, taking no liberties with the French that I could spot but reading well just the same. No cause here for Flaubert to complain, as he did back in 1862, when the continuing lack of a translation of his novel in England was one of numerous sore points to be raised against his despicable publisher, Michel Lévy. ‘I had one of Bovary (into English) made in front of me and it was a masterpiece. I begged Lévy to arrange with a publisher in London to bring it out. Nix!’ As readers of Flaubert’s incomparably indignant letters we can only be pleased things so often seemed to go against him.