Vol. 17 No. 12 · 22 June 1995

Two Letters from Gustave Flaubert to Louise Colet

translated by Geoffrey Wall

2427 words

Croisset, 15-16 May 1852. Saturday-Sunday, 1 a.m.

The small hours of Sunday morning find me in the middle of a page that has taken me all day and is still far from finished. I am putting it aside to write to you, and in fact it may perhaps take me into tomorrow evening, since I often spend several hours looking for a word, and since I have several to find, it is quite likely that you would still be waiting all next week if I were to wait until I had finished. However it has not been going too badly over the past few days, except for today which has caused me great problems. If you knew what I throw away, what a hotchpotch my manuscripts are. There’s a hundred and twenty pages finished; I have written at least five hundred. Do you know how I spent my entire afternoon the day before yesterday? Looking at the landscape through pieces of coloured glass. I needed it for a page of my Bovary, one which I believe will be rather good.

You are longing to meet again, dear Louise. So am I. I am yearning to embrace you and to hold you in my arms. By the end of next week, or thereabouts, I hope to be able to tell you exactly when we shall be able to see each other.

I am going to be interrupted this week by the arrival of female relations (never met them before) and a pretty ribald lot, apparently, at least one of them. They are family from Champagne, and the father is some sort of tax-director in Dieppe. Mother went to visit them yesterday and the day before, leaving me alone with the governess. But have no fear. My virtue did not waver, did not even consider wavering. At the end of this month, my niece, my brother’s daughter, will be taking her First Communion. I have been invited to two dinners and a lunch. I shall stuff myself with food. It will entertain me. When you are not filling your stomach on these occasions, what is there to do? There you are, up to date with my outward life.

As for the inner one, nothing new. This week I’ve been reading Rodogune and Théodore. How utterly disgusting are Voltaire’s commentaries on Corneille! What stupidity! And yet he was a man of wit. But wit is of little use in the arts. To inhibit enthusiasm and to discredit genius, that is about all. What a paltry occupation, being a critic, since a man of that stature cuts such a poor figure. But it is so sweet to play the pedagogue, to find fault, to teach people their business! The urge to cheapen everything, the moral leprosy of our age, has favoured this tendency among the writing tribe. Mediocrity gluts itself on this little daily snack, the sort of thing that hides its emptiness beneath an appearance of being serious. It is much easier to debate than to understand, easier to chatter about art, about the idea of beauty, about the ideal and so on, easier than to write even an inferior sonnet or the simplest sentence. I have often wanted to have a go at it myself and dash off a book on the subject. It will be something to do in my old age, when my inkwell has dried up. What a daring and original work could be written with the title: ‘On the Interpretation of Antiquity’. It would take a whole lifetime to write and then what would be the point? Music, music is what we want! Turning to the rhythm, swaying to the syntax, descending further into the cellars of the heart.

This urge to cheapen everything is profoundly French, the land of equality and antiliberty. For liberty is detested in this dear country of ours. The ideal form of the state, according to the socialists, is it not a kind of huge monster absorbing into itself all individual action, all personality, all thought, managing everything, doing everything. A priestly tyranny dwells deep inside those strict little hearts: ‘Everything must be organised, must be reconstructed, reconstituted along different lines’ and so on. Every kind of foolishness and vice does very well out of these dreams. I believe that man, nowadays, is more fanatical than ever. But it’s self-infatuation. He sings of nothing else, and in the action of the mind that leaps beyond the stars, devouring space and gazing on infinity, as Montaigne would say, he finds nothing more exalted than that same human misery from which the mind is constantly trying to escape. And thus, ever since 1830, France has been in the grip of an idiot realism. The infallibility of universal suffrage is about to become a dogma which will take the place of Papal Infallibility. Brute force, weight of numbers, respect for the masses have taken the place of the authority of the name, of divine right, the supremacy of the Spirit. In Antiquity the human conscience uttered no protest. The victory was sacred, the gift of the gods, it was Justice. The man who went into slavery despised himself just as much as his master despised him. In the Middle Ages, humanity was humbled, subjected to the curse of Adam (which I basically believe in), for 15 centuries re-enacting the Passion, a perpetual Christ, repositioned on his cross for each new generation. But here is humanity now, overwhelmed with weariness, ready to drift away into a sensual stupor, like a whore coming out of a masked ball, snoozing in her carriage, so tipsy that the cushions feel soft, reassured by the sight of the gendarmes on the street with their sabres, protecting her from the urchins who might hoot insults at her.

Republic or monarchy, we won’t get beyond all that for some time. It’s the outcome of protracted endeavours in which all have played their part from de Maistre down to père Enfantin. And the republicans have done more than most. What is equality then if it is not the negation of all liberty, all forms of superiority, of Nature itself? Equality, it’s slavery. That is why I love art. There, at least, all is liberty in this world of fictions. – Every wish is granted, you can do anything, simultaneously be king and subject, active and passive, victim and priest. No limits there; for you and your kind humanity is a puppet with little bells on its costume to be set jingling with a prod of the pen, just like the street-corner puppeteer who works the strings with his foot. (I have often taken my revenge on existence in this way. I have granted myself endless pleasures with my pen. Given myself women, money, adventures.) How the cringing soul spreads its wings in that sky that stretches to the very bounds of Truth itself. Where Form is indeed missing, then the Idea is no more. To seek the one is to seek the other. They are as inseparable as substance and colour, and that is the reason why art is Truth itself. All of this, padded out into 20 lectures at the Collège de France, would set me up for several weeks as a great man in the minds of many of the younger generation, many stout gentlemen and elegant ladies.

In my opinion one of the things that proves that art is completely forgotten is the quantity of artists one finds swarming about. The more choristers there are in a church, the more it may be supposed that the parishioners themselves are not real believers. They are not concerned about praying to the Good Lord, nor are they concerned about cultivating their gardens, as Candide puts it. They are more interested in having splendid vestments. Instead of towing the public along, you let it pull you. – There is more pure bourgeoisdom among men of letters than among little shopkeepers. What are they actually doing, if not endeavouring by every possible device to diddle the customer, while still believing themselves honest! (artists in other words), which is the epitome of bourgeoisdom. In order to please them, the customers I mean, Béranger wrote songs about their casual love affairs, Lamartine celebrated the sentimental migraines of their wives, and even Hugo, in his great plays, discharged in their direction tirades about humanity, progress, the march of truth and all kinds of nonsense in which he does not actually believe. Various others, curbing their ambitions, like Eugène Sue, have written novels for the Jockey Club about the fashionable world, or else written thug-novels for the faubourg Saint-Antoine such as Les Mystères de Paris. Young Dumas, looking at the present, is set to win for ever the heart of every stylish young thing in skirts with his Dame aux camélias. I challenge any dramatist to have the audacity to put on the stage of a popular theatre a worker who is a thief. – No thank you, the worker has to be an honest fellow, and the gentleman is always a scoundrel. Just as at the Theâtre Français the girls on stage are always pure, because the mummies take their daughters there. I do therefore believe in the truth of this axiom: that people love falsehood; falsehood all through the day and dreams all through the night, such is human nature ...

It has just struck three. It is nearly light and my fire has gone out. I feel cold and I’m going to bed.

How many times already in my life have I seen the grey morning light appear in my window? In the old days in Rouen, in my little room in the Hotel-Dieu, through a tall acacia tree, in Paris in the rue de l’Est over the Palais de Luxembourg, then while travelling, in a carriage or on a boat, and so on.

Farewell, my dear friend, my dear mistress.

Croisset, 3 July 1852, Saturday night.

I have been thinking a great deal about Musset. Well I think that in the end it’s all just Affectation. Everything feeds into Affectation: oneself, other people, sunlight, graveyards and so on, you sentimentalise over everything, and most of the time the poor women are taken in by it. It was only to make a good impression on you that he said: ‘Try me, I have left Italian women gasping’ (an idea of Italian women that is connected with the idea of a volcano; you always find Mount Vesuvius between their legs. Nonsense! Italian women are like Eastern women: drowsy, languid voluptuous things; but never mind, it is a received idea) whereas in fact the poor lad may simply be having trouble satisfying his washerwoman. It was to look like a man of ardent passions that he said: ‘I am one of the jealous kind, I would kill a woman, and so on.’ He hasn’t killed George Sand. It was to look like a bit of a rogue that he said: ‘Yesterday I almost slaughtered a journalist.’ Yes, almost, because someone held him back. The journalist might have slaughtered him. It was to sound like a scholar that he said: ‘I read Homer as I read Racine.’ In the whole of Paris there are not even twenty people who are that fluent, and some of them do it for a living. But when you are dealing with people who have never studied the aforementioned Greek they will believe you. It reminds me of good old Gautier telling me: ‘I can read Latin as well as they used to in the Middle Ages,’ and the next day I found a translation of Spinoza on his table. ‘Why aren’t you reading it in the original?’ ‘Oh! it’s too difficult,’ What lies people do tell. What lies they tell in this vile world! In short, the performance with the arms reaching out towards the trees and the dithyrambic yearnings for his lost youth, it’s all part of the same thing: she will be moved, she will yearn (she says to herself) to rescue me, to revive me, she will put all her pride into it. Righteous women are taken in by such sophistries, and the swindler plies his trade, with tears in his eyes. Finally, as the crowning touch to the fireworks, bedazzlement of debauchery, fire crackers (strumpets in other words) etc, etc. But I’ve indulged in all that sort of thing too! When I was 18! I likewise believed that alcohol and harlotry were an inspiration! Sometimes, just like the great man, I spent a small fortune on lascivious mythological processions, but I found it all as silly and as empty as anything else. Only the shabbiest wretch could be satisfied with that sort of thing; it very soon turns stale. If I am, venereally, so well-behaved, it is because early in my youth I passed through a phase of somewhat precocious debauchery, quite deliberately, so as to find out. There are very few women whom I have not, in my head at least, undressed right down to the heels. As an artist I have studied the flesh, and I know all that it has to teach. I make it my business to write books that will heat the loins of even the most cold-blooded reader. As for love, it has been the lifelong subject of my meditations. Whatever I have not given to pure art, to my trade, has gone into that; and the heart that I have studied has been my own. How many times have I felt at my best moments the cold of the scalpel sliding into my flesh! Bovary (to a certain extent, as far as the bourgeois is concerned, as far as I have been able, so that it can be more general and more human) will be in this respect the very sum of my psychological knowledge and it will have no original value except in this respect. Will it have any at all? God grant that it may!

At least you tell me about things in your letters. But what is there for me to tell you about, other than entertaining you with the eternal preoccupations of my little self which must eventually become irksome? The problem is that that is all I know anything about. Once I have told you that I am working and that I love you, I have said it all. Farewell then, dear beloved Louise, I embrace you tenderly.

Yours. G.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences