The Book You're Not Reading: Flaubert and Madame Bovary
It is impossible for me to continue any longer a correspondence which is becoming epileptic.The letters between Flaubert and Louise Colet are exasperating.
Flaubert meets Colet (and not Colette, whom I thought Flaubert was involved with for, like, 15 pages before getting my timelines straight) in Paris, and they fall in love, which is weird, because Flaubert up to this point had been pretty same-sex oriented, what with his infatuation with his friend Alfred and all. I mean, sure, there's the scene where, desperate to have some kind of sex at all, he creeps into the chambermaid's bed and has his way with her (it's not clear, from Steegmuller's account, whether it was consensual or not; however, I'm guessing "not") and there's the lady whose boob he sees and he spirals out of control about that for the rest of his life. But he's emotionally present for Alfred (and several other male friends) in ways he just isn't to Colet (or Boob Lady or Maybe-Raped Chambermaid).
Anyway, the meet, fall in love, have a great week or so together, and then Flaubert heads back home to Rouen (home of the Flame Broiled Joan) and he and Colet begin their correspondence.
It doesn't go well.
But let me back up for a moment. Because it starts out just fine, the way new romantic penpals always start out fine. The envelopes between Paris and Rouen fly as if on Cupid's wings, and they write to each other sometimes several times a day. Soon, though, Colet wants to see Flaubert again. And Flaubert is actually really fine with love-via-post. For one thing, leaving Rouen to head to Paris would mean leaving his mother behind, and Flaubert's a bit of a mama's boy. And mom isn't doing all that great, either, what with both her husband and her daughter dying in close succession. However, in the letters that Steegmuller shares, one doesn't get the sense that Flaubert is staying close to home because he wants to care for his mother. He's staying close to home because the attention he gets from his mother is entirely one-sided. The mother expects very little of Flaubert, and only gives unconditional love.
Colet has some conditions on the love she wants to share.
One of the things that drew Flaubert to Colet was her status as a poet. She had won a prize for a poem she wrote, "Le Chateau de Versailles" (imagine the "a" in "Chateau" has one of those hats on it), and had other successes in poetry. In Colet, Flaubert assumed he had found a kindred artistic soul. In Flaubert, Colet found someone she liked doing it with. Flaubert found this sort of sordid. Colet found Flaubert very frustrating. Steegmuller quotes exhaustively from the Flaubert side of the correspondence, and I grew tired of everyone before long.
Some choice moments:
- "[I] have gathered this little rose which I am sending you. I have kissed it; put it quickly to your mouth and then -- you know where."
(Um, no. No, I don't know where. Okay, I do know where, but I mean COME ON. It has THORNS, Flau. Also: Flaubert is cheap. Many of the letters, especially the letters sent around New Years, show him at his skin-flintiest. Rather than sending Colet the customary New Year's present, he would send her a kiss. In a letter. That his mother paid the postage on.)
- "You are convinced that I love this woman seriously. That is not true. Only, when I was writing to her, with the faculty I have of being stirred when I hold a pen, I took my subject seriously -- but only when I was writing."
(Flaubert had asked Colet to look up the address of the woman whose boob he had glimpsed. Colet didn't take this well. Flaubert couldn't understand why.)
- "Is it possible that you reproach me even for my innocent affection for an armchair? If I told you about my shoes, I think you would be jealous of them."
(I wrote in the margin, "Hee! Also: v. true.")
- "It is a long time since I made a practice of spending New Year's Eve in a brothel, to inaugurate the year, and even when I did it, it was more of an affectation than a real pleasure."
(Can you believe that Flaubert never married? Never?)