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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?)

Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
markgharris
Aug. 12th, 2009 02:39 pm (UTC)
Oh... I devour books of letters; there are so few I've been able to find, like the Vincent & Theo one, and Mozart's letters. So THANK YOU big time for mentioning this one. Do you know if Proust's letters exist for our reading in a volume? I'm feeling the fresh-as-a-buttoniere 19th Century lately.
britadventuress
Aug. 12th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC)
To be fair...
Flaubert and Madame Bovary isn't solely a collection of letters. Francis Steegmuller quotes extensively from them, but the book is more a biography.

I recommend it highly, though. The writing is lovely and gossipy -- mostly because it was written in the '30s, and biographers could actually have a personality rather than trying to sound Very Knowledgeable about Everything. (Peter Ackroyd walks a very thin tightrope in this matter: He definitely has a personality; however, his biography of Dickens is eleventy million pages long because he wants you to know EVERYTHING.)

Finally, I found this through Amazon.com. It's not the complete letters; but it sounds like it might be a nice selection.

Oh, and finally finally: For a breezily written and gossipy look at several Victorian marriages, I can't recommend Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives enough. You learn about how John Ruskin was afraid of his wife's pubic hair (for serious) and what an asshole Charles Dickens was to his wife Catherine. I'm pretty sure you won't regret looking for it.
markgharris
Aug. 12th, 2009 03:08 pm (UTC)
Re: To be fair...
Thanks, and this Flaubert book still sounds amazing... I like how you characterize its tone! I know zilch about Flaubert except his courtroom statement that he was Madame Bovary (did that happen in a courtroom? am I imagining that? if so, why???). There are treasures in letters from long ago, always.

Thanks for the many links to check out!
britadventuress
Aug. 12th, 2009 03:27 pm (UTC)
Re: To be fair...
I was going to be all know-it-all-y and say, "He didn't say that in court." But I can't find where he said it. Madame Bovary is famously put on trial for being immoral and a danger both to religion and society.

My edition of MB has the closing statements of the two attorneys. The Prosecution is upset that Emma isn't punished for her transgressions. "But...she kills herself. She's dead at the end of the novel." Yeah -- the Prosecution makes this weird point that, since Emma chooses to kill herself, it's not a punishment. It's an escape. Had she been killed in the middle of fucking one of her two lovers by a statue of the Virgin Mary, THAT would have been punishment enough.

The edition I linked to also has a selection of Flaubert's letters, most of them written to Louise Colet. He goes on and on and on about how what is going to make MB so revolutionary is how it won't have any authorial point-of-view. He wants to leave it to the reader to fill in the blank. He believes that good art -- true art -- has no agenda.

Then, of course, the novel is put on trial and Flaubert sure as heck comes up with a bunch of points of view to protect his ass from steep fines, loss of income, and maybe even some jail time. "I meant for the novel to be a condemnation of infidelity," he says. Only it's not very convincing. The Prosecution does a pretty thorough job of showing just how not against infidelity Flaubert is. I think what trips the Prosecution up is that the prosecutor had a personal vendetta against Flaubert that was widely known, and he was also a bit of an ass, so I think the judgment was less in favor of Flaubert and more against the asshole.
markgharris
Aug. 12th, 2009 03:43 pm (UTC)
Re: To be fair...
Had she been killed in the middle of fucking one of her two lovers by a statue of the Virgin Mary, THAT would have been punishment enough.

Not sure if I've ever said, but your style is a riot! You're a lecturer, right, but are you also a teacher? My point being, your students are lucky S.O.B.s if you are.
britadventuress
Aug. 12th, 2009 06:35 pm (UTC)
Head swelling
You're kind to say so.

I'm actually a college drop-out with no credentials at all, just a lot of books that Zach and I have to lug every time we move. ("This year is the year we forget how to read," he says each 1 January.) I "lecture" by facilitating a discussion group at my local library on the Victorians.

I don't want to undersell myself too much. (This is new for me, not underselling myself. I might get it wrong.) I know quite a bit, but it's all self-taught. So, thanks again for noticing.
gadge
Aug. 13th, 2009 02:51 am (UTC)
This was a delight to read. Thank you.
(Anonymous)
Aug. 20th, 2009 06:40 pm (UTC)
I am so glad that you are back, reading these books I never would. I am holding up the science fiction end of that for you over at try harder...

The only things I know about Flaubert I know from reading a George Eliot biography when I was 17 or 18. The only things I remember about Flaubert is that he seemed like sort of a dick and, despite his protestations to Colet, jealous. I could however be remembering this wrong.

Colette would have eaten him (and his mother) alive.

--carrie try harder
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