I have been reading a lot of and on Flaubert and I have to confess, if a confession is what is needed, that I like some of his work, but very little about him. He had enormous talent and vision, but suffered from that malady too common in artists: he took himself deadly serious. I have felt a twinge of his distain for the bourgeois of his day in those of mine, but to have such a feeling guide one’s life is almost criminal.
What I do love is his embrace of the real, but in high style. That is something to emulate. What sort of reception would a book get today which portrayed the vapid consumerism of so many of our neighbors? What if a work could look through the hollow bumper sticker patriotism of such silly things as ‘America…love it or leave it” and “freedom isn’t free?” What juicy fun!
Regardless of his snootiness or his ability as an artist, it is for his letters that Flaubert should be remembered. He had thousands of them destroyed, yet thousands remain as little flowers in the garden of literature. Especially his letters to Louise Colet, his mistress from 1846-48 and again (because he didn’t learn the first time) from 1851-54, are full of power, wit, beauty, and charm. They deserve to be read on their own terms.
As for books on the bear from Croisset, The work by Francis Steegmuller is unmatched. His Flaubert and Madame Bovary is exceptional, as is his translation of the letters and of Madame Bovary.
Finally, there are five quotations by Gustave Flaubert I find indispensable:
- A friend who dies, it's something of you who dies.
- Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
- Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.
- Life must be a constant education; one must learn everything, from speaking to dying.
- Madame bovary, C’est moi!