Flaubert: a miserable old git

Gustave Flaubert is known, with reason, as a misanthropic old cynic. And yet, he could be oddly moving. Just consider this beautiful line from L’Education Sentimentale:

Il y a un moment, dans les séparations, où la personne aimée n’est déjà plus avec nous.

In the translation by Robert Baldick & Geoffrey Wall, this becomes:

In every parting there comes a moment when the beloved is already no longer with us.

I think one ideally needs to read lines such as this in the original French, even if, like myself, one has to dredge one’s memory to recall the French lessons at school, and supplement those vague recollections with a French-English dictionary: it’s worth it, though, just to get a sense of the sounds and the rhythms of Flaubert’s prose.

Since we are on the subject of L’Education Sentimentale, I can’t resist quoting that famous passage at the start of Part 3, Chapter 6:

Il voyagea.

Il connut la mélancolie des paquebots, les froids réveils sous la tente, l’étourdissement des paysages et des ruines, l’amertume des sympathies interrompues.

Il revint.

Il fréquenta le monde, et il eut d’autres amours, encore. Mais le souvenir continuel du premier les lui rendait insipides ; et puis la véhémence du désir, la fleur même de la sensation était perdue. Ses ambitions d’esprit avaient également diminué. Des années passèrent ; et il supportait le désoeuvrement de son intelligence et l’inertie de son coeur.

Or, in the Baldick-Wall translation:

He travelled the world.

He tasted the melancholy of packet ships, the chill of waking under canvas, the boredom of landscapes and monuments, the bitterness of broken friendship.

He returned home.

He went into society, and he had affairs with other women. They were insipid beside the endless memory of his first love. And then the vehemence of desire, the keen edge of sensation itself, had left him. His intellectual ambitions were fading too. The years went by; and he resigned himself to the stagnation of his mind and the apathy that lived in his heart.

The translation seems to me a good one, but it can’t capture the extraordinary beauty of Flaubert’s French. No translation could.

I can’t help thinking of Flaubert as a disappointed Romantic. He was, I think, being quite sincere when he famously remarked “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”. Flaubert, like his creation Emma Bovary, hated the mundane and spirit-sapping trivia that fill our everyday lives, and longed for something … well, something more beautiful, something more splendid, more noble. But unlike Emma, he knew there was nothing else. In recoiling from the dull realities of her life, Emma but embraces what is  just as stultifying, just as stupid; and while Flaubert may sympathise with her frustration with the everyday, he was too clear-sighted to see any possibility of escape in Romantic ideals.

So what does that leave us? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Flaubert’s writings present us with a depiction of the utter nothingness at the heart of it all. There is, after all, no-one quite so cynical as a disappointed Romantic: even such inveterate pessimists as Conrad or Beckett were but novices in comparison to Flaubert.

And yet, against all that, there is that extraordinary beauty of his writing. Flaubert’s pessimism isn’t accompanied with an indifferent shrug of the shoulder, but with a profound sadness that things should be so.

At the end of L’Education Sentimentale, two old friends reminisce about their adolescence. They had decided to test their courage and their manhood by visiting the local brothel, but at the threshold, had lost their nerve, and had made a run for it. Remembering that occasion, they agree that that was their happiest time. This ending is often felt to be too cynical, but there seems to me to be a profound melancholy to it: our happiest time is when we are still on the threshold of experience, when we are still capable of believing in the possibility of happiness. And is there really anything sadder than that?

The older I get, the more I find myself drawn to Flaubert. Unlike the Great Russians, he is not a writer one is drawn to in one’s teenage years: it is only after years of living that he begins to seep into one’s literary consciousness, and, before long, one finds him a permanent fixture there. And then one finds that there is no escape from Gourstave Flaubear’s bear-like hug.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Excellent article, plenty of good quality info. I am going to point out to my friend and ask them the things they think.

    Reply

  2. Hello Mirko, thank you very much for your kind comments. I only started this blog quite recently, & am still trying to make something of it. Please do feel free to drop in, and, if you like, to enter into discussion.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Kirsty on October 6, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    I should avoid Flaubert then :P. If I want to stop being a romantic, make peace with life’s disappointments and learn to find happiness in the ordinary and trivia, what should I read?

    Reply

    • Hello Kirsty,

      In the first place, I do hope I haven’t put you off Flaubert. It is curious how even so deeply pessimistic a writer can, somehow, provide so rich an experience for the reader. Looking back on what I’ve written, I find I haven’t even mentioned his “Trois Contes” (the first of which, “Un Coeur Simple”, is one of the very greatest of literary masterpieces, I think); or his unfinished, endlessly facinating novel “Bouvard et Pécuchet”.

      The question you ask is a good one. Has any writer depicted the possibility of happiness in the everyday, free of romantic illusions? Perhaps no writer has ever depicted pure, unadulterated happiness, because such a thing doesn’t exist. But, off the top of my head, I think Dorothea Brooke, in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”, does learn over the course of the novel not to set impossible standards for herself and for others, and to find happiness in the everyday, the ordinary. And, if you haven’t read “War and Peace”, I’d recommend turning straight to Part 7 (or Book 2, Part 4, depending on how the translator has numbered them). It depicts Christmas at the Rostov family’s house. Natasha is engaged to Andrei, but Andrei’s father has insisted that the marriage be delayed for a year, and Natasha is impatient; her brother, Nikolai, is an army officer, and is back home for the holidays; and there’s a cousin, Sonya, who has grown up with the family. Nothing much actually happens, as such, in this part of the novel, but the entire episode is a sheer delight, and depicts perhaps better than anything else I’ve read the sheer joy that may be found in the everyday.

      But it’s an interesting question: I have to give it more thought!

      Reply

  4. Posted by SecretlyJag on February 24, 2012 at 12:10 am

    Have you tried slogging your way through Sartes “In Search of Flaubert”? Its impossibly long and can be try but its enjoyable to see a man with brilliance of a different nature try and wade through the impossibly deep Flaubert. Here we have a man who lives inside his work and describes his love for it as a “frenetic and perverse love, as an ascetic loves the hair shirt which scratches his belly”. Flaubert is my favorite, do you have any recommendations?

    Reply

    • Hello there, I haven’t read Sartre’s book on Flaubert: they certainly seem very unlikely bedfellows. To be entirely honest, I have never really warmed to Sartre.

      I think what really attracts me to Flaubert is that sense of sadness underneath it all. Flaubert didn’t write very much, but just about everything he wrote was, i think, a masterpiece. I am particularly attached to L’Education Sentimentale (see here).

      I have also written about Flaubert here, although, in this post, I do regret some of the things I have said about Jane Austen.

      As for recommendations – this blog is full of them! If you browse through at random for a while, you’ll soon find a great many posts devoted to the authors I love – Shakespeare (naturally), Tolstoy, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Yeats, Tagore, Wordsworth, Chekhov, etc. I even indulge once in a while in compiling silly lists of my favourite stuff!

      Reply

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