Thursday, March 13, 2008


Julian Barnes has a lovely piece at the TLS on the latest volume of Flaubert's correspondence. Hmmm, I have not really read Flaubert or Maupassant since I was a teenager (I was a very serious teenager, though!), it is coming up time to go back to that stuff--because I think my next (academic) book is going to be an elegant little book on style, pretty much the opposite in every way of the book I have just finished on breeding--whose final subtitle is "A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century," and which is simply bursting with stuff, while the style book will be very quirkily subdued and understated in its manner...

Here's Barnes, anyway:
This final volume begins with the very last letters of Flaubert’s long and key exchange with George Sand. To the end she is preaching optimism, human virtue and social progress, still rebuking him for his obsession with novelistic form, still dismissing his belief in authorial absence as an “unhealthy fantasy”. He takes her well-meant scolding in good heart, and explains yet again: “I cannot have a temperament other than my own. Nor an aesthetic other than the one which is the consequence of my temperament”. His life, he tells other correspondents, has become “austere and farouche”; it consists of nothing but “work, memories and dreams”. More than once he complains that the “mainspring” of his mechanism is broken. He is finishing the Trois Contes and writing Bouvard et Pécuchet; apart from that, these last four years are a time of solitude and waiting for the end. The Hermit of Croisset has reached his final eremitic stage.

It is true that his body is now running down: he breaks a leg, and has only one “domino” left in his upper jaw; he suffers lumbago, blepharitis, boils on the face, and that perennial complaint of the sedentary writer, haemorrhoids. His nerves, however, are the main problem: in 1879 the local doctor, Charles Fortin, chidingly calls him a “big hysterical girl” – a judgement which accords with Dr Hardy’s diagnosis five years previously (“a hysterical old girl”). It is also true that these letters depict the life of an elderly uncompanioned man in all its mundane detail. He writes of sponges and mouthwash and the high price of cauliflowers; he gets his Strasbourg slippers soled; he has a pedicure; he buys sugar and apricots for marmelade; he mends the doorbell using a poker rather than wire, loses the irrigator for his haemorrhoids, has the tiles in the bathroom and lavatory relaid. His dog “humiliates” him with its constant erections, though amuses him by throwing up on the rug.
And another very funny bit at the end:
Maupassant represents the best hope of the next generation; in consequence, Flaubert is both avuncularly encouraging and “severe but just”. He sees a young writer of high talent and poor discipline. He tells him to work harder, explaining that the religion of art demands the sacrifice of life. He warns against the dangers of too many whores, too much rowing, too much exercise: “A civilized person needs much less locomotion than the doctors claim”. Maupassant complains that sex is becoming monotonous; Flaubert tells him to cut it out for a while. Maupassant complains that “events are repetitive”; Flaubert orders him to look at them more carefully. Maupassant complains that “There aren’t enough phrases”; Flaubert replies, “Seek and ye shall find!”. Maupassant appears to be sinking into self-indulgence and self-pity; Flaubert warns him, “Sadness is a vice”.
"A civilized person needs much less locomotion than the doctors claim"!


  1. As for the triathlon, we will let our servants do it for us...

  2. Excellent! I finished reading Flaubert's Parrot last night so am in the mood for more Barnes on Flaubert.