Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Letters of Gus Flaubert

I'll confess right now: I'm writing this from the Jersey Shore (potential bad guys: don't even think of breaking into our house and stealing our stuff. We have a house sitter and fourteen attack chickens) and it's a lot easier to stare into the misty distance or eat clams than to try and come up with something vaguely literary to say. But in addition to a stack of true crime paperbacks, I brought my copy of the letters of Flaubert (Vol. 1 seems only available used, but Vol. 2 is still in print). I love the letters of Flannery O'Connor and those of Virginia Woolf, but there's something about Flaubert's that affirms my feelings about being a writer and reminds why I want to keep doing it, in spite of how rough (or in my case, non-existent) the progress is. So forgive me if I use this post to share some of my favorite excerpts (all from the first volume -- I left the second at home).

Here's a good bit, from a letter to his lover, a poet named Louise Colet:

"Since my humor is particularly bad today (and frankly my heart is heavy with it), I'll drain it to the last drop. You talk about your "days of pride," when "people seek you out, flatter you," etc. Come! Those are days of weakness, days you should blush for. I'll tell you which are your days of pride. When you're home at night in your oldest dressing gown, with {baby} Henriette getting on your nerves, the fire smoking and money worries and other troubles looming large, and you get ready for bed with heavy heart and weary mind; when you walk restlessly up and down your room, telling yourself there isn't a soul you can count on, that you have been abandoned by all; and then -- somewhere underneath your dejection as a woman you feel the stirring of the muse, deep within you something begins to sing, to sing something joyous and solemn, like a hymn, a challenge flung in the face of life, a surge of confidence in your own strength, the flaring-up of works to come. The days when that happens to you are your days of pride."

Flaubert would not appreciate our culture's melding of literature and marketing. When his friend suggested he would achieve greater success if he moved to Paris and took part in the literary scene there, he said,

"I am aiming at something better -- to please myself. Success seems to me a result, not the goal ... I have conceived a manner of writing and a nobility of language that I want to attain. When I think that I have harvested my fruit I shan't refuse to sell it, nor shall I forbid hand-clapping if it is good. In the meantime I do not wish to fleece the public. That's all there is to it."

Writing was difficult for him, and he took it absolutely seriously. But his prose is unlabored and full of humor. He said,

"I like clear, sharp sentences, sentences which stand erect, erect while running -- almost an impossibility. The ideal of prose has reached an unheard-of degree of difficulty: there must be no more archaisms, cliches; contemporary ideas must be expressed using the appropriate crude terms; everything must be as clear as Voltaire, as abrim with substance as Montaigne, as vigorous as La Bruyere, and always streaming with color."

Awfully inspiring in these days of compulsory cynicism.

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