Two French Men of Letters

THE third volume of Gustave Flaubert’s correspondence 1 opens in 1854, two years before the publication of Madame Bovary, and covers the years devoted to researches for the milieu of Salammbô and to the writing of that book. A strong literary and personal interest attaches to this volume, which shows Flaubert at the height of his intellectual activity, and at that period of life when of the tendencies and promises of youth there remains what has become incorporated for better for worse into a man’s existence. The elements which formed from within and from without the personality of Flaubert were of too antagonistic and in part of too accidental a nature to mix in a smooth paste. It would appear that there were in him from the first, together with his superb physical endowments, a sensitiveness of organization and a dreamy, morbid tendency rarely found in a frame of such vigor and health. M. Bourget, in his Psychologie Contemporaine, a book which, if it did not stand a little outside the technical boundaries of criticism, might be cited as the most intellectual and artistic achievement of latter-day French critical literature, has drawn an unforgettable portrait of Flaubert, showing him as a man in contradiction with his age, his surroundings, and himself, as a romantique forced into realism ; living throughout his youth in a state of continual exaltation ; making vast demands upon happiness, and doomed to perpetual bitterness and disappointment. Turgeneff makes the hero of his Faust say, “ In my youth I had dreamed much of happiness, the habitual dream of those for whom life has no such destiny in store.” It is peculiarly the preoccupation of minds unhappily constituted ; and Flaubert, who, as he says in one of his letters, was “ born with little belief in happiness,” was perhaps a resolute and conscious dreamer rather than an involuntary and disillusioned one. It was a glimpse of the reality which determined his choice of the romantic.

The building of his Palace of Art was a labor not only of love, but also of unswerving resolution. He attached himself fervently to literature, and to that romantic literature which had opened up new possibilities, which offered an ideal to replace the stupidity or the pettiness of every-day existence. He formed passionate friendships, based upon literary sympathies with school and college comrades ; he “ bawled ” (gueulait) great mouthfuls of Victor Hugo and other poets ; he planned ambitious works and talked with vehemence, indulging in tirades against commonplace and in mimicry and far-fetched jests. This is the Flaubert of Maxime du Camp’s Souvenirs Littéraires, and of the first volumes of the Correspondance. Vigorous and sympathetic where his intellectual enthusiasms were concerned, his mind offered a sheer resistance to matters lying outside that range. He studied law in obedience to his father’s wishes, not only in constant revolt against the dullness of the course, but, according to his own testimony and that of M. du Camp, with an absolute inability to comprehend the sense of lectures and textbooks, — a fact which is significant as pointing not to a deficiency of capacity, but rather to an inherent difficulty of concentration. His enforced studies over, he had found the way open to the career of his choice when the disease declared itself which seemed to put a negative upon all his hopes, not only of personal happiness, but of creative work. His iron will, which was called upon not to oppose but to second this longing, allied with his great physical strength, proved successful in resisting nervous waste, depression, and intellectual hindrance. Ten years later he had written a book destined to take a very high place in literature ; and one which, in spite of the romantic traditions of his youth and the romantic sympathies of all his life, was to be hailed, rightly or wrongly, by the world as a masterpiece of realism. He had not escaped from despair, and the hopelessness which filled the background of his life after as before the realization of his literary ambitions, if they could he said to have been realized, had only intensified that rage against stupidity and the bourgeois which takes at times in his letters an almost inhuman ring. And yet a certain adjustment has been made, a certain bitter but brave resignation arrived at, which gives to the present volume a different stamp from its predecessors.

There are no longer any letters to Madame X. : that great passion has died a natural or unnatural death. We have the letters to his intimate friends as affectionate and loyal in tone as ever, with all their coarse epithets of endearment, and several very interesting ones to a correspondent whom he had never seen, Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie. Next to the most intimate and congenial of correspondents, an unknown one is perhaps the best recipient of thoughts and confidences, as talk flows more freely in the dark. This lady, who appears to have appealed to Flaubert’s sympathy by her unhappiness amid uncongenial surroundings, received from him letters which are none the less sincere for being written in a more formal tone than his epistles to literary comrades of his own sex, and treating questions in a somewhat different manner, with more authority and seriousness. In fact, Flaubert’s nature was essentially grave, and the humor which fell to his share as one of the romantic school could hardly have found a more incongruous lodging even in France, where it was an imported adjunct of the movement. In these letters to a woman of literary tastes, Flaubert enters with almost womanly tenderness into all the sufferings, real or imaginary, confided to him by his correspondent; and in so doing reveals frankly and without egotism much of his own experience.

“ You ask me how I cured myself of the nervous hallucinations to which I used to be subject. By two methods: first, by studying them scientifically, — that is, by endeavoring to understand them ; and second, by force of will. I have often felt madness coming upon me. There was such a whirlpool of ideas and images in my poor brain that it seemed to me that my consciousness, my ego, was going down like a ship in a storm. But I held fast to my reason. It kept the command, though beaten and besieged. . . . There is a feeling, or rather a habit, of mind, which you seem to me to lack ; that is, the love of contemplation. Take life, its passions, and your own self as a subject of intellectual exercise. You revolt against the injustice of the world, against its meanness, its tyranny, and all the turpitude and fetidness of existence. But do you know all these things ? Have you studied everything ? Are you God ? How do you know that your human judgment is infallible, that your feeling is not deceiving you? How can we, with our limited senses and our finite intelligence, arrive at an absolute knowledge of the true and the good ? Do we ever really lay hold of the absolute ? One must, if one will live at all, renounce any definite idea of anything whatever. Such ishumanity, there is no question of changing but of learning to know it. Think less of yourself. Give up the hope of a solution. It rests in the bosom of the Father : he alone possesses and has not communicated it. But there are in ardor of study ideal joys created for noble souls. . . . Try to give up living in yourself. Read extensively. Take a plan of study which is severe and continuous. Read history, especially ancient history. Bind yourself to a regular and fatiguing work. Life is so hideous that the only way to endure it is to avoid it. . . .

“ No great genius ever came to a conclusion, and no great book, because humanity itself is always on the way, and never reaches a conclusion. Homer does not conclude, nor Shakespeare, nor Goethe, nor the Bible itself. For this reason the phrase now so much in vogue, the social problem, is profoundly distasteful to me. The day it is solved will be the last of the planet. Life is an eternal problem, and history also, and everything. There are figures incessantly added to the sum. How can you count the spokes of a wheel as it turns ? ”

This philosophy of acceptance and endurance life rubs into a good many of its subjects. What is more remarkable here than the philosophical attitude is the strong helpfulness of tone : the italics are so many stakes driven in where they may be of most use, and the ideas appear to be brought forward at the prompting of another’s need rather than suggested by the personal experience in which they have their root. The letters to Louis Bouilhet contain also much of this friendliness. Belief in his friend’s genius was a necessary element of Flaubert’s affection. It is touching to read his appeals to Bouilhet to enter more into the world, and make for himself a social career as a stepping-stone to a literary one. He presses the point without overlooking for a moment his friend’s sensitiveness, yet in a spirit of almost paternal solicitude for his success. This tenderness in Flaubert’s personal relations goes a long way to atone for his bitterness of recrimination against the world at large, due partly to suffering, partly to an indignation like Carlyle’s, but also in part to an enforced concentration of his emotions and interests. The phenomenon of Flaubert’s individuality is that of a vast uncontrolled intellect which is brought by sheer force of will under an arbitrary but narrow and partial control.

As a subject of investigation in what may be called literary physiology, Flaubert, “ an invalid of literature ” as M. Bourget calls him, is almost unique. His idiosyncrasies, his temperament, and the accidents of his existence all contributed to the organization of a literary method which he not only practiced, but analyzed and expounded at every turn. We can watch the great engine of his brain in intellectual motion: the passage of life into literature and of idea into phrase is in his case more clearly traceable in its most minute processes than in any other writer. It is this fact which gives such high literary value to his correspondence. His judgments upon books are seldom impersonal, and often exaggerated and accidental, but the observations upon art and style from the point of view of his own method of workmanship, which are scattered throughout the letters, are of incalculable interest to those of us who like to see the wheels go round, and to explain all that is explicable in the phenomenon of creative production.

M. Maxime du Camp speaks of Flaubert as having an essentially idyllic talent, and M. Bourget classes him as a romantic writer. We cannot venture to set down as erroneous the judgment of his personal friend and his most sympathetic critic upon his character and gift, yet we note in the present volume a tendency more and more pronounced in the direction of what we may call realism of thought, while the maxims upon writing are calculated to serve as the creed of a widely different school from that which found its watchword in the famous Preface to Cromwell. His convictions remained to the last romantic, or he thought they did ; it was a part of his loyalty to cling to the old enthusiasms, a part of his suffering and acuteness of indignation to wage war against the stupidity of commonplace and the hideousness of fact.

“ They think me in love with the real, whereas I execrate it; it is out of hatred of realism that I have undertaken this novel. But I have no less detestation for the false idealism by which we are fooled in these days. ... I beg, however, that you will not judge me by this book. La Bovary has been for me a matter of deliberate choice, a set theme. All that I love is not there. I will give you in a little while something more elevated, in a more appropriate setting.” This is to a lady, and may be taken partly as a gracious way of putting things. But to one of his critics he writes in the same tone : “ Do you believe that this ignoble reality, the reproduction of which disgusts you, does not turn my stomach as well as yours ? If you knew me better, you would know that I execrate every-day life. I have always kept away from it personally as much as I could. But æsthetically I wanted this once, and only this once, to go to the bottom of it. Accordingly I went at the thing in an heroic manner, — I mean in a minute one, —accepting everything, saying everything, painting everything; which is an ambitious way of expressing it.” And later, to the same correspondent, in a tone which would contradict his apparent disavowal of Madame Bovary, but confirms the real tenor of his testimony to its reality : “ You attack details; you should take exception to the whole. The brutal element is ingrained, and not on the surface. We cannot whiten negroes, and we cannot alter the blood of a book; all that can be done is to impoverish it.”

This is coming very near to the kernel of the matter. The blood of a book is not a deliberate infusion ; the author who writes a great work in opposition to his theory is not concealing, but declaring, the true color of his conception of life. It is not necessary, in order to be a realist, to love “ignoble realities;” it is a matter of truth, not of sentiment; and the feeling which penetrates to a sense of something higher behind the ignoble reality is to be valued only as it brings more and truer tones into the picture. The truth of Madame Bovary has stamped its impress deeply into literature, and the word “ realism " would have to be widely diverted from its simple and spontaneous meaning to exclude such a work from its category. When Flaubert speaks of art as “ thought in form made concrete, a feeling of violent nature, and arrived at its highest term of idealism in expression.” he touches the point at which the two words “ idealism ” and “ realism ” join. His confidences in regard to the difficulty of composition show that his constant care was to write close to his thought ; to make form and expression, as he himself says, “ like body and soul.” It is a suggestive circumstance in this matter of realism that two of its greatest masters should in different ways have denied or deserted its standard. Flaubert, after writing Madame Bovary “ out of hatred of reality,” sought refuge in history and the past to avoid another picture of the actual life of his day ; and Tolstóy, after seeing with such clearness of vision in Anna Karénin the good and the ignoble at once, has hidden his head in the sand of a fatalistic religion. Is the perception of every-day truth as fatal to its prophets as are the visions of poetry to the bard “ blasted with excess of light ” ? been troubled by no such uncomfortable insight. There is no question as to the literary school which had the honor of forming his talent and of retaining his services. His ideas exhibit no taint of realism, and his life, as recorded in desultory fashion by his fervent admirer M. Buet,2 seems to have been planned and carried out in accordance with his conception of what the life of a gentleman, a man of letters, and an original genius should be. Born in 1808, at St. Sauveurle-Vicomte, of a noble Norman family, he was a Legitimist in politics, a Catholic in religion, a romanticist in art, and an upholder of the nobility in his own person. He made his studies at Caen, where he formed a friendship with Trébutien, with whom he was afterwards associated in editing the Guérin journals ; he went to Paris to embark upon a literary career, and became intimate with Maurice de Guérin, and later with Baudelaire and other men of letters. Though living by his pen, in a small and obscure lodging, he surrounded him self with a certain fantastic elegance, dressed in a costume consisting of an Oriental tunic with a cross on the breast and a papal cap, became the historian of the dandies, and adopted a social code which inscribed him in their ranks ; the picture which M. Buet draws of him suggests a sort of Bohemian Pelham. He was an homme d’esprit and a great coiner of witticisms. His History of Dandyism brought him early into notice, and was followed later by some novels, Un Prêtre Marié, L’Ensorcelée, and others, written under the influence of Edgar Poe, but exhibiting in their choice of subject and a certain mysticism of tone more affinity with Hawthorne. A romanticist of 1830, though his romances were not published till ten years and more after that epoch, he had its literary extravagances together with the prejudices and convictions of the Soirées de St. Pétersbourg, minus the keenness of intellect and logical faculty of Joseph de Maistre. His novels had their admirers, but took little hold on the general public. In his latter years, Barbey d’Aurevilly, living in his old quarters in the Faubourg St. Germain, wearing his Eastern - ecclesiastical costume and wielding his pen, had become a mere name to the younger world of Paris, which supposed him to have died with his epoch. He lived to the age of eighty. The revival of his name is probably due rather to the active manufacture of literary history, which is so marked a branch of the book industry in France, than to any widening in that small and select circle of readers who M. Buet tells us have been till now the only appreciators of D’Aurevilly’s genius. M. Buet, who speaks of his subject with bated breath as “ this great man,” appears confident that the circle is widening ; we can only hope that it is not, “ till by broad spreading it disperse to naught,” but we can see little in the genius of Barbey d’Aurevilly or in this record of his life to warrant any sanguine belief in the permanency of his late-found fame.

M. Barbey d’Aurevilly appears to have

The mots collected by M. Buetas testimony to the wit of M. d’Aurevilly show a similar unevenness. There are a few clever ones of rather careful manufacture, as well as a number which a Frenchman of real wit with a reputation to keep or lose would have refrained from uttering. To refrain was not, however, a part of the romantic programme. Barbey d’Aurevilly’s sangfroid took on the color of impetuosity ; it is amusing to find him writing to Trébutien, with many expressions of breathless haste and carelessness, letters which, as he was all the time well aware, his friend copied carefully in his best handwriting on the finest parchment paper, to preserve them for future publication. He seems to have possessed enormous self-esteem together with his other romantic and heroic qualities. The impression we get of him from M. Buet’s book, to which sketches have been contributed by many noted writers, is, however, on the whole, vague and lacking in real fibre ; he is a costume, a pose, a mood, rather than a man. Nevertheless the book is a readable one, and serves a certain purpose of literary history, giving glimpses of various groups : a little about the Guerins, not particularly new; an account of Pontrmartin, with whom Barbey d’Aurevilly was on terms of intimate enmity; and some instantaneous photographs of younger writers, M. Bourget among the number, who appear to have belonged to the little circle of admirers of Barbey d’Aurevilly’s talent. An interesting episode is the account of an impecunious scribe, Nicolardot, who lived on his friends and abused them. This man, to whose support Barbey d’Aurevilly contributed for years, was the original of M. Bourget’s Monsieur Legrimaudet in Nouveaux Pastels.

M. Buet’s book is a collection of literary notes put together without connecting links, and filled out with rambling remarks, fragments of criticism, and chance quotations. The author appears to have been occasionally “ graveled for lack of matter,” as when he applies to friendship the saying about love that it is “ the devotion of the other,” and goes on to say that Barbey d’Aurevilly was “ the devoted, and also the other.” This is a little incoherent, and one cannot help wondering how he interprets the phrase which he quotes. It is impossible to find sense in his comment, though we may see in it an instance of “ the devotion of the other ” to a friend and hero who was a striking and brilliant figure in his day and in his way, but hardly a great man.

The posthumous publication before us,3 a reprint of articles many of which date very far back, shows him as a critic of foreign, chiefly English literature. The essays exhibit a real and intimate acquaintance with the books of which they treat, and a complete freedom not only from natural prejudice, but from those errors of statement and detail so often found in French writers on English subjects. Their point of view can hardly be said to be Gallic any more than Anglo-Saxon ; it is rather intensely individual. Barbey d’Aurevilly was a great admirer of Shakespeare, on whom he has some glowing pages, written in his brilliant, impetuous, uneven style, with warm feeling for the poet, and slashing denunciation of all his critics and commentators. After the essays on Shakespeare come a worshipful eulogy of Sterne, a fierce invective against Swift, and a review of Guy Livingstone, written just after its appearance in a French translation, and extolling it as the great result in thought and moral force of the century ; a critical anti-climax which irresistibly reminds us of Landor’s declaration that he hated his brother Bob, but would do him the justice to say that he had written the finest dramas since Shakespeare. Barbey d’Aurevilly’s criticism is of the romantic school, and to demand of it consistency or standards would be seeking to gather figs from thistles.

  1. Gustave Flaubert. Correspondance. Troisième Série. (1854—1869.) Paris: Bibliothèque-Charpentier. 1891.
  2. J. Barley d’Aurevilly. Impressions et Souvenirs. Par CHARLES BUET. Deuxième Edition. Paris; Albert Savine. 1891.
  3. Literature Étrangère. Par J. BARBEY D’AUREVILLY. Paris : Alphonse Lemerre, 1891.