Friday, October 06, 2006

Flaubert Turgenev Letters

Flaubert's correspondences have long been considered to be a part of the canon of French literature. Julian Barnes wrote an entire novel (Flaubert's Parrot), a minor masterpiece in itself, mostly by quoting and annotating his letters. And the excellent introduction to this volume of his exchanges with Turgenev informs me that Andre Gide kept the volume of his letters at his bedside "in place of the bible, for five years, gaining from its reading 'a reservoir of energy.'" The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is a great fan too. In his book on Madame Bovary, The Perpetual Orgy, he says that the first thing he did with the money that he got from the publication of his first novel (at the age of twenty four!) was to buy the complete set of Flaubert's letters!

Actually Flaubert's letters to his mistress Louise Colet, which he wrote while writing Madame Bovary, are the most famous of all. They are considered essential for a good understanding of the novel. I had read Madame Bovary a few years ago. That was the time when I thought Wuthering Heights was the greatest novel ever written. I read it just like a story. Frankly I wasn't particularly impressed, and was even bored. The final death scene shook me but I only felt disgusted. Specially disgusted with the idea of sexual love. The final few lines where Flaubert cold heartedly informs that young Berthe now works in a mill and that Homais, easily one of the most contemptuous characters ever created, has been awarded the legion of honour made the book one of the bleakest I had ever read. I have since then read a lot about Flaubert (though mostly brief essays, no full fledged book) and how he is admired, specially by novelists. I have always wanted to reread Madame Bovary but haven't been able to do it so far. Flaubert is generally considered a quintessential novelist's novelist.

Anyway my local library doesn't have his letters to Louise Colet. And since I have been reading about Turgenev and the Russians for the last couple of months I decided to pick up this volume. I feel happy now to have read it. It gives you a great portrait of both writers, which is not possible to get by reading just biographical essays. Specially the account of their last decades, when they struggled with various ailments and illnesses, deaths of friends and family, their muses which seemed to have abandoned them, loneliness and coldness of old age(both remained unmarried), all these make for a deeply moving reading.

I won't give a complete account of the book. The New York Times has a very good review of the book here.

I really liked the introduction by the editor of the volume who also annotates the letters very well. She gives a brief biographical background and compares their style, influences, philosophical background and worldviews. It becomes clear that they were such close friends only because they could find so much common intellectual ground between the two of them. I specially liked this paragraph where she analyzes their pessimism:

It would be unrealistic to think of either Flaubert or Turgenev as a 'happy' man. Although happiness is a theme they explored a good deal in their works, they were for the most part obliged to conclude that this ideal was unobtainable, not only for themselves, but for mankind in general, and this in both private and public spheres of existence. As life progressed these sentiments were to become intensified and crystallise into a pessimism which they were to take with them to the grave, and which is amply echoed in the letters they exchanged in the last decade of their lives.

Early contact with romantic literature's melancholy heroes pursued by fate, yet unlike the Romantics unable to find pastoral consolations in nature; disappointment in love at an early age; progressive disillusionment with the political scene; such were the elements that contributed to the formation of this bleak outlook.

Actually, this thing about nature reminds me. This is from a letter Flaubert wrote from Switzerland, one of those rare occasions when he moved out of his home at Croisset, Rouen (he is also nicknamed the "hermit of Croisset"):

I came here as an act of obedience, because everyone said that the pure mountain air would decongest me and calm my nerves. Amen to that. But so far, I only feel completely bored, owing to the solitude and idleness; and then I am not a child of nature;'her wonders' move me less than those of the Arts. She crushes me without inspiring any 'great thoughts' in me. I feel like saying to her inside myself: 'It's all very fine. I came from you just a while ago, in a few moments I shall return thence; leave me alone, I need other amusements.'

The Alps, moreover, are out of proportion of man's being. They're too big to be of any use. This is the third time they have provoked an unpleasant reaction in me. I hope it's the last. And then my companions, my dear fellow, these foreigners in the hotel! All German or English, armed with walking-sticks or eye-glasses. Yesterday I very nearly embraced three calves I met in a meadow through fellow-feeling and the need to let myself go.

And this from Turgenev's reply:
You don't sound as if you're enjoying yourself very much on those sublime peaks, celebrated by Rousseau! One must admit that those who live constantly in the sight of those sublimities - I mean the Swiss - are the most boring and least gifted peopple I know. 'Where does this anomaly spring from?' a philosopher would ask. Or perhaps it isn't an anomaly at all?

Some more extracts from a few of Flaubert's letters:

You must find me rather ridiculous with my hatred of Prussia? It's that especially that makes me angry: it has inspired in me the sentiments of a twelfth century barbarian. But what to do about it? Do you think that in other ages men of letters, doctors, behaved like savages?

I spent the whole of last week in Paris. There is something more pitiful than the ruins, it's the mentality of the population. People are hovering between cretinism and raging madness. This is no exaggeration.

Ah! I would like to forget about France, my contemporaries and humanity! All of that makes me heave with disgust. I'm saddened to the very depth of my being; and now that I've seen Paris, I find it very hard to work.

The thought that I shall see you this winter quite at leisure delights me like the promise of an oasis. The comparison is the right one, if only you knew how isolated I am! Who is there to talk to now? Who is there in our wretched country who still 'cares about literature'? Perhaps one single man? Me! The wreckage of a lost world, an old fossil of romanticism! You will revive me, you'll do me good.

My business affairs have caused me a lot of anxiety. Are you like me? I prefer to let myself be robbed, rather than act in self-defence, it's not that I am not interested but it all bores and wearies me. When it's a question of money, disgust and rage seize hold of me and I go almost out of my mind. I mean this very seriously.

It's hard to talk in Paris. The noise from the street and the nearness of Other People deprive one of any peace. Come to my old homestead then. We shall be completely alone and we'll have a good chat.

The bourgeoisie is so stunned that it no longer even has the instinct of self-preservation; and what will follow will be worse! I feel the same sadness experienced by Roman patricians in the fourth century. I feel a wave of relentless Barbarism, rising up from below the ground. I hope to be dead before all is swept away. But in the meantime, it is no joke. Never have the affairs of the mind counted for less. Never have hatred of everything that is great, contempt for all that is beautiful, abhorrence for literature so manifest.

I have always tried to live in an ivory tower; but a sea of shit is beating up against its walls, it's enough to bring it down.

How are you? I am not so well. I feel ill, but can not locate it to any particular organ, and I'm sad enough to die.

And some from Turgenev's. His are more gentle, filled with resignation. Even when he complains about his persistent gout (which is always), he is always philosophical about it...

Old age, my dear friend, is a great dull cloud that envelops the future, the present and even the past, which it makes more melancholy, covering our memories with fine cracks, like old porcelain. (I'm afraid I am expressing myself badly, but never mind.) We must defend ourselves against this cloud! I think you don't do so enough.

No my friend; it's not that that's difficult to bear at our age; it's the general tedium vitae, the boredom and disgust with all human activity; it's nothing to do with politics, which after all is no more than a game; it's the sadness of one's fiftieth year. And that's why I admire Mme Sand: such serenity, such simplicity, such an interest in everything, such goodness!

I have just turned 60, my dear fellow...This is the start of the tail-end of life. A Spanish proverb says that the tail is the hardest part to flay. At the same time it's the part that gives least pleasure and satisfaction. Life becomes completely self-centred--a defensive struggle with death; and this exaggeration of the personality means that it ceases to be of interest, even to the person in question. But you are already not very cheerful--without me adding the lugubrious note; pretend I said nothing.

Link to the NYT review.


bhupinder said...

Thanks for a post which set me off into a nostaligc journey since I read both the novelists many years back.

Reading your post, I feel that perhaps there is an element of cynicism of the 19th century idea of progress in both Flaubert and Turgenev.

While majority of the 19th century novelists appeal to some specially in the third world countries, however, because of their cynicism of this unilinear idea of progress, Flaubert and Turgenev perhaps carry more import in the West in the times of post modernism and a general cynicism of the Enlightenment.

This is just a thought, or a "hunch" if you prefer, and I might be completely off the track.

Alok said...

Yes exactly. In fact Flaubert explicitly ridicules the idea of progress in many of his letters.

He ridiculed science, technology, materialism and the so-called modern "rational" man in the figure of Homais too in Madame Bovary, who for him symbolized everything that was wrong with the bourgeois culture and who he thought, rightly so I think, was the representative man of the age. In fact reading his letters it is difficult to imagine his disgust with the modern world...

Turgenev was I think less pessimistic than him. His politics was more like pragmatic, step-by-step kind. Dealing with concretes and skeptical of theory and absolutes. This put him in a difficult situation with both the radicals and the right wing slavophiles of his time in russia.

There is a fantastic essay on Turgenev in Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers. He gives a very vivid portrait of the political scene in nineteenth century russia and how turgenev, specially his novel Fathers and Sons fit into it. I will try to post some summary of the essay sometime.

Alok said...

I remember something else about Flaubert. In Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot there is a chapter where the narrator defends Flaubert against the "charges" generally put forth against him in a mock-court scene.

One of the charges is that he was pessimistic and against progess. And to that the narrator just says that let me put the history of twentieth century as evidence and then you decide for yourself!!

btw, this is a fantastic essay by Pankaj Mishra in case you haven't read it. He discusses his pessimism in detail.

bhupinder said...

I can understand Pankaj Mishra's fascination for The Sentimental Education. It ties in with his own neo- Narodist views.

(I find PM generally exasperating, but thanks all the same for the link).

Alok said...

err, I had to google for what narodism meant :) found this good wiki article.

I also found your article on lenin searching for neo-narodism.

I don't think Flaubert would approve of the anti-science mumbo-jumbo either, which has been made fashionable by the postmodern intellectuals. He was before everything else, dedicated to the ideal of beauty and truth and he felt both were under attack in the bourgeois culture. That was the only reason why he felt disgusted. He was anti-science in only so far as he felt that it made people shallow and smug.

I haven't read Mishra much, I didn't know he was in the same postmodern camp.

bhupinder said...

He is a non or anti- moderniser, not really post- modern.  More on this (and linked to it is my review of Avijit Pathak's book, you may like to read that one too).

Alok said...

thanks for the links. Have read and commented on your post.

bloggerhead said...

Love that line- "I have always tried to live in an ivory tower; but a sea of shit is beating up against its walls, it's enough to bring it down". Makes me kind of wistful because i dont get to read as much as i would like to nowadays, esp since lit is an old love. Your style of writing is interesting? What field do yhou work in?

Alok said...

hey thanks!!

I have a degree in the most unartistic discipline (Engineering) and I work in the most banal profession of the modern age (software).

pd said...

a movie called 'madame bovary' is playing in one of the mainstream b'lore theatres (dont remember which one)!!! u've seen the movie ??
just saw a reference to ms bovary and remembered...cudnt finish reading the whole post was soooo long..:))

Alok said...

Wow! Are you who I am thinking you are? :))

I don't know which movie is that one. There are many adaptations. The most famous is the one in which the French actress Isabelle Huppert plays the title role.

Madhur said...

"Emma was discovering, in adultery, all the banality of marriage."
dont you just love Emma for her spirit?

Alok said...

Yes, I would have a few years ago. But now I admire people who stoically accept what life has to offer and make the most out of it rather than pine themselves away to self-destruction in search of something vague and illusory. Emma to me looks just immature and selfish. Perhaps Flaubert could have spared her life and the lessons she learnt could have made her do exactly that, live a life of heroic stoicism, but that would have been a different novel.

Madhur said...

alok, you are living in the comforting illusion of linearity of time, that over the years by reading and watching what you have, you have somehow stepped onto some sort of an intellectual highground of moral purpose and gained 'maturity', i dont blame you, there isnt much which life has to offer, i also partly agree with you , but you see a life of heroic stoicism would have made emma's life boring, and not worthy of a novel, it would be a denial of the various shades of the flux which we call the human personality, there is no retribution in emma's death, it is merely your own need for a moral cohesiveness, you impart your own sense of morality to the ending.
did you symphathise with charles bovary?

the genius of flaubert is the genius of balance which ironically is achieved through the ambiguity of moral purpose, every character, his/her vices and virtues, choices and desires, are all so well balanced, that every action of the each character is justified if taken in isolation, flaubert talks of the inadequecy of language to express what a human spirit desires, the failure of bourgeoise values like marraige, or the 'curse' of being born a woman, the second sex, if you do consider all that, you will never take sides or say something as naive as that "she was selfish and immature".

" . . . and human language is like a cracked kettledrum on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when what we long to do is make music that will move the stars to pity."

- emma longed for the stars.

Alok said...

I do feel to have outgrown my youthful romanticism, at least I have tried to! And I do think that reading and thinking helps enormously in detaching yourself with the world.

You know, Proust (sorry I can't help but bring him everywhere) tackles this subject of maturity very well and it was in that sense that I used that word. I think that you are mature when you can see your past with a sense of irony and with a detachment. That's what the narrator in proust's novel finds that he is finally able to do, to be able to see his life "as a novel" and proceeds to write exactly that novel in the end.

Flaubert could very well have spared her life and made her "mature" in this sense. It needn't have resulted in a boring or uninteresing novel, though I think it is beside the point, in the end.

There is also a distinction that Kierkegaard makes in either/or between two kind of human characters and two kinds of life. An aesthetic life and an ethical life. Emma was longing for an aesthetic life, without knowing that the world will never reciprocate her feelings. She could have understood this and could have turned to an ethical life. a life devoted to her husband and daughter! I find romanticism hideous in this ethical sense. that's why I used the word selfish.

yes, i find charles bovary enormously sympathetic. and the way Emma is indifferent to her daughter just breaks my heart and always leaves me indignant, not with her character but with the idea of sexual longing and everything that human heart asks for but can't get.

Madhur said...

Alok said...

that's a nice summary, thanks!

Her life could have been a happy one had she been able to see past her romanticism enough to be content with it.
Either one is so blinded by fancy as to be unable to live in the world of reality, or one is so immersed in the common as to make life a truly ugly thing, devoid of higher inspiration.

Actually that's why i used the word "stoic." You can live a life without romanticism but you needn't be smug, shallow, vulgar or materialistic. These things disgust me too, though perhaps not as much as it did Flaubert.

Flaubert, in his pessimism and misanthropy, obviously thought it was not possible, that it was always either of the two extremes, though I think in real life he was himself an example of one such person. Living without romanticism, yet devoted to the ideal of beauty and a higher inspiration.