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For Flaubert, at first there was a childhood sweetheart. Then the young governesses of his niece, the coquettes, some women of the world, actresses. And there was Louise Colet.
He was a little over fourteen years old when he met, one summer day on the deserted beach of Trouville, she who was perhaps the sole passion of his life. On that day, she wears an immense straw hat, and through her muslin dress the teenager perceives her beautiful shoulders. Fascinated by this apparition, Gustave follows her at a distance. One day he sees her, in the dunes, open her dress and nurse her baby. This bare breast, this voluptuous throat, make him weak in the knees. He becomes drunk with love. It is Elisa Schlesinger, who at 26, is eleven years older than the young boy.
Two years after this electrifying, chaste encounter, he returns to Trouville, and it is at this moment that he becomes aware of his love, and he wonders: "How would Elisa have been able to see that I loved her, for I did not love her then; it’s now that I was loving her, that I desired her; that on my own, on the shore, in the woods or in the fields, I conjured her up, walking beside me, speaking to me, answering me." And he adds: "These memories were a passion." To become passion, everything had to become a memory, everything had to undergo, in solitude, the slow work of crystallization.
It’s at age 18 in Marseilles, at the Hôtel de Richelieu, that Flaubert has his first mistress, Eulalie Foucaud, a magnificent courtesan of thirty-five. On his return from the south of France, for six months he writes love letters to a woman he does not love. "It was," he said, "to force myself to love her, to cultivate a serious style. It was for the sake of writing.”
He next had brief liaisons. But it is the prostitutes whom he prefers--his first visit to the brothel, at fourteen, had gone so well, that he stayed there for two days!
And then there was Louise Colet. The beautiful, the famous Louise Colet whom everyone calls “the Muse.” Married, mother of a little girl, Louise has an official lover, the philosopher Victor Cousin, and others: Alfred de Musset, Alfred de Vigny, Champfleury, and perhaps even King Louis-Philippe. Louise is a very liberal spirit, and the Academy, very liberal too, awarded prizes to several of her poems. By strange coincidence, Louise was born the same year as Elisa Schlesinger. She is 35, Gustave is barely 24.
He meets her in Paris, in the studio of the sculptor James Pradier, where the women are not all of marble. When Flaubert sees her, Louise, with her bare shoulders and her breast on display, is surrounded by painters and illustrators. Flaubert devours her with his eyes. Louise does not turn away her own. The next day, he appears at her door. They dine together, rent a carriage, and crisscross Paris. They spend the evening together on Saturday, he sends her flowers on Sunday, and it is in Flaubert's hotel room in the Rue de l'Est that they spend their first night together.
Their love fests take place in Mantes, a city halfway between Paris and Croisset. At the Hotel du Grand Cerf, the whole night long, both insatiable, they taste exquisite delights, while savoring mountains of crayfish and truffled partridges (which Louise will celebrate in a poem).
When they were lovers for less than a year, Flaubert leaves on a journey. He travels to Brittany for three months, accompanied by Maxime du Camp. Louise has a tantrum. Anger, jealousy, cries, reproaches, and what is even more comic, insults--she pulls out all the stops. Flaubert wearies.
From this stormy affair that lasts two seasons, interrupted by a two-year trip to the Middle East, there remain the 279 priceless letters Flaubert addressed to Louise, in which he exposes to her, a hundred times rather than one, his ideas about the novel, the writer, the style, the beauty, the form, the criticism, the project, the research, the prose, the poetry, the violence, the stupidity, the bourgeois ... And throughout these we see him, like a researcher in a laboratory, creating a new method: To write, to cross out, to document, to start over, to lament, to exult.
Here is the last letter, which he, beside himself, addresses to Louise:
"Madame, I have learned that you took the trouble to come to my house three times yesterday evening. I was not there. And for fear of the humiliations that might come from such persistence on your part, wisdom compels me to warn you: That I shall never be there."
And here is the last one Elisa received: "The future for me has no more dreams. But the days of old appear bathed in a golden mist. On this luminous background, where the dearest of phantoms extend their arms to me, the most splendid figure is yours! Yes, yours! "
Unlike Flaubert, who never expected to marry, Kafka dreamed of it, as he dreamed of the Promised Land.
This eternal fiancé loved four women: Felice, Julie, Milena and Dora. The first, Felice Bauer, lived in Berlin. He met her on 13 August 1912, in Prague, in the home of his friend, Max Brod. He takes her for the maid, considers her bony face devoid of charm. But this young woman is determined, self-assured, robust, and lives in Berlin, a sixteen-hour train ride from Prague; it's love at first sight! Felice leaves the next day at dawn, he has only seen her for an hour. On September 20, five weeks after this brief meeting, he sends her his first letter. She does not answer either this one or the next. He gets friends to intervene to break the silence of Felice. When she finally answers him, he throws himself into a frenzied correspondence, two or three letters a day. He writes to her: "Hardly a quarter of an hour goes by without my thinking of you, and there are many hours during which I do nothing else. You are intimately bound up with my literature. I tremble like a fool when I receive your letters, my heart knows only you." Two months later, he declares: "Dearest, beloved, oh you most cherished of my temptations, I love you so much it makes me moan with pleasure, I have loved you from the first glance.”
Seven months go by. He talks about everything except meeting. He feeds on his Berliner, he subjects her to endless interrogation: What time do you arrive at the office? What do you see from your window? What are you wearing? Tell me the name of your friends, what seats did you have at the theater, did you eat before or after the show? He asks her for photos of herself, her family, her loved ones, "a face," he says, "can only be captured through a thousand photos." He feels a passion for Felice, but a passion without love. After having suffered writer’s block for months, he begins writing again two days after sending her his first letter; The Verdict first; next The Metamorphosis.
But a lament, always the same, runs through all his correspondence: He has no time to himself; the office, the factory, his father’s store, eat him alive, run him ragged. He no longer has the strength to write. Hence his migraines, his breakdowns, his anguish. He brings himself to make the trip to Berlin only when he cannot do otherwise. But he trembles at the thought of meeting Felice, to be face-to-face with her in the flesh.
Every one of his stays in Berlin, rare and very brief, is a disaster. Yet, after two years, he asks her: "Will you be my wife? But I hasten to add that I have a mad fear about our future, and of the misfortune that may result from our life together." To this strange request, he counts on a refusal. But Felice accepts, and he can no longer sleep. As the ceremony nears, everything in him rebels against this union. He breaks off the engagement. They reconnect soon after and their conflicts reappear, unchanged. He wants a sexless marriage, and his nights to write ... One month short of the marriage, tuberculosis announces itself; he exults: Freedom, freedom!
From this odd relationship, which lasted five years, remain nearly 700 letters of inestimable interest--the illusion for the reader of being a confidant, at times even a friend of Kafka.
Next he meets Julie, a pretty and modest milliner, in the small village where he is recovering from the Spanish flu. Shortly afterwards, he asks her to marry him and has the announcement published, in order to stand up to his father, who judged this union dishonorable. But two days before the wedding, the apartment he rented becomes unavailable. He is saved.
Milena, a brilliant journalist, is Czech, Christian and married. Moreover, she lives in Vienna. The sarabande of letters starts again; we have about one hundred and fifty from Kafka, none by Milena, nor from any of the women he loved. It is to Milena, and to her alone, that he speaks of all his fears, of his sexuality, of his conflict with his father.
But when Milena refuses to leave her husband to join Franz in Prague, the illusion shatters. It lasted only eleven months.
Dora marks a decisive turning point. At the age of thirty-nine, for the first time in his life, Kafka leaves Prague, his office and his family, and joins Dora in Berlin. For the first time in his life, he lives day after day with a woman, they sleep in the same bed, huddled together, he whispering in her ear, “I am in the arms of an angel.” But Kafka is no longer the dashing young man who set out to conquer Felice. He is very ill, there are uprisings in Berlin, runaway inflation, increasing riots, a harsh winter. Returned to Prague, he is transferred a few weeks later to a sanatorium near Vienna, where he dies. Dora by his side.
The day after his break with Felice, Kafka writes The Trial; “The Letter To His Father,” while he abandons Julie. The Castle, when Milena leaves him; “The Burrow,” when death is at his heels.
Perhaps Mallarmé was right, when he declared: "Everything in the world is to end up in a book."
Translated from the French by Diane Joy Charney