Dear Flaubert


/ by Diane Joy Charney

We readers are marked forever by great authors—they are never really dead. We carry them around with us.

I write them letters.



Perfectionist and relentless seeker of “le mot juste” (“the unique right word”), Gustave Flaubert (December 12, 1821-May 8, 1880) was the son of the Chief Surgeon of the Rouen hospital, and of a doctor’s daughter. Despite the torment that Flaubert’s epilepsy and nervous ailments caused him, they allowed him to abandon law studies in favor of literature. The serialization of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary earned him few francs, a trial for immorality, and definitive literary fame.


At age 15, he fell in an idealized form of love with the married Elisa Schlessinger, whom he never forgot. His subsequent eight-year tempestuous affair with poet Louise Colet worked much better on paper than in the flesh. His remarkable letters to her and others, however, arguably reveal more of Flaubert’s inner life than any of his fiction. The sacrifices he made for his orphaned niece, the death of his closest friends, and his sufferings from syphilis contributed to the pain of his later years.


Dear Gustave,


The first time I read Madame Bovary, as with Camus’ The Stranger, I definitely didn’t get it. But when I was 16, my older French boyfriend accused me of being a potential Madame Bovary. I didn’t understand what that meant at the time, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t a compliment.Years later, I began to read your letters, and realized that you and Kafka have much in common. Both of you needed women in your lives, but at a distance, so as not to interfere with your art. In your own letters, you both reveal yourselves in ways that differ from and that complement your fiction.


Under duress, you said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” a declaration that has many more meanings than are obvious. Many scholars like to go on about Emma Bovary’s mediocrity, but I prefer scholar Victor Brombert’s idea that she thought she was better than everyone around her, and indeed she was! At 16, and now approaching 70, I am still wondering to what extent erstwhile boyfriend Gérard Archambault may have had my number. You and I have a lot to discuss.

In preparation for writing this letter, I've been reading lots of writers' thoughts about you, including those of a Yale freshman reading Madame Bovary for the first time. In my capacity as Yale College Writing Tutor, we worked together on her paper for the literature component of Directed Studies, a year-long honors program for select Yale students. This was Jessica's last paper of the year, and although she was initially flummoxed about what to write, she ended up doing an excellent job. I told her that she needn't worry about not "getting" all that was to be gotten from your book, because this was a work to be read and reread at different stages of life. "Yeah, that's exactly what Professor Porter told us all in his lecture. He specified the need to read it at three different times in one's life." Gustave, does every professor say the same thing about your novel?


After our discussion of her plan for the paper, Jessica was on her own. It was very late and close to the deadline when she left my office, and frankly I was worried about what the outcome would be. To her credit, however, she ended up picking a challenging but ultimately successful topic for her essay: a close study of Flaubert's language that she titled, "Conscious Constructs." Eager to see where students take our conversations, I always ask them to let me know how they ended up feeling about the finished product, and what the professor had to say about it.


In response to my email, "You and Mme. Bovary: Who won?" Jessica sent me a copy of the paper with her professor's generous comments. In it, she points out that Emma has no way to express her feelings for her lover except in literature-inspired melodramatic showcases. To quote Jessica,


"I am sure that up there, together, they approve of our love,” Emma says wistfully to Rodolphe, invoking the gods to add divine weight to a relationship that has almost no substance (158). Her words are so sappy, but oddly appealing because they create the illusion of uncorrupted nature. Her romanticism is so deliberately constructed. All of it consists of things she has derived from books, which makes her language ultimately deceptive. It might not be true love, but it's certainly true naïveté.


And Rodolphe, knowing better, takes full advantage of that. To him, she is just another novelty to be conquered. He, as an experienced seducer, has heard many a time women's treacly, unfulfilled declarations of love to him. Unfortunately for Emma, who doesn't know how to express her amorous sentiments to men besides in the cheesy lingo of love stories, her genuine affections are brushed off by Rodolphe because he believes them to be another string of empty professions. ‘He did not distinguish, this man of great expertise, the differences of sentiment between the sameness of their expressions.’ Emma on the other hand has no idea how to play this game. She has only the overblown language of the cliché. Cheaply spoken words by him can appear to have profundity for her because she doesn't know any better. She's a reader of novels, not of people....


In the end, Emma does not get to keep anything. Not only does she lose her lovers, her husband, and her life, but she loses herself under the layers of her own contrived language.”


Well, if that was Jessica's first reading of Madame Bovary, I would love to hear what she makes of it a second and third time.


I'm trying to think how old I was when I first read your Madame Bovary. I note that I referred to it in my letter to Camus about my own 16-year-old amorous misadventures of the summer of 1962 while studying French at l’Université de Montréal. That was the summer after my sophomore year in high school, so I'm guessing that I first read it at fifteen the previous year. But I did so on my own, so nobody told me anything reassuring about how much I was, or was not getting out of the book. As a Midwest-born, Middletown, New York-raised young girl, who liked to read historical romances, I probably found it easy to identify with Emma. In any case, I was hooked. I subsequently got to reread it as a college undergraduate, and then at Duke in Richard B. Grant's class. He did some fabulous analysis of the "tourbillon" ("whirling") as a key image in your book: Emma's dizzying dance with Rodolphe at the ball, the spider web references that occur throughout the novel. Was I getting tired of hearing ever more interpretations of Emma? Not in the least!


I am actually having a great time now rereading my notes about you from many sources: Yale colleagues Peter Brooks, Charles Porter, Shoshana Felman, and my letter recipients Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Vladimir Nabokov. I'm also recalling having been introduced in 1988 to distinguished psychoanalyst Marcel Eck, the father of the family that hosted me during one of the periods I was teaching in Paris.


Dr. Eck had written a number of well-received literature-focused papers for the Nouvelle Presse Médicale. Knowing how much he and I both loved nineteenth-century French literature, the family thought we would enjoy having a chat, and they were right. The first thing he asked me was who my favorite novelists were. I was quick to pipe up with Balzac and Flaubert, but only one of the two was the "right" answer.


You were his specialty, and he explained that he had written two papers based on Jean-Paul Sartre's controversial 3-volume work on you, "L'idiot de la famille" ("The Family Idiot"). The first was “La psychanalyse de Flaubert selon Sartre” (“The Psychoanalysis of Flaubert by Sartre” from Volume 1, No.10, March 4, 1972); the second was “L’idiot de la famille. La maladie et la personnalité de Flaubert selon Sartre” (“Illness and the Personality of Flaubert According to Sartre” from Volume 1, No.12, March 18, 1972). At the end of our talk, Dr. Eck generously gave me reprints of each of these articles. Although I tend to have nearly total recall of most events like these, my memory of this occasion, beyond being impressed by Eck's erudition, is uncharacteristically fuzzy. My files are currently 3,000 miles away, but those articles will be there on my return. Sometimes it can be useful to be a hoarder!


What I’m hoarding right now are many pages of critical comments about you, but without intending to insult anyone, if I could keep just one, it would be A. S. Byatt’s “Scenes from a provincial life.” I was astonished to read such a scholarly study in my favorite newspaper, The Guardian (July 27, 2002). I see that this article had also served as the introduction to a Norwegian edition of your Madame Bovary, which makes more sense. I find it hard to imagine an American newspaper running such an extensive intellectual piece. I especially love her opener:


Reading Madame Bovary for the first time was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life - at least up to that point. I was a very young woman - not even eighteen. I was au pair in the French provinces in the 1950s, and I read Madame Bovary in French, sitting in the furrow of a vineyard. I was like Emma Rouault before she became Madame Bovary, someone whose most intense life was in books, from which I had formed vague images of passion and adventure, love and weddings, marriage and children. I was afraid of being trapped in a house and a kitchen.

Madame Bovary opened a vision of meaninglessness and emptiness, which was all the more appalling because it was so full of things, clothes and furniture, rooms and gardens. The worst thing of all was that it was the books that were the most insidious poison. Recently Madame Bovary appeared in a British newspaper listing of the 'fifty best romantic reads.' It was, and is, the least romantic book I have ever read. If I have come to love it, it is because now,…half a century older, and not trapped in house and kitchen, I can equably sympathize with the central person in the book, who is its author - endlessly inventive, observant, and full of life.”

I see that in this letter to you, I’ve included comments of three young women’s first contacts with your book, and I’m thinking that you might like to see an article slyly called, “My First Time: Women Writers Reveal Their Feelings On Being Initiated into the World of Emma Bovary.” I say this despite knowing that you profess never to care whether anything related to you sells or not, but I’m not sure I believe you. I think that Byatt got your number when she states, while pointing out the similarities and differences between your Emma and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “It might even be said that both are physically attractive to the men who invented and trapped them in their stories and that both are punished by their authors, as well as by society.”

Byatt mentions “an illuminating paper” by the psychoanalyst, Ignès Sodré, titled “Death by Daydreaming” in which Sodré used Freud's essay on “Creative Writers and Daydreaming” to discuss the particular daydreams of Emma Bovary.” That one is also going on my list.

I always like to imagine what Freud would have to say about major figures in literature. Byatt notes that Freud “makes the point that the hero or heroine of the daydream is in a narcissistic solitary world. Emma Bovary's romantic desires are little scenes in which she plays the heroine. She prefers to dream about her first lover, Léon, rather than to see him. Her moment of ecstasy after she has been seduced by Rodolphe is when she is able to tell herself in a mirror, 'J'ai un amant. J'ai un amant'” (“I have a lover. I have a lover.”). I had forgotten about that mirror scene, but once reminded of it, I couldn’t help flashing to scenes from modern films like “Taxi Driver” and “La Haine” where, even though the motivations may be different, the protagonist talks to himself to boost his image and rehearse a role he wants to inhabit. Many people forget that the next line after “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?” is “There’s nobody else here.” Similarly, the sense of Emma’s alienation from herself and from others is implicit in her excitement at having a lover whose actual presence is superfluous. What would you, Gustave, make of Travis Bickell from Taxi Driver? I’m guessing you’d say, “he’s no Emma Bovary.”

As in the situation mentioned above, your oft-quoted (but perhaps apocryphal) line “Madame Bovary c'est moi!” purportedly has a sequel that often gets lost. “Madame Bovary c'est moi!” is immediately followed by “d'après moi.” (“Madame Bovary is myself—according to me”). This is in contrast to what you wrote to your lover, Louise Colet: “'Rien dans ce livre n'est tiré de moi . . . Tout est de tête” (“Nothing in this book is drawn from me. Everything comes from my head.”). Byatt notes that you figured out a way to mingle, but not fuse, your characters' relations to the physical world with your own.


I found plenty of quotes from you about the “down” side of writing, such as “Writing is a dog’s life but the only life worth living,” and the odorously colorful “Sometimes I think I’m liquefying like an old Camembert.” I also like the sense of humor in your, “It is splendid to be a great writer, to put men into the frying pan of your words and make them pop like chestnuts.” But amidst the pain of your writing process of obsessively seeking “le mot juste,” the one and only “right word,” you said, “for better or worse it is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself, but to move in an entire universe of your own creating.”


Thanks to his association with you, Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk received an honorary doctorate from the University of Rouen. In his gracious acceptance speech, Pamuk notes similarities between your and his own writing trajectory. Before his first book was published, as a late bloomer, he had been living with his mother who wondered when he would settle down to a more traditional life. Pamuk quotes an exchange between you and your mother about your choice to remain unmarried: “If you participate actively in life, you don’t see it clearly: you suffer from it too much or enjoy it too much… The artist must be a freak of nature, an oddity outside ordinary life, a monster of sorts…So, I am resigned to living as I have lived: alone, with my throng of great men as my only cronies…, with my bear rug as company.” Pamuk says you addressed to your mother other sentences very much like those he whispered to himself before he had turned thirty, sentences in which he tried to believe: “I care nothing for the world, for the future, for what people will say, for any kind of establishment, or even for literary renown, which in the past I used to lie awake so many nights dreaming about… That is what I am like; such is my character.”


Pamuk recognizes two sides of your character—the one that is “derisive and belittling” and the other that he loves and admires as “a great writer who, within the large canvas and panorama of the novel, discovered a new way to enter–suddenly, with the stroke of a few words–his characters’ inner lives. A writer who could approach his characters with the deep compassion and empathy demanded by the art of the novel, and as a result, who could later simply declare, “I am Madame Bovary!” It is not difficult for the reader who admires him to imagine these two Flauberts as lobes of the same heart. I have always wanted to identify with this author, who on one hand felt boundless anger and resentment toward humanity, and on the other hand, nurtured a profound compassion for the same, and understood men and women better than others. Whenever I read his work, I am urged to say, “Monsieur Flaubert, c’est moi!” (Rouen, March 17, 2009)


Before I say goodbye, cher Gustave, the last of your critics whom I want to cite is another recipient of my letters, Vladimir Nabokov. I just read a reprint of his lecture on your Madame Bovary. But if only somebody would invent Time Travel, I’d whisk myself back to 1954 and right into the Cornell lecture hall alongside all the other students in Lit 311, “European Literature of the Nineteenth Century,” popularly known as “Dirty Lit” (according to Edward Jay Epstein’s article, “An A from Nabokov” in the New York Review of Books, April 4, 2013). After seeing photos of the class, I think I would have blended right in, wearing my original saddle shoes from the fifth grade (still my most comfortable shoes, regardless of all the holes). Technically speaking, I would have been only eight years old, but I’m thinking of myself as a college sophomore--even we letter writers are entitled to a bit of poetic license.


Some readers of Nabokov’s lecture on you get annoyed by his inability to resist showing his superiority to those dolts who call themselves translators, but whom he considers true philistines. But from the examples he chooses, I think he has a good point. Further he criticizes not just the translator’s words, but their decisions to change your punctuation. He’s quite the specialist at pointing out the chinks in everyone’s armor, but he does so in an amusing, witty way that I think you would appreciate.


Nabokov points out some convincing themes in your book, such as the “layers” or “layer-cake” theme, using as examples young Charles Bovary’s ridiculous hat and the over-the-top Bovary wedding cake. I found myself adding to these, Emma’s toppling mountains of debt, and her three-layered tomb, among others. Another theme for which he gives numerous examples is the horse theme. Further, Nabokov’s remarks made me more aware of your likely symbolic use of color in the novel. First, the greens (the silk cigarette case, the green velvet of Rodolphe’s waistcoat, Charles’ choice of green velvet for the coffin, the contention that no “greens” would ever grow in Rodolphe’s black heart); and then the blues (Emma’s long blue veil, the blue arsenic jar, her blue-black eyes, the “azure infinity” of her dreams, the blue haze of the landscape at her funeral).


Nabokov calls your book the most romantic fairy tale whose prose does “what poetry is supposed to do.” He cautions the students never to ask irrelevant questions like “How true is this?”


Finally, how’s this for a compliment? “The girl, Emma Bovary, never existed….The book Madame Bovary shall exist forever and ever. A book lives longer than a girl.” Of course, the same could be said for his Lolita. Unlike those cronies of yours who told you to throw your fiction into the fire, Nabokov would have dismissed their opinion with his favorite insult, “Philistines!”


Come to think of it, you and Vladimir might have hit it off just fine.

Diane Joy Charney

teaches French Literature and Creative Writing at Yale University, where she is Writing-Tutor-in-Residence. She divides her time between Umbria and New Haven.