The Letters of Gustave Flaubert
“If there is one article of faith that dominates the Credo of Gustave Flaubert’s correspondence,” Francis Steegmuller writes in the introduction to this selection of Flaubert’s letters, “it is that the function of great art is not to provide ‘answers.’” The Letters of Gustave Flaubert is above all a record of the intransigent questions—personal, political, artistic—with which Flaubert struggled throughout his life.
Here we have Flaubert’s youthful, sensual outpourings to his mistress, the poet Louise Colet, and, as he advances, still unknown, into his thirties, the wrestle to write Madame Bovary. We hear, too, of his life-changing trip to Egypt, as described to family and friends, and then there are lively exchanges with Baudelaire, with the influential critic Sainte-Beuve, and with Guy de Maupassant, his young protégé. Flaubert’s letters to George Sand reveal her as the great confidante of his later years.
Steegmuller’s book, a classic in its own right, is both a splendid life of Flaubert in his own words and the ars poetica of the master who laid the foundations for modern writers from James Joyce to Lydia Davis. Originally issued in two volumes, the book appears here for the first time under a single cover.
Praise for The Letters of Gustave Flaubert
"There was Flaubert the romantic and Flaubert the realist. We know the latter as the author of Madame Bovary, that unflinching work of social scrutiny. But the former is on full display in the writer’s salacious, sarcastic, funny and at times brilliant correspondence....Steegmuller was an eminent scholar of French literature, and in his hands the letters emerge not only as an excellent primary-source biography of one of the great artists of the 19th century but as a great 19th-century work in themselves." —Max Norman, The Wall Street Journal
“The Letters...covers all of Flaubert’s life, from the first letters to school chum Chevalier through correspondence with Ivan Turgenev and Guy de Maupassant written only days before Flaubert’s death in May, 1880, with explanatory passages and appendices from Steegmuller...if, instead of conclusions, though, sustenance for intellectual and artistic life are sought, Flaubert’s letters will never fail to nourish with a beautiful image or well-balanced phrase, especially if on the topic of art itself.” —Eric Vanderwall, On the Seawall
"When I...read the Letters—brilliantly linked and edited by Steegmuller so that they still make Flaubert's best biography—I found them untouched by time, written as if from the next postal district only yesterday." —Julian Barnes
"That Flaubert, as a writer and as the kind of writer he was, was born rather than made is plainly indicated by the first few letters in Francis Steegmuller’s excellent new selection. . . . All Flaubert is in these first five pages of letters, in embryo." —D.J. Enright, London Review of Books
"Steegmuller . . . is again a deft, witty and indefatigable commentator, stitching Flaubert’s correspondence together with all the background information we need in order to appreciate it. Among his many fine asides, Mr. Steegmuller tells us that Proust disliked the style of Flaubert’s letters even more than that of his novels; that Gide kept his volumes of them beside his bed like a bible." —Anatole Broyard, The New York Times
"These letters have the same fascination and compelling narrative drive as those in the first volume. . . . We have, in the guise of letters, what comes close to being a full-fledged biography." —Howard
Moss, The Washington Post Book World
"Steegmuller’s connecting narrative and his annotations make this second volume as rich and attaching as the first. And, for once, Flaubert is seen alive and enacting himself." —V. S. Pritchett, The Atlantic
"[Steegmuller’s] ear is so keenly attuned to the modulations of this correspondence and his craft is so accomplished that the English text is, as it were, transparent and trans-vocal. It is the voice of Flaubert we hear or, more precisely, the oral qualities of his epistolary style. Steegmuller plays Flaubert for us the way a musician plays the music of a master." —Victor Brombert, American Scholar
"Deserves to be reread and cherished by all admirers of the finest and most fastidious of French novelists. . . . The love-letters to Louise Colet are so packed with subtle observation and profound psychological insight that, despite their spontaneity, they are works of supreme literary art. Francis Steegmuller’s translations of these and of the letters from the Orient are beyond praise—as vivid in English as in the original French. His critical and historical text is extremely illuminating throughout, and I have been amazed and enthralled by this splendid contribution to our knowledge of a literary colossus, so completely objective in his other writings. Here we may see the total man . . . without his impassive mask." —Harold Acton
"An enchanting book, one that combines so happily the art of the biographer and the art of the translator—and Francis Steegmuller is a master of both. Once one starts reading Flaubert’s love letters, it’s difficult to stop." —Leon Edel