From Gustave Flaubert to Louise Colet

Croisset, January 12 or 14, 1852 · I am hideously worried, mortally depressed. My accursed Bovary is harrying me and driving me mad. Last Sunday [friend and dramatist Louis] Bouilhet criticized one of my characters and the outline. I can do nothing about it: there is some truth in what he says, but I feel that the opposite is true also. Ah, I am tired and discouraged! You call me Master. What a wretched Master!

No – it is possible that the whole thing hasn’t had enough spadework, for distinctions between thought and style are a sophism. Everything depends on the conception. So much the worse! I am going to continue, and as quickly as I can, in order to have a complete picture. There are moments when all this makes me wish I were dead. Ah! No one will be able to say that I haven’t experienced the agonies of Art!

Croisset, January 16, 1852 · There are in me, literally speaking, two distinct persons: one who is infatuated with bombast, lyricism, eagle flights, sonorities of phrase and the high points of ideas; and another who digs and burrows into the truth as deeply as he can, who likes to treat a humble fact as respectfully as a big one, who would like to make you feel almost physically the things he reproduces; this latter person likes to laugh and enjoys the animal sides of man…

What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support; a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible. The finest works are those that contain the least matter; the closer expression comes to thought, the closer language comes to coinciding and merging with it, the finer the result. I believe that the future of Art lies in this direction. I see it, as it has developed from its beginnings, growing progressively more ethereal, from the Egyptian pylons to Gothic lancets, from the 20,000 line Hindu poems to the effusions of Byron. Form, as it is mastered, becomes attenuated. It comes dissociated from any litugy, rule, yardsitck; the epic is discard in favour of the novel, verse in favour of prose; there is no longer any orthodoy, and form is as free as the will of its creator. This emancipation from matter can be observed everywhere: governments have gone through similar evolution, from the oriental despotisms to the socialisms of the future.

It is for this reason that there are no noble subjects or ignoble subjects; from the standpoint of pure Art one might almost establish the axiom that there is no such thing as subject, style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing things.

Croisset, February 1, 1852 · Bad week. Work didn’t go; I had reached a point where I didn’t know what to say. It was all shadings and refinements; I was completely in the dark: it is very difficult to clarify by means of words what is still obscure in your thoughts. I made outlines, spoiled a lot of paper, floundered and fumbled. Now I shall perhaps find my way again. Oh, what a rascally thing style is! I think you have no idea of what kind of a book I am writing. In my other books I was slovenly; in this one I am trying to be impeccable, and to follow a geometrically straight line. No lyricism, no comments, the author’s personality absent. It will make sad reading; there will be atrociously wretched and sordid things. Bouilhet, who arrived last Sunday at three just after I had written you, thinks the tone is right and hopes the book will be good. May God grant it! But it promises to take up an enormous amount of time. I shall certainly not be through by the beginning of next winter. I am doing no more than five or six pages a week.

Croisset, March 3, 1852 · Thank you, thank you, my darling, for all the affection you send me. It makes me proud that you should feel happy about me; how I will embrace you next week!

I have just reread several children’s books for my novel. I am half crazy tonight, after all the things I looked at today – from old keepsakes to tales of shipwrecks and buccaneers. I came up on old engravings that I had coloured when I was seven or eight and that I hadn’t seen since. There are rocks painted blue and trees painted green. At the sight of some of them (for instance a scene showing people stranded on ice floes) I re-experienced feelings of terror that I had as a child. I should like something that would put it out of my mind; I am almost afraid to go to bed. There is a story of Dutch sailors in ice-bound waters, with bears attacking them in their hut (this picture used to keep me awake), and one about Chinese pirates sacking a temple full of golden idols. My travels and my childhood memories, colour off from each other, fuse, whirl dazzlingly before my eyes and rise up in a spiral…

For two days now I have been trying to live the dreams of young girls, and for this purpose I have been navigating in milky oceans of books about castles and troubadours in white-plumed velvet caps. Remind me to speak to you about this. You can give me exact details that I need.

Croisset, March 20–21, 1852 · The entire value of my book, if it has any, will consist of my having known how to walk straight ahead on a hair, balanced above the two abysses of lyricism and vulgarity (which I seek to fuse in analytical narrative). When I think of what it can be I am dazzled. But then, when I reflect that so much beauty has been entrusted to me, I am so terrified that I am seized with cramps and long to rush off and hide – anywhere. I have been working like a mule for fifteen long years. All my life I have lived with maniacal stubbornness, keeping all my other passions locked up in cages and visiting them only now and then for diversion. Oh, if ever I produce a good book I’ll have worked for it! Would to God that Buffon’s blasphemous words were true. [Le genie est une longue patience.] I should certainly be among the foremost.

The Selected Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1954