Gustave Flaubert on writing

“The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy.”

Gustave Flaubert, born 12.12.1821, was the leading French exponent of literary realism. He started writing at an early age, as an eight-year-old. Young Flaubert won a prize for his essay about mushrooms when he was only fifteen. However, he made a professional writing debut with his novella November in 1842. One of my favorite quotes from November is, “Are the days of winter sunshine just as sad for you, too? When it is misty, in the evenings, and I am out walking by myself, it seems to me that the rain is falling through my heart and causing it to crumble into ruins.”

“There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it”

Flaubert finished the first draft of The Temptation of Saint Anthony seven years later. And then he read it aloud to his friends Louis Bouihetin and Maxime Du Camp. The reading lasted four days! Not only that, Gustave forbade them to interrupt his reading or make a suggestion before he finished. However, when they heard it, their verdict was to burn the manuscript, forget about fantastic topics, and concentrate on daily life instead.

“Do not read as children do to enjoy themselves, or, as the ambitious do to educate themselves. No, read to live.”

The next year, he started writing his most famous novel Madame Bovary and completed it in five years. This quote from Madame Bovary is perfect for book lovers, “What better occupation, really, than to spend the evening at the fireside with a book, with the wind beating on the windows and the lamp burning bright… Haven’t you ever happened to come across in a book some vague notion that you’ve had, some obscure idea that returns from afar and that seems to express completely your most subtle feelings?”

Mister Gustave was a perfectionist and could spend weeks on a single page. He pursued the principle of finding “le mot juste” ‒ the right word.

And here is what he said about writing:

“It is a delicious thing to write, whether well or badly – to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating.”

“I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.”

“The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”

“Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.”

“You must write for yourself, above all. That is your only hope of creating something beautiful.”

“Writing is a dog’s life, but the only one worth living.”

“An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”

“Talent is a long patience, and originality an effort of will and intense observation.”

“It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.”

“Sentences must stir in a book like leaves in a forest, each distinct from each despite their resemblance.”

“Better to work for yourself alone. You do as you like and follow your own ideas, you admire yourself and please yourself: isn’t that the main thing? And then the public is so stupid. Besides, who reads? And what do they read? And what do they admire?”

“The writer must wade into life as into the sea, but only up to the navel.”

“Do not imagine you can exorcise what oppresses you in life by giving vent to it in art ”

Priceless advice for new and established writers alike.

And for the end, here is an excerpt from Flaubert’s reply to his mother when she complained that he should get a real job:

Now I come to something that you seem to enjoy reverting to and that I utterly fail to understand. You are never at a loss of things to torment yourself about. What is the sense of this: that I must have a job — “a small job,” you say. First of all, what job? I defy you to find me one, to specify in what field, or what it would be like. Frankly, and without deluding yourself, is there a single one that I am capable of filling? You add: “One that wouldn’t take up much of your time and wouldn’t prevent you from doing other things.” There’s the delusion! That’s what Bouilhet told himself when he took up medicine, what I told myself when I began law, which nearly brought about my death from suppressed rage. When one does something, one must do it wholly and well. Those bastard existences where you sell suet all day and write poetry at night are made for mediocre minds — like those horses equally good for saddle and carriage — the worst kind, that can neither jump a ditch nor pull a plow.

In short, it seems to me that one takes a job for money, for honors, or as an escape from idleness. Now you’ll grant me, darling, (1) that I keep busy enough not to have to go out looking for something to do; and (2) if it’s a question of honors, my vanity is such that I’m incapable of feeling myself honored by anything: a position, however high it might be (and that isn’t the kind you speak of) will never give me the satisfaction that I derive from my self-respect when I have accomplished something well in my own way; and finally, if it’s for money, any jobs or job that I could have would bring in too little to make much difference to my income. Weigh all these considerations: don’t knock your head against a hollow idea. Is there any position in which I’d be closer to you, more yours? And isn’t not to be bored one of the principal goals of life?

Oh, yes, it sounds great, but it doesn’t put bread on the table. So, unfortunately, almost nobody can heed his advice. At least, not before becoming a bestseller author.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: