Gustave Flaubert. I read Madame Bovary a few years ago and never returned to him, not because I didn’t consider his novel masterful, but, hm, actually I don’t know why I didn’t return to him. Madame Bovary was funny, vicious, one of the best putdowns of romantic love I know of, and excellently written. Somewhere on my ambulatory book pile I have A Sentimental Education. It may take a while to reach it. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy with Flaubert.
As you should all know by now, back in the 1980s Osvaldo Ferrari and Jorge Luis Borges used to meet in weekly radio programs to have informal chats. One day Ferrari, who usually picked the theme, got the master to talk about Flaubert. As always, it derailed into lots of extraneous but amusing stuff, from literary magazines he tried to found in his youth, to anecdotes about George Moore, to philological reflections about the words moon and sun (in English), but I’ll try to stick to Flaubert here.
Borges, I was under the impression, no doubt I thought I’d read it somewhere, didn’t like Flaubert very much. But Borges himself corrects me towards the end of the chat. I wasn’t wrong, however, about his not considering himself “a reader of novels.” However he opened an exception for the Frenchman. “But not having read Flaubert would be a mistake, I’d have impoverished myself if I hadn’t read him,” he explains. I agree so much with him. One thing I remembered correctly, his favourite Flaubert was Bouvard and Pecuchet.
And, well, I like Flaubert very much, and especially his Bouvard and Pecuchet; and I have a first edition, which cost me three hundred pesos, of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, one of the most extraordinary and least read books by Flaubert. I think I also have a first edition of Salammbô – a less fortunate work. Anyway, I have Flaubert’s entire work, and I especially think on the first chapter of Bouvard and Pecuchet: I don’t know, gentle, ironic, and so moving; because the initial topic is friendship… and that’s not very common, is it? That’s the theme, of course there are friendships in all literatures: friendship is especially an essentially Argentine theme, I’d say, for I think we feel friendship more intensely than other passions.
And yet off the top of my head I can’t remember a single short-story about friendship by Borges.
But to return to Flaubert, the matter is literature as a vocation. “Why, in Flaubert’s case, well, he was a writer and exercised it like priesthood, didn’t he?” says Borges, and he continues: “There’s a very beautiful sentence by him: Je refuse d’hatêr ma sentence; that is: I refuse to rush my sentence. That is, he laboured on a sentence and didn’t move on until it was perfect.” Borges’ explanation for his devotion to the mot juste is excellent and turns it upside down. “Why, he didn’t do it with vanity; he wrote that a genius could make grave mistakes with impunity, and I think he quoted Shakespeare, Cervantes and Hugo; but since he didn’t consider himself a genius he couldn’t afford to make grave mistakes and he had to be very careful with what he wrote.”
Next he takes us to the mot juste. “Besides, when Flaubert said the mot juste (the exact word) he didn’t necessarily, inevitably mean the amazing word; no: the exact word, which could many times be trivial or a cliché, but is the exact word.” This prompts Borges to consider the word perfectionism. “Well, there’s a word that’s often used and was coined, I think, by Flemish painters; it’s the word perfectionism. Now, perfectionism doesn’t necessarily mean vanity; we search perfection, well, because we can’t search anything else. Especially Flaubert, who had that somewhat phonetic concept of style; he wanted every sentence by him to be easy and pleasant to read. He went so far as to say that the exact word is always the most euphonic one.”
And this opens up one of Borges’ usual labyrinths about words, meaning and variations. “But that sounds strange… well, perhaps what is the mot juste in French isn’t the mot juste in Spanish or German, maybe not. We’d then have to think that, according to the variations of the tongue, the exact words are others because the sounds are different, since the sound is so important for it.” This in turn leads him to talk about cacophony and repetition of similar words on the page, saying that repetition is a problem only visually but that “orally has no importance.”
This also takes us to some of Borges’ ideas on aesthetics and the craft of writing. He’s not a believer in drafts. “The idea that one writes well on the strength of drafts seems a mistake to me.” To him finding the right word, writing the right sentence, is more than just writing for hours, it’s something more metaphysical. “A person finds the word or doesn’t. There’s always, well, like I’ve said many times, something of chance, there’s a gift that either you received or didn’t.” Then there’s his approach to the Muse, for which he borrows from T.S. Eliot: “Well, Eliot said that he wrote many texts that weren’t in fact poetry, but that were in verse. And he spoke also of the occasional visit of the muse, that is, inspiration.” However, Borges, continues, “that person had to practice the habit of writing to be worthy of that occasional or possible visit from the muse because if a person never writes, and feels inspired, he may be unworthy of his inspiration or not know what to do with it.”
Osvaldo Ferrari temporarily changes the subject to his readership, or rather for who Borges thinks he writes. And his is a remarkably honest answer:
…This morning I was asked if I wrote for the majority or the minority. And I replied, like I’ve replied many times, that if I were Robinson Crusoe on my deserted island, I’d continue to write all the same. That is, I don’t write for anybody, I write because I feel an intimate need to write. That doesn’t mean I approve what I write; it may not please me, but I have to write that, in that moment. Otherwise I feel… unjustified and unhappy, yes, wretched. On the other hand, if I write what I write may not be worth anything, but while I write I feel myself justified; I think: “I’m fulfilling my destiny as a writer, regardless of what my writing may be worth.” And if I were told that everything I wrote will be forgotten, I don’t believe I’d receive that news with satisfaction, but I’d continue to write. For whom? For nobody, for myself; it doesn’t matter, I fulfil that task.
Ferrari returns to Flaubert, for the funniest part of the conversation. He mentions Flaubert’s famous insistence in research, his surrounding himself with books in order to be accurate and faithful. And Borges slyly catches a factual mistake by him. “For instance, before writing Salammbô – to write Salammbô he went to Carthage – he met Carthage and saw cacti there. That’s why there are cacti in Salambo, but he didn’t know those cacti had been imported from Mexico. So the observation was fair, but the cacti were, well, futuristic, let’s put it that way.”
Flaubert’s devotion to the craft eventually takes Ferrari to ask for Borges thoughts on the concept of art for art’s sake, with which Flaubert was associated. Borges is very predictable here. “Very good that thing about art for art’s sake, it makes sense, doesn’t it?” For him it’s necessary for “art to be its own end and not a simple instrument of, say, ethics or politics; or, nowadays, sociology.” One should expect this position from him, especially in light of what he once wrote about Franz Kafka, the praise he heaped upon his writing for not dating itself with the ideas and concerns of its time.
But Borges also recognizes the dangers of such position, since it can lead to a “precieuse art, like the French say, a vain art, a decorative art. But that’s not the idea, the idea is that a poem, for instance, is something no less real than any other fact in the universe. Then why not search that beauty in a poem, or in a short-story, or in a canvas, or in a musical partiture; it’s the same thing, isn’t it?”
I think so. And I hope everybody enjoyed Borges discussing Gustave Flaubert.