We are dancing not on a volcano, but on the rotten seat of a latrine

A Gustave Flaubert Megamix

The Selected Letters of Gustave Flaubert quite literally fell from a high shelf an hour ago and cracked me on the side of the head. It’s a heavy book. Rather than take it as a sign that I need to reassess my shelves, I’m choosing to see it as Flaubert’s ghost urging me to send you all a bunch of excerpts from his letters, of which he is exceedingly proud. Gustave Flaubert, for the uninitiated—and I say this as someone who hasn’t read Madame Bovary—is the man behind Madame Bovary, a novel often rated highly by people in the know, and while I’m yet to tackle his opus, I have read his correspondence, and I can confirm, with some confidence, that he knew how to write a letter. In fact, were I to assemble a fantasy football team consisting entirely of letter writers—and maybe I should?—Gustave Flaubert would definitely be in the team. He would be up front. A forward with skills and ego to spare. A showboat. A player so gifted and prolific that he can get away with rarely passing the ball and twirling his shirt above his head after scoring each goal. This, my friends, is how I picture Gustave Flaubert.1

My mind is dried up, exhausted. I’m disgusted to be back in this damned country [France] where you see the sun in the sky about as often as a diamond in a pig’s asshole.

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Ernest Chevalier, 14 Nov 1840

I want to gorge you with all the joys of the flesh, until you faint and die. I want you to be astonished by me, to confess to yourself that you had never even dreamed of such transports. I am the one who has been happy, now I want you to be the same. When you are old, I want you to recall those few hours. I want your dry bones to quiver with joy when you think of them.

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Louise Colet, 15 Aug 1846

To deny the existence of sad feelings because they are sad is to deny the sun until it is noon.

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Louise Colet, 11 Dec 1846

From time to time, in the towns, I open a newspaper. Things seem to be going at a dizzy rate. We are dancing not on a volcano, but on the rotten seat of a latrine.

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Louis Bouilhet, 14 Nov 1850

Immerse yourself in long study: only the habit of persistent work can make one continually content; it produces an opium that numbs the soul.

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Louise Colet, 26 Jul 1851

I am finding it hard to get my novel started. I suffer from stylistic abscesses; and sentences keep itching without coming to a head. I am fretting, scratching. What a heavy oar the pen is, and what a strong current ideas are to row in!

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Louise Colet, 23 Oct 1851

It is splendid to be a great writer, to put men into the frying pan of your words and make them pop like chestnuts.

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Louise Colet, 3 Nov, 1851

What a bitch of a thing prose is! It is never finished; there is always something to be done over. Yet I think one can give it the consistency of verse. A good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Louise Colet, 22 Jul 1852 (while writing Madame Bovary)

The author in his work should be like God in the universe: everywhere present and nowhere visible.

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Louise Colet, 9 Dec, 1852

You can calculate the worth of a man by the number of his enemies, and the importance of a work of art by the harm that is spoken of it.

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Louise Colet, 14 Jun 1853

Life! Life! To have erections! That is everything, the only thing that counts!

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Louise Colet, 15 Jul 1853

Let us always have a vast condom within us to protect the health of our soul amid the filth into which it is plunged.

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Louise Colet, 18 Jan 1854

All the little stars of my heart converge around your planet, oh my beautiful celestial body.

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Louise Colet, 17 Sep 1856

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

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Leroyer de Chantepie, 4 Sep 1858

Human life is a sad show, undoubtedly; ugly, heavy and complex. Art has no other end, for people of feeling than to conjure away the burden and bitterness.

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Amelie Bosquet, Jul 1864

Madame, I was told that you took the trouble to come here to see me three times last evening. I was not in. And, fearing lest persistence expose you to humiliation, I am bound by the rules of politeness to warn you that I shall never be in.

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Louise Colet, 6 Mar 1866

I am very tired of my own brain, or rather it’s at a decidedly low ebb for the moment. Everything annoys me and hurts me, and since I control myself in the presence of others I am occasionally seized by fits of weeping during which I feel that my end has come. It's the onset of age: something quite new for me.

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to George Sand, 15 Mar 1870

I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it . . . I can no longer talk with anyone at all without becoming furious.

Gustave Flaubert | Letter to Ivan Turgenev, 13 Nov 1872

As mentioned, most of these letters can be found in the book, The Selected Letters of Gustave Flaubert (translated and edited by Francis Steegmuller, 1954). A goldmine, but heavy on the head.


I had no idea where this intro was going and can only apologise for what may be a result of concussion.