Reply to Boulenger on Flaubert's Style1

Dear friend,

   You say some very nice things on my account, as regards Flaubert. I am infinitely touched by them, you know the value I place on you as a critic, and not only as a critic. Only I do not wholly share your opinion. Flaubert had a certain idea, perhaps a little clumsy, about beauty. For it he sacrificed accuracy, and plenty of other things. If we look at it from your point of view, the first fault in his French in Sentimental Education, is the title. It is also obscure, since you interpret it as: The Education of the Sentiment. For myself I understand it quite differently: a purely sentimental Education, in which the teachers have not made appeals to the young man they have to educate, but to sentiment. If I am right, of all Flaubert's novels the one that this title is most appropriate to is Madame Bovary. In the case of that heroine, I have no doubt, she is the victim of a sentimental education. You can see from this the convolutions that Faguet made here: "Sentimental Education, is to understand that Madame Bovary is Flaubert's first novel. It is also the French novel with the clearest title after The Red and the Black of course, which as you know is spring water, etc." Yet I am a bit less sure of Education as Madame Bovary. Only the authority of a great friend and rival of Flaubert's, like Henry Céard, could settle it for us. You find fault with a phrase that I don't have in front of me at the moment but is something like: "The long succession of men of genius made him want to get to know them." Them is a plural, and the succession, singular. But that is not an error of French. It is a classified grammatical anomaly. We praise Racine for having written likewise: "Between the Poor and You, you shall let God be the judge, Remembering, my son, that hidden beneath this linen, Like them you were once poor and like them, an orphan." Why forbid to Flaubert what we permit in Racine.
   You hold up errors of French committed by Homais. But must a character speak like the author? Must Molière's servants express themselves in the same way as Alceste? You will have me believe that "Tetrarch came to rest there and look" is a printing error. Flaubert would never have made such errors; all the more so as, when he makes errors in French, it is to create the effect of continuity (here on the contrary the error breaks the continuity). When we think of Flaubert we must always remember that the phrase he most admired in the French language was this phrase of Montesquiou's "Alexander's vices were extreme like his virtues; he was terrible when angry; it rendered him cruel." And I think he admired it more than anything because of the marvellous way in which its continuity is assured. Certainly that phrase is, for all that, more airy, more spontaneous than Flaubert's. Yet it is to achieve these kinds of successes that he took such pains, something that Jules Lemaître did not want to believe. "No he wrote (much better), he had to spend part of his time doing nothing, he was exaggerating. All the same, a page of that is not so long as it is to write, is it, all the same." Lemaître's article is charming, but the pages about Flaubert have too much ballast. It is a bit clumsy but for a hundred years all literary innovation has been in a sense a little vulgar, in the eyes of contemporaries. And we must be grateful to Flaubert, by establishing a Corbet-like type of prose, to have kept up, in spite of that, the tradition of Bossuet. The Goncourts reproached him for it, but I have just scarcely read your "cutting" and I am told that the Revue has already been set up in proof. I am too tired to continue this commencement of our letters, or to re-read it. I simply want to finish on your present indicative "look", in Herodias. There is no doubt about it, it is a misprint. Sometimes in the most marvellous articles by Léon Daudet (since he isn't always very legible) there are those sorts of errors; I pick them out on the ardent page of the great prose-writer, saying to myself: "it's a misprint". And so I never think he makes mistakes in his French! Alas for misprints, and less precious! how many of them would there be in a letter written in a quarter of an hour of rambling and flux and that illness prevents me from finishing. You may condemn me along with Flaubert. I know of no "nobler company". Dear friend I leave you after this simple token of friendship and stubbornness. Flaubert's great endurance must have been to keep from print anything that was not even worthy of being written on letter paper, anything that could at most be said while chatting or, "over the telephone".

Marcel Proust.

   And you seem to reproach me for having led Thibaudet to "come out with" not only his perfect judgements but that quotation from Lafontaine that nobody else had found.

1. This letter was originally attributed by Philip Kolb in Correspondance XIX as being addressed to Léon Daudet in March 1920. In her article La réponse de Proust à Boulenger sur le style de Flaubert (1921): le manuscrit retrouvée, Bulletin d'informations proustiennes No33, 2003, p 109 - 110, Caroline Szylowicz attributes it as an epistolary article in response to an article by Jacques Boulenger, Flaubert et le style, published in La Revue de la Semaine on 19th August 1921. She dates the letter to 24/25th August 1921. Proust submitted this article to Jacques Rivière for La Nouvelle Revue Française but retracted it before publication, possibly because by that time the second part of Boulenger's article had been published and in which he was much more critical of Proust. He may have retracted it because his article did not address the later criticisms. The article was thought to have been lost.


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