It is now almost a commonplace that the best biography of Flaubert consists of his Correspondence. Biographers tell the facts; the letters reveal the man. Gide wrote that "for more than five years the Correspondence took the place of the Bible at my bedside. It was my reservoir of energy." Sartre, who fought Flaubert all his life, considered the letters a perfect example of free-association from the pre-Freudian couch. Even those who find the novels too perfect, too worked, often succumb to the directness, exuberance, wit, argumentativeness and unfettered intelligence of the letters.
It is now 30 years since the first volume of the Pleiade edition of the Correspondence appeared. Three more followed at long and unpredictable intervals. By the time the fifth and final one appears, in a year or two's time, it will have taken a century-and-a-quarter from the writer's death in 1880 to establish as definitive a text of as many of the letters as has proved possible. In charge of this work from the beginning was Jean Bruneau, who died earlier this month with the end of his life's work nearly in sight.
Bruneau was born in Nancy in 1922, the son of the grammarian and lexicographer Charles Bruneau. At the age of 19 he joined the Resistance, was arrested in the Jura in 1944 and deported to Dachau. After the war he went to teach in America and began dividing his time between chairs at Lyon University and Harvard. In America he was on drinking terms with the pre-Lolita Nabokov, and used to be summoned by Marguerite Yourcenar whenever she felt the urge to have a conversation in Greek (Bruneau's wife Lavinia would slip off into the Yourcenar garden, which she grew to know well). In 1962 he published Les Débuts littéraires de Gustave Flaubert, which led to his being invited, in the mid-1960s, to edit the Pleiade Correspondence. The job was frugally rewarded, and his academic life continued as before; but from that point on the Bruneau dining table would have to be cleared of Flaubert letters before the family could eat.
Flaubert's letters had first been given to the world by his niece Caroline (who suppressed indecencies, corrected his punctuation and tidied up his phrasing). Fuller editions followed, but they were far from perfect; some had active misreadings (Flaubert's handwriting is often hard to decipher); none had adequate editorial backup. Bruneau established the text, tracked down new letters, and provided a formidably detailed critical apparatus: the appendices, notes and variants to Volume Three, for instance, take up more pages than the text itself; there are letters written in reply to Flaubert, excerpts from the Goncourt Journal, third-party documents, historical background, all of which bring amplification, corroboration, or, if necessary, contradiction to the master's utterances. Flaubert only has to mention in passing a book he might have dipped into for Bruneau to give a succinct and pertinent summary of it. You begin with words and you end up with a world. The editorial knowledge and scholarship were unmatchable; but Bruneau also had the perfect editorial temperament. He was modest yet deeply tenacious; self-effacing yet filled with a drive for perfection and completeness.
He had many successes - in 1974 he discovered Louise Colet's then unpublished Mements in Avignon - and some inevitable failures. Owners of letters could be reluctant to take the wider view, suspecting (often rightly) that publication would reduce the value of what they owned. Bruneau also came up against narrow-mindedness and pig-headedness. For instance, Flaubert wrote hundreds of letters to his publisher Michel Levy, many of which appeared in the Conard edition (1926-33). Later, a further 102 turned up, published in 1965 in a tiny edition by Levy's successor, Calmann-Levy. When Bruneau applied for permission to reprint them, in his second volume (1980), he was told he could cite the Conard letters in full, but use only the date and first line of the 102 published 15 years previously. Such situations require both tact and a holding of temper. Also a continual optimism: believing that letters will turn up is often necessary to making them turn up. To the end of his life, Bruneau was convinced Flaubert's letters to the English governess Juliet Herbert (and hers to him) would eventually resurface.
The curmudgeonliness of proprietors contrasted sharply with the generosity prevalent among Flaubert scholars. When Francis Steegmuller was preparing his two-volume English edition of the letters, Bruneau simply gave him free access to all that he knew and held (so that some late letters appeared in English translation before they did in French original). In 1981, Alphonse Jacobs established the definitive text of the magnificent exchange between Flaubert and George Sand; later, when Bruneau got to that point in the Correspondence, Jacobs simply allowed him to reproduce everything.
Much of this was down to Bruneau's personal as well as professional qualities. The Flaubert website (flaubert.univ-rouen.fr), announcing his death, described him as "unassuming, straightforward and scrupulous", one who never failed to acknowledge the tiniest article from the most junior Flaubertiste. The only time I met him, he was already aware that his mental powers were failing (a consequence, it is thought, of his wartime treatment); he handled the situation with exquisite courtesy and gentle regret. When it became clear that he would be unable to finish the final volume, he handed over to Yvan Leclerc, professor at Rouen University. By the time Leclerc completes the final volume, he will have been at work for seven or eight years; but in the true tradition of Flaubert editors, it is Bruneau's name that he will place on the title-page.
The Flaubert website ended its announcement of Bruneau's death with a quote from the first volume of the Correspondence. The novelist, writing from Constantinople in 1850, on hearing of the death of Balzac: "When a man we admire dies, we are always sad." Many who never met Bruneau, but who learned over decades to absorb his precise, humane and scholarly presence through a trail of prefaces and square brackets and notes and addenda and notes to addenda, will be saddened by his death. When Alphonse Jacobs was dying in 1986, he wrote to Bruneau: "Please do not pity me: I feel no pity for myself. I think that my life has had a certain usefulness. I have done one thing that I think will endure." Bruneau quoted these words when he wrote Jacobs's obituary in Le Monde. Those who admired Jean Bruneau will trust that he realised he had done one thing - one very large thing - which will truly endure.
© Julian Barnes
Gustave Flaubert: Selected Letters, translated by Geoffrey Wall, is published by Penguin, price £12.99.