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“Too much exercise!” Read Flaubert’s (very harsh) writing advice for Guy de Maupassant.

Emily Temple

August 3, 2020, 12:57pm

On this day in 1878, Guy de Maupassant, not quite 28 years old, wrote to his mentor Gustave Flaubert with some complaints. Namely that “fucking women is as monotonous as listening to male wit. I find that the news in the papers is always the same, that the vices are trivial, and that there aren’t enough different ways to compose a sentence.” Ah yes, the quarter-life crisis.

Flaubert was not impressed, as Julian Barnes notes in the London Review of Books. He wrote back with some advice:

You complain about fucking being “monotonous.” There’s a simple remedy: cut it out for a bit. “The news in the papers is always the same”? That’s the complaint of a realist—and besides, what do you know about it? You should look at things more carefully … “The vices are trivial”?—but everything is trivial. “There aren’t enough different ways to compose a sentence”?—seek and ye shall find … You must—do you hear me, my young friend?—you must work harder than you do. I suspect you of being a bit of a loafer. Too many whores! Too much rowing! Too much exercise! A civilised person needs much less locomotion than the doctors claim. You were born to be a poet: be one. Everything else is pointless—starting with your pleasures and your health: get that much into your thick skull. Besides, your health will be all the better if you follow your calling … What you lack are “principles.” There’s no getting over it—that’s what you have to have; it’s just a matter of finding out which ones. For an artist there is only one: everything must be sacrificed to Art … To sum up, my dear Guy, you must beware of melancholy: it’s a vice.

Ouch. But you have to wonder: was Flaubert so harsh because Guy de Maupassant was secretly his son? There’s some 127-year-old literary gossip to mull over. I think I can see the resemblance—at least in the upper-lip area.

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