THE UNIVERSE OF WORDS: Flaubert and le mot juste

Some time ago it was Easter. What touches me during this holiday is not the cosmic, abstract-theological drama, but the personal tragedy. An attempt to come to terms with life, to accept my fate.


As far back as I can remember I have been fascinated by religion and have of course been asked: “Are you a believer?” I owe the questioners an answer though I am utterly unable to follow Jesus’ command in the Gospel of Matthew (5:37): Let your message be ‘Yes’ for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ for ‘No.’ Anything more than that comes from the Evil One.” Being a doubtful and hesitant person, I am not at all attracted to dogmas. As a child, I found church visits infinitely long, even downright painful. Worst were the largely incomprehensible sermons; winding, tedious and incoherent. Speech for the sake of speech, “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal,” devoid of meaning and context. The substance was missing, the reality; anything that could have reached my innermost me, but the rambling only made me aware of the hard wood of the pew.



I also remember school and university, with all those teachers whose lectures did nothing more than making sound waves vibrate. Few teachers and professors have actually shaken me up, opened new worlds, provided with important insights. Possibly I can count friends and teachers that impressed me on the fingers of both my hands. However, I remain eternally grateful to them.


Among friends and teachers, I should include the books I liked. While thinking of the incoherent pastor who high up in his pulpit, above the heads of his inattentive congregation, interpreted and muddled what he had read and heard, without ever reaching the hearts of his audience, a constant companion appears – William Shakespeare. For example in the shape of his Hamlet; the drama about a young man torn between thought and action, doubt and certainty, feeling and duty. Among so many other thought-provoking reflections that Shakespeare inserted in this tragedy he highlighted the relation between words and deeds. The value of words, whether they reflect and govern our lives.



In Hamlet, deliberations about words are common, both up-front and in an allusive manner. What is their actual value? Do thoughts and words lead to action? Do they help us to discern our inner being? Do they transform us? Of course they do. Shakespeare’s words are one of several proofs that that words actually matter. However, the peerless bard also emphasized their crippling effect. Not unlike Buddha’s teachings, Shakespeare does in Hamlet seem to want to imply that actions should be well thought through – chosen with care:


Correct speech: Refrain from lying. Do not engage in gossip, misleading, hurtful, or loose speech.

Right intention: Your intentions should be based on kindness and compassion.

Proper action: Refrain from harming living things. Do not take any statement for granted.

Proper effort: Prevent the appearance of unfavourable thoughts, if they would arise – avoid them and make an effort to develop a mindset that benefits you and others.


Hidden from sight, Hamlet observes the murderer of his beloved father, his uncle – lover and accomplice in crime of Hamlet’s mother. Intending to kill the bastard, the prince grabs the handle of his knife, though once again ... he hesitates. Could it be right to kill the wretched usurper, especially if the villain is engaged in a heartfelt prayer to God? Hamlet refrains from killing the foul murderer, assuming it cannot be right to kill a praying man, though he suspects that his evil uncle’s prayers for mercy, relief and forgiveness might not be so particularly sincere after all. Why would God listen to such a despicable being? Hamlet’s suspicions seems to be confirmed when he hears his uncle say:


– My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

The powerlessness of words. The emptiness of babble is also revealed when the moderately intelligent and extremely servile courtier, Polonius, on behalf of Hamlet’s manipulative uncle, tries to find out if Hamlet is actually as crazy as he wants people to believe. The confusing conversation ends with Polonius politely asking Hamlet:


- What do you read, my lord?

- Words, words, words.

- What is the matter, my lord?

- Between who?

- I mean, the matter that you read, my lord?

- Slanders, sir. For the satirical rouge says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together, with most weak hams – all which, sir, though I must powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down; for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.

Polonius mumbles aside:

- Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.



Doubts about intentions, words and deed mix within Hamlet with self-contempt and scepticism about the meaning of life, as in his constantly repeated monologue, which nevertheless has not lost an ounce of its eloquent strength:

To be or not to be, that is the question: Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. To die – to sleep, no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to: it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Reading this I assume that the indecisive, doubtful Hamlet, like me from time to time, has lost himself in in Borges’ Library of Babel.


The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.



Borges explains that the order and content of the books in this library apparently are random. The inhabitants of this literal universe state that the books contain every possible ordering of 25 basic characters (letters, plus period, comma and space). The vast majority of them might be pure gibberish, but the library nevertheless contains every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written.


As a preparation for their web placement of books available around the world Google did once from renowned expertise commission an “estimate” of the assumed, current global stock of accessible books, calculated on basis of individual copies/titles and translations. Through complicated algorithms the experts presented Google with an estimate of 130 million books. An assumption I assume must be on the low side. However, in comparison with the immensity of the Universe – infinitesimal. In this limitless expanse, humans and their limited knowledge is insignificant, to say the least. Nevertheless, every human is part of this infinity and with the help of our confined awareness, combined with those tiny fractions we have found in the library dreamt up by Borges, we grope for words and insights that might help us on our cumbersome journey through our finite existence. Nevertheless, it is words that unite us with the Universe.


Here I find Jesus’ anguish in the nightly olive grove of Gethsemane:


He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done. […] And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22: 41-44).



The Easter passion tells us about a lonely person’s anxiety and suffering, describing how someone with good intentions, who thousands had turned to, admired and put their trust in, suddenly becomes lonely. Both friends and enemies turn their backs on him, maybe due to disillusion after finding that their Master and Idol after all was just an “ordinary person”. Like them endowed with shortcomings and doubts, suffering from pain and loneliness. Jesus had not met their lofty expectations, cynically expressed in comments from spectators to his agonizing execution:


He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”


Had Yeshua failed by denying that he was the same inadequate person as everyone else? By showing anger and despair? In his solitude, Yeshua ha Notzri clings to his faith. A force that for the past three years had guided him in his effort to make people change for the better by affirming and showing their love of their neighbour, following a gospel of compassion and commitment. A faith that made Yeshua trust in his own abilities, his gift for convincing others, an ability to provide them with hope and strength. A belief in himself and the saving love he spread and preached. A love he was now denied, which had resulted in solitary despair, nailed to the cross. He shouted: Elahi, Elahi, lama šƏbaqtanī? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?



The fascination with Jesus’ fate moved me early on, perhaps even shortly after I had learned how to read and after receiving my first Bible from my grandfather. Maybe there is one of the sources of my great interest in religions, which has followed me throughout life. A personal address, mixed with exoticism, an attraction of the unknown, a sense of mystery that has made me more receptive to the Catholic mass, than the preaching of Protestants.


To me, religion and logic are incompatible. Religion is inexplicable, as is music, art, flowers and birds. For my part, such things might just as well remain unknown. I am more attracted to the emotions they evoke, than the mechanics behind it all, though – after all – those can also be fascinating. I do not believe in virgin birth, heaven or hell, I believe in the great unknown. I can easily agree with Gustave Flaubert when he in 1857 wrote in a letter:


What attracts me most of all else is religion. I mean all religions, no one more than any other. Every dogma in particular is repulsive to me, but I consider the feeling that invented them as the most natural and poetic of humanity. I have small liking for philosophers who have seen nothing but trickery and nonsense in it


Flaubert knew and respected the value of words. It is probably here we find his interest in religion and mysticism. Literature and art open a door to the essentials of life; the hidden meaning of existence. The incomprehensible core of “being here”, the brilliance of existence that we sometimes might sense, be intoxicated by and perhaps even convey to others. Like art and music, true religion is a reflection of the greatness of the universe and thus perhaps also its inner meaning. In the Bible, God creates with his words:


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

Dogmatists despised Flaubert, authoritarian oppressors who want to make us believe that faith equals truth and “realism”. That everything necessary is written down in their holy scriptures. That all scribbled on their pages has actually happened, is happening and will happen. Thus, they degrade the universe. With their contempt and spider-grey disciplining they defile art, imagination and human ingenuity. They destroy joy and the inner mystery of true religion – the glory of creation. Through their gloomy dogmas they deny faith and piety. Through dictates, orders and lies they have darkened the lives of others. Have those who censor words and thoughts actually read the introductory words of the Gospel of John?


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.


I assume that the evangelist writes about the precondition of humanity – our use of a multifaceted language as a means of stimulating imagination, expanding our consciousness, enabling our coexistence with other living creatures in such a way that we may find fellowship and joy among each other. Religion as something deeply human and ever-present, completely different from the fundamentalists’ oppression of joy, openness and inventiveness. Their idiotic attempts to degrade religion into a straitjacket, a tool of torture, in twisted attempts to reshape humanity in accordance with their own lonely, troubled and distorted personalities – a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao. Their utopian dream worlds became living Hell, entirely distant from a realm of harmony, compassion and happiness. In those totalitarian infernos you did not at love your neighbours as yourself, you feared them, just as you distrusted everyone around you, even your most intimate friends, your own family. There, people were tortured and killed in accordance with a dictator’s personal whims and fears, his intention to turn everything and everyone into tools for the creation of his own, as well as his adoring and fearful minions’ unattainable utopia. Now Islamist terrorists and ISIS supporters are behaving in a similar manner manner, urged on ny an egocentric desire to reach the Kingdom of Heaven, Jannah, by torturing and executing those who are unable to believe like them.



Like other paradises, Jannah is a realm created by dreams and imagination. A glorious kingdom established for desert wanderers and reflected in the wondrous fairy tale collection Arabian Nights, which was certainly inspired by the Quran’s vision of Jannah as a heavenly realm to which the newcomer at each gate is welcomed by angels with words like “Peace be with you, because you have now endured the trials of life with patience. Your reward will be the pleasure of Jannah where every human being lives in the presence of God, within a lush garden where eternal happiness reigns.”


A paradise with rippling brooks, clear springs and cooling rivers with constantly fresh water, or eternally tasty milk. Each garden is more vast than heaven and earth combined. In the middle of each restful haven there is a huge palace with a high throne of dignity within a shaded grove with exquisitely cushy sofas, among soft, magnificent carpets, wine-filled goblets and the best meat and most delicious fruits that earth can provide. Jannah’s residents are dressed in golden robes, pearl bracelets and green garments of silk and brocade. Both men and women are endowed with beautiful and spotless spouses, accompanied by happy children and are by perfect youngsters with a captivating appearance, like well-hidden gems. An eternal refuge, characterized by indescribable happiness and great pleasure, all that is God’s desire.



An ideal far from reality and earthly toil. A longing for the unoccupied, the oppressed, the discriminated, the sick and the weak. But why crave bliss after death? “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.” It is actually here and now that Hell exists, here on Earth within us, around us. Just as Hell exists on earth, cannot the Kingdom of Heaven be created here as well? Would it not be a better pursuit than obtaining personal bliss after death?


Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the Kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the Kingdom of God is in your midst.”


Jesus appear to have been assuming that a child’s open joy and wonder, its imagination and curiosity, were the way that leads to what he called the Kingdom of God:


One day some parents brought their little children to Jesus so he could touch and bless them. But when the disciples saw this, they scolded the parents for bothering him. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”



It is words that for a child open the gates to its entry into the world. When a child discovers the enchantment of words, its existence begins as a human, as a social being. Through our own and others’ words, we partake in the world. It is believed that thoughts and words precede action. They have an immense significance and it is not without reason that in the Catholic sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation action is preceded by thoughts and words:


I confess to God Almighty, 

and to you, my brothers and sisters,

that I have sinned

in thoughts, words, deeds and omissions;

in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,

by my fault, by my fault, by my most grievous fault;

mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.



Gustave Flaubert was obsessed with words, constantly in pursuit of the right words, those that would enable him to describe an incredibly diversified reality. Immersed in this search he could for days be sitting in front of a sheet of blank paper, unable to find what he called Le mot juste, the right word. In the preface to his novel Pierre and Jean, Flaubert’s “student” Guy de Maupassant described in detail his master’s teachings. How everything in the world is different. There are not two grains of sand, two flies, two hands or two noses, which are exactly the same:


In everything there is an unexplored element because we are prone by habit to use our eyes only in combination with the memory of what others before us have thought about the thing we are looking at. The most insignificant thing contains some little unknown element. We must find it. To describe a fire burning or a tree on a plain let us stand in front of that fire and that tree until for us they no longer look like any other tree or any other fire.



Flaubert's counsel reminds me of Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of God as belonging to children. Perhaps he meant that if you contemplate the world with the same astonished curiosity as a child, it might be possible to divine its inner meaning, i.e. the Kingdom of God, and maybe even find Flaubert’s mot juste. In an infant’s life this is an everyday miracle described by the Finnish poet Elmer Diktonius:


The child in the garden

is a strange thing:

a small animal,

a little flower.

Like a cat it snuggles by carnations,

strokes its head

against the sunflower’s giant stalk.

Maybe thinking: Sun is good –

green is grass colour.

Maybe it knows: I'm growing.



Maupassant sums up Flaubert's observations by stating that an author, just like an artist, should ardeously observe something before reproducing it. A writer should make an even greater effort than an artist, who tries to decide upon the right colour. Unlike the artist who has the colours right in front of her/him, the author has to find the words that are hidden inside her/himself. Admittedly, according to Flaubert, Maupassant was a talented young man. However, to become a full-fledged artist, he had to combine his talent with great patience – and not the least, hard work.


Whatever we want to convey, there is only one word to express it, one verb to animate it, one adjective to qualify it. We must therefore go on seeking that word, verb or adjective until we have discovered it, and never be satisfied with approximations, never fall back on tricks, even inspired ones. Or tomfoolery of language to dodge the difficulty.


Flaubert made a great effort to find le mot juste, the right wordIn his extensive correspondence, which is as fascinating as his novels, Flaubert often describes his writing method. For example, he generally first wrote one or two pages, read them carefully, rewrote them, corrected details, pondered, and then wrote them all again. An endevour that could take days and yet – the end result was filled with corrections and deletions.



According to Flaubert, a writer was a craftsman whose tools consisted of words. He considered himself to be a kind of scientist who, with the help of the language, would be able to reproduce what he had found out through careful studies of nature and people. According to him, literature should be a scientific, artistic and theoretical endeavour, as well it had to be as concrete and true to life as possible. Above all, an authorship worthy of the name would be apt to apply all the means at its disposal and in particular language, which had to be cultivated and chastised to enable a use of its representative capacities to the highest possible degree. Flaubert was so engrossed in his writing that he told Louise Coles, perhaps the only woman he had truly loved, apart from his sister and her daughter, that:

It has turned out that my character is a system, an organism where the whole has devoured the individual, in a way that makes the polar bear live on the ice and the camel walk on the sand. I'm a man of the pen. I feel through it, live because of it, in relation to it and much more within its company.


Identifying so completely with his role as a writer was perhaps the reason to why Flaubert considered himself to be a “pantheist”. Someone who, like his admired philosopher Spinoza, came to regard the universe as an all-encompassing, almost mechanically functioning system in which concepts of evil and good constituted limitations created by a human instinct that prevented us from considering our existence as part of a whole, where everything, every single being, must fulfill the potential hidden in its nature. Flaubert declared that


I do not know (nor does anyone know) what is meant by these two words: soul and body, where the one ends, where the other begins.


He was fascinated by the human, as well as animal, nature’s, violent oscillations between passion, unbridled desire and rigid control. Probably the reason for his “cannibalistic interest” that allowed him to study and describe everything that surrounded him with the cool attention of a scientist. Perhaps this inclination also also constituted a part of his ruthless promiscuity that made him remorselessly exploit both female and male prostitutes, at the same time as he could show great compassion and be a faithful friend and companion.

For long periods, Flaubert isolated himself in research and writing. He hated the bourgeoisie, but enjoyed all its privileges. He considered himself an anti-clerical atheist, but was at the same time a pantheistic mystic in the same spirit as the German philologist, archaeologist and historian of religions Georg Friedrich Creuzer (1771-1858), whose books Flaubert constantly returned to. Their illustrations became a source for the visions he excelled in while writing The Temptations of St. Anthony, a book he considered to be his life's crowning achievement.


Creuzer eloquently a described a multifaceted, all-encompassing religious sphere in which every animal, every human being, every natural object, and phenomenon, played it’s part in all the world's religious beliefs and cultures and was thus became a minuscule screw or bolt in the universe’s all-encompassing, sacred machinery.



Flaubert assumed a similar intimate relation between people and things. His writing was guided by a drive to try to grasp, to understand, what role each individual object, each impression and thought play in an individual's everyday life. Something he tried to portray in his magnificent novel, Madame Bovary. By describing the novel’s actors as being either tragic or instinctively cynical Flaubert clearly wanted to make it evident that life is deterministically predisposed, but that this obvious “order” nevertheless is meaningless. When he began conceiving Madame Bovary, Flaubert wrote to his mistress and conversant, Louise Coles


What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support; a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible. 



In his more than two thousand pages long and unfinished “biography” of Flaubert, L'Idiot de la famille, The Family Idiot, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about his author colleague's feeling of “the silent, icy laughter of nothingness”. Madame Bovary is a novel of solitude and desire, as well as a detailed depiction of a rural backwater; the lives and characters of its inhabitants. The power of the novel is carried forward by a language perfectly adapted to what it describes and in spite of its descriptions of a limited environment it is entering the place and its inhabitants in-depth and in a multifaceted manner and thus becomes valid everywhere, everywhen and for everyone. Not the least, Madame Bovary seems to reflect Flaubert himself, his voyeurism paired with a contemplative exclusion.


Madame Bovary is in pursuit of something far beyond her everyday boredom. She enters a fantasy world which does not allow her to perceive her surroundings as they are, being prevented from indulging herself in heart-warming motherly feelings and/or enjoy a lasting love. A crippling impotence to live in the present, an inability to feel gratitude, to realize that our joy is to be found in other people’s happiness and share it with them. Madame Bovary is thus reminiscent of the Christmas tree in H. C. Andersen’s fairy tale. The tragically lonely spruce which allows joy and moments of satisfaction to be constantly overshadowed by thoughts of what will happen next. An unquenchable desire whipping its victim towards an uncertain future, only to constantly find that everything was so much better before.



Flaubert also dreamt about bygone times. Preferably very far back. To Antiquity and further back than that:


… an immeasurable sadness overwhelms me as I think of that age of magnificent and charming beauty passed beyond recall, of that world quite vibrant, quite radiant, so coloured and so pure, so simple and so varied.


Even during his visits to that world, Flaubert did not make it easy for himself. To write his exotically abundant novel about ancient Carthage, Salammbô, he not only buried himself in all the scientific literature he could find about this largely unknown culture. He also visited places in Tunisia and Libya where his novel would take place and made careful notes about what he saw and heard, supplemented by detailed sketches in which he marked the distinctive features of the landscape.



Flaubert’s comprehensive literary landscape is at the heart of Jean-Pierre Richard’s comments about his work. Richard (1922-2019) quite correctly claimed that criticism and literary analyses break down and fragment the texts that are clinically examined by meticulous scholars. A dissection that transform novels and poems by tearing them apart, cutting them to pieces and thus creating something entirely different from what actually has to be considered as a unity. Accordingly, a captivating literary work becomes transformed into a fragmented body, which can only be restored through of an engaged reader’s empathy and unconditioned attitude


Richard makes an effort to in great detail study an author’s complete work in order to find a pattern within a unity that has been accomplished by the harmonization of different themes and motifs. Richard’s intention was to create an idea about ​​a novel's “imaginary landscape” and to that end he carefully studied both the text and its author, as well as the time and world in which s/he lived.



A novel is made up of visual and spatial concepts, but also of tactile and sensory aspects. An imaginary landscape is an expression of choices, desires and obsessions based on personal characteristics and experiences. Even if Richard emphasizes that literature is a form of experience, for readers as well as writers, he does not succumb to any gross psychologization. His studies are above all a search for the moment when a literary work is conceived. The silence and thoughts that precede a transformation into the “speech” an author uses to convey. In that sense, both the author and the text becomes reflections of something elusive – what we tend to label as “imaginary”.


As I now with my wretched French struggle with Richard’s book about Flaubert, I find that several of his ideas seem to have been inspired by the remarkable Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), a professor at the Sorbonne University, where he taught history and philosophy. Bachelard devoted himself to epistemology. A concept that got on my nerves during the eighties, especially as "Marxist" friends and acquaintances used it as an insult, often directed at me. I really never understood what it meant. Maybe something like “theory of knowledge”, i.e. something that has to do with a questioning the methods, theories, thinking and generally accepted opinions which form the basis of beliefs and actions.



Thankfully, I had other friends as well, whose views were far more stimulating than the ones exposed by rabid salon revolutionaries. For example, my good friend Örjan who a few years later gave me several books by Bachelard, which I read with great interest. In them the rigorous professor exposed a different angle of his personality than the epistemology that I had found to be so intricate. He wrote about daydreaming, fantasy and poetry. About the duality of human thinking. Like Richard, Bachelard wrote about the imaginary, about the opposite poles that consist of “concepts” and images/performances. Bachelard appeared to reckon that “pure, modern science” has obtained an uncompromising “intellectual” foundation and is thus in many ways lacking le imaginaire that previously characterized science. I do not know whether I have perceived the French philosopher quite correctly, but on the other hand I am convinced that he considered that “poetic thinking” does for both readers and writers open up the gates to a boundless future.


I got this impression after reading Bachelard’s stimulating books on various themes; “water” (rest), “air” (movement) and “earth” (willpower and work, but also rest). He could write about how memories are brought to life by watching a blazing fire, or the fluttering flame of a candle. About how we, immersed in our daydreams, can find the still waters hidden within us.



In The Poetics of Space Bachelard describes how we in the silence that prevails within the “corners of existence” may evoke images that provide us with peace, confidence and strength. There we can encounter ourselves as we once were in our childhood. When we with a child’s open gaze could look into other “rooms”, where other beings spend their lives – bees, moles and humans. If we look at a bird’s nest, thoughts are born about the bird’s existence: “Would the bird build its nest if it did not have its instinctive confidence in the world.” Such thoughts may lead us to an empathy that makes us feel a closeness with the bird, imagining how its “bird life” would be. In similar manner our compassion can be brought to life by contemplating the environment created around our fellow human beings. As Flaubert wrote in Madame Bovary: “The most mediocre libertine has dreamed of sultanas; every notary bears within him the debris of a poet.”


Bachelard’s writings about space and the intimate and quiet corners of existence make me remember that several authors have written about Flaubert's “inner space”. The worlds of text and imagination he created and entered into. If you can enter such worlds the experience could be overwhelming. The poet and essayist Paul Valéry felt completely exhausted after reading Flaubert's The Temptations of Saint Anthony. Pictures and associations become too much for him, too compact: “He´s read too much … as we say of the tipsy man that he’s drunk too much.”



Like Madame Bovary, Flaubert had his secret chamber, which characterized much of his life and writing. Madame Bovary’s inner room had to do with love, or rather passion. She wanted, as in the romantic novels she revelled in, to be engrossed in an all-encompassing love passion. Her heart had been replaced by a romantic novel and the blood it pumped through her body poisoned her perception of reality and brought her to self-destruction.


Flaubert tried get out of both his outer and inner rooms. He wanted to escape from France, from his despised bourgeoisie. Away from his dominant mother, his tiresome obligations, his caged self and get lost in exoticism and passion. Instead, he ended up in sultry brothels and fell ill with venereal diseases, not the least syphilis, which poisoned his life and also the lives of those he thoughtlessly exploited through his promiscuity. What he hoped would be an outlet for his desire became depressing lewdness. On the other hand, his writing, even if it occured in solitude and confinement, remained a pleasurable, albeit a cumbersome entry into inner, more open territories. In there Flaubert got drunk, not like Valéry’s tipsy man through alcoholic beverages, but with words. And as the true French gourmet that Flaubert was, he savoured his words and his authorship became the equivalent of exquisite French wines cultivatecd with care and love.


In November 2011, I went with my friends Mats and Didrik on a road trip through Normandy and among other places we visited Flaubert's home town Rouen and its Museum. In one room, some furniture from Flaubert's home in Croisset had been placed. To me, this bare room made an almost shocking impression, especially considering Flaubert's book-laden writing den in Croisset, just outside of Rouen, where he spent days and nights writing by a large round table, surrounded by manuscripts and opened up books.


That room is still there, but I have not seen it, apart from a sketch by Rochegrosse, one of Flaubert's artist friends – prominent representative of the overloaded genre so much appreciated during the Second Empire and usually labelled as L'Art Pompier. Rochegrosse was for certain inspired by the exoticism of Flaubert’s stories Salammbô, Hérodias and La Tentation de Saint Antoine.



A somewhat more detailed drawing of Flaubert's study was made by his niece, Caroline:



The museum in Rouen also housed Flaubert's famous, stuffed, green parrot. However, not the one that seems to be the original, which can be encountered in his house in Croisset. There is also the author's round desk, as well as the stuffed Loulou, provided with a note affixed to her bird stick: Juillet 15, 1876. Prèté à M. G. Flaubert: 1 perroquet amazone monté, July 15, 1876. Finished for Mr. G. Flaubert: A mounted Amazon parrot. This piece of information might be of some interest since Julian Barnes in his 1984 novel Flaubert’s Parrot lets a retired doctor named Geoffrey Braitwaite find that there are no less than two museums claiming to own the stuffed parrot that had been placed on Flaubert's desk when he wrote his famous story A simple heart.



Barnes’ tale about Braitwaite’s hunt for the authentic parrot provides him with an opportunity to identify three “levels” of Flaubert's life: An optimistic one, characterized by travel, success and erotic conquests; one negative – the death of friends and mistresses, harsh criticism, illness and other shortcomings, and finally a third level that could possibly be reconstructed through quotes from Flaubert's letters and “work books”. The result is a multifaceted picture that is difficult to grasp, just as Braitwaite was unable to clarify which of the fifty stuffed parrots he hears about could be the one that originally stood on Flaubert's round desk.



A Simple Heart is a touching portrait of the old, inconspicuous and faithful servant Félicité. From poor rural conditions and after an unfortunate love story, she comes to Rouen as a maid. Shy and profoundly religious, Félicité carries out her duties without complaint and falls in love with a man who does not care for her, with her employer’s children who forget her when they grow old and an ungrateful nephew. After leaving her employment Félicité devotes herself to the care of the homeless, the cholera-sick, and wounded soldiers. She is getting lonely. An old woman makes sure that Félicité gets some food and calls for a doctor when she finally falls ill with fatal pneumonia. Félicité’s last love is her green parrot, Loulou, whom she has stuffed after it died. During her final years, the dead parrot becomes Félicité’s only companion. She speaks to it and comes to believe that she in the parrot’s jet black glass eyes can discern a reflection of God’s Holy Spirit.



Félicité is based on the worn, faithful and “simple” maids Flaubert remembered from his childhood and who first appeared in his Madame Bovary as the pain broken, almost unnoticed, old Catherine Leroux, who in an unforgettable scene during a cattle market by the self-righteous representatives of the small town bourgeoisie is awarded a silver medal for fifty-four years of faithful service as a farmhand. When she, after hesitation and with great anguish is cheered on by the amused audience enters the stage and speechless stand in front of the pompous mayor, he exclaims with a beaming voice: “Fifty-four years of faithful service! A silver medal! Twenty-two francs! To you!”


While looking at it after receiving her medal, a grateful smile spreads across Catherine Leroux’s life worn features. When she leaves the stage people around her could hear her mumbling: "When I come home, I’ll give it to our priest, so he can say some masses for me.” The burghers laugh heartily at her words.



Somewhere Gaston Bachelard wrote:


What benefits new books bring us! I would like a basket full of books telling the youth of images which fall from heaven for me every day. This desire is natural. This prodigy is easy. For, up there, in heaven, isn't paradise an immense library? […] Thus, in the morning, before the books piled high on my table, to the god of reading, I say my prayer of the devouring reader: ‘Give us this day our daily hunger.



This is how I often felt when in my early youth botanized among my father’s and grandfather's book collections and there found one book gem after another. Today I do not understand how I at such a tender age could read books that today would would cause me quite a lot of difficulties. I read The Odyssey and Divina Commedia with the same joy and sense of benefit as Donald Duck and The Phantom. I do not know when I found Hjärtats Begärelse, Desire of the Heart, the Swedish title of Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antione, in my father's bookshelf, but for several reasons I became fascinated and it became a reading experiences I have not forgotten.



I had previously devoured the historical adventure novels by the Finnish author Mika Waltari, which I had found in Grandpa’s bookshelves, becoming particularly taken in by Sinuhe the Egyptian. In Granpa’s hous I had also devoured a Swedish translation of H. Rider Haggard’s thrilling Morning Star.



While searching through my father’s books I had got stuck with a coffee table book called Treasures of Egypt. Time and time again I admired its pictures, amazed by being confronted with such an exotic and utterly strange place. It was probably this Egyptian interest that made me interested in The Tempation of St. Anthony, since the cover of its Swedish translation depicted the daughters of Pharaoh Echnaton.



Flaubert's “novel” takes place during a night in Egypt around 300 CE. Saint Anthony has retired from the world to live as a hermit in a rock tomb. During a painful, moonlit night, he suffers violent and almost tangible hallucinations, which takes the shape as visits from a number of legendary and historical figures who evoke huge historical panoramas and summon grotesque demons. These visions, hauntings and temptations force Saint Anthony to confront himself with his inner fiends and concealed desires – sexual urges, carving for greatness, his betrayals and shortcomings.


The whole thing is obviously a reflection of Flaubert's “inner space”. His promiscuity, loneliness, external and internal travels, vast readings, historical-religious interests, pantheism, syphilis, presumed epileptic seizures, escapism, orientalism and above all – his writing; its meaning and purpose.



The text takes the form of a reading drama, a pictorially overloaded prose poem which in many ways resembles Goethe’s tangled second part of his Faust, which I much later immersed myself in and remain puzzled by. However, as a kid I was not at all puzzled by the sometimes kitschy intricacies of The Temptation of St Anthony. When I now as an ageing man reread the novel I found that it contains, among other things, Flaubert’s rapture while confronting the immense mysteries of the universe. A feeling he expressed in several of his letters, for example in one where he describes his experience while he together with a friend is standing on a beach, looking out across the ocean:


We regretted that our eyes might not reach to the heart of the rocks, to the bottom of the seas, to the ends of the sky, so as to see how the stones grow, how the waters are made, how the stars light up, that our ears might not hear the gravitation in the earth of granites forming, the push of sap through plants, the rolling of corals in the solitude of the ocean.


Within the framework of The Temptation of St. Anthony Flaubert lets a slightly mad hermit during a painful nigh be exposed to harrowing hallucinations. Supported by “the right words”, extensive reading and unbridled imagination he creates a pantheistic cosmos. Through myths and legends, past and present, Flaubert invokes a library of Babel. A panopticon of different voices, baroque, overloaded images and deep-seated moods.


Like Anthony, who in an abandoned tomb is confronted with himself, his diverse experiences and intricate nature, suffers from the attacks of monsters created by his mind. Incarnations of memories of sins and shortcomings take the form of magnificent, image-laden hallucinations and this is not only taking place in a rock-cut tomb in ancient Egypt, but also in a book cave in Croissant, where the isolated, epileptic, and syphilis-infected Flaubert conjures up images from his own infested sub-conscious. No wonder that Sigmund Freud was fascinated by The Temptation of St. Anthony.


In Croisset, Flaubert, like St Anthony, suffered (and enjoyed) a self-imposed martyrdom, seeking relief through a constant struggle to find the right words. For Flaubert, Croisset became the quiet corner of existence that Bachelard wrote about and from which he could step into what Richard described as his “imaginary landscape”.


Writing is a solitary occupation. Something that we engage in in our loneliness and like Flaubert, an author search her/his innermost to find useful material. S/he uses experiences, living conditions and her/his character. At the same time, it is common for a writer to study the writings of others; their experiences and manner of formulating thoughts and imagination.


Several translators proceed in a similar manner. Like Flaubert, they must also be word smiths, who in solitude search for the right expressions – within themselves and with the help of the works of others – the author they are translating, poems and novels and a wealth of non-fiction; biographies, dictionaries and descriptions of the author’s other production, her/his time and environment. I read Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine in English translation and then found that his interpreters into both English and Swedish were rather odd people. Writers in search of the right words and their own place in Universe.



The English translation I read was made in 1980 by a certain Kitty Mrosovsky. Her introduction to the novel was impressive, in fact one of the best I have read within that particular genre. I searched for her online, though there I could not find much about Ms. Mrosovsky; no images, no Wikipedia article. She was born in Oxford in 1946 as the daughter of Russian immigrants, grew up in Southern France and in her late teens she returned to Oxford. After a Masters in History of Literature, Mrosovsky got a job as lecturer at the University of York, but after a year she left her position to become a full-time writer. She found odd jobs, while writing poetry, theatre criticism and novels. When she died in 1995, Kitty Mrosovsky had only managed to publish her Flaubert translation and one novel. Something I find strange considering her skilful, well-written and elaborate preface to The Temptation of Saint Anthony, with its fluent language and multi-faceted information.


Like Flaubert and his Saint Antoine, Kitty Mrosovsky was certainly harassed by inner demons, which she tried to alleviate herself from by giving into a misguided desire. Her novel, Hydra, took its title from Hercules’ fight against a multi-headed monster, on which a new head grew as soon as he had chopped off one of them:


In a wretched room in an American city lies a bedridden, young man. After an accident, he has become paralysed from the neck down. When the accident happened, he was struggling with a dissertation on Euripides’ drama about Heracles, in which the Greek hero in an outburst of madness murders his wife and their children. Even before his accident, the literature student had suffered from another kind of paralysis – Writer’s Block. The desperate and now entirely helpless man can only express himself through his speech. He is visited by an emotionally cold tutor, who through his objectively dry argumentation only aggravates the condition of his incapacitated student. Unlike Heracles, the disabled man lacks a faithful friend able to assist him in his fight against the multi-headed, mental hydra that harass him, tears apart his inner self through painful memories and an ever-growing anxiety about a misfortune that undoubtedly will lead to his death. In his desperate paralysis he is also tormented by thoughts of the misery around us all – threat of nuclear war, natural resource destruction and the annihilation of our entire biosphere. No doubt Kitty Mrosovsky was inspired by her own torments and in-depth studies of Gustave Flaubert and his La Tentation de Saint Antione.



Of course, a novel as tragic and intellectually demanding as Hydra lacked commercial appeal. After being rejected by a number of publishers, Mrosovsky finally got it published by a small London-based book publisher – Allison & Busby. The novel went by almost unnoticed. However, a few encouraging words from some members of the literary establishment strengthened Mrosovsky’s waning self-esteem, and after a long sojourn in Italy, she returned to London with a new novel, which, however, was rejected everywhere. It has never been published. Upon her return to London, Kitty discovered that she was HIV positive. During her last years, during which she was inexorably broken down by her illness, she devoted herself to issues concerning HIV/AIDS and environmental degradation, went to concerts and played Mozart sonatas on her piano. In one of the few articles she got published, Mrosovsky wrote: “AIDS is not a special and unmentionable disease limited to the sub-categories of society.” During her painful death struggle, Kitty wrote a will in which she stipulated that her modest savings would be used to keep her surviving cat alive.


My web search for Kitty Mrosovsky resulted in an unexpected find. Craig Anthony Raine (born in 1944) is a poet and essayist and since 2010 professor emeritus at Oxford University. After his Oxford education, he became editor-in-chief with the famous publishing house Faber and Faber, literary critic with the influential New Statesman and New Review magazines, as well as Quarto, which later merged with the Literary Review, still considered as one of Britain’s foremost introducer to contemporary literature. In 1999, Raine founded the deliberately sophisticated magazine Areté, whose policy he formulated as:


We publish anything we like. The result is a magazine catholic in its taste ... The purpose of any literary magazine is the correction of taste, the creation of mischief and entertainment—and the discovery of new writers. 



Craig Raine appears to be someone who is unbearably “full of himself”. Among other things, Raine has published novels and collections of poems with ironic titles such as The Divine Comedy and A la recherche du temps perdu. The cover of the latter volume is filled with reviews where famous names rank Raine alongside “literary giants” such as Auden, Browning and Conrad. A voice in this chorus of praise belongs to the occasionally quite good Ian McEwan, who quotes Joseph Conrad’s statement that good literature “makes you hearmakes you feel, and, above allmakes you see. That is all, and it is everything,” with the addition that is what Raine makes his readers do. There is no doubt that Raine is part of an English-language variant of authors engaged in a game of mutual admiration, not unlike what is the case with the literary connoisseurs who in Sweden’s public spaces engage in mutual flattery.


Raine describes his forty-pages book of poetry A La Recherche du Temps Perdu: A Poem, as an elegy, a melancholy mourning of his dead mistress Kitty Mrosovsky. And not only that, Raine declared that with his nostalgic lament he intended to “recreate the elegy to what it should be in English.” I do not understand what he meant by that, but Raines’ “elegy” can hardly be called neither melancholic, nor tender. He reconstructs his “love affair” with careful indications of time, places, restaurants and notthe least his own wittiness. About Mrosovsky he writes that “you laughed at my jokes,” though he does not show much appreciation of his mistress’ intelligence and literary talent. Apparently, he does not like her writing, describes her taste in music as “doubtful” and considers her to be “a literary snob”. As we used to say as children: “The one who said it, he was it!”



That an experienced writer, an acclaimed and generously published author and university professor like Raine exposes such an embarrassingly banal language, surprises me … to say the least. He does certainly not like Flaubert be on the look-out for the right word. About Mrosovsky, he writes, I can't accept you’re dead./ You're still here, in my head.” Hardly unconventional, as an art collecting friend of mine use to say when he is confronted with a work of art he does not appreciate. When Raine writes poems about his love making with Kitty Mrosovsky, the shallow awkwardness becomes almost unbearable. Here he wallows in the same annoying descriptions of details that seem to be common in his other literary works. Craig Raine describes Mrosovsky's body in a puerile and embarrassingly stereotypical manner; her body hair (“20 chin hairs, nine around her nipples”), her breasts (“like melons”), her eyes (“green”), clean-shaven legs (“sleek and sexy as stripped twigs,” strange parable – sexy twigs?), cheekbones (“high”), hair (“dark, brown, soft”) and “bush” (“black, smoking”– smoking? It sounds almost eerie). Raine ends this strangely banal description with an idiotic wordplay “and now I have re-membered you again.” Is this a joke? Parts for the whole, woman as body? After his shallow and ridiculous description of Kitty’s body comes Raine’s hardly unconventional assessment of their love making: "You taught me sex / was conversation, and not a speech.”



No wonder if the author of an elegy dedicated to a lost mistress, who instead of describing her face and talent presents detailed descriptions of her “cunt” and “arsehole”, has made other authors cringe. On several occasions, Craig Raine has deservedly been nominated for The Literary Review's Annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award. An award which, according to the literary magazine, intends to pay


attention to the poorly written, redundant, or downright cringeworthy passages of sexual description in modern fiction, the prize is not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature. 

The fact that a deceased and thus defenceless author and ingenious translator was dedicated to such a scabrous and lousy “elegy” as Raine’s  grandiloquent belly flop, did upset Michael Hofmann, one of England’s most skilled translators of German literature by masters like Wolfgang Koeppen, Joseph Roth, Thomas Bernhard, Hans Fallada, Alfred Döblin, and not the least Kafka. Hofmann has accurately defined Raine’s literary production as


a school prize day atmosphere is overhanging the whole thing: pomposity and cleverness in smelly socks.


As a translator, Hofmann is a fastidious hunter for “the right word”. Well aware that such a thing does not always appear through a direct translation from German to English, Hofmann argues that for a sensitive translator it is important to find the right nuances. To take a step back, examine the original and sincerely try to understand the author’s mood and unique use of language. It does not concern finding the exact, but the right words. If a translator works in such a manner, it creates a feeling of co-creation and affinity with the translated author. Hofmann states that if a translation flows well, it may be similar to the pleasure that may occur during an enjoyable car ride. You follow a set path, but are still taken by a sense of freedom, “the whole thing will appear automotive: look, it’s running on English rather than limping after the German.”



If a translation works as if it were an original, in general no one will discover that the translator has dared to make minor deviations from the original text and thereby does not start whining and exclaiming: “Mistake! Mistake!" If a translator works with commitment, joy and care, it provides “ a little bit of self-esteem, a little bit of originality, a little bit of boldness.” Nevertheless, Hofmann emphasizes that translators might feel a certain bitterness. At best, their work is seldom noticed, but often they are criticized and even contemptuously regarded as “literary parasites”, incapable of reaching the mastery of the authors they have translated. Furthermore, Hofmann also states that conceited writers can have a detrimental effect on a translator’s work. They tend to “minimise the space of translators”. Hofmann claims that


it’s partly why I have mostly ended up translating dead people. They are more appreciative.

Hofmann has translated all novels by his deceased father – Gert Hofmann. With great pleasure I recently read Michael Hofmann’s translation of his Father’s Luck. A tragic/comic story about a failed writer's Schreib Blockade and impending divorce, observed by his young son and sharp-tongued, six-year-old daughter it is a linguistically excellent tale.



It is no wonder that such a skilled writer/translator as Michael Hofmann does not have much left for a pompous, well-established egocentric like Craig Raine, who with his puerile sexuality succeeded smearing Kitty Mrosovsky’s literary contribution. However, it seems that Raine nevertheless gave some relief to Mrosovsky's pain, her blockages and unsuccessful search for appreciation and tenderness, something that led her into the dead end of promiscuity. According to Raine, she “fucked everyone”, even an apparent jerk like him, although it obviously would never occur to him to define himself as such.


Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antione is filled to the brim with images, sins and temptations, most of them linked to religious beliefs and depictions of all sorts of delusions emerging and disappearing throughout the ages. It depicts the origin and decay of a variety of philosophical teachings and cosmic speculations. Although sexually tinted temptations permeate parts of the text, they are certainly far fewer than the artistic representations of erotic allure that have been inspired by the novel. More or less realistic depictions of the steadfast hermit who is confronted with lavish, naked women. For example, the in my opinion masterful La Tentazioni di Sant ’Antonio by Domenico Morelli, which I several times have admired in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna here in Rome.



Or the lushly vulgar Lovis Corinth's Die Versuchung des heiligen Antonius in Munich, in which the terrified hermit seems to have been trapped inside a ladies’ bathhouse, filled with naked, randy women.

Or in a more modern “realistic” representation by Erik Sandberg, who also points out the trapped vulgar atmosphere in the holy Anthony’s cave dwelling, where he is confronted with a pig and naked lady whose body has been crowned with a skull.

Nevertheless, La Tentation de Saint Antione, does actually not give the impression of erotically charged claustrophobia, he slightly mad James Ensor’s depiction comes closer to its source of inspiration; with its swirling, colourful, cosmic version, which mixes women, landscapes and monsters.

Undoubtedly, it is Odilon Redon who in his illustrations has offered the best interpretations of this strange novel.

It cannot be denied that several interpreters, translators as well as artists, seem to have found a promiscuous allure in Flaubert’s novels. Well expressed in the title of Vargas Llosa’s study of Flaubert's authorship La orgía perpetua, The Interminable Orgy, which despite its title is a sensible and captivating depiction of Flaubert’s narrative techniques. This is not to say that Vargas Llosa also is prone to wallow in rather pubertal pornography, for example in his Cinco esquinas, The Neighbourhood, which to me was a great disappointment.

It seems that Kitty Mrosovsky may have suffered from a “hypersexuality disorder”, a condition which previously was referred to as nymphomania. However, the sparse information I have found about her makes such an assumption pure speculation. There is no trace of this in her impressive preface to The Temptation of Saint Anthony, which does not emphasize any sexual undercurrents but instead accentuate Flaubert’s firm grip on his material, his sharp, fluent style, pantheism, abundant imagery and empathetic portrayal of religious beliefs. She also, in an excellent manner, exemplifies what the novel has meant to later writers.

Someone who undoubtedly combined promiscuity, self-imposed exclusion, significant erudition and a certain stylistic certainty was the novel’s Swedish translator, Per Meurling. I was surprised to find that he was the one who had translated Flaubert’s novel, calling it Hjärtats begärelse, The Desire of the Heart. I knew that Meurling was one of Jan Myrdal’s favourite writers. The recently departed Jan Myrdal was the son of two Nobel laureates, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, and a Nestor for Swedish communism. Like Jan Myrdal, Per Meurling could be an amusing and rather skilful author, though he could also, just like him, appear to be somewhat mad and far too great in his own eyes. In addition, Meurling was an extremely erratic communist and an unbridled pornographer. Apparently belonging to a type of pastor sons whom my father used to call “God’s grandchildren”, suggesting a rebellion against paternal authority which had alienated them from a God with whom they were, after all, quite familiar. Meurling could complain about his sorry fate by pointing out:

I am corrupted, fundamentally corrupted by bad Christianity. Many of us are in our cruel world forced to experience the anguish of Gethsemane and we will all, sooner or later, be forced to carry our heavy cross.

Could such feelings have led him to translate a religiously and visionary supersaturated fresco like La Tentation de Saint Antione? The Meurlings were one of Sweden's oldest priest families. For more than 370 years, they had been pastors in the same small, rural and very pious parish. Of course, the parishioners wondered which of Pastor Erik Meurling’s four sons who would take over the ministry after him. However, three of them became fierce communists, one of them died as a volunteer during the Spanish Civil War, two of them became principals of schools, while the eldest, Per, became a doctor of history of religions (eventually called the “Porn Doctor”), author, translator, first rabid Stalinist and then rabid anti-communist. His epithet came from the fact that Meurling was the author and translator of gross pornography, but he also wrote well receieved books about Shakespeare, Karl Marx, Jesus, Swedish Communism, Jacques Villon, Jesus and Marquise de Sade. Meurling wrote articles for the socialist press, as well as Sweden’s foremost literary magazine, Bonniers Litterära Magasin and the main stream Social Democratic Aftonbladet, but he also contributed to disreptuable so called “men’s magazines”, such as Top Hat and Lektyr.

For the porn publisher Hson, responsible for distasteful, pornographic “magazines” like Piff, Raff and Ecstasy, Meurling wrote quirky “sex novels” with titles like Fanny Hill’s Daughter, Gulliver’s Sex Journeys, Münchausen’s Erotic Adventures, Black Ecstasy and I was a Master of the Art of Love Making. Books immediately translated into Danish and German, the latter being plagiarized and sold by his good friend Johnny Bode, a charming couplet writer, operetta singer, thief, deceiver and Nazi, who had much in common with the Marxist Per Meurling. Like Bode, Meurling constantly left behind deceived women and unpaid restaurant bills. Men of a kind that you would probably “like to have a conversation with across a café table, but whom you should be very careful of cultivating a closer acquaintance with, especially when it came to finances and loans.”

When Johnny Bode was on the run from Swedish law enforcement and a number of deceived creditors, hiding in Copenhagen, Vienna, Brussels and various other places, Meurling came to his defence in Top Hat:

Is Johnny Bode a gangster? No, he is not a gangster at all, simply a magnificent operetta artist, a child of the world, a little sinful boy, who with happy a face spreads some joy around him within an otherwise boring world.

Like Bode, Meruling often lived out of hand, rumbling, teasing, cheating and insulting friends and foes alike, while writing about Zola, de Beuvoir, Sartre, and Camus. His good friend, the renown poet Karl Vennberg, wrote that Per Meurling was probably his generation’s

greatest and most abused talent. In Per Meurling’s socialist paradise, the bars would without doubt be lying close together. There is also a great risk that the brothels would not be missing there either.

The predilection for reckless lewdness was by Meurling shared with Johnny Bode, who at an advanced age earned quite a lot on´´trhorugh his self-published record Songs of the Cathouse Madam, while Meurling called his “sex memoirs” The Eye in the Chamber Pot. It may seem strange that such a highly educated author as Meurling, who did not hide his contempt for “the uneducated Swedish people who worship their own mediocrity” did not shy away from brothel visits, drunkenness, petty fiddling and pub brawls.

After his brother Olle in 1936 had did as machine-gunner during the Spanish Civil War, Per Meurling became a staunch Stalinist and defended in action and writing the Soviet dictator’s bloody purges and insidious pact with Hitler. The low tide mark in Meurling’s journalism was when he in three issues of of the socialist magazine Clarté in 1937 violently attacked all those Stalin opponents who had been upset by the Moscow show trials. Meurling lamented this “anti-Soviet campaign”, which he described as a “reactionary masquerade”.

Meurling’s worst insults and verbal attacks were directed against the bold Jewish writer Kurt Singer, who had fled for his life in 1934 after he in Germany had been exposed as the publisher of an underground, anti-Nazi weekly. Singer wrote for both foreign and Swedish press and among other things revealed Swedish race researcher’s Nazi contacts and sterilization campaigns, Nazi espionage and Soviet terror.

Singer published a perfectly accurate list of Stalin’s victims, but was made suspicious by Meruling, who labelled the party-affiliated Social Democrat Singer as “our slightly fascist-minded moralist” and arrogantly lamented his “literary awkwardness” while stating that Singer's articles were completely unfounded and so bad they were “beyond all criticism”. However, Singer, who also worked for the English, Norwegian and American intelligence agencies, was unusually well informed about Soviet conditions and all of his information has been shown to be accurate. On the contrary, Per Meurling’s defence of Stalinism was, to put it mildly, substandard and endowed with an unusually vicious and unreasonable demagoguery. In the early 1940s, Singer was forced to flee from Sweden to the United States after being threatened with extradition to Germany after a biography, in which had been a violent but truthful attack on Hermann Göring, while Meurling, who then worked for the communist daily Ny Dag, New Day, in 1943 was exposed as a Soviet secret agent and sentenced to imprisonment. Occasional comments from both the Right and the Left, however, expressed a view that Per Meurling probably did not understand what he was doing:

Whether he served Stalin, the Swedish Ministry of Defence or the CIA, he probably did not always know himself, while he wobbled around between the pub tables.

For a while Meurling seemed to have disappeared somewhere in Eastern Europe while working there as Ny Dag’s correspondent, though he had only lost himself in a period of extreme revelry. Ny Dag’s editor-in-chief called him “Pelle the Reckless”.

In 1948 Meurling left the Communist Party, 1949 he defended his Ph.D. dissertation about the contribution of religion to the emergence of social inequality and in 1950 he published his book Communism in Sweden, a scathing and amusing reckoning with the Party in which he mercilessly and accurately dragged his former party comrades over the coles.



It became increasingly desolate around Meurling. The Right and the Social Democrats distrusted him, even though he got a job as a commentator for the foreign press at the Social Democratic party headquarters. The younger communist generation despised him. The communist social physician John Takman described alcohol the spirit and constantly repeated, complicated relationships with women. He fought and drank, had no permanent home, but huge debts.


Time to leave this deviation from words and their meaning, though it cannot be denied that an odd character like Per Meurling was a man of the word. Meurling is also proof of the importance of words as weapons and carriers of both knowledge and stupidity. A deadly in the mouth and hands hands of demagogues like Hitler and the by Meurling once so admired Stalin. However, words are also an enriching experience and inspiration for new discoveries as Meurling’s best books and translations occasionally are, though they can also serve as mediators of degrading contempt for women, as with the porn publishers who were served by Meurling, this constantly oppositional grandson of God. The Swedish poet Artur Lundkvist once wrote:


The word is free and the word is imprisoned,

protective shell and lethal weapon.



Bachelard, Gaston (2014) The Poetics of Space. London: Penguin Modern Classics. Barnes, Julian (1990) Flaubert’s Parrot. London: Vintage. Biasi, Pierre-Marc de (2002) Flaubert: L’homme-plume. Paris: Gallimard. Borges, Jorge Luis (2000) Fictions. London: Penguin Modern Claasics. Buswell, Robert och Lopez, Donald (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press. Flaubert, Gustave (1980) The Temptation of St Anthony. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Classics. Flaubert, Gustave (1998) Selected Letters. London: Penguin Classics. Haloche, Maurice (1956) ”La Tentation de Saint-Antoine,” Les Amis de Flaubert: Bulletin n° 8. Hofmann, Gert (2003) Luck. London: Vintage. Khalidi, Tarif (2008) The Qur’an: A new translation. London: Penguin Classics. Maupassant, Guy de (1979) Pierre and Jean. London: Penguin Classics. Mitchison, Amanda (2011) ”Obituary: Kitty Mrosovsky,” Independent, 23 October. Mrosovsky, Kitty (1987) Hydra. London: Allison & Busby. Oltermann, Philip (2016) ”Michael Hofmann: English is basically a trap. It’s almost a language for spies,” The Guardian, 9 April. Potts, Robert (2000) ”Dismembering Kitty,” The Guardian15 July. Raine, Craig (2000) A la recherche du temps perdu: A Poem. London: Picador. Richard, Jean-Pierre (1990) Litérature et sensation: Stendahl, Flaubert. Paris: Editions du Seuil. Vargas Lllosa, Mario (2006) La orgía perpetua; Flaubert y Madame Bovary. Madrid: Alfaguara.



Everything runs on electricity. Electricity, there's something strange about that. Electricity flows everywhere, as you know, back and forth across the threads. Thus sang Theodor Lorentz Larsson, aka ham comedian Lasse from Skåne, in the twenties and there is certainly something strange about...
Allt går ju mä' elektricitet Elektriskt dä' ä' nå't konstigt med det. Elektriskt dä' strömmar ju som ni vet härs å' tvärs igenom tråden. Så sjöng Theodor Lorentz Larsson, alias Skånska Lasse, på tjugotalet och visst är det något konstigt med elektricitet. Klokare blir jag inte hur mycket jag...
When my friend Örjan asked me if I knew of any artists who had written about art and then specifically dealt with their own artistry, I couldn't find any names that he didn't already know. However, when I a few weeks ago rummaged through the books in an antiquarian bookshop I found a book with...
När min vän Örjan frågade mig om jag kände till någon konstnär som skrivit om konst och då speciellt behandlat ett eget  konstnärskap kunde jag inte finna några namn som han inte redan kände till. Men, då jag för några veckor sedan rotade bland böckerna i ett antkvariat fann jag en bok med...
DONATELLO: The world of a genius 09/01/2022 15:37     Italy is an inexhaustible source of all kinds of unexpected experiences – culinary, as well as cultural. I open the door to something that has fleetingly interested me and impressions, memories, dreams and a host of...
Italien är en outsinlig källa för allsköns oväntade upplevelser – kulinariska, såväl som kulturella. Jag gläntar på dörren till något som flyktigt intresserat mig och plötsligt forsar intryck, minnen, drömmar och en mängd andra fenomen över mig. Som då jag för en månad sedan...
During my youth’s frequent cinema visits I used to smile at a commercial occasionally presented before the film began – a crane striding in a bog while the speaker voice stated: “Some people like to watch birds pecking in swamps.” Suddenly the bird explodes and disappears into a cloud of smoke with...
Under min ungdoms flitiga biobesök brukade jag småle åt en annons som emellanåt visades innan filmen började. Man fick se en trana som stegar runt på en myr alltmedan speakerrösten konstaterar: “Somliga gillar att titta på fåglar som pickar i träsk.” Plötsligt sprängs fågeln och försvinner i...
And this is still life! What an eternal damnation! Arthur Rimbaud   Through a daily confrontation with Ukrainian misery and Putin’s madness, the mood oscillates between fuitile anger and helpless hopelessness. What is the fundamental fault of humanity? How can any sensible person imagine that...
Och detta är fortfarande liv! – Vilken evig fördömelse! Arthur Rimbaud   Genom daglig konfrontation med eländet i Ukraina och Putins vansinne pendlar humöret mellan meningslös ilska och hjälplös hopplöshet. Vad är det för ett fundamentalt fel med mänskligheten? Hur kan någon vettig människa...
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In Spite Of It All, Trots Allt