Birth of Gustave Flaubert, second so of Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, head surgeon at the Hôtel-Dieu, Rouen, and of Anne-Justine-Caroline Flaubert, née Fleuriot. The family belongs to the successful professional middle class, and owns several properties in the vicinity of Rouen. A stable, enlightened, encouraging and normally ambitious background.
Entry into service with the Flaubert family of Julie, Gustave's nurse, who remains with them until the writer's death fifty-five years later. Few servant problems will trouble his life.
Meets Ernest Chevalier, his first close friend. A succession of intense, loyal and fertile friendships will sustain Flaubert throughout his life: of particular note are those with Alfred Le Poittevin, Maxime du Camp, Louis Bouilhet and George Sand. Gustave inspires friendship easily, and fosters it with a teasing, affectionate manner.
Enters the Collège de Rouen and proves an impressive student, strong in history and literature. His earliest piece of writing to come down to us, an essay on Corneille, dates from 1831. Throughout his adolescence he composes abundantly, both drama and fiction.
Meets Elisa Schlesinger, wife of a German music publisher, in Trouville and conceives an 'enormous' passion for her. This passion illuminates the rest of his adolescence. She treats him with great kindness and affection; they remain in touch for the next forty years. Looking back, he is relieved she didn't return his passion: 'Happiness is like the pox. Catch it too soon, and it wrecks your constitution.'
Gustave's sexual initiation with one of his mother's maids. This is the start of an active and colourful erotic career, veering from brothel to salon, from Cairo bath-house boy to Parisian poetess. In early manhood he is extremely attractive to women and his speed of sexual recuperation is, by his own account, very impressive; but even in later life his courtly manner, intelligence and fame ensure that he is not unattended.
His first published work appears in the Rouen magazine Le Colibri.
Passes his baccalauréat. Travels to the Pyrenees with a family friend, Dr Jules Cloquet. Though often considered an unbudgeable hermit, Flaubert in fact travels extensively: to Italy and Switzerland (1845), Brittany (1847), Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Greece and Italy (1849-51), England (1851, 1865, 1866, 1871), Algeria and Tunisia (1858), Germany (1865), Belgium (1871) and Switzerland (1874). Compare the case of his alter ego Louis Bouilhet, who dreamed of China and never got to England.
As a law student in Paris, he meets Victor Hugo.
Gustave's first epileptic attack puts an end to his legal studies in Paris and confines him to the new family house at Croisset. Abandoning the law, however, causes little pain, and since his confinement brings both the solitude and the stable base needed for a life of writing, the attack proves beneficial in the long run.
Meets Louise Colet, 'the Muse', and begins his most celebrated affair: a prolonged, passionate, fighting two-parter (1846-8, 1851-4). Though ill-matched in temperament and incompatible in aesthetics, Gustave and Louise nevertheless last together far longer than most would have predicted. Should we regret the end of their affair? Only because it means the end of Gustave's resplendent letters to her.
The writing, publication, trial and triumphant acquittal of Madame Bovary. A succès de scandale, praised by authors as diverse as Lamartine, Sainte-Beuve and Baudelaire. In 1846, doubting his ability ever to write anything worth publishing, Gustave had announced, 'If I do make an appearance, one day, it will be in full armour.' Now his breastplate dazzles and his lance is everywhere. The curé of Canteleu, the next village to Croisset, forbids his parishioners to read the novel. After 18S7, literary success leads naturally to social success: Flaubert is seen more in Paris. He meets the Goncourts, Renan, Gautier, Baudelaire and Sainte-Beuve. In 1862 the series of literary dinners at Magny's are instituted: Flaubert is a regular from December of that year.
Publication of Salammb&oocirc;. Succès fou. Sainte-Beuve writes to Matthew Arngld: 'Salammb&oocirc; is our great event!' The novel provides the theme for several costume balls in Paris. It even provides the name for a new brand of petit four.
Flaubert begins to frequent the salon of Princesse Mathilde, niece of Napoleon I. The bear of Croisset eases into the pelt of the social lion. He himself receives on Sunday afternoons. The year also contains his first exchange of letters with George Sand, and his meeting with Turgenev. His friendship with the Russian novelist marks the beginning of a wider European fame.
Presentation to the Emperor Napoleon III at Compiegne. The peak of Gustave's social success. He sends camellias to the Empress.
Created chevalier de la Légion d'honneur.
Publication of L'Education sentimentale: Flaubert always claims it as a chef-d'oeuvre. Despite the legend of heroic struggle (which he himself initiates), writing comes easily to Flaubert. He complains a lot, but such complaints are always couched in letters of astonishing fluency. For a quarter of a century he produces one large, solid book, requiring considerable research, every five to seven years. He might agonise over the word, the phrase, the assonance, but he never endures a writer's block.
Publication of La Tentation de saint Antoine. Despite its strangeness, a gratifying commercial success.
Publication of Trois Contes. A critical and popular success: for the first time Flaubert receives a favourable review from Le Figaro; the book goes through five editions in three years. Flaubert begins work on Bouvard et Pécuchet. During these final years, his pre-eminence among French novelists is admitted by the next generation. He is fêted and revered. His Sunday afternoons become famous events in literary society; Henry James calls on the Master. In 1879 Gustave's friends institute the annual Saint Polycarpe dinners in his honour. In 1880 the five co-authors of Les Soirées de Médan, including Zola and Maupassant, present him with an inscribed copy: the gift can be seen as a symbolic salute to Realism from Naturalism.
Full of honour, widely loved, and still working hard to the end, Gustave Flaubert dies at Croisset.
Death of Caroline Flaubert (aged twenty months), the second child of Achille-Cléophas Flaubert and Anne-Justine-Caroline Flaubert.
Death of Emile-Cléophas Flaubert (aged eight months), their third child.
Birth of Gustave Flaubert, their fifth child.
Death of Jules Alfred Flaubert (aged three years and five months), their fourth child. His brother Gustave, born entre deux morts, is delicate and not expected to live long. Dr Flaubert buys a family plot at the Cimetière Monumental and has a small grave dug in preparation for Gustave. Surprisingly, he survives. He proves a slow child, content too sit for hours with his finger in his mouth and an 'almost stupid' expression on his face. For Sartre, he is 'the family idiot'.
The start of a hopeless, obsessive passion for Elisa Schlesinger which cauterises his heart and renders him incapable of ever fully loving another woman. Looking back, he records: 'Each of us possesses in his heart a royal chamber. I have bricked mine up.'
Expelled from the Collège de Rouen for rowdyism and disobedience.
The Faculty of Law at Paris announces its first-year examination results. The examiners declare their views by means of red or black balls. Gustave receives two red and two black, and is therefore failed.
Shattering first attack of epilepsy; others are to follow. 'Each attack', Gustave writes later, 'was like a haemorrhage of the nervous system…It was a snatching of the soul from the body, excruciating.' He is bled, given pills and infusions, put on a special diet, forbidden alcohol and tobacco; a regime of strict confinement and maternal care is necessary if he is not to claim his place at the cemetery. Without having entered the world, Gustave now retires from it. 'So, you are guarded like a young girl?' Louise Colet later taunts, accurately. For all but the last eight years of his life, Mme Flaubert watches suffocatingly over his welfare and censors his travel plans. Gradually, over the decades, her frailty overtakes his: by the time he has almost ceased to be a worry to her, she has become a burden to him.
Death of Gustave's father, quickly followed by that of his beloved sister Caroline (aged twenty-one), which thrusts on to him proxy fatherhood of his niece. Throughout his life, he is constantly bruised by the deaths of those close to him. And there are other ways for friends to die: in June Alfred Le Poittevin marries. Gustave feels it is his third bereavement of the year: 'You are doing something abnormal,' he complains. To Maxime du Camp that year he writes, 'Tears are to the heart what water is to a fish.' Is it a consolation that in the same year he meets Louise Colet? Pedantry and recalcitrance are mismatched with immoderation and possessiveness. A mere six days after she becomes his mistress, the pattern of their relationship is set: 'Moderate your cries!' he complains to her. 'They are torturing me. What do you want me to do? Am I to leave everything and live in Paris? Impossible.' This impossible relationship drags on nevertheless for eight years; Louise is puzzlingly unable to grasp that Gustave can love her without ever wanting to see her. 'If I were a woman,' he writes after six years, 'I wouldn't want myself for a lover. A one-night stand, yes; but an intimate relationship, no.'
Death of Alfred Le Poittevin, aged thirty-two. 'I see that I've never loved anyone—man or woman—as I loved him.' Twenty-five years later: 'Not a day passes that I don't think of him.'
Gustave reads his first full-length adult work, La Tentation de saint Antoine, to his two closest friends, Bouilhet and Du Camp. The reading takes four days, at the rate of eight hours per day. After embarrassed consultation, the listeners tell him throw it on the fire.
In Egypt, Gustave catches syphilis. Much of his hair falls out; he grows stout. Mme Flaubert, meeting him in Rome the following year, scarcely recognises her son, and finds that he has become very coarse. Middle age begins here. 'Scarcely are you born before you begin rotting.' Over the years all but one of his teeth will fall out; his saliva will be permanently blackened by mercury treatment.
Madame Bovary. The composition is painful—'Writing this book I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles'—and the prosecution frightening. In later years Flaubert comes to resent the insistent fame of his masterpiece, which makes others see him as a one-book author. He tells Du Camp that if ever he had a stroke of good luck on the Bourse he would buy up 'at any cost' all copies of Madame Bovary in circulation: 'I should throw them into the fire, and never hear of them again.'
Elisa Schlesinger is interned in a mental hospital; she is diagnosed as suffering from 'acute melancholia'. After the publication of Salammbô, Flaubert begins to run with rich friends. But he remains childlike in financial matters: his mother has to sell property to pay his debts. In 1867 he secretly hands over control of his financial affairs to his niece's husband, Ernest Commanville. Over the next thirteen years, through extravagance, incompetent management and bad luck, Flaubert loses all his money.
Death of Louis Bouilhet, whom he had once called 'the seltzer water which helped me digest life'. 'In losing my Bouilhet, I had lost my midwife, the man who saw more deeply into my thought than I did myself.' Death also of Sainte-Beuve. 'Another one gone! The little band is diminishing! Who is there to talk about literature with now?' Publication of L'Education sentimentale; a critical and commercial flop. Of the hundred and fifty complimentary copies sent to friends and acquaintances, barely thirty are even acknowledged.
Death of Jules de Goncourt: only three of the seven friends who started the Magny dinners in 1862 are now left. During the Franco-Prussian war, the enemy occupies Croisset. Ashamed of being French, Flaubert stops wearing his Légion d'honneur, and resolves to ask Turgenev what he has to do to take Russian citizenship.
Death of Mme Flaubert: 'I have realised during the last fortnight that my poor dear old mother was the person I loved the most. It's as if part of my entrails had been torn out.' Death also of Gautier. 'With him, the last of my intimate friends is gone. The list is closed.'
Flaubert makes his theatrical début with Le Candidat. It is a complete flop; actors leave the stage with tears in their eyes. The play is taken off after four performances. Publication of La Tentation de saint Antoine. 'Torn to pieces,' Flaubert notes, 'by everything from the Figaro to the Revue des deux mondes… What comes as a surprise is the hatred underlying much of this criticism—hatred for me, for my person—deliberate denigration…This avalanche of abuse does depress me.'
The financial ruin of Ernest Commanville drags Flaubert down too. He sells his farm at Deauville; he has to plead with his niece not to turn him out of Croisset. She and Commanville nickname him 'the consumer'. In 1879 he is reduced to accepting a state pension arranged for him by friends.
Death of Louise Colet. Death of George Sand. 'My heart is becoming a necropolis.' Gustave's last years are arid and solitary. He tells his niece he regrets not having married.
Impoverished, lonely and exhausted, Gustave Flaubert dies. Zola, in his obituary notice, comments that he was unknown to four-fifths of Rouen, and detested by the other fifth. He leaves Bouvard et Pécuchet unfinished. Some say the labour of the novel killed him; Turgenev told him before he started that it would be better as a short story. After the funeral a group of mourners, including the poets François Coppée and Théodore de Banville, have dinner in Rouen to honour the departed writer. They discover, on sitting down to table, that they are thirteen. The superstitious Banville insists that another guest be found, and Gautier's son-in-law Emile Bergerat is sent to scour the streets. After several rebuffs he returns with a private on leave. The soldier has never heard of Flaubert, but is longing to meet Coppée.
Me and my books, in the same apartment: like a gherkin in its vinegar.
When I was still quite young I had a complete presentiment of life. It was like the nauseating smell of cooking escaping from a ventilator: you don't have to have eaten it to know that it would make you throw up.
I did with you what I have done before with those I loved best: I showed them the bottom of the bag, and the acrid dust that rose from it made them choke.
My life is riveted to that of another [Mme Flaubert], and will be so as long as that other life endures. A piece of seaweed blowing in the wind, I am held to the rock by a single hardy thread. If it broke, where would this poor useless plant fly off to?
You want to prune the tree. Its unruly branches, thick with leaves, push out in all directions to sniff the air and the sun. But you want to make me into a charming espalier, stretched against a wall, bearing fine fruit that a child could pick without even using a ladder.
Don't think that I belong to that vulgar race of men who feel disgust after pleasure, and for whom love exists only as lust. No: in me, what rises doesn't subside so quickly. Moss grows on the castles ofmy heart as soon as they are built; but it takes some time for them to fall into ruin, if they ever completely do.
I am like a cigar: you have to suck on the end to get me going.
Amongst those who go to sea there are the navigators who discover new worlds, adding continents to the earth and stars to the heavens: they are the masters, the great, the eternally splendid. Then there are those who spit terror from their gun-ports, who pillage, who grow rich and fat. Others go off in search of gold and silk under foreign skies. Still others catch salmon for the gourmet or cod for the poor. I am the obscure and patient pearl-fisherman who dives into the deepest waters and comes up with empty hands and a blue face. Some fatal attraction draws me down into the abysses of thought, down into those innermost recesses which never cease to fascinate the strong. I shall spend my life gazing at the ocean of art, where others voyage or fight; and from time to time I'll entertain myself by diving for those green and yellow shells that nobody will want. So I shall keep them for myself and cover the walls of my hut with them.
I am only a literary lizard basking the day away beneath the great sun of Beauty. That's all.
Deep within me there is a radical, intimate, bitter and incessant boredom which prevents me from enjoying anything and which smothers my soul. It reappears at any excuse, just as the swollen corpses of drowned dogs pop to the surface despite the stones that have been tied round their necks.
People are like food. There are lots of bourgeois who seem to me like boiled beef: all steam, no juice, and no taste (it fills you up straight away and is much eaten by bumpkins). Other people are like white meat, freshwater fish, slender eels from the muddy river-bed, oysters (of varying degrees of saltiness), calves' heads, and sugared porridge. Me? I'm like a runny, stinking macaroni cheese, which you have to eat a lot of times before you develop a taste for it. You do finally get to like it, but only after it has made your stomach heave on countless occasions.
Some people have a tender heart and a tough mind. I'm the opposite: I have a tender mind but a rough heart. I'm like a coconut which keeps its milk locked away beneath several layers of wood. You need an axe to open it, and then what do you find as often as not? A sort of sour cream.
You had hoped to find in me a fire which scorched and blazed and illuminated everything; which shed a cheerful light, dried out damp wainscoting, made the air healthier and rekindled life. Alas! I'm only a poor nightlight, whose red wick splutters in a lake of bad oil full of water and bits of dust.
With me, friendship is like the camel: once started, there is no way of stopping it.
As you get older, the heart sheds its leaves like a tree. You cannot hold out against certain winds. Each day tears away a few more leaves; and then there are the storms which break off several branches at one go. And while nature's greenery grows back again in the spring, that of the heart never grows back.
What an awful thing life is, isn't it? It's like soup with lots of hairs floating on the surface. You have to eat it nevertheless.
I laugh at everything, even at that which I love the most. There is no fact, thing, feeling or person over which I have not blithely run my clownishness, like an iron roller imparting sheen to cloth.
I love my work with a frantic and perverted love, as an ascetic loves the hair-shirt which scratches his belly.
All of us Normans have a little cider in our veins: it's a bitter, fermented drink which sometimes bursts the bung.
As for this business of my moving at once to Paris, we'll have to put it off, or rather settle it here and now. This is impossible for me now…I know myself well enough, and it would mean losing a whole winter, and perhaps the whole book. Bouilhet can talk: he's happy writing anywhere; he's been working away for a dozen years despite continual disturbances…But I am like a row of milk-pans: if you want the cream to form, you have to leave them exactly where they are.
I'm dazzled by your facility. In ten days you'll have written six stories! I don't understand it…I'm like one of those old aqueducts: there's so much rubbish clogging up the banks of my thought that it flows slowly, and only spills from the end of my pen drop by drop.
I pigeon-hole my life, and keep everything in its place; I'm as full of drawers and compartments as an old travelling trunk, all roped up and fastened with three big leather straps.
You ask for love, you complain that I don't send you flowers? Flowers, indeed! If that's what you want, find yourself some wet-eared boy stuffed with fine manners and all the right ideas. I'm like the tiger, which has bristles of hair at the end of its cock, with which it lacerates the female.
Books aren't made in the way that babies are: they are made like pyramids. There's some long-pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it's back-breaking, sweaty, time-consuming work. And all to no purpose! It just stands like that in the desert! But it towers over it prodigiously. Jackals piss at the base of it, and bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc. Continue this comparison.
There is a Latin phrase which means roughly, 'To pick up a farthing from the shit with your teeth.' It was a rhetorical figure applied to the miserly. I am like them: I will stop at nothing to find gold.
It's true that many things infuriate me. The day I stop being indignant I shall fall flat on my face, like a doll when you take away its prop.
My heart remains intact, but my feelings are sharpened on the one hand and dulled on the other, like an old knife that has been too often sharpened, which has notches, and breaks easily.
Never have things of the spirit counted for so little. Never has hatred for everything great been so manifest - disdain for Beauty, execration of literature. 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 still carry on turning out my sentences, like a bourgeois turning out napkin rings on a lathe in his attic. It gives me something to do, and it affords me some private pleasure.
Despite your advice, I can't manage to 'harden myself…My sensitivities are all aquiver—my nerves and my brain are sick, very sick; I feel them to be so. But there I go, complaining again, and I don't want to distress you. I'll confine myself to your mention of a 'rock'. Know, then, that very old granite sometimes turns into layers of clay.
I feel uprooted, like a mass of dead seaweed tossed here and there in the waves.
When will the book be finished? That's the question. If it is to appear next winter, I haven't a minute to lose between now and then. But there are moments when I'm so tired that I feel I'm liquefying like an old Camembert.
3: Finders Keepers
You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on your point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with string.
You can do the same with a biography. The trawling net fills, then the biographer hauls it in, sorts, throws back, stores, fillets and sells. Yet consider what he doesn't catch: there is always far more of that. The biography stands, fat and worthy—burgherish on the shelf, boastful and sedate: a shilling life will give you all the facts, a ten-pound one all the hypotheses as well. But think of everything that got away, that fled with the last deathbed exhalation of the biographee. What chance would the craftiest biographer stand against the subject who saw him coming and decided to amuse himself?
I first met Ed Winterton when he put his hand on mine in the Europa Hotel. Just my little joke; though true as well. It was at a provincial booksellers' fair and I had reached a little more quickly than he for the same copy of Turgenev's Literary Reminiscences. The conjunction induced immediate apologies, as embarrassed on his side as they were on mine. When we each realised that bibliophilic lust was the only emotion which had produced this laying on of hands, Ed murmured,
'Step outside and let's discuss it.'
Over an indifferent pot of tea we revealed our separate paths to the same book. I explained about Flaubert; he announced his interest in Gosse and in English literary society towards the end of the last century. I meet few American academics, and was pleasantly surprised that this one was bored by Bloomsbury, and happy to leave the modern movement to his younger and more ambitious colleagues. But then Ed Winterton liked to present himself as a failure. He was in his early forties, balding, with a pinky glabrous complexion and square rimless spectacles: the banker type of academic, circumspect and moral. He bought English clothes without looking at all English. He remained the sort of American who always wears a mackintosh in London because he knows that in this city rain falls out of a clear sky. He was even wearing his mackintosh in the lounge of the Europa Hotel.
His air of failure had nothing desperate about it; rather, it seemed to stem from an unresented realisation that he was not cut out for success, and his duty was therefore to ensure only that he failed in a correct and acceptable fashion. At one point, when discussing the improbability of his Gosse biography ever being finished, let alone published, he paused and dropped his voice:
'But in any case I sometimes wonder if Mr Gosse would have approved of what I'm doing.'
'You mean…' I knew little of Gosse, and my widened eyes hinted perhaps too clearly at naked laundresses, illegitimate half-castes and dismembered bodies.
'Oh no, no, no. Just the thought of writing about him. He might think it was a bit of a…low blow.'
I let him have the Turgenev, of course, if only to escape a discussion about the morality of possession. I didn't see where ethics came into the ownership of a second-hand book; but Ed did. He promised to be in touch if ever he ran down another copy. Then we briefly discussed the rights and wrongs of my paying for his tea.
I didn't expect to hear from him again, let alone on the subject which provoked his letter to me about a year later. 'Are you interested at all in Juliet Herbert? It sounds a fascinating relationship, judging by the material. I'll be in London in August, if you will. Ever, Ed (Winterton).'
What does the fiancée feel when she snaps open the box and sees the ring set in purple velvet? I never asked my wife; and it's too late now. Or what did Flaubert feel as he waited for the dawn on top of the Great Pyramid and finally saw that crack of gold shine from the purple velvet of the night? Astonishment, awe and a fierce glee came into my heart as I read those two words in Ed's letter. No, not 'Juliet Herbert', the other two: first 'fascinating' and then 'material'. And beyond glee, beyond hard work as well, was there something else? A shameful thought of an honorary degree somewhere?
Juliet Herbert is a great hole tied together with string. She became governess to Flaubert's niece Caroline at some time in the mid-1850s, and remained at Croisset for a few undetermined years; then she returned to London. Flaubert wrote to her, and she to him; they visited one another every so often. Beyond this, we know nothing. Not a single letter to or from her has survived. We know almost nothing about her family. We do not even know what she looked like. No description of her survives, and none of Flaubert's friends thought to mention her after his death, when most other women of importance in his life were being memorialised.
Biographers disagree about Juliet Herbert. For some, the shortage of evidence indicates that she was of small significance in Flaubert's life; others conclude from this absence precisely the opposite, and assert that the tantalising governess was certainly one of the writer's mistresses, possibly the Great Unknown Passion of his life, and perhaps even his fiancée. Hypothesis is spun directly from the temperament of the biographer. Can we deduce love for Juliet Herbert from the fact that Gustave called his greyhound Julio? Some can. It seems a little tendentious to me. And if we do, what do we then deduce from the fact that in various letters Gustave addresses his niece as 'Loulou', the name he later transfers to Félicité's parrot? Or from the fact that George Sand had a ram called Gustave?
Flaubert's one overt reference to Juliet Herbert comes in a letter to Bouilhet, written after the latter had visited Croisset:
Since I saw you excited by the governess, I too have become excited. At table, my eyes willingly followed the gentle slope of her breast. I believe she notices this for, five or six times per meal, she looks as if she had caught the sun. What a pretty comparison one could make between the slope of the breast and the glacis of a fortress. The cupids tumble about on it, as they storm the citadel. (To be said in our Sheikh's voice) 'Well, I certainly know what piece of artillery I'd be pointing in that direction.'
Should we jump to conclusions? Frankly, this is the kind of boastful, nudging stuff that Flaubert was always writing to his male friends. I find it unconvincing myself: true desire isn't so easily diverted into metaphor. But then, all biographers secretly want to annex and channel the sex-lives of their subjects; you must make your judgment on me as well as on Flaubert.
Had Ed really discovered some Juliet Herbert material? I admit I began feeling possessive in advance. I imagined myself presenting it in one of the more important literary journals; perhaps I might let the TLS have it. 'Juliet Herbert: A Mystery Solved, by Geoffrey Braithwaite', illustrated with one of those photographs in which you can't quite read the handwriting. I also began to worry at the thought of Ed blurting out his discovery on campus and guilelessly yielding up his cache to some ambitious Gallicist with an astronaut's haircut.
But these were unworthy and, I hope, untypical feelings. Mostly, I was thrilled at the idea of discovering the secret of Gustave and Juliet's relationship (what else could the word 'fascinating' mean in Ed's letter?). I was also thrilled that the material might help me imagine even more exactly what Flaubert was like. The net was being pulled tighter. Would we find out, for instance, how the writer behaved in London?
This was of particular interest. Cultural exchange between England and France in the nineteenth century was at best pragmatic. French writers didn't cross the Channel to discuss aesthetics with their English counterparts; they were either running from prosecution or looking for a job. Hugo and Zola came over as exiles; Verlaine and Mallarme came over as schoolmasters. Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, chronically poor yet crazily practical, came over in search of an heiress. A Parisian marriage-broker had kitted him out for the expedition with a fur overcoat, a repeating alarm watch and a new set of false teeth, all to be paid for when the writer landed the heiress's dowry. But Villiers, tirelessly accident-prone, botched the wooing. The heiress rejected him, the broker turned up to reclaim the coat and watch, and the discarded suitor was left adrift in London, full of teeth but penniless.
So what of Flaubert? We know little about his four trips to England. We know that the Great Exhibition of 1851 secured his unexpected approval—'a very fine thing, despite being admired by everyone'—but his notes on this first visit amount to a mere seven pages: two on the British Museum, plus five on the Chinese and Indian sections at Crystal Palace. What were his first impressions of us? He must have told Juliet. Did we live up to our entries in his Dictionnaire des idées reçues (ENGLISHMEN: All rich. ENGLISHWOMEN: Express surprise that they produce pretty children)?
And what of subsequent visits, when he had become author of the notorious Madame Bovary? Did he search out English writers? Did he search out English brothels? Did he cosily stay at home with Juliet, staring at her over dinner and then storming her fortress? Were they perhaps (I half-hoped so) merely friends? Was Flaubert's English as hit-or-miss as it seems from his letters? Did he talk only Shakespearean? And did he complain much about the fog?
When I met Ed at the restaurant, he was looking even less successful than before. He told me about budget cuts, a cruel world, and his own lack of publications. I deduced, rather than heard, that he had been sacked. He explained the irony of his dismissal: it sprang from his devotion to his work, his unwillingness to do Gosse anything less than justice when presenting him to the world. Academic superiors had suggested that he cut corners. Well, he wouldn't do so. He respected writing and writers too much for that. 'I mean, don't we owe these fellers something in return?' he concluded.
Perhaps I offered slightly less than the expected sympathy. But then, can you alter the way luck flows? Just for once, it was flowing for me. I had ordered my dinner quickly, scarcely caring what I ate; Ed had pondered the menu as if he were Verlaine being bought his first square meal in months. Listening to Ed's tedious lament for himself and watching him slowly consume whitebait at the same time had used up my patience; though it had not diminished my excitement.
'Right,' I said, as we started our main course, 'Juliet Herbert.'
'Oh,' he said, 'yes.' I could see he might need prodding. 'It's an odd story.'
'It would be.'
'Yes.' Ed seemed a little pained, almost embarrassed. 'Well, I was over here about six months ago, tracking down one of Mr Gosse's distant descendants. Not that I expected to find anything. It was just that, as far as I knew, nobody had ever talked to the lady in question, and I thought it was my…duty to see her. Perhaps some family legend I hadn't accounted for had come down to her.'
'And? Oh, it hadn't. No, she wasn't really of any help. It was a nice day, though. Kent.' He looked pained again; he seemed to miss the mackintosh which the waiter had ruthlessly deprived him of. 'Ah, but I see what you mean. What had come down to her was the letters. Now let me get this right; you'll correct me, I hope. Juliet Herbert died 1909 or so? Yes. She had a cousin, woman cousin. Yes. Now, this woman found the letters and took them to Mr Gosse, asked him his opinion of their value. Mr Gosse thought he was being touched for money, so he said they were interesting but not worth anything. Whereupon this cousin apparently just handed them over to him and said, If they're not worth anything, you take them. Which he did.'
'How do you know all this?'
'There was a letter attached in Mr Gosse's hand.'
'And so they came down to this lady. Kent. I'm afraid she asked me the same question. Were they worth anything? I regret I behaved in a rather immoral fashion. I told her they had been valuable when Gosse had examined them, but they weren't any more. I said they were still quite interesting, but they weren't worth much because half of them were written in French. Then I bought them off her for fifty pounds.'
'Good God.' No wonder he looked shifty.
'Yes, it was rather bad, wasn't it? I can't really excuse myself; though the fact that Mr Gosse himself had lied when obtaining them did seem to blur the issue. It raises an interesting ethical point, don't you think? The fact is, I was rather depressed at losing my job, and I thought I'd take them home and sell them and then be able to carry on with my book.'
'How many letters are there?'
'About seventy-five. Three dozen or so on each side. That's how we settled on the price—a pound apiece for the ones in English, fifty pence for the ones in French.'
'Good God.' I wondered what they might be worth. Perhaps a thousand times what he paid for them. Or more.
'Well, go on, tell me about them.'
'Ah.' He paused, and gave me a look which might have been roguish if he hadn't been such a meek, pedantic fellow. Probably he was enjoying my excitement. 'Well, fire away. What do you want to know?'
'You have read them?'
'And, and…' I didn't know what to ask. Ed was definitely enjoying this now. 'And—did they have an affair? They did, didn't they?'
'Oh yes, certainly.'
'And when did it start? Soon after she got to Croisset?'
'Oh yes, quite soon.'
Well, that unravelled the letter to Bouilhet: Flaubert was playing the tease, pretending he had just as much, or just as little, chance as his friend with the governess; whereas in fact…
'And it continued all the time she was there?'
'And when he came to England?'
'Yes, that too.'
'And was she his fiancée?'
'It's hard to say. Pretty nearly, I'd guess. There are some references in both their letters, mostly jocular. Remarks about the little English governess trapping the famous French man of letters; what would she do if he were imprisoned for another outrage against public morals; that sort of thing.'
'Well, well, well. And do we find out what she was like?'
'What she was like? Oh, you mean to look at?'
'Yes. There wasn't…there wasn't…' He sensed my hope. '…a photograph?'
'A photograph? Yes, several, as a matter of fact; from some Chelsea studio, printed on heavy card. He must have asked her to send him some. Is that of interest?'
'It's incredible. What did she look like?'
'Pretty nice in an unmemorable sort of way. Dark hair, strong jaw, good nose. I didn't look too closely; not really my type.'
'And did they get on well together?' I hardly knew what I wanted to ask any more. Flaubert's English fiancée, I was thinking to myself. By Geoffrey Braithwaite.
'Oh yes, they seemed to. They seemed very fond. He'd mastered quite a range of English endearments by the end.'
'So he could manage the language?'
'Oh yes, there are several long passages of English in his letters.'
'And did he like London?'
'He liked it. How could he not? It was his fiancée's city of residence.'
Dear old Gustave, I murmured to myself; I felt quite tender towards him. Here, in this city, a century and a few years ago, with a compatriot of mine who had captured his heart. 'Did he complain about the fog?'
'Of course. He wrote something like, How do you manage to live with such fog? By the time a gentleman has recognised a lady as she comes at him out of the fog, it is already too late to raise his hat. I'm surprised the race doesn't die out when such conditions make difficult the natural courtesies.'
Oh yes, that was the tone—elegant, teasing, slightly lubricious. 'And what about the Great Exhibition? Does he go into detail about that? I bet he rather liked it.'
'He did. Of course, that was a few years before they first met, but he does mention it in a sentimental fashion—wonders if he might unknowingly have passed her in the crowds. He thought it was a bit awful, but also really rather splendid. He seems to have looked at all the exhibits as if they were an enormous display of source material for him.'
'And. Hmm.' Well, why not. 'I suppose he didn't go to any brothels?'
Ed looked at me rather crossly. 'Well, he was writing to his girl-friend, wasn't he? He'd hardly be boasting about that.'
'No, of course not.' I felt chastened. I also felt exhilarated. My letters. My letters. Winterton was planning to let me publish them, wasn't he?
'So when can I see them? You did bring them with you?'
'You didn't?' Well, no doubt it was sensible to keep them all in a safe place. Travel has its dangers. Unless…unless there was something I hadn't understood. Perhaps…did he want money? I suddenly realised I knew absolutely nothing about Ed Winterton, except that he was the owner of my copy of Turgenev's Literary Reminiscences. 'You didn't even bring a single one with you?'
'No. You see, I burnt them.'
'Yes, well, that's what I mean by its being an odd story.'
'It sounds like a criminal story at the moment.'
'I was sure you'd understand,' he said, much to my surprise; then smiled broadly. 'I mean, you of all people. In fact, at first I decided not to tell anyone at all, but then I remembered you. I thought that one person in the business ought to be told. Just for the record.'
'Go on.' The man was a maniac, that much was plain. No wonder they'd kicked him out of his university. If only they'd done it years earlier.
'Well, you see, they were full of fascinating stuff, the letters. Very long, a lot of them, full of reflections about other writers, public life, and so on. They were even more unbuttoned than his normal letters. Perhaps it was because he was sending them out of the country that he allowed himself such freedom.' Did this criminal, this sham, this failure, this murderer, this bald pyromaniac know what he was doing to me? Very probably he did. 'And her letters were really quite fine in their way too. Told her whole life story. Very revealing about Flaubert. Full of nostalgic descriptions of home life at Croisset. She obviously had a very good eye. Noticed things I shouldn't think anyone else would have done.'
'Go on.' I waved grimly at the waiter. I wasn't sure I could stay there much longer. I wanted to tell Winterton how really pleased I was that the British had burnt the White House to the ground.
'No doubt you're wondering why I destroyed the letters. I can see you're kind of edgy about something. Well, in the very last communication between the two of them, he says that in the event of his death, her letters will be sent back to her, and she is to burn both sides of the correspondence.'
'Did he give any reasons?'
This seemed strange, assuming that the maniac was telling the truth. But then Gustave did burn much of his correspondence with Du Camp. Perhaps some temporary pride in his family origins had asserted itself and he didn't want the world to know that he had nearly married an English governess. Or perhaps he didn't want us to know that his famous devotion to solitude and art had nearly been overthrown. But the world would know. I would tell it, one way or another.
'So you see, of course, I didn't have any alternative. I mean, if your business is writers, you have to behave towards them with integrity, don't you? You have to do what they say, even if other people don't.' What a smug, moralising bastard he was. He wore ethics the way tarts wear make-up. And then he managed to mix into the same expression both the earlier shiftiness and the later smugness. 'There was also something else in this last letter of his. A rather strange instruction on top of asking Miss Herbert to burn the correspondence. He said, If anyone ever asks you what my letters contained, or what my life was like, please lie to them. Or rather, since I cannot ask you of all people to lie, just tell them what it is you think they want to hear.'
I felt like Villiers de l'Isle-Adam: someone had lent me a fur overcoat and a repeating watch for a few days, then cruelly snatched them back. It was lucky that the waiter returned at that point. Besides, Winterton was not as stupid as all that: he had pushed his chair well back from the table and was playing with his fingernails. 'The pity of it is,' he said, as I tucked away my credit card, 'that I probably now won't be able to finance Mr Gosse. But I'm sure you'll agree it's been an interesting moral decision.'
I think the remark I then made was deeply unfair to Mr Gosse both as a writer and as a sexual being; but I do not see how I could have avoided it.
4: The Flaubert Bestiary
I attract mad people and animals.
Letter to Alfred Le Poittevin, 26 May 1845
Gustave was the Bear. His sister Caroline was the Rat—'your dear rat', 'your faithful rat' she signs herself, 'little rat', 'Ah, rat, good rat, old rat', 'old rat, naughty old rat, good rat, poor old rat' he addresses her—but Gustave was the Bear. When he was only twenty, people found him 'an odd fellow, a bear, a young man out of the ordinary'; and even before his epileptic seizure and confinement at Croisset, the image had established itself: 'I am a bear and I want to stay a bear in my den, in my lair, in my skin, in my old bear's skin; I want to live quietly, far away from the bourgeois and the bourgeoises.' After his attack, the beast confirmed itself: 'I live alone, like a bear.' (The word 'alone' in this sentence is best glossed as: 'alone except for my parents, my sister, the servants, our dog, Caroline's goat, and my regular visits from Alfred Le Poittevin'.)
He recovered, he was allowed to travel; in December 1850 he wrote to his mother from Constantinople, expanding the image of the Bear. It now explained not just his character, but also his literary strategy:
If you participate in life, you don't see it clearly: you suffer from it too much or enjoy it too much. The artist, to my way of thinking, is a monstrosity, something outside nature. All the misfortunes Providence inflicts on him come from his stubbornness in denying that maxim…So (and this is my conclusion) I am resigned to living as I have lived: alone, with my throng of great men as my only cronies—a bear, with my bear-rug for company.
The 'throng of cronies', needless to say, aren't house-guests but companions picked from his library shelves. As for the bear-rug, he was always concerned about it: he wrote twice from the East (Constantinople, April 1850; Benisouef, June 1850) asking his mother to take care of it. His niece Caroline also remembered this central feature of his study. She would be taken there for her lessons at one o'clock: the shutters would be closed to keep out the heat, and the darkened room filled with the smell of joss-sticks and tobacco. 'With one bound I would throw myself on the large white bearskin, which I adored, and cover its great head with kisses.'
Once you catch your bear, says the Macedonian proverb, it will dance for you. Gustave didn't dance; Flaubear was nobody's bear. (How would you fiddle that into French? Gourstave, perhaps.)
BEAR: Generally called Martin. Quote the story of the old soldier who saw that a watch had fallen into a bear-pit, climbed down into it, and was eaten.
Dictionnaire des idées reçues
Gustave is other animals as well. In his youth he is clusters of beasts: hungry to see Ernest Chevalier, he is 'a lion, a tiger—a tiger from India, a boa constrictor' (1841); feeling a rare plenitude of strength, he is 'an ox, sphinx, bittern, elephant, whale' (1841). Subsequently, he takes them one at a time. He is an oyster in its shell (1845); a snail in its shell (1851); a hedgehog rolling up to protect itself (1853, 1857). He is a literary lizard basking in the sun of Beauty (1846), and a warbler with a shrill cry which hides in the depths of the woods and is heard only by itself (also 1846). He becomes as soft and nervous as a cow (1867); he feels as worn out as a donkey (1867); yet still he splashes in the Seine like a porpoise (1870). He works like a mule (1852); he lives a life which would kill three rhinos (1872); he works 'like XV oxen' (1878); though he advises Louise Colet to burrow away at her work like a mole (1853). To Louise he resembles 'a wild buffalo of the American prairie' (1846). To George Sand, however, he seems 'gentle as a lamb' (1866)—which he denies (1869)—and the pair of them chatter away like magpies (1866); ten years later, at her funeral, he weeps like a calf (1876). Alone in his study, he finishes the story he wrote especially for her, the story about the parrot; he bellows it out 'like a gorilla' (1876).
He flirts occasionally with the rhinoceros and the camel as self-images, but mainly, secretly, essentially, he is the Bear: a stubborn bear (1852), a bear thrust deeper into bearishness by the stupidity of his age (1853), a mangy bear (1854), even a stuffed bear (1869); and so on own to the very last year of his life, when he is still 'roaring as oudly as any bear in its cave' (1880). Note that in Hérodias, Flaubert's last completed work, the imprisoned prophet Iaokanann, when ordered to stop howling his denunciations against a corrupt world, replies that he too will continue crying out 'like a bear'.
Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.
There were still bears around in Gourstave's time: brown bears in the Alps, reddish bears in Savoy. Bear hams were available from superior dealers in salted provisions. Alexandre Dumas ate bear steak at the Hôtel de la Poste, Marigny, in 1832; later, in his Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine (1870), he noted that 'bear meat is now eaten by all the peoples of Europe'. From the chef to Their Majesties of Prussia Dumas obtained a recipe for bear's paws, Moscow style. Buy the paws skinned. Wash, salt, and marinade for three days. Casserole with bacon and vegetables for seven or eight hours; drain, wipe, sprinkle with pepper, and turn in melted lard. Roll in breadcrumbs and grill for half an hour. Serve with a piquant sauce and two spoonfuls of redcurrant jelly.
It is not known whether Flaubear ever ate his namesake. He ate dromedary in Damascus in 1850. It seems a reasonable guess that if he had eaten bear he would have commented on such ipsophagy.
Exactly what species of bear was Flaubear? We can track his spoor through the Letters. At first he is just an unspecified ours, a bear (1841). He's still unspecified—though owner of a den—in 1843, in January 1845, and in May 1845 (by now he boasts a triple layer of fur). In June 1845 he wants to buy a painting of a bear for his room and entitle it 'Portrait of Gustave Flaubert'—'to indicate my moral disposition and my social temperament'. So far we (and he too, perhaps) have been imagining a dark animal: an American brown bear, a Russian black bear, a reddish bear from Savoy. But in September 1845 Gustave firmly announces himself to be 'a white bear'.
Why? Is it because he's a bear who is also a white European? Is it perhaps an identity taken from the white bearskin rug on his study floor (which he first mentions in a letter to Louise Colet of August 1846, telling her that he likes to stretch out on it during the day. Maybe he chose his species so that he could lie on his rug, punning and camouflaged)? Or is this coloration indicative of a further shift away from humanity, a progression to the extremes of ursinity? The brown, the black, the reddish bear are not that far from man, from man's cities, man's friendship even. The coloured bears can mostly be tamed. But the white, the polar bear? It doesn't dance for man's pleasure; it doesn't eat berries; it can't be trapped by a weakness for honey.
Other bears are used. The Romans imported bears from Britain for their games. The Kamchatkans, a people of eastern Siberia, used to employ the intestines of bears as face-masks to protect them from the glare of the sun; and they used the sharpened shoulder-blade for cutting grass. But the white bear, Thalarctos maritimus, is the aristocrat of bears. Aloof, distant, stylishly diving for fish, roughly ambushing seals when they come up for air. The maritime bear. They travel great distances, carried along on floating pack-ice. One winter in the last century twelve great white bears got as far south as Iceland by this method; imagine them riding down on their melting thrones to make a terrifying, godlike landfall. William Scoresby, the Arctic explorer, noted that the liver of the bear is poisonous—the only part of any quadruped known to be so. Among zoo-keepers there is no known test for pregnancy in the polar bear. Strange facts that Flaubert might not have found strange.
When the Yakuts, a Siberian people, meet a bear, they doff their caps, greet him, call him master, old man or grandfather, and promise not to attack him or even speak ill of him. But if he looks as though he may pounce on them, they shoot at him, and if they kill him, they cut him in pieces and roast him and regale themselves, repeating all the while, 'It is the Russians who are eating you, not us.'
A.-F. Aulagnier, Dictionnaire des aliments et boissons
Were there other reasons why he chose to be a bear? The figurative sense of ours is much the same as in English: a rough, wild fellow. Ours is slang for a police cell. Avoir ses ours, to have one's bears, means 'to have the curse' (presumably because at such times a woman is supposed to behave like a bear with a sore head). Etymologists trace this colloquialism to the turn of the century (Flaubert doesn't use it; he prefers the redcoats have landed, and other humorous variations thereon. On one occasion, having worried over Louise Colet's irregularity, he finally notes with relief that Lord Palmerston has arrived). Un ours mal léché, a badly licked bear, is someone uncouth and misanthropic. More apt for Flaubert, un ours was nineteenth-century slang for a play which had been frequently submitted and turned down, but eventually accepted.
No doubt Flaubert knew La Fontaine's fable of the Bear and the Man Who Delighted in Gardens. There once was a bear, an ugly and deformed creature, who hid from the world and lived all alone in a wood. After a while he became melancholy and frantic—'for indeed, Reason seldom resides long among Anchorites'. So he set off and met a gardener, who had also lived a hermetic life, and also longed for company. The bear moved into the gardener's hovel. The gardener had become a hermit because he could not abide fools; but since the bear spoke scarcely three words in the course of the day, he was able to get on with his work without disturbance. The bear used to go hunting, and bring home game for both of them. When the gardener went to sleep, the bear would sit beside him devotedly and chase away the flies that tried to settle on his face. One day, a fly landed on the tip of the man's nose, and declined to be driven away. The bear became extremely angry with the fly, and eventually seized a huge stone and succeeded in killing it. Unfortunately, in the process he beat the gardener's brains out.
Perhaps Louise Colet knew the story too.
If Gustave hadn't been the Bear, he might have been the Camel. In January 1852 he writes to Louise and explains, yet again, his incorrigibility: he is as he is, he cannot change, he does not have a say in the matter, he is subject to the gravity of, things, that gravity 'which makes the polar bear inhabit the icy regions and the camel walk upon the sand'. Why the camel? Perhaps because it is a fine example of the Flaubertian grotesque: it cannot help being serious and comic at the same time. He reports from Cairo: 'One of the finest things is the camel. I never tire of watching this strange beast that lurches like a turkey and sways its neck like a swan. Its cry is something I wear myself out trying to imitate—I hope to bring it back with me—but it's hard to reproduce—a rattle with a kind of tremendous gargling as an accompaniment.'
The species also exhibited a character trait which was familiar to Gustave: 'I am, in both my physical and my mental activity, like the dromedary, which it is very hard to get going and very hard, once it is going, to stop; continuity is what I need, whether of rest or of motion.' This 1853 analogy, once it has got going, also proves hard to stop: it is still running in a letter to George Sand of 1868.
Chameau, camel, was slang for an old courtesan. I do not think this association would have put Flaubert off.
Flaubert loved fairs: the tumblers, the giantesses, the freaks, the dancing bears. In Marseilles he visited a quayside booth advertising 'sheep-women', who ran around while sailors tugged at their fleeces to see if they were real. This was not a high-class show: 'nothing could be stupider or filthier', he reported. He was far more impressed at the fair in Guérande, an old fortified town north-west of St Nazaire, which he visited during his walking tour of Brittany with Du Camp in 1847. A booth run by a sly peasant with a Picardy accent advertised 'a young phenomenon': it turned out to be a five-legged sheep with a tail in the shape of a trumpet. Flaubert was delighted, both with the freak and with its owner. He admired the beast rapturously; he took the owner out to dinner, assured him he would make a fortune, and advised him to write to King Louis Philippe on the matter. By the end of the evening, to Du Camp's clear disapproval, they were calling one another tu.
'The young phenomenon' fascinated Flaubert, and became part of his teasing vocabulary. As he and Du Camp tramped along, he would introduce his friend to the trees and the bushes with mock gravity: 'May I present the young phenomenon?' At Brest, Gustave fell in with the sly Picard and his freak once again, dined and got drunk with him, and further praised the magnificence of his animal. He was often thus overcome by frivolous manias; Du Camp waited for this one to run its course like a fever.
The following year, in Paris, Du Camp was ill, and confined to bed in his apartment. At four o'clock one afternoon he heard a commotion on the landing outside, and his door was flung open. Gustave strode in, followed by the five-legged sheep and the showman in the blue blouse. Some fair at the Invalides or the Champs-Elysées had disgorged them, and Flaubert was eager to share their rediscovery with his friend. Du Camp drily notes that the sheep 'did not conduct itself well'. Nor did Gustave—shouting for wine, leading the animal round the room and bellowing its virtues: 'The young phenomenon is three years old, has passed the Académie de Médecine, and has been honoured by visits from several crowned heads, etc.' After a quarter of an hour the sick Du Camp had had enough. 'I dismissed the sheep and its proprietor, and had my room swept.'
But the sheep had left its droppings in Flaubert's memory as well. A year before his death he was still reminding Du Camp about his surprise arrival with the young phenomenon, and still laughing as much as the day it had happened.
The Monkey, the Donkey, the Ostrich, the Second Donkey, and Maxime du Camp
A week ago I saw a monkey in the street jump on a donkey and try to wank him off—the donkey brayed and kicked, the monkey's owner shouted, the monkey itself squealed—apart from two or three children who laughed and me who found it very funny, no one paid any attention. When I described this to M. Bellin, the secretary at the consulate, he told me of having seen an ostrich trying to rape a donkey. Max had himself wanked off the other day in a deserted section among some ruins and said it was very good.
Letter to Louis Bouilhet, Cairo, January 15th, 1850
Parrots are human to begin with; etymologically, that is. Perroquet is a diminutive of Pierrot; parrot comes from Pierre; Spanish perico derives from Pedro. For the Greeks, their ability to speak was an item in the philosophical debate over the differences between man and the animals. Aelian reports that 'the Brahmins honour them above all other birds. And they add that it is only reasonable to do so; for the parrot alone can give a good imitation of the human voice.' Aristotle and Pliny note that the bird is extremely lecherous when drunk. More pertinently, Buffon observes that it is prone to epilepsy. Flaubert knew of this fraternal weakness: the notes he took on parrots when researching Un coeur simple include a list of their maladies—gout, epilepsy, aphtha and throat ulcers.
To recapitulate. First there is Loulou, Félicité's parrot. Then there are the two contending stuffed parrots, one at the Hôtel-Dieu and one at Croisset. Then there are the three live parrots, two at Trouville and one at Venice; plus the sick parakeet at Antibes. As a possible source for Loulou we can, I think, eliminate the mother of a 'hideous' English family encountered by Gustave on the boat from Alexandria to Cairo: with a green eyeshade attached to her bonnet, she looked 'like a sick old parrot'.
Caroline, in her Souvenirs intimes, remarks that 'Félicité and her parrot really lived' and directs us towards the first Trouville parrot, that of Captain Barbey, as the true ancestor of Loulou. But this doesn't answer the more important question: how, and when, did a simple (if magnificent) living bird of the 1830s get turned into a complicated, transcendent parrot of the 1870s? We probably shan't ever find out; but we can suggest a point at which the transformation might have begun.
The second, uncompleted part of Bouvard et Pécuchet was to consist mainly of 'La Copie', an enormous dossier of oddities, idiocies and self-condemning quotations, which the two clerks were solemnly to copy out for their own edification, and which Flaubert would reproduce with a more sardonic intent. Among the thousands of press cuttings he collected for possible inclusion in the dossier is the following story, clipped from L'Opinion nationale of June 20th, 1863:
'In Géurouville, near Arlon, there lived a man who owned a magnificent parrot. It was his sole love. As a young man, he had been the victim of an ill-starred passion; the experience had made him misanthropic, and now he lived alone with his parrot. He had taught the bird to pronounce the name of his lost love, and this name was repeated a hundred times a day. This was the bird's only talent, but in the eyes of its owner, the unfortunate Henri K—, it was a talent worth all the others. Every time he heard the sacred name pronounced by this strange voice, Henri thrilled with joy; it seemed to him like a voice from beyond the grave, something mysterious and superhuman.
'Solitude enflamed the imagination of Henri K—, and gradually the parrot began to take on a rare significance in his mind. For him it became a kind ofholy bird: he would handle it with deep respect, and spend hours in rapt contemplation ofit. Then the parrot, returning its master's gaze with an unflinching eye, would murmur the cabbalistic word, and Henri's soul would be filled with the memory of his lost happiness. This strange life lasted several years. One day, however, people noticed that Henri K—was looking gloomier than usual; and there was a strange, wild light in his eye. The parrot had died.
'Henri K—continued to live alone, now completely so. He had no link with the outside world. He became more and more wrapped up in himself. Sometimes he would not leave his room for days on end. He would eat whatever food was brought him, but took no notice of anyone. Gradually he began to believe that he himself had turned into a parrot. As if in imitation of the dead bird, he would squawk out the name he loved to hear; he would try walking like a parrot, perching on things, and extending his arms as if he had wings to beat.
'Sometimes, he would lose his temper and start breaking the furniture; and his family decided to send him to the maison de santé at Gheel. On the journey there, however, he escaped during the night. The next morning they found him perched in a tree. Persuading him to come down proved very difficult, until someone had the idea of placing at the foot of his tree an enormous parrot-cage. On seeing this, the unfortunate monomaniac climbed down and was recaptured. He is now in the maison de santé at Gheel.'
We know that Flaubert was struck by this newspaper story. After the line, 'gradually the parrot began to take on a rare significance in his mind', he made the following annotation: 'Change the animal: make it a dog instead of a parrot.' Some brief plan for a future work, no doubt. But when, finally, the story of Loulou and Félicité came to be written, it was the parrot which stayed in place, and the owner who was changed.
Before Un coeur simple, parrots flit briefly through Flaubert's work, and through his letters. Explaining to Louise the pull of foreign lands (December 11th, 1846), Gustave writes: 'When we are children, we all want to live in the country of parrots and candied dates.' Comforting a sad and discouraged Louise (March 27th, 1853), he reminds her that we are all caged birds, and that life weighs the heaviest on those with the largest wings: 'We are all to a greater or lesser degree eagles or canaries, parrots or vultures.' Denying to Louise that he is vain (December 9th, 1852), he distinguishes between Pride and Vanity: 'Pride is a wild beast which lives in caves and roams the desert; Vanity, on the other hand, is a parrot which hops from branch to branch and chatters away in full view.' Describing to Louise the heroic quest for style that Madame Bovary represents (April 19th, 1852), he explains: 'How many times have I fallen flat on my face, just when I thought I had it within my grasp. Still, I feel that I mustn't die without making sure that the style I can hear inside my head comes roaring out and drowns the cries of parrots and cicadas.'
In Salammbô, as I have already mentioned, the Carthaginian translators have parrots tattooed on their chests (a detail perhaps more apt than authentic?); in the same novel, some of the Barbarians have 'sunshades in their hands or parrots on their shoulders'; while the furnishings of Salammbô's terrace include a small ivory bed whose cushions are stuffed with parrot feathers—'for this was a prophetic bird, consecrated to the gods'.
There are no parrots in Madame Bovary or Bouvard et Pécuchet; no entry for PERROQUET in the Dictionnaire des idées reçues; and only a couple of brief mentions in La Tentation de saint Antoine. In Saint Julien l'hospitalier few animal species avoid slaughter during Julien's first hunt—roosting grouse have their legs cut off, and low-flying cranes are snapped out of the sky by the huntsman's whip—but the parrot remains unmentioned and unharmed. In the second hunt, however, when Julien's ability to kill evaporates, when the animals become elusive, threatening observers of their stumbling pursuer, the parrot makes an appearance. Flashes of light in the forest, which Julien assumed to be stars low in the sky, prove to be the eyes of watching beasts: wild cats, squirrels, owls, parrots and monkeys.
And let's not forget the parrot that wasn't there. In L'Education sentimentale Frédéric wanders through an area of Paris wrecked by the 1848 uprising. He walks past barricades which have been torn down; he sees black pools that must be blood; houses have their blinds hanging like rags from a single nail. Here and there amid the chaos, delicate things have survived by chance. Frédéric peers in at a window. He sees a clock, some prints—and a parrot's perch.
It isn't so different, the way we wander through the past. Lost, disordered, fearful, we follow what signs there remain; we read the street names, but cannot be confident where we are. All around is wreckage. These people never stopped fighting. Then we see a house; a writer's house, perhaps. There is a plaque on the front wall. 'Gustave Flaubert, French writer, 1821-1880, lived here while—' but then the letters shrink impossibly, as if on some optician's chart. We walk closer. We look in at a window. Yes, it's true; despite the carnage some delicate things have survived. A clock still ticks. Prints on the wall remind us that art was once appreciated here. A parrot's perch catches the eye. We look for the parrot. Where is the parrot? We still hear its voice; but all we can see is a bare wooden perch. The bird has flown.
1 The Dog Romantic. This was a large Newfoundland, the property of Elisa Schlesinger. If we believe Du Camp, he was called Nero; if we believe Goncourt, he was called Thabor. Gustave met Mme Schlesinger at Trouville: he was fourteen and a half, she twenty-six. She was beautiful, her husband was rich; she wore an immense straw hat, and her well-modelled shoulders could be glimpsed through her muslin dress. Nero, or Thabor, went everywhere with her. Gustave often followed at a discreet distance. Once, on the dunes, she opened her dress and suckled her baby. He was lost, helpless, tortured, fallen. Ever afterwards he would maintain that the brief summer of 1836 had cauterised his heart. (We are at liberty, of course, to disbelieve him. What did the Goncourts say? 'Though perfectly frank by nature, he is never wholly sincere in what he says he feels and suffers and loves.') And whom did he first tell of this passion? His schoolfriends? His mother? Mme Schlesinger herself? No: he told Nero (or Thabor). He would take the Newfoundland for walks across the Trouville sands, and in the soft secrecy of a dune he would drop down on his knees and wrap his arms around the dog. Then he would kiss it where he knew its mistress's lips had been not long before (the location of the kiss remains a matter of debate: some say on the muzzle, some say on the top of the head); he would whisper in shaggy ear of Nero (or Thabor) the secrets he longed to whisper in the ear that lay between the muslin dress and the straw hat; and he would burst into tears.
The memory of Mme Schlesinger, and her presence too, pursued Flaubert for the rest of his life. What happened to the dog is not recorded.
2 The Dog Practical. Not sufficient study, to my mind, has been made of the pets which were kept at Croisset. They flicker into brief existence, sometimes with a name attached, sometimes not; we rarely know when or how they were acquired, and when or how they died. Let us assemble them:
In 1840 Gustave's sister Caroline has a goat called Souvit.
In 1840 the family has a black Newfoundland bitch called Néo (perhaps this name influenced Du Camp's memory of Mme Schlesinger's Newfoundland).
In 1853 Gustave dines alone at Croisset with an unnamed dog.
In 1854 Gustave dines with a dog named Dakno; probably the same animal as above.
In 1856-7 his niece Caroline has a pet rabbit.
In 1856 he exhibits on his lawn a stuffed crocodile he has brought back from the East: enabling it to bask in the sun again for the first time in 3,000 years.
In 1858 a wild rabbit takes up residence in the garden; Gustave forbids its slaughter.
In 1866 Gustave dines alone with a bowl of goldfish.
In 1867 the pet dog (no name, no breed) is killed by poison which has been laid down for rats.
In 1872 Gustave acquires Julio, a greyhound.
Note: If we are to complete the list of known domestic creatures to which Gustave played host, we must record that in October 1842 he suffered an infestation of crab-lice.
Of the pets listed above, the only one about which we have proper information is Julio. In April 1872 Mme Flaubert died; Gustave was left alone in the big house, having meals at a large table 'tête-à-tête with myself'. In September his friend Edmond Laporte offered him a greyhound. Flaubert hesitated, being frightened of rabies, but eventually accepted it. He named the dog Julio (in honour of Juliet Herbert?—if you wish) and quickly grew fond of it. By the end of the month he was writing to his niece that—his sole distraction (thirty-six years after casting his arms round Mme Schlesinger's Newfoundland) was to embrace his 'pauvre chien'. 'His calm and his beauty make one jealous.'
The greyhound became his final companion at Croisset. An unlikely couple: the stout, sedentary novelist and the sleek racing dog. Julio's own private life began to feature in Flaubert's correspondence: he announced that the dog had become 'morganatically united' with 'a young person' of the neighbourhood. Owner and pet even got ill together: in the spring of 1879 Flaubert had rheumatism and a swollen foot, while Julio had an unspecified canine disease. 'He is exactly like a person,' Gustave wrote. 'He makes little gestures that are profoundly human.' Both of them recovered, and staggered on through the year. The winter of 1879-80 was exceptionally cold. Flaubert's housekeeper made Julio a coat out of an old pair of trousers. They got through the winter together. Flaubert died in the spring.
What happened to the dog is not recorded.
3 The Dog Figurative. Madame Bovary has a dog, given to her by a game-keeper whose chest infection has been cured by her husband. It is une petite levrette d'Italie: a small Italian greyhound bitch. Nabokov, who is exceedingly peremptory with all translators of Flaubert, renders this as whippet. Whether he is zoologically correct or not, he certainly loses the sex of the animal, which seems to me important. This dog is given a passing significance as…less than a symbol, not exactly a metaphor; call it a figure. Emma acquires the greyhound while she and Charles are still living at Tostes: the time of early, inchoate stirrings of dissatisfaction within her; the time of boredom and discontent, but not yet of corruption. She takes her greyhound for walks, and the animal becomes, tactfully, briefly, for half a paragraph or so, something more than just a dog. 'At first her thoughts would wander aimlessly, like her greyhound, which ran in circles, yapping after yellow butterflies, chasing field-mice and nibbling at poppies on the edge of a cornfield. Then, gradually, her ideas would come together until, sitting on a stretch of grass and stabbing at it with the end ofher parasol, she would repeat to herself, "Oh God, why did I get married?"'
That is the first appearance of the dog, a delicate insertion; afterwards, Emma holds its head and kisses it (as Gustave had done to Nero/Thabor): the dog has a melancholy expression, and she talks to it as if to someone in need of consolation. She is talking, in other words (and in both senses), to herself. The dog's second appearance is also its last. Charles and Emma move from Tostes to Yonville—a journey which marks Emma's shift from dreams and fantasies to reality and corruption. Note also the traveller who shares the coach with them: the ironically named Monsieur Lheureux, the fancy-goods dealer and part-time usurer who finally ensnares Emma (financial corruption marks her fall as much as sexual corruption). On the journey, Emma's greyhound escapes. They spend a good quarter of an hour whistling for it, and then give up. M. Lheureux plies Emma with a foretaste of false comfort: he tells her consoling stories of lost dogs which have returned to their masterss despite great distances; why, there was even one that made it all the way back to Paris from Constantinople. Emma's reaction to these stories is not recorded.
What happened to the dog is also not recorded.
4 The Dog Drowned and the Dog Fantastical. In January 1852 Flaubert and Du Camp were in Greece. They visited Marathón, Eleusis and Salamís. They met General Morandi, a soldier of fortune who had fought at Missolonghi, and who indignantly denied to them the calumny put about by the British aristocracy that Byron had deteriorated morally while in Greece: 'He was magnificent,' the General told them. 'He looked like Achilles.' Du Camp records how they visited Thermopylae and re-read their Plutarch on the battlefield. On January 12th they were heading towards Eleuthera—the two friends, a dragoman, and an armed policeman they employed as a guard—when the weather worsened. Rain fell heavily; the plain they were crossing became inundated; the policeman's Scotch terrier was suddenly carried away and drowned in a swollen torrent. The rain turned to snow, and darkness closed in. Clouds shut out the stars; their solitude was complete.
An hour passed, then another; snow gathered thickly in the folds of their clothes; they missed their road. The policeman fired some pistol shots in the air, but there was no answer. Saturated, and very cold, they faced the prospect of a night in the saddle amid inhospitable terrain. The policeman was grieving for his Scotch terrier, while the dragoman—a fellow with big, prominent eyes like a lobster's—had proved singularly incompetent throughout the trip; even his cooking had been a failure. They were riding cautiously, straining their eyes for a distant light, when the policeman shouted, 'Halt!' A dog was barking somewhere in the far distance. It was then that the dragoman displayed his sole talent: the ability to bark like a dog. He began to do so with a desperate vigour. When he stopped, they listened, and heard answering barks. The dragoman howled again. Slowly they advanced, stopping every so often to bark and be barked back at, then reorienting themselves. After half an hour of marching towards the ever-loudening village dog, they eventually found shelter for the night.
What happened to the dragoman is not recorded.
Note: Is it fair to add that Gustave's journal offers a different version of the story? He agrees about the weather; he agrees about the date; he agrees that the dragoman couldn't cook (a constant offering of lamb and hard-boiled eggs drove him to lunch on dry bread). Strangely, though, he doesn't mention reading Plutarch on the battlefield. The policeman's dog (breed unidentified in Flaubert's version) wasn't carried away by a torrent; it just drowned in deep water. As for the barking dragoman, Gustave merely records that when they heard the village dog in the distance, he ordered the policeman to fire his pistol in the air. The dog barked its reply; the policeman fired again; and by this more ordinary means they progressed towards shelter.
What happened to the truth is not recorded.
In the more bookish areas of English middle-class society, whenever a coincidence occurs there is usually someone at hand to comment, 'It's just like Anthony Powell.' Often the coincidence turns out, on the shortest examination, to be unremarkable: typically, it might consist of two acquaintances from school or university running into one another after a gap of several years. But the name of Powell is invoked to give legitimacy to the event; it's rather like getting the priest to bless your car.
I don't much care for coincidences. There's something spooky about them: you sense momentarily what it must be like to live in an ordered, God-run universe, with Himself looking over your shoulder and helpfully dropping coarse hints about a cosmic plan. I prefer to feel that things are chaotic, free-wheeling, permanently as well as temporarily crazy—to feel the certainty of human ignorance, brutality and folly. 'Whatever else happens,' Flaubert wrote when the Franco-Prussian war broke out, 'we shall remain stupid.' Mere boastful pessimism? Or a necessary razing of expectation before anything can be properly thought, or done, or written?
I don't even care for harmless, comic coincidences. I once went out to dinner and discovered that the seven other people present had all just finished reading A Dance to the Music of Time. I didn't relish this: not least because it meant that I didn't break my silence until the cheese course.
And as for coincidences in books—there's something cheap and sentimental about the device; it can't help always seeming aesthetically gimcrack. That troubadour who passes by just in time to rescue the girl from a hedgerow scuffle; the sudden but convenient Dickensian benefactors; the neat shipwreck on a foreign shore which reunites siblings and lovers. I once disparaged this lazy stratagem to a poet I met, a man presumably skilled in the coincidences of rhyme. 'Perhaps,' he replied with a genial loftiness, 'you have too prosaic a mind?'
'But surely,' I came back, rather pleased with myself, 'a prosaic mind is the best judge of prose?'
I'd ban coincidences, if I were a dictator of fiction. Well, perhaps not entirely. Coincidences would be permitted in the picaresque; that's where they belong. Go on, take them: let the pilot whose parachute has failed to open land in the haystack, let the virtuous pauper with the gangrenous foot discover the buried treasure—it's all right, it doesn't really matter…
One way of legitimising coincidences, of course, is to call them ironies. That's what smart people do. Irony is, after all, the modern mode, a drinking companion for resonance and wit. Who could be against it? And yet sometimes I wonder if the wittiest, most resonant irony isn't just a well-brushed, well-educated coincidence.
I don't know what Flaubert thought about coincidence. I had hoped for some characteristic entry in his unflaggingly ironic Dictionnaire des idées revues; but it jumps pointedly from cognac to coitus. Still, his love of irony is plain; it's one of the most modern things about him. In Egypt he was delighted to discover that almeh, the word for 'bluestocking', had gradually lost this original meaning and come to signify 'whore'.
Do ironies accrete around the ironist? Flaubert certainly thought so. The celebrations for the centenary of Voltaire's death in 1878 were stage-managed by the chocolate firm of Menier. 'That poor old genius,' Gustave commented, 'how irony never quits him.' It badgered Gustave too. When he wrote of himself, 'I attract mad people and animals', perhaps he should have added 'and ironies'.
Take Madame Bovary. It was prosecuted for obscenity by Ernest Pinard, the advocate who also enjoys the shabby fame of leading the case against Les Fleurs du mal. Some years after Bovary had been cleared, Pinard was discovered to be the anonymous author of a collection of priapic verses. The novelist was much amused.
And then, take the book itself. Two of the best-remembered things in it are Emma's adulterous drive in the curtained cab (a passage found especially scandalous by right-thinkers), and the very last line of the novel—'He has just received the Legion of Honour'—which confirms the bourgeois apotheosis of the pharmacist Homais. Now, the idea for the curtained cab appears to have come to Flaubert as a result of his own eccentric conduct in Paris when anxious to avoid running into Louise Colet. To avoid being recognised, he took to driving everywhere in a closed cab. Thus, he maintained his chastity by using a device he would later employ to facilitate his heroine's sexual indulgence.
With Homais's Légion d'honneur, it's the other way round: life imitates and ironises art. Barely ten years after that final line of Madame Bovary was written, Flaubert, arch anti-bourgeois and virile hater of governments, allowed himself to be created a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur. Consequently, the last line of his life parroted the last line of his masterpiece: at his funeral a picket of soldiers turned up to fire a volley over the coffin, and thus bid the state's traditional farewell to one of its most improbable and sardonic chevaliers.
And if you don't like these ironies, I have others.
1: DAWN AT THE PYRAMIDS
In December 1849 Flaubert and Du Camp climbed the Great Pyramid of Cheops. They had slept beside it the previous night, and rose at five to make sure of reaching the top by sunrise. Gustave washed his face in a canvas pail; a jackal howled; he smoked a pipe. Then, with two Arabs pushing him and two pulling, he was bundled slowly up the high stones of the Pyramid to the summit. Du Camp—the first man to photograph the Sphinx—was there already. Ahead of them lay the Nile, bathed in mist, like a white sea; behind them lay the dark desert, like a petrified purple ocean. At last, a streak of orange light appeared to the east; and gradually the white sea in front of them became an immense expanse of fertile green, while the purple ocean behind turned shimmering white. The rising sun lit up the topmost stones of the Pyramid, and Flaubert, looking down at his feet, noticed a small business-card pinned in place. 'Humbert, Frotteur', it read, and gave a Rouen address.
What a moment of perfectly targeted irony. A modernist moment, too: this is the sort of exchange, in which the everyday tampers with the sublime, that we like to think of proprietorially as typical of our own wry and unfoolable age. We thank Flaubert for picking it up; in a sense, the irony wasn't there until he observed it. Other visitors might have seen the business-card as merely a piece of litter—it could have stayed there, its drawing-pins slowly rusting, for years; but Flaubert gave it function.
And if we are feeling interpretative, we can look further into this brief event. Isn't it, perhaps, a notable historical coincidence that the greatest European novelist of the nineteenth century should be introduced at the Pyramids to one of the twentieth century's most notorious fictional characters? That Flaubert, still damp from skewering boys in Cairo bath-houses, should fall on the name of Nabokov's seducer of underage American girlhood? And further, what is the profession of this single-barrelled version of Humbert Humbert? He is a frotteur. Literally, a French polisher; but also, the sort of sexual deviant who loves the rub of the crowd.
And that's not all. Now for the irony about the irony. It turns out, from Flaubert's travel notes, that the business-card wasn't pinned in place by Monsieur Frotteur himself; it was put there by the lithe and thoughtful Maxime du Camp, who had scampered ahead in the purple night and laid out this little mousetrap for his friend's sensibility. The balance of our response shifts with this knowledge: Flaubert becomes plodding and predictable; Du Camp becomes the wit, the dandy, the teaser of modernism before modernism has declared itself.
But then we read on again. If we turn to Flaubert's letters, we discover him, some days after the incident, writing to his mother about the sublime surprise of the discovery. 'And to think that I had specially brought that card all the way from Croisset and didn't even get to put it in place! The villain took advantage of my forgetfulness and discovered the wonderfully apposite business-card in the bottom of my folding hat.' So, ever stranger: Flaubert, when he left home, was already preparing the special effects which would later appear entirely characteristic of how he perceived the world. Ironies breed; realities recede. And why, just out of interest, did he take his folding hat to the Pyramids?
2: DESERT ISLAND DISCS
Gustave used to look back on his summer holidays at Trouville—spent between Captain Barbey's parrot and Mme Schlesinger's dog—as among the few tranquil times of his life. Reminiscing from the autumn of his mid-twenties, he told Louise Colet that 'the greatest events of my life have been a few thoughts, reading, certain sunsets by the sea at Trouville, and conversations of five or six hours on the trot with a friend [Alfred Le Poittevin] who is now married and lost to me.'
In Trouville he met Gertrude and Harriet Collier, daughters of a British naval attaché. Both, it seems, became enamoured of him. Harriet gave him her portrait, which hung over the chimney-piece at Croisset; but it was of Gertrude that he was fonder. Her feelings for him may be guessed at from a text she wrote decades later, after Gustave's death. Adopting the style of romantic fiction, and using disguised names, she boasts that 'I loved him passionately, adoringly. Years have passed over my head but I have never felt the worship, the love and yet the fear that took possession of my soul then. Something told me I should never be his…But I knew, in the deepest recesses of my heart, how truly I could love him, honour him and obey him.'
Gertrude's lush memoir might well be fanciful: what, after all, is more sentimentally alluring than a dead genius and an adolescent beach holiday? But perhaps it wasn't. Gustave and Gertrude kept in distant touch along the decades. He sent her a copy of Madame Bovary (she thanked him, pronounced the novel 'hideous', and quoted at him Philip James Bailey, author of Festus, on the writer's duty to give moral instruction to the reader); and forty years after that first meeting in Trouville she came to visit him at Croisset. The handsome, blond cavalier of her youth was now bald and red-faced, with only a couple of teeth left in his head. But his gallantry remained in good health. 'My old friend, my youth,' he wrote to her afterwards, 'during the long years I have lived without knowing your whereabouts, there was perhaps not a single day when I did not think of you.
During the course of those long years (in 1847, to be precise, the year after Flaubert was recalling his Trouville sunsets to Louise) Gertrude had promised to love, honour and obey someone else: an English economist called Charles Tennant. While Flaubert slowly attained European fame as a novelist, Gertrude was herself to publish a book: an edition of her grandfather's journal, called France on the Eve of the Great Revolution. She died in 1918 at the age of ninety-nine; and she had a daughter, Dorothy, who married the explorer Henry Morton Stanley.
On one of Stanley's trips to Africa, his party got into difficulties. The explorer was obliged gradually to discard all his unnecessary belongings. It was, in a way, a reverse, real-life version of 'Desert Island Discs': instead of being equipped with things to make life in the tropics more bearable, Stanley was having to get rid of things to survive there. Books were obviously supernumerary, and he began jettisoning them until he got down to those two which every guest on 'Desert Island Discs' is furnished with as a bare, civilised minimum: the Bible and Shakespeare. Stanley's third book, the one he threw out before reducing himself to this final minimum, was Salammbô.