3: THE SNAP OF COFFINS The weary, valetudinarian tone of Flaubert's letter to Louise Colet about the sunsets was not a pose. 1846, after all, was the year when first his father and then his sister Caroline had died. 'What a house!' he wrote. 'What a hell!' All night Gustave watched beside his sister's corpse: she lying in her white wedding-dress, he sitting and reading Montaigne.
On the morning of the funeral, he gave her a last farewell kiss as she lay in her coffin. For the second time in three months he heard the battering sound of hobnailed boots climbing the wooden stairs to fetch a body. Mourning was scarcely possible that day: practicalities supervened. There was a lock of Caroline's hair to be cut, and plaster casts of her face and hands to be taken: 'I saw the great paws of those louts touching her and covering her face with plaster.' Great louts are necessary for funerals.
The trail to the cemetery was familiar from the time before. At the graveside Caroline's husband broke down. Gustave watched as the coffin was lowered. Suddenly, it got stuck: the hole had been dug too narrow. The gravediggers got hold of the coffin and shook it; they pulled it this way and that, twisted it, hacked at it with a spade, levered at it with crowbars; but still it wouldn't move. Finally, one of them placed his foot flat on the box, right over Caroline's face, and forced it down into the grave.
Gustave had a bust made of that face; it presided over his study all his working life, until his own death, in the same house, in 1880. Maupassant helped lay out the body. Flaubert's niece asked for the traditional cast of the writer's hand to be taken. This proved impossible: the fist was too tightly clenched in its terminal seizure.
The procession set off, first to the church at Canteleu, then to the Cimetière Monumental, where the picket of soldiers fired its ludicrous gloss on the last line of Madame Bovary. A few words were spoken, then the coffin was lowered. It got stuck. The width had been correctly judged on this occasion; but the gravediggers had skimped on the length. Sons of louts grappled with the coffin in vain; they could neither cram it in nor twist it out. After a few embarrassed minutes the mourners slowly departed, leaving Flaubert jammed into the ground at an oblique angle.
The Normans are a famously stingy race, and doubtless their gravediggers are no exception; perhaps they resent every superfluous sod they cut, and maintained this resentment as a professional tradition from 1846 to 1880. Perhaps Nabokov had read Flaubert's letters before writing Lolita. Perhaps H. M. Stanley's admiration for Flaubert's African novel isn't entirely surprising. Perhaps what we read as brute coincidence, silky irony, or brave, far-sighted modernism, looked quite different at the time. Flaubert took Monsieur Humbert's business-card all the way from Rouen to the Pyramids. Was it meant to be a chuckling advertisement for his own sensibility; a tease about the gritty, unpolishable surface of the desert; or might it just have been a joke on us?
6: Emma Bovary's Eyes
Let me tell you why I hate critics. Not for the normal reasons: that they're failed creators (they usually aren't; they may be failed critics, but that's another matter); or that they're by nature carping, jealous and vain (they usually aren't; if anything, they might better be accused of over-generosity, of upgrading the second-rate so that their own fine discriminations thereby appear the rarer). No, the reason I hate critics—well, some of the time—is that they write sentences like this:
Flaubert does not build up his characters, as did Balzac, by objective, external description; in fact, so careless is he of their outward appearance that on one occasion he gives Emma brown eyes (14); on another deep black eyes (15); and on another blue eyes (16).
This precise and disheartening indictment was drawn up by the late Dr Enid Starkie, Reader Emeritus in French Literature at the University of Oxford, and Flaubert's most exhaustive British biographer. The numbers in her text refer to footnotes in which she spears the novelist with chapter and verse.
I once heard Dr Starkie lecture, and I'm glad to report that she had an atrocious French accent; one of those deliveries full of dame-school confidence and absolutely no ear, swerving between workaday correctness and farcical error, often within the same word. Naturally, this didn't affect her competence to teach at the University of Oxford, because until quite recently the place preferred to treat modern languages as if they were dead: this made them more respectable, more like the distant perfections of Latin and Greek. Even so, it did strike me as peculiar that someone who lived by French literature should be so calamitously inadequate at making the basic words of the language sound as they did when her subjects, her heroes (her paymasters, too, you could say), first pronounced them.
You might think this a cheap revenge on a dead lady critic simply for pointing out that Flaubert didn't have a very reliable notion of Emma Bovary's eyes. But then I don't hold with the precept de mortuis nil nisi bonum (I speak as a doctor, after all); and it's hard to underestimate the irritation when a critic points out something like that to you. The irritation isn't with Dr Starkie, not at first—she was only, as they say, doing her job—but with Flaubert. So that painstaking genius couldn't even keep the eyes of his most famous character a consistent colour? Ha. And then, unable to be cross with him for long, you shift your feelings over to the critic.
I must confess that in all the times I read Madame Bovary, I never noticed the heroine's rainbow eyes. Should I have? Would you? Was I perhaps too busy noticing things that Dr Starkie was missing (though what they might have been I can't for the moment think)? Put it another way: is there a perfect reader somewhere, a total reader? Does Dr Starkie's reading of Madame Bovary contain all the responses which I have when I read the book, and then add a whole lot more, so that my reading is in a way pointless? Well, I hope not. My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it's not pointless in terms of pleasure. I can't prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell you one advantage we have over them. We can forget. Dr Starkie and her kind are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps this is why some critics develop a faintly patronising tone towards their subjects. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn't said anything new for years. Of course, it's her house, and everybody's living in it rent free; but even so, surely it is, well, you know…time?
Whereas the common but passionate reader is allowed to forget; he can go away, be unfaithful with other writers, come back and be entranced again. Domesticity need never intrude on the relationship; it may be sporadic, but when there it is always intense. There's none of the daily rancour which develops when people live bovinely together. I never find myself, fatigue in the voice, reminding Flaubert to hang up the bathmat or use the lavatory brush. Which is what Dr Starkie can't help herself doing. Look, writers aren't perfect, I want to cry, any more than husbands and wives are perfect. The only unfailing rule is, If they seem so, they can't be. I never thought my wife was perfect. I loved her, but I never deceived myself. I remember…But I'll keep that for another time.
I'll remember instead another lecture I once attended, some years ago at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. It was given by a professor from Cambridge, Christopher Ricks, and it was a very shiny performance. His bald head was shiny; his black shoes were shiny; and his lecture was very shiny indeed. Its theme was Mistakes in Literature and Whether They Matter. Yevtushenko, for example, apparently made a howler in one of his poems about the American nightingale. Pushkin was quite wrong about the sort of military dress worn at balls. John Wain was wrong about the Hiroshima pilot. Nabokov was wrong—rather surprising, this—about the phonetics of the name Lolita. There were other examples: Coleridge, Yeats and Browning were some of those caught out not knowing a hawk from a handsaw, or not even knowing what a handsaw was in the first place.
Two examples particularly struck me. The first was a remarkable discovery about Lord of the Flies. In the famous scene where Piggy's spectacles are used for the rediscovery of fire, William Golding got his optics wrong. Completely back to front, in fact. Piggy is short-sighted; and the spectacles he would have been prescribed for this condition could not possibly have been used as burning glasses. Whichever way you held them, they would have been quite unable to make the rays of the sun converge.
The second example concerned 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. 'Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred.' Tennyson wrote the poem very quickly, after reading a report in The Times which included the phrase 'someone had blundered'. He also relied on an earlier account which had mentioned '607 sabres'. Subsequently, however, the number of those who took part in what Camille Rousset called ce terrible et sanglant steeplechase was officially corrected to 673. 'Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred and seventy-three'? Not quite enough swing to it, somehow. Perhaps it could have been rounded up to seven hundred—still not quite accurate, but at least more accurate? Tennyson considered the matter and decided to leave the poem as he had written it: 'Six is much better than seven hundred (as I think) metrically so keep it.'
Not putting '673' or '700' or 'c. 700' instead of '600' hardly seems to qualify as a Mistake to me. The shakiness of Golding's optics, on the other hand, must definitely be classed as an error. The next qestion is, Does it matter? As far as I can remember Professor Ricks's lecture, his argument was that if the factual side of literature becomes unreliable, then ploys such as irony and fantasy become much harder to use. If you don't know what's true, or what's meant to be true, then the value of what isn't true, or isn't meant to be true, becomes diminished. This seems to me a very sound argument; though I do wonder to how many cases of literary mistake it actually applies. With Piggy's glasses, I should think that (a) very few people, apart from oculists, opticians and bespectacled professors of English would notice; and (b) when they do notice, they merely detonate the error—like blowing up a small bomb with a controlled explosion. What's more, this detonation (which takes place on a remote beach, with only a dog as witness) doesn't set fire to other parts of the novel.
Mistakes like Golding's are 'external mistakes'—disparities between what the book claims to be the case, and what we know the reality to be; often they merely indicate a lack of specific technical knowledge on the writer's part. The sin is pardonable. What, though, about 'internal mistakes', when the writer claims two incompatible things within his own creation? Emma's eyes are brown, Emma's eyes are blue. Alas, this can be put down only to incompetence, to sloppy literary habits. I read the other day a well-praised first novel in which the narrator—who is both sexually inexperienced and an amateur of French literature—comically rehearses to himself the best way to kiss a girl without being rebuffed: 'With a slow, sensual, irresistible strength, draw her gradually towards you while gazing into her eyes as if you had just been given a copy of the first, suppressed edition of Madame Bovary.'
I thought this was quite neatly put, indeed rather amusing. The only trouble is, there's no such thing as a 'first, suppressed edition of Madame Bovary'. The novel, as I should have thought was tolerably well known, first appeared serially in the Revue de Paris; then came the prosecution for obscenity; and only after the acquittal was the work published in book form. I expect the young novelist (it seems unfair to give his name) was thinking of the 'first, suppressed edition' of Les Fleurs du mal. No doubt he'll get it right in time for his second edition; if there is one.
Eyes of brown, eyes of blue. Does it matter? Not, does it matter if the writer contradicts himself; but, does it matter what colour they are anyway? I feel sorry for novelists when they have to mention women's eyes: there's so little choice, and whatever colouring is decided upon inevitably carries banal implications. Her eyes are blue: innocence and honesty. Her eyes are black: passion and depth. Her eyes are green: wildness and jealousy. Her eyes are brown: reliability and common sense. Her eyes are violet: the novel is by Raymond Chandler. How can you escape all this without some haversack of a parenthesis about the lady's character? Her eyes are mud-coloured; her eyes changed hue according to the contact lenses she wore; he never looked her in the eye. Well, take your pick. My wife's eyes were greeny-blue, which makes her story a long one. And so I suspect that in the writer's moments of private candour, he probably admits the pointlessness of describing eyes. He slowly imagines the character, moulds her into shape, and then—probably the last thing of all—pops a pair of glass eyes into those empty sockets. Eyes? Oh yes, she'd better have eyes, he reflects, with a weary courtesy.
Bouvard and Pécuchet, during their investigations into literature, find that they lose respect for an author when he strays into error. I am more surprised by how few mistakes writers make. So the Bishop of Liège dies fifteen years before he should: does this invalidate Quentin Durward? It's a trivial offence, something tossed to the reviewers. I see the novelist at the stern rail of a cross-Channel ferry, throwing bits of gristle from his sandwich to the hovering gulls.
I was too far away to observe what colour Enid Starkie's eyes were; all I remember of her is that she dressed like a matelot, walked like a scrum-half, and had an atrocious French accent. But I'll tell you another thing. The Reader Emeritus in French Literature at the University of Oxford and Honorary Fellow of Somerville College, who was 'well known for her studies of the lives and works of writers such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Gautier, Eliot and Gide' (I quote her dust-wrapper; first edition, of course), who devoted two large books and many years of her life to the author of Madame Bovary, chose as frontispiece to her first volume a portrait of 'Gustave Flaubert by an unknown painter'. It's the first thing we see; it is, if you like, the moment at which Dr Starkie introduces us to Flaubert. The only trouble is, it isn't him. It's a portrait of Louis Bouilhet, as everyone from the gardienne of Croisset onwards and upwards will tell you. So what do we make of that once we've stopped chuckling?
Perhaps you still think I'm merely being vengeful towards a dead scholar who can't answer for herself. Well, maybe I am. But then, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? And I'll tell you something else. I've just reread Madame Bovary.
On one occasion he gives Emma brown eyes (14); on another deep black eyes (15); and on another blue eyes (16).
And the moral of it all, I suppose, is: Never take fright at a footnote. Here are the six references Flaubert makes to Emma Bovary's eyes in the course of the book. It is clearly a subject of some importance to the novelist:
1. (Emma's first appearance) 'In so far as she was beautiful, this beauty lay in her eyes: although they were brown, they would appear black because of her lashes…'
2. (Described by her adoring husband early in their marriage) 'Her eyes seemed bigger to him, especially when she was just waking up and fluttered her lids several times in succession; they were black when she was in shadow and dark blue in full daylight; and they seemed to contain layer upon layer of colours, which were thicker in hue deep down, and became lighter towards the enamel-like surface.'
3. (At a candlelit ball) 'Her black eyes appeared even blacker.'
4. (On first meeting Leon) 'Fixing him with her large, wide-open black eyes'.
5. (Indoors, as she appears to Rodolphe when he first examines her) 'Her black eyes'.
6. (Emma looking in a mirror, indoors, in the evening; she has just been seduced by Rodolphe) 'Her eyes had never been so large, so black, nor contained such depth.'
How did the critic put it? 'Flaubert does not build up characters, as did Balzac, by objective, external description; in fact, so careless is he of their outward appearance that…' It would be interesting to compare the time spent by Flaubert making sure that his heroine had the rare and difficult eyes of a tragic adulteress with the time spent by Dr Starkie in carelessly selling him short.
And one final thing, just to make absolutely sure. Our earliest substantial source of knowledge about Flaubert is Maxime du Camp's Souvenirs littéraires (Hachette, Paris, 1882-3, 2 vols): gossipy, vain, self-justifying and unreliable, yet historically essential. On page 306 of the first volume (Remington & Co., London, 1893, no translator credited) Du Camp describes in great detail the woman on whom Emma Bovary was based. She was, he tells us, the second wife of a medical officer from Bon-Lecours, near Rouen:
This second wife was not beautiful; she was small, had dull yellow hair, and a face covered with freckles. She was full of pretension, and despised her husband, whom she considered a fool. Round and fair in person, her small bones were well-covered, and in her carriage and her general bearing there were flexible, undulating movements, like those of an eel. Her voice, vulgarised by its Lower Normandy accent, was full of caressing tones, and her eyes, of uncertain colour, green, grey, or blue, according to the light, had a pleading expression, which never left them.
Dr Starkie appears to have been serenely unaware of this enlightening passage. All in all, it seems a magisterial negligence towards a writer who must, one way and another, have paid a lot of her gas bills. Quite simply, it makes me furious. Now do you understand why I hate critics? I could try and describe to you the expression in my eyes at this moment; but they are far too discoloured with rage.
7: Cross Channel
Listen. Rattarattarattaratta. And then—shhh—over there. Fattafattafattafatta. And again. Rattarattarattaratta—fattafattafattafatta. A soft November swell has set the tables rattling metallically at one another across the bar. An insistent approach from a table close at hand; a pause while some unheard throb shifts across the boat; and then a softer reply from the other side. Call and response, call and response; like a pair of mechanical birds in a cage. Listen to the pattern: rattarattarattaratta fattafattafattafatta rattarattarattaratta fattafattafattafatta. Continuity, stability, mutual reliance, it says; yet a change of wind or tide could end it all.
The curving windows at the stern are freckled with spray; through one of them you can make out a set of fat capstans and a listless macaroni of sodden rope. The seagulls have long since given up on this ferry. They cawed us out of Newhaven, had a look at the weather, noted the lack of sandwich packs on the rear promenade, and turned back. Who can blame them? They could have followed us the four hours to Dieppe in the hope of picking up trade on the way back; but that makes for a ten-hour day. By now they will be digging worms on some damp football pitch in Rottingdean.
Beneath the window is a bilingual rubbish bin with a spelling mistake. The top line says PAPIERS (how official the French sounds: 'Driving licence! Identity card!' it seems to command). The English translation underneath reads LITTERS. What a difference a single consonant makes. The first time Flaubert saw his name advertised—as the author of Madame Bovary, shortly to be serialised in the Revue de Paris—it was spelt Faubert. 'If I make an appearance one day, it will be in full armour,' had been his boast; but even in full armour the armpit and the groin are never completely protected. As he pointed out to Bouilhet, the Revue's version of his name was only a letter away from an unwanted commercial pun: Faubet being the name of a grocer in the rue Richelieu, just opposite the Comédie-Française. 'Even before I've appeared, they skin me alive.'
I like these out-of-season crossings. When you're young you prefer the vulgar months, the fullness of the seasons. As you grow older you learn to like the in-between times, the months that can't make up their minds. Perhaps it's a way of admitting that things can't ever bear the same certainty again. Or perhaps it's just a way of admitting a preference for empty ferries.
There can't be more than half a dozen people in the bar. One of them is stretched out on a banquette; the lulling rattle of the tables is coaxing its first snore from him. At this time of the year there are no school parties; the video games, disco and cinema are silent; even the barman chats.
This is the third time I've made the trip in a year. November, March, November. Just for a couple of nights in Dieppe: though I sometimes take the car and get down to Rouen. It's not long, but it's enough to make the change. It is a change. The light over the Channel, for instance, looks quite different from the French side: clearer, yet more volatile. The sky is a theatre of possibilities. I'm not romanticising. Go into the art galleries along the Normandy coast and you'll see what the local painters liked to paint, over and over again: the view north. A strip of beach, the sea, and the eventful sky. English painters never did the same, clustering at Hastings or Margate or Eastbourne to gaze out at a grumpy, monotonous Channel.
I don't just go for the light. I go for those things you forget about until you see them again. The way they butcher meat. The seriousness of their pharmacies. The behaviour of their children in restaurants. The road signs (France is the only country I know where drivers are warned about beetroot on the road: BETTERAVES, I once saw in a red warning triangle, with a picture of a car slipping out of control). Beaux-arts town halls. Wine-tasting in smelly chalk-caves by the side of the road. I could go on, but that's enough, or I'll soon be babbling about lime trees and petanque and eating bread dipped in rough red wine—what they call la soupe à perroquet, parrot soup. Everyone has a private list, and those of other people quickly appear vain and sentimental. I read a list the other day headed 'What I Like'. It went: 'Salad, cinnamon, cheese, pimento, marzipan, the smell of new-cut hay [would you read on?]…roses, peonies, lavender, champagne, loosely held political convictions, Glenn Gould…' The list, which is by Roland Barthes, continues, as lists do. One item you approve, the next stirs irritation. After 'Medoc wine' and 'having change', Barthes approves of 'Bouvard et Pécuchet'. Good; fine; we'll read on. What's next? 'Walking in sandals on the lanes of south-west France.' It's enough to make you drive all the way to south-west France and strew some beetroot on the lanes.
My list mentions pharmacies. They always seem more singleminded in France. They don't stock beachballs or colour film or snorkelling equipment or burglar alarms. The assistants know what they are doing, and never try to sell you barley sugar on the way out. I find myself deferring to them as if they were consultants.
My wife and I once went into a pharmacie in Montauban and requested a packet of bandages. What was it for, they asked. Ellen tapped her heel, where the strap of a new pair of sandals had rubbed up a blister. The pharmacien came out from behind his counter, sat her down, removed her sandal with the tenderness of a foot-fetishist, examined her heel, cleaned it with a piece of gauze, stood up, turned to me gravely, as if there were something which really ought to be kept from my wife, and quietly explained, 'That, Monsieur, is a blister.' The spirit of Homais still reigns, I thought, as he sold us a packet of bandages.