Saturday, May 8, 2010

Flaubert the Realist

Today is the anniversary of the death of the French author, Gustave Flaubert. A fastidious writer, he produced few books in his life, but Madame Bovary is certainly considered one of the best French novels of all time. And Flaubert himself has an important place in the history of literature as a master of Realism. Interestingly, although he only appears to have kept a diary when travelling - particularly on a journey in Egypt - some believe his travel diary writing helped turn Flaubert from the Romantic he was to the Realist he would become.

Flaubert was born in 1821, in Rouen, the son of a surgeon. As a teenager, he fell in love with an older, married woman. In 1841, he began to study law in Paris, but, on discovering he suffered from a nervous disease, he abandoned the law so as to concentrate on writing. After his father died in 1846, he moved to Croisset on the Seine near Rouen where he lived with his mother (and the daughter of his sister who had died soon after his father had done). He was to remain at Croisset for most of his life. That same year, 1846, he fell in love with the poet Louise Colet. Their affair lasted to the mid-1850s, but it was Flaubert’s only serious romantic relationship. Otherwise, he visited prostitutes (and suffered from venereal disease).

Although Flaubert wrote a couple of novels in the 1940s, it was not until after returning from a long journey to the Orient, with his friend Maxime du Camp, that he began working on Madame Bovary, a novel that would take him five years to complete. When first serialised in Revue de Paris, it was considered immoral by the government, though legal actions to that effect failed. Flaubert’s next novel, SalammbĂ´, took four years and a trip to Carthage to complete.

A fastidious writer, always in search of stylistic perfection, Flaubert produced only two or three more works in his life. His last work, over which he obsessed for years, was published posthumously and to mixed reviews - Bouvard et PĂ©cuchet. Nevertheless, Madame Bovary remains one of the most famous French novels of all time, and, despite being a romantic at heart, Flaubert is credited with being a master of the Realist style in literature, and influencing many later writers, such as Zola and Kafka. He died 130 years ago today, on 8 May 1880. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia and in a New Yorker review of a biography by Geoffrey Wall.

Flaubert was more of a letter writer than a diarist, but he did keep a journal on his travels, and the one he wrote while in the Orient has become a literature classic. First published in English by Bodley Head in 1972, as Flaubert in Egypt (with the subtitle A Sensibility on Tour; a Narrative drawn from Gustave Flaubert’s Travel Notes & Letters translated from the French & edited by Francis Steegmuller) it has since been republished as a Penguin Classic. A few pages can be read on the Amazon website, and even more of the book is viewable on Googlebooks.

Introducing Chapter IV of Flaubert in Egypt, in which Flaubert describes his experience of the Pyramids, Steegmuller draws attention to the idea that the ‘very act of keeping a travel diary played a role in carrying the Romantic Flaubert towards Realism.’ And to support this view, he gives a short example of Flaubert’s earlier writing, an imagined description of the pyramids. That ‘pantheistic rhapsody’, as Steegmuller calls it, starts as follows: ‘When the traveler has reached the top of the pyramid, his hands are torn and his knees are bleeding; he is surrounded by the desert and devoured by the light, and the harsh air burns his lungs; utterly exhausted and dazzled by their brilliance, he sinks down half dead on the stone, amidst the carcasses of birds come there to die. But lift your head! Look! Look! And you will see cities with domes of gold and minarets of porcelain, palaces of lava built on plinths of alabaster, marble-rimmed pools where sultanas come to bathe their bodies at the hour when the moon makes bluer the shadow of the groves and more limpid the silvery water of the fountains . . .’

And here, by contrast, is what Flaubert wrote in his diary when first seeing and experiencing the Sphinx and Pyramids for real.

7 December 1849
‘Set out at noon for the Pyramids. Maxime is mounted on a white horse that keeps jerking its head, Sassetti [a Corsican-born servant] on a small white horse, myself on a bay, Joseph [guide and interpreter] on a donkey. We pass Soliman Pasha’s gardens. Island of Roda. We cross the Nile in a small boat: while our horses are being led aboard, a corpse in its coffin is borne past us. Energy of our oarsmen: they sing, shouting out the rhythm as they bend forward and back. The sail swells full and we skim along fast.

Gizeh. Mud houses as at ‘Atfeh - palm grove. Two waterwheels, one turned by an ox and the other by a camel. Now stretching out before us in an immense plain, very green, with squares of black soil which are fields most recently plowed, the last from which the flood withdrew: they stand out like India ink on the solid green. I think of the invocation to Isis: ‘Hail, hail, black soil Egypt!’ The soil of Egypt is black. Some buffaloes are grazing, now and again a waterless muddy creek, in which our horses sink to their knees; soon we are crossing great puddles or creeks.

About half-past three we are almost on the edge of the desert, the three Pyramids looming up ahead of us. I can contain myself no longer, and dig in my spurs; my horse bursts into a gallop, splashing through the swamp. Two minutes later Maxime follows suit. Furious race. I begin to shout in spite of myself; we climb rapidly up to the Sphinx, clouds of sand swirling about us. At first our Arabs followed us, crying ‘Sphinx! Sphinx! Oh! Oh! Oh!’ It grew larger and larger, and rose out of the ground like a dog lifting itself up.

View of the Sphinx. Abu-el-Houl (Father of Terror). The sand, the Pyramids, the Sphinx, all gray and bathed in a great rosy light; the sky perfectly blue, eagles slowly wheeling and gliding around the tips of the Pyramids. We stop before the Sphinx; it fixes us with a terrifying stare; Maxime is quite pale; I am afraid of becoming giddy, and try to control my emotion. We ride off madly at full speed among the stones. We walk around the Pyramids, right at their feet. Our baggage is late in arriving; night falls. . .’

8 December 1849
‘Ascent. Up at five - the first - and wash in front of the tent in the canvas pail. We hear several jackals barking. Ascent of the Great Pyramid, the one to the right (Kheops). The stones, which at a distance of two hundred paces seem the size of paving-blocs, are in reality - the smallest of them - three feet high; generally they come up to our chests. We go up at the left hand corner (opposite the Pyramid of Khephren); the Arabs push and pull me; I am quickly exhausted, it is desperately tiring. I stop five or six times on the way up. Maxime started before me and goes fast. Finally I reach the top.

We wait a good half hour for the sunrise. The sun was rising just opposite; the whole valley of the Nile, bathed in mist, seemed to be a still white sea; and the desert behind us, with its hillocks of sand, another ocean, deep purple, its waves all petrified. But as the sun climbed behind the Arabian chain the mist was torn into great shreds of filmy gauze; the meadows, cut by canals, were like green lawns with winding borders. To sum up: three colors - immense green at my feet in the foreground; the sky pale red - worn vermilion; behind and to the right, a rolling expanse looking scorched and iridescent, with the minarets of Cairo, canges passing in the distance, clusters of palms. . .’

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