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Lost fragments from the life of Flaubert

Julian Barnes
Gustave Flaubert
Edited by Matthieu Desportes and Yvan Leclerc
146pp. Universités de Rouen et du Havre. 15 euros.
2 87775 399 9

Flaubert is exemplary, indeed talismanic, for the stern separation he made between his public and private writings. His novels are objective constructions which unfold in authorial absence; his letters are a place of riotous opinion-giving and frank emotional unbuttoning. Yet the distance between the two was not empty but connective. It was part of Flaubert's literary strategy to treat his correspondence as a déversoir, an overflow, an outlet which purged the intrusive self and helped liberate the fiction into its desired impersonality. Three years before Madame Bovary appeared, he bade farewell, in a letter to Louise Colet, to “the personal, the intimate, to everything connected with me”. His “old project” of one day writing his memoirs was now officially abandoned: “Nothing personal tempts me any more”.

This makes such overflow as we have the more fascinating: the incomparable letters, but also the travel notes and the Cahiers intimes of 1840-41. This latter was Flaubert's response to a provocative if platitudinous remark by Dr Jules Cloquet, who was minding the
twenty-year-old Gustave on a tour of the Pyrenees and Corsica. Cloquet advised him to write down, preferably in aphoristic form, “everything he knew”, seal it, and leave the envelope for fifteen years. The doctor assured his charge that when, as a thirty-five year old, he reopened it, he would discover “a different man” from the one he had in the meanwhile become.

No one suspected that this sealed-envelope technique had had more than a single outing until 1999, when Matthieu Desportes published Heures d'autrefois, the memoirs of Flaubert's niece Caroline, Mme Franklin Grout. Tucked away in an appendix are transcriptions of five pages of Caroline's working notes (though whether they were for Heures d'autrefois or the Souvenirs intimes she published herself is not evident). Here she records that, at certain times of extreme emotion, her uncle felt the need to write down his impressions on the spot and seal them away. She lists three occasions: the deaths of Alfred Le Poittevin and Louis Bouilhet, “and also I think the death of his sister”. This last item, if ever written, has not been found; but to the astonishment and delight of Flaubertistes, the other two pieces, intimate necrologies of Flaubert's two closest and best-loved literary companions - the first of his youth, the second of his maturity - have just turned up, literally found in the back of a drawer. They formed part of a dossier of six pieces prepared by Caroline Franklin Grout for a publication that never happened; they exist in her handwriting, and her uncle's originals are still missing. Additions to Flaubert's correspondence appear frequently enough; but this is certainly the most important find since Jean Bruneau published the Conte oriental in 1973.

The dossier, like much else, was dispersed after the Franklin Grout sale of 1931, and two of its six original items have emerged and been published in the interim. The remaining four are here immaculately presented by Desportes and Yvan Leclerc (who is shortly to give us the final volume of the Pléiade Correspondance). They are of different status and literary intention. The most genial, and the most predictable, is the title piece, “Vie et travaux du R. P. Cruchard”, which was sent to George Sand in 1873 and whose existence was already well attested. It is a mock biography of one of Flaubert's many comic alter egos, a piece of pseudo-scholarly jocosity designed to entertain a friend, written in a tone more affectionate (indeed, humorously doting) than anticlerical. It is, technically, not quite an inédit, since a version from a different manuscript was published in 1943, though in such an obscure Lyonnais source that no living Flaubertiste had ever been aware of it.

“Bal donné au Czar”, by contrast, is not just inédit but quite unsuspected. These are the notes Flaubert took, in June 1867, after attending a ball at the Tuileries given by Napoleon III for Alexander II of Russia and William I of Prussia. The mock self-importance with which Flaubert reported his invitation in a letter to Caroline - “Their Majesties wish to inspect me as one of France's more splendid monuments” - indicates that he was well aware of the artist's status on such occasions: as a minor piece of table-dressing. In any case, the high politics of the “Three Emperors Summit” pass him by; here he is the professional writer hoovering up usable detail at a grand society event. Thus he has an eye for the Tsar's elastic-sided boots, of which he disapproves, the food offered to below-the-salters like himself (cold salmon and a glass of Saint-Péray), the jewellery, the flirting, and the goody-bags one of the Emperor's equerries distributes. Some of Flaubert's more extended jottings - a lyrical description of a night-time parade of bedizened women in the gaslit garden - already have an embryonic fictional feel to them. Their most plausible destination would have been the project known (in one of its many vestigial manifestations) as Sous Napoléon III.

But the two key items in the dossier are, inevitably, the private necrologies: compelling in themselves, but also when set alongside Flaubert's letters describing the same events to Maxime Du Camp (his third important literary companion, and the only one to outlive him). By themselves the letters to Du Camp are as unflinching as we might expect of their author, down to the stink of putrefaction as he turns Le Poittevin's corpse before helping wrap it in a double shroud. Yet compared to the notes Flaubert sealed (and the purpose of that sealing is enigmatic - for later consultation? for posterity? as a symbolic gesture, a literary entombment to match the actual one?), the letters amount almost to a performance; at any rate, to something phrased, shaped, consciously written. He conveys to Du Camp what has to be
conveyed: who did and felt what, how events unfolded, what went wrong, which grotesqueries marred the solemnity.

The notes, by contrast, convey what happened - that's to say, every passing thing that strikes the senses of the novelist, all the trivial, necessary, distracting bits of infill that accompany the days of death. In the case of Le Poittevin: the grog au kirsch Flaubert takes on his way from Croisset to la Neuville-Champ-d'Oisel; the “purain” (working-class Rouennais) speech of the woman watching the body; the sense of “well-being” dinner provides, even though his friend lies dead upstairs; the cigar smoked in the garden; the row with the body-watcher when he wants more light to read by; his sense, at the graveside, that he might be posing, putting on his grief; the champagne, cut with water, that he drinks on his return to Croisset. Nor is it just the addition of new detail: there are minor yet significant discrepancies between the parallel accounts. Thus, in the private necrology, Flaubert notes that during his vigil he hears from deep in the surrounding woods “the sweet and faraway call of a hunting horn”. Naturally he passes on this echœy detail in his letter to Du Camp; but whereas privately he times the offstage horn-call at “11”, he tells Du Camp that it occurred at “midnight”. This is unlikely to be a mistranscription by Caroline - 11 for 12 - since he writes “minuit” in the letter. “Midnight” can only be a literary - indeed a romantic - improvement.

The Bouilhet farewelling he seals just over twenty years later similarly contains much extra detail: for example, Flaubert's shock, during his penultimate visit to his dying friend, at seeing the untended state of Bouilhet's beard. This dismayed Flaubert not just as a sign of self-neglect, but because it reminded him of his own father's last days, and of the wider truth that a “poor man's beard” was a sign of impending death. He also writes up the routine irritations of travel (Flaubert was in Paris when Bouilhet died in Rouen) at such length that it can only be - even in such a short text - a way of staving off the necessity of writing about his dead friend. So he reminds himself of the packing, the veal cutlet with stuffed tomato he eats at the café, the shave he gœs for, the prostitute he visits, and then - always a reliable source of exasperation - his fellow-passengers on the train to Rouen.

But there is a difference of tone here as well as of material. The account he sent to Du Camp was clearly designed to console its recipient: their friend had died a good, brave, religion-free death, and had made the right decisions on the way to it. The obituary exhibits much more the chaos and panic of Flaubert's grief (the train journey becomes almost hallucinatory at moments), while the consolation sought here is for himself. As Leclerc points out, in burying Le Poittevin, Flaubert was burying his vie de garçon; with Bouilhet he was anticipating his own death (and the physical similarity between the two friends must have made for an eerie preview). And whereas in both necrologies the emotions on show are rawer, less literary, than in the letters, the notes on Bouilhet's death reveal a new development - the fear of emotion. In 1848, the young man took the stinking corpse of Le Poittevin in his arms, as a clear-eyed (if unpublished) writer embracing and examining the worst of life. But, by 1869, the fast-ageing Flaubert is unable to face the sight of the dead Bouilhet, and waits until the coffin is closed: “I didn't dare set eyes on him. I feel less strong than twenty years ago . . . . I have not internal toughness. I feel worn out”.

These sparse, swiftly written notes do not just amplify Flaubert's state of mind; they also contain new biographical data. It is a familiar fact that Flaubert regarded Le Poittevin's marriage, in June 1846, as a great act of betrayal, both of him personally, and of their agreed artistic principles. In Leclerc's happy phrase, it was a case (in Flaubert's view) of “suicide by marriage” - the literary man succumbing to convention and bourgeois unthinkingness. What was not known until these pages came to light is that Le Poittevin did not swagger into marriage in a state of blithe sentimental delusion. On the contrary, a few days before the wedding (which Flaubert appears not to have attended), his feet were so cold that he suggested to his friend Boivin that they “f. le camp” together.

The pages about Bouilhet turn out to be even more biographically surprising. Flaubert and Bouilhet first became close in August 1846, two months after Le Poittevin's treacherous marriage. Bouilhet was Flaubert's inflexible literary support, his intellectual compass, his “left testicle”; also, his partner in fun - it was with Bouilhet that he developed the ecclesiastical fantasy world inhabited by the Révérend Père Cruchard. Literary history has always placed them high on the list of artistic companions separable only by death. Yet now it transpires that, three years before his death, Bouilhet also abandoned (“lâché” - the same verb is used in both instances) Flaubert. According to the sealed necrology, Bouilhet changed “in mood, personality and ideas”, he became narrow, provincial, prim and miserly - “un peu prud'homme”. The delight in lubricity, which Flaubert continued to regard as healthy and comic, now struck Bouilhet as childish and disgusting. He developed “all the moral symptoms of old age”. He refused to visit Croisset, and began disapproving of Flaubert, especially of his friends' worldly activities: “He held it against me that I accepted society and Paris for what they are”.

The two friends - each accusing the other of a different form of embourgeoisement - were reconciled towards the end, and Flaubert was able to write that he had “rediscovered my Bouilhet tout entier”; but the suddenness and extent of their falling-out has never been hinted at before. Or if hinted, misread: when Flaubert tells Du Camp, in his mourning letter, that the Bouilhet who returned to die in Rouen had “completely changed from the man you knew” - though his “literary intelligence” remained the same - most readers would infer no more than a catastrophic medical decline. Now we can see the phrase's further meaning.

But there is worse - for Flaubertistes anyway: Bouilhet's sudden respectability, and distaste for lubricity, led him to burn many of his friend's letters. Nor was he the first incinerator: Flaubert recalls here that two decades previously “Alfred also developed this mania for the auto-da-fé”. This accounts for the saddening disproportionality in the correspondence: we have forty letters from Le Poittevin to Flaubert, but only fifteen in reply. The scale of Bouilhet's anxious vandalism is much greater: 523 of his letters to Flaubert survive, against a mere eighty-six in the opposite direction. Nor is it much comfort that Flaubert's vexation at his friend's conduct has a proleptic tinge: a decade later, this particular “moral symptom of old age” also caught up with him. He had two great bonfires: one in 1877, when he destroyed his youthful letters from Du Camp - who returned the compliment, matching fire with fire - and another in 1879, which was witnessed and later written up by Maupassant.

When the splendour and the incompleteness of Flaubert's correspondence were first fully revealed, it was assumed, and repeated with increasing authority, if lack of evidence, that Caroline Franklin Grout as literary executor must have been the chief destroyer. It fitted a biographical paradigm: that of the embarrassed descendant protecting her family's reputation, the snobbish niece rebourgeoisifying her artist uncle. But there is an equal paradigm, that of the ageing artist, often for what seem to be high-minded reasons, cleaning up his own biography in advance. Caroline was particularly suspected of having burnt Louise Colet's letters; she always denied it, but not until Hermia Oliver's Flaubert and an English Governess (1980) was she defended to the point of virtual exculpation. The destroyers of letters turn out to have been the obvious suspects - their first recipients: Le Poittevin, Bouilhet, Flaubert himself. Increasingly, Caroline's stewardship of her uncle's
literary estate can be seen as both industrious and honourable: witness the survival of these four new texts. It is true that she cleaned up some of the correspondence (changing an intimate tu to a formal vous, occasionally correcting grammar, and suppressing lubricity), but her transcriptions here properly include both the “f. le camp” and the prostitute (“La P.”), even if in abbreviated form. “La Dame si bien”, as she was patronizingly termed, did not disappear as far into respectability as has sometimes been supposed - less so, perhaps, than either Le Poittevin or Bouilhet. Or even, at times, her very uncle.

Copyright 2006 The Times Literary Supplement Ltd.

The Times Literary Supplement, 1er février 2006.
Avec l'aimable autorisation de Julian Barnes et de Toby Lichtig pour le TLS.

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