Dear Mole

Julian Barnes

  • Flaubert and Turgenev: A Friendship in Letters translated by Barbara Beaumont
    Athlone, 197 pp, £18.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 485 11277 9

Flaubert’s Correspondence (which Gide kept at his bedside for five years in place of the Bible, and which hoisted even Sartre into grudging admiration) is one of the great documents of French literature: so it’s surprising how much of it isn’t there. The novelist made letter-burning pacts with his two longest-serving male friends, Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet, who with an irritating rectitude kept their side of the bargain: Du Camp burnt all but 24 out of a ‘considerable’ number of letters, which he had already annotated for posterity, and Bouilhet all but 81; while Flaubert himself, perhaps signalling unease about the agreements, kept 141 of Du Camp’s replies in existence, and 498 of Bouilhet’s. Ernest Chevalier, who in youth had shared Flaubert’s delight in scurrility, but later entered public life and dwindled into a husband, cautiously destroyed many letters in which he thought l’esprit gaulois had been taken too far. Both sides of the correspondence with the intriguing governess Juliet Herbert – friend? mistress? fiancée? – have gone missing (though Jean Bruneau, introducing the first Pléïade volume of the Letters in 1973, was still hoping to locate them). And even when the Correspondence gets into its stride, it is sometimes forced to hop: Flaubert’s brilliant letters to Louise Colet were carefully preserved, but her replies were deliberately destroyed (by the writer’s niece, it seems), thus effectively disenfranchising her.

The correspondence with Turgenev, largely complete, is probably the third most important exchange after those with Louise Colet and George Sand; and it comes from the mellower end of Flaubert’s tonal spectrum. The letters to Louise are almost wholly combative: he fights against being in love with her, he fights against seeing her (true lovers, he informed her, can go ten years without meeting), and he instructively fights against her aesthetics – assaulting her view of art, he argues his way towards his own. The letters to Sand, while warmly devoted on the personal level, are just as combative in aesthetics, rising to a great debate over art, society, politics and progress. For Sand, their conflict was between the literature of consolation and that of desolation.

The letters to Turgenev make up one of the most peaceful, chummy and uncombative parts of the correspondence. When the two of them meet, they are already presenting themselves as elderly men in their forties (Turgenev asserts that after 40 the basis of life is renunciation); both have settled into a largely neutered existence (Turgenev as the tame Viardot lodger, Flaubert as a solitary); and, most important of all, they agree on aesthetic matters. ‘We are a pair of moles burrowing away in the same direction,’ the Russian famously wrote; and their correspondence is one of shared assumptions. Reading it, you feel glad that the pair of them had such a consoling friendship – though you also reflect that a little disagreement can be enlivening for a third party.

Moles: Turgenev starts the simile in 1868, and runs it again in 1871: ‘We shall live for a while like moles hiding in their holes.’ Later, he compares Flaubert’s tireless labours to those of the ant. Flaubert replies, variously, that he is ‘like an old toad in his old damp hole’; that he is ‘an old post-horse, worn out but courageous’; that he works like an ox; that he lives like an oyster. Turgenev raises the bidding in sentimental melancholia by enlarging this last comparison: he is ‘an old oyster that doesn’t even open in the sun’. Flaubert wishes the two of them could, like snakes, slough off their skins and start all over again. This gloomy psychic zoo only acquires a cheerful inhabitant in the very last letter of this book, when Turgenev suddenly and uncharacteristically declares ‘I am well and am darting about like a squirrel in a cage.’ Ironically, this is the one animal the Frenchman doesn’t get to hear about: by the time the letter arrives, he is already a dead bear in a wooden box.

From the very beginning this is a correspondence between old friends. They admire one another’s work (without smugness, but also without the extensive comment one might hope for); they agree about younger chaps like Zola and Tolstoy; they agree about the lamentable condition of old age which can only be relieved by work (poetry, writes Turgenev, is ‘the bodkin in our backs’). Flaubert makes gifts of cider and cheese, Turgenev replies with salmon and caviar. Both lament the decline of France, and both have a loud chuckle when the Comte de Germiny, son of a former governor of the Bank of France, is arrested for buggery at a public lavatory in the Champs-Elysées. Flaubert is more inclined to rage and complaint, Turgenev to calming good sense and practical help; though each can sound like the other (‘As for the state of my soul – you can get a very accurate idea by lifting up the lid of a cesspool and looking in’ reads like Flaubert, but isn’t). Turgenev offers occasional advice about writing: for instance, that L’Education Sentimentale is a bad title (correct), or that Bouvard et Pécuchet should be treated presto, in the manner of Swift or Voltaire (incorrect); Flaubert doesn’t take offence, but then neither does he take most of the advice. One of the few things they disagree about is where and when they shall meet: Flaubert’s pining and whining, his attempts to bully ‘my Muscovite’ down to Croisset, are met with elaborate yet genuine letters of prevarication and regret from Turgenev (gout is the main plea, but also business, the demands of the Viardots, trouble in Russia or partridge-shooting in England). There is some quiet irony here, given Flaubert’s letters to Louise Colet: he spent much ink to stop her coming down to Croisset; now he begs constantly, and is often disappointed.

Editing Flaubert puts you in with the big hitters: with Jean Bruneau and Francis Steegmuller (not to mention Alphonse Jacobs, editor of the Flaubert-Sand letters). As a translator, Barbara Beaumont is workmanlike rather than exciting. For instance, is the famous, roaring Flaubertian adjective énorme best rendered by ‘enormous’? Occasionally, perhaps: but when the epithet applies to the case of the sodomitic Comte in the Champs-Elysées, it seems inept (and more) to come up with the sentence ‘Germiny is enormous!’ The editorial matter contains some mistakes: the ‘statue’ of Flaubert by Chapu is in fact a bas-relief containing only a small medallion of the writer’s head; and it’s quite misleading to reduce Flaubert’s opinion of Balzac to a caustic quip (he thought him ‘a tremendous figure’, and his views expressed on Balzac’s death in 1850 are maintained in a letter to Edmond de Goncourt 26 years later).

The oddest mistake, though, is a fine example of the creative square bracket. Turgenev paid a rare visit to Croisset in 1873, and Flaubert – in Barbara Beaumont’s version – wrote to his niece thus:

I read to him The Weaker Sex, my fairy play and the first act of The Candidate ... He likes The Candidate best; he thinks The Weaker Sex will be successful. As for my fairy play, he had a useful criticism, which I shall put into practice. The stock pot [Saint Anthony] made him bellow with enthusiasm! He thinks it beats all the rest. But he thinks The Candidate will be a good play.

Odd to find Flaubert reading Saint Anthony in among his stage plays; odd to find him describing it as a pot-au-feu (he took a long time to write it but that doesn’t mean he thought of it as a stew); odder still to imagine Turgenev – or anyone else – ‘bellowing’ at this work. But it’s all much simpler than this. The ‘fairy play’ is Le Château des Coeurs, whose sixth act is called ‘The Kingdom of the Stock-Pot’. It features on stage un gigantesque pot-au-feu, which at the end of the act rises into the air, turns upside down, and disgorges a load of turnips, carrots and leeks. If performed, perhaps the odd turnip could be made to bounce off the stage and land hintingly in the lap of a front-row critic.