Flaubert’s Bottle

Julian Barnes

  • Flaubert: A Biography by Herbert Lottman
    Methuen, 396 pp, £17.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 413 41770 0

Alcoholism softens the flesh – or at least, the 19th-century French variety did. When Verlaine died, Mallarmé watched a cast being taken of the face of this staunchly self-destructive drinker. He reported to the poet Georges Rodenbach that he would never forget ‘the wet, soggy sound made by the removal of the death-mask from his face, an operation in which part of his beard and mouth had come away too’.

After the morticians, along come the biographers: they, too, carefully mould the wax to preserve every last tuck and wrinkle, aiming to convey the final, decisive expression on the lips; but sometimes the flesh is soft, and the reverent process proves destructive. Bits of Flaubert’s moustache, for instance, have been coming away for a century. When he died in 1880, the Times obituarist confused him with his brother Achille and said he had once trained as a surgeon (the Paper of Record also retitled his last novel Bouvard et Peluchet). The first proper study of Flaubert, by Emile Faguet (1899; Englished in 1914), firmly and misleadingly declared that the writer’s affair with Louise Colet ‘may be considered as the only sentimental episode of any importance in Flaubert’s life’. In 1967 Enid Starkie prefaced her two-volume account with a portrait of ‘Gustave Flaubert by an unknown painter’ – thereby managing to rip off his entire face in one go, since the picture was in fact of Louis Bouilhet. Sartre was less of an impression-taker, more an imposer. In L’Idiot de la Famille he seared the novelist with a terrifying theoretical grid – a cheapskate chef branding false scorch-marks onto a steak after it’s been cooked.

Asked for details about his life in 1859, Flaubert stonewalled. ‘I have no biography,’ he replied; and in a different sense, this has remained true. There was no early fact-dredging, no tracking-down of the faithful servant, the reticent mistress, the local supplier of cabbages: so the interpreters, the dreamers, the wonky theorists got in there without the sifters and sorters having first done their business. Even the best biographers in English have either stopped half-way (like Francis Steegmuller) or been too brief (like Philip Spencer); the most recommendable version of Flaubert’s life in recent years has been disguised as the two-volume Steegmuller edition of the Letters.

Now comes Herbert Lottman, the diligent biographer of Camus. Pre-eminently a dredger and sifter, an archive-pounder and source-badgerer, Mr Lottman arrives approximately a hundred years too late, yet still needed. He arranges the known facts about Flaubert’s life, and the known opinions of his contemporaries, with an efficiency that has not been seen before. As against this, he writes badly, translates awkwardly, has no apparent opinion on Flaubert’s works, and little feel for the 19th century; he alternates stretches of drab invisibility with outbursts of perkily certain judgment, and is often crassly up-to-date. When Flaubert gets the pox, Lottman comments pompously: ‘The modern reader will be struck by the absence of respect for personal prophylactics ...’ Given the messy history of Flaubertian biography, this book is valuable. But its formidable irritations make you believe that the chuckling curse Flaubert put on his biographers hasn’t lost its power.

He was modern literature’s archetypal rewriter; he told us that prose is like hair – it shines with combing. Mr Lottman’s text is a tangle of nits and knots, a flour-bomb of dandruff, a delta of split ends. Flaubert, to begin with (line one), isn’t a great writer but ‘a seminal figure’. His family roots in Champagne are swiftly outlined – perhaps too swiftly, Lottman worries: ‘Indeed, we have hardly made this Champagne region seem attractive. It is a countryside of chalky soil whose perfect grape, when dealt with in a certain way, becomes that fizzy wine.’ Gustave grew up in Rouen: ‘One would love to be able to see the world as this child saw it.’ At the age of six or seven, he passed a recently-employed guillotine and saw bloodied cobbles: ‘Surely every child can call up at least one unbearable memory, even if guillotines and heads in baskets are harder to find now.’ Later, his education began: ‘Gustave went to school during the tail end of romanticism, which explains how romanticism was able to enter the classroom.’ And so on.

Having reassured the timid reader that champagne comes from Champagne, Lottman similarly tickets and dockets the French 19th-century literary scene. Les Fleurs du Mal is an example of ‘the liveliest modern writing’; Musset was once ‘a young star of French letters’ (who also lacked the proper respect for prophylactics); Juliette Adam is ‘this premodern feminist’; the European phenomenon of Byronism is reduced to ‘Byron’s works in French translation were among the bestselling books in the country in the decade preceding Flaubert’s schooling’; while Louise Colet is jauntily characterised as ‘the poetry hustler’. This last phrase indicates the comparative shallowness of Lottman’s depth of field: what strikes him as ‘hustling’ was normal behaviour then (and still hasn’t exactly died out). If Louise Colet was a hustler, so were Baudelaire and Mallarmé.

Then we come to the books. ‘The novel can be read for the story,’ Lottman tells us of Madame Bovary, and this is, alas, his most incisive remark. His one-paragraph plot-summary also includes the sentence: ‘Meanwhile, Charles moves from one professional humiliation to another, despite the paternal counselling of the village pharmacist, Homais.’ Perhaps ‘because of’ would have been apter than ‘despite’; though this would, of course, have meant something entirely different. Similar wonkiness affects Lottman’s brief account of Bouvard et Pécuchet. Trois Contes is ‘a book of three remarkable short stories’; and the third chapter of Saint Julien l’Hospitalier is summarised as follows: ‘When he discovers that he has indeed slain his parents, he abandons everything to beg, then befriends a leper and goes to Heaven.’ Rarely can the process of attaining sanctity have been made to sound so routine; presumably Mr Lottman thinks that the process of ‘befriending’ a leper normally involves lying naked on top of him, chest to pustulated chest, mouth to mouth, warming him up with your body. Wisely in the circumstances, Lottman doesn’t try too ambitious a plot-summary of La Tentation de Saint Antoine; and he gets by without any mention of style indirect libre.

Nor for that matter does he quote the Flaubertian motto ne pas conclure – no doubt advisedly. On the contentious topics of Flaubert’s private life – such as epilepsy, homosexuality and anti-semitism – Lottman is briskly conclusive when brisk conclusion is not just unwise but impossible. Zola was disappointed on first meeting the author of Madame Bovary because (inter alia) he found his hero had a taste for paradox; and Lottman has a similar aversion to the unresolved, the ambiguous, the self-contradictory. For instance, Flaubert is famously reported by Amélie Bosquet as having said: Madame Bovary, c’est moi. Lottman, in his pertly titled chapter ‘Louise takes a ride’, refers us to Flaubert’s letter to Louise Colet of 6 July 1852, in which he mocks Musset and the idea of making art by setting one’s personal feelings to music. This, Flaubert conceded, had been his failing in La Tentation: ‘In the place of Saint Antony, you find me.’ Lottman at this point comments: ‘He would not make that mistake again. (So much for one remark attributed to Flaubert, that Madame Bovary, c’est moi.)’ So much for ... The comment must therefore have been invented, QED. Alternative factors Mr Lottman might have considered: 1. Writers are frequently inconsistent in their statements about their art, and a gap is common between theory and practice; 2. The remark was intended to describe the almost psychopathic closeness which sometimes develops between novelist and character (Flaubert felt nauseous when Emma took poison); 3. It was a joke, the wearily ironic response of a writer fed up with being pestered for the ‘real’ identity of his most famous creation; 4. It was a reference to Cervantes’ supposed remark on his deathbed, declaring himself to be the original of Don Quixote; 5. All of these at the same time.

The toughest part of this book to read is the first half, since the main features of Flaubert’s life up to about 1860 are thoroughly well-known, and there is little for Lottman to add: but after this point, rather like Cliff Thorburn, he grinds a grudging recognition from his victim. When he can keep his head down – and he succeeds the further the book goes – then the results are reliable and useful. He is particularly informative on the non-artistic aspects of Flaubert’s life: on his exact financial position at various times, his relationship with his publishers, his ‘hustling’ to promote his niece’s career as a painter, and his own fiasco in the theatre. If you want to know where Flaubert was at a particular time, what he was doing, what he wrote to friends, and what those friends were saying behind his back, then this is the first book you should turn to. And if Mr Lottman doesn’t always make the desired point, he at least provides the facts from which the point can be made. For instance, Edmond de Goncourt, leaving an ill-attended Sunday afternoon chez Flaubert, discussed with Zola the ‘lack of radiance’ around their host, for all his bonhomie and fame. Was this just a typical bit of Goncourt depreciation? How might this ‘lack of radiance’ be quantified? Later, when Flaubert dies, Zola estimates the number of mourners at about three hundred. This may remind us of another funeral in the same city 120 pages earlier, that of Bouilhet (fellow Rouennais but a far less successful writer): it was attended by two thousand mourners. Lottman allows us to make such comparisons simply by including everything he knows.

One particularly successful strand to the book concerns Flaubert’s relationship with Juliet Herbert, the English governess who first came to Croisset in 1855, and with whom Flaubert seems to have pursued a liaison for a quarter of a century, right up until his death. It is a story full of absences and negatives: their regular meetings in Paris have to be deduced from his regular lies, the dates of her summer holidays, his anonymous sexual boasting, plus stray hints in letters to his niece. The evidence was remarkably and convincingly assembled in 1980 by Hermia Oliver (Flaubert and an English Governess), on whom Lottman naturally relies. But the simple insertion of Juliet Herbert into the novelist’s larger life (instead of her standing as a story by herself) allows us to judge more fairly how much weight to give her in his overall emotional life: more than we ever imagined, is the answer. It also offers us a comparison of evasions: between the excuses the young Flaubert used to put off meeting Louise Colet and the excuses the old Flaubert used to find space in his year for his rendez-vous with Juliet Herbert.

Flaubert said of L’Education Sentimentale that he wanted ‘to hold the ocean in a carafe’. Lottman’s Flaubert is more like a ship in a bottle: all the working parts are there, but what it is doing in the bottle, what waters it inhabits and where it might be sailing are mysteries. One saving grace is that he quotes widely and frequently from Flaubert – something that Sartre, for example, declined to do. Sartre seemed to be trying to suffocate his subject by not giving him any air in the text. Lottman allows his Flaubert to breathe, exhale, and even bellow characteristically.

Two small but interesting matters remain unground by Lottman’s gizzard: Flaubert’s height, and the colour of his eyes. On page 44 the novelist is ‘just under six feet’, and on page 78 his passport shows him at lm 83 (which tallies); but by page 142 Flaubert is quoted as telling Mlle Leroyer de Chantepie that he is ‘five feet eight inches’ tall. Has he shrunk by four inches? Is he perhaps playfully fictionalising to a correspondent whom he was never actually to meet? Neither: Flaubert didn’t say he was ‘five feet eight inches’, he said he was cinq pieds et huit pouces. Over the years the pied and the pouce have varied slightly in size as units of measurement, and at this time didn’t translate exactly into their English equivalents.

As for the eyes: on page 51 Flaubert has ‘sea-green’ eyes, which change, without comment from Lottman, to ‘blue eyes’ on page 78. The first colour was supplied by Maxime Du Camp in his memoirs (the English translator of these added yet another tint, wildly translating ses yeux enormes, couleur vert de mer into ‘large eyes grey as the sea’). The second colour comes from Flaubert’s passport. Which do you prefer?