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.

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