A Gloomy Duet

Geoffrey Wall

  • Louis Bouilhet: Lettres à Gustave Flaubert edited by Maria Cappello
    CNRS, 780 pp, frs 490.00, April 1996, ISBN 2 271 05288 2

Gustave Flaubert to Louis Bouilhet, 6 September 1850:

In the midst of my weariness and my discouragement when the bile kept rising into my mouth, you were the Selzer water that made life digestible for me. You re-invigorated me, like a tonic bath. When I was groaning with self-pity, feeling all alone, I used to say to myself: ‘Look at him’ and I would get back to work with renewed energy, You were my supreme moral emblem, and my perpetual edification.

Gustave Flaubert to Louise Colet, 16 November 1852:

Bouilhet and I, we spent the whole of our Sunday evening imagining scenes from our old age. We pictured ourselves elderly and wretched, in the hospice for the dying, sweeping the streets, in our soiled clothes, talking about the weather. At first we made ourselves laugh, then we almost wept. It lasted four hours without stopping. Only men as placidly funereal as we are could take pleasure in such horrors.

For 23 years Louis Bouilhet was Flaubert’s closest friend. Reviewing that friendship from the outside, Maxime Du Camp, who knew them both, and no doubt felt excluded by their intimacy, asserted in his memoirs that they had probably been bad for each other.

They lived the same life for so long, fretting over the same things, looking in the same direction, pursuing the same ideal, that they eventually copied each other’s gestures, attitudes, phrases and tones of voice. Both of them were tall, broad-shouldered, prematurely balding, with long moustaches of the same colour, and the same regional accents, they looked so very alike that people used to say they were brothers.

To Du Camp’s disenchanted eye such comradeship was far too cosy and conspiratorial. During the decades of mutual admiration, the artistic personalities of Flaubert and Bouilhet had simply fused. Flaubert overestimated and overpraised Bouilhet’s modest poetic talents. According to Du Camp, the two men had merely flattered each other, colluding rather than collaborating.

Was it really so? This recently published and scrupulously annotated volume of letters to Flaubert adds much to our picture of his most sustained and sustaining friendship. It explains how and why Flaubert-Bouilhet was a success. It throws new light on the vexed question of their homosexuality and it suggests a new perspective on Flaubert’s cherished theme of the elective fraternal couple. It also illuminates the prosaic literary-commercial underworld of mid-19th-century Paris which Bouilhet reluctantly frequented, alongside his more illustrious contemporaries, Nerval, Baudelaire and Gautier.

Various bits and pieces of Bouilhet’s letters to Flaubert have already been published in French. They are to be found, in the literary equivalent of an unmarked grave, interred alongside the poetry of Louise Colet, in the small print at the back of the second and third volumes of Jean Bruneau’s Pléiade edition of Flaubert’s Correspondance. Maria Cappello has given Flaubert’s friend back to the world, reassembled and restored, though not, it should be said, resurrected. The comparison with Flaubert’s letters is entirely to Flaubert’s advantage. Bouilhet is remembered, if at all, not for what he wrote but for what he talked Flaubert into writing.

Whenever possible they used to spend Sunday together, in the Flaubert family home at Croisset, reading and correcting each other’s work. If they had to be apart, they exchanged letters with conjugal regularity. Flaubert’s was a life given over to complicated but unsatisfactory masculine friendships, in which Bouilhet proved to be his most steadfast companion, perhaps because he was the least demanding and the most generous. The long years of quasi-fraternal dialogue, posthumously celebrated in the great comic double act of Bouvard et Pécuchet, left their mark on all Flaubert’s major work. Yet if the story of Bouilhet’s ‘influence’ on Flaubert has often been told, the nature of that influence remains slightly puzzling.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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