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.

This is partly because of the gaps in the sequence of their letters. When they were both living in Rouen they met regularly and there was little need for correspondence. Only from 1849, when Flaubert left with Du Camp for the Orient, can we begin to reconstruct their conversation in any detail. Unfortunately, of the letters that we most want to read – those that Bouilhet wrote to Flaubert during the composition of Madame Bovary – at least half are missing. We catch only suggestive fragments of their dialogue. Unexpectedly, we find Bouilhet, in June 1855, urging Flaubert to speed up: ‘I see from what you tell me that you are still working on the same lines. I do think that you are exaggerating somewhat and that you could go a bit faster without doing any less well. But I do not want to put any pressure on this tender spot.’ Very often, however, we have to guess at the details of Bouilhet’s editorial activity from the evidence of Flaubert’s responses to his suggestions.

To modern eyes, likely to be unimpressed by Bouilhet’s writings, it still looks an implausible partnership. Why Bouilhet? Was there nobody more interesting? More talented? It’s as though Coleridge had stuck with Robert Southey and never met Wordsworth. Why should a writer such as Flaubert, always so fiercely self-assured in his literary judgments, submit to being guided and corrected by the lesser man? Part of the answer may lie in the fact that their friendship was conceived within the sentimental conventions of an earlier day, a heady mix of Byron and Rousseau. Such friendships typically had their roots in the alienated idealism of early adolescence and included a high-minded scorn for the adult world, a sense of shared literary vocation and a cheerfully crude confiding of erotic experience. Political, literary and sexual, these were friendships that embraced body and soul.

Flaubert and Bouilhet discovered each other somewhat late in life, in 1846, when they were both in their mid-twenties. Significantly, Flaubert’s father, under whom Bouilhet had been a medical student, had died a few months earlier. Dr Flaubert had recently had Bouilhet expelled from the medical school for insubordination (the charity boy had belatedly discovered the pleasures of self-assertion), and Bouilhet would scarcely have been a welcome visitor to the Flaubert family home. Flaubert and he had been in the same class at school, subjected to the same harsh regimen, and though their social origins and their temperaments were very different, they had shared all the same schoolboy jokes, catchphrases, nicknames, rituals and fantasies. At school Bouilhet was ambitious and compliant. He won first prize for rhetoric. Flaubert, flamboyant, aggressive and disdainful, was expelled in his final year for repeated insolence. Bouilhet was from a poor family. As a charity boy with no father, he knew that he had to behave if he was to make his way in the world. He had to please his mother and impress his aristocratic benefactors by a relentless show of diligence. Gustave, the second son of the rich and influential Dr Achille Flaubert, knew that he could mess about, show off and generally make plenty of noise.

This difference persisted, through all the years of intimacy. While Bouilhet was school-mastering his way through a damp grey Rouen winter, Flaubert was floating voluptuously along the River Nile, savouring the delights of brothels and temples and pyramids, relaying impressions to his stay-at-home friend. While Flaubert was polishing his syntax in the commodious, leisurely isolation of Croisset, Bouilhet was compelled, like one of Balzac’s shabby Parisian hustlers to walk the streets, waiting around in editorial offices, desperately playing the metropolitan literary market. In one of his letters to Flaubert, Bouilhet lamented the harsh and obvious facts of capitalist culture. ‘You can only create works of art if you have a hundred thousand francs a year.’ The great difference between them was money. Flaubert had plenty. Bouilhet never had enough. Reading their letters we sense a shared idiom, a habitual tone of comic exasperation and joking self-disgust. But whereas Flaubert inflates and exaggerates his discouragements in order to lighten them, Bouilhet is paralysed by a real fear of failure, an anxiety that he cannot joke his way out of. He calls it ‘le guignon de ma famille’, and it sometimes led him to the edge of suicide. At such moments, to Flaubert’s dismay, Bouilhet’s mother would ‘come to the rescue’, only confirming her son’s deepest sense of powerlessness.

In the early 1850s Bouilhet’s poems were published alongside those of Baudelaire in the Revue de Paris. His plays were being performed all across France in the early 1860s. For twenty odd years, the years of Madame Bovary, Salammbô and L’Education sentimentale, Bouilhet read and corrected, with schoolmasterly scrupulousness, everything that Flaubert published. In the early days he was the one who pushed Flaubert beyond Balzac, away from the grandiose hallucinations of Saint Anthony and towards the internalised ironic visions of Madame Bovary. But Bouilhet could not propel himself in the same way: he remained an early Romantic, the disciple of Musset, Hugo and Byron, marooned on the little island he had discovered in his youth, his work split between ancient and modern subject matter.

Monuments to both Bouilhet and Flaubert stand in the streets of contemporary Rouen. The original statue of Flaubert, being made of metal, was unceremoniously melted down for munitions in 1941. The tasteful neoclassical monument dedicated to Louis Bouilhet, a public drinking fountain with marble bust, has survived all the accidents of war. But Flaubert is now as perfectly illustrious as Bouilhet is utterly obscure. In his own day, rather improbably, Bouilhet was more famous than Flaubert, especially in Rouen. Such mediocre fame was evidently a burden. After his first major success on the Paris stage he was visited by a delegation of 60 proud, frock-coated citizens from Rouen. They had travelled to the capital to see his play and were most eager to celebrate his success with an official banquet. Next day, to the delight of his cynical Parisian colleagues, an embarrassed Bouilhet was to be seen conducting a very large and excited party of his fellow citizens along the rue de Rivoli towards the treasures of the Louvre. Flaubert would have put such a scene into one of his novels, but he could never have allowed himself to be put in Bouilhet’s position. However reluctantly, Bouilhet did what was required of the professional man of letters – his obligations give us a sharper sense of Flaubert’s freedoms.

In 1862 the Académie Impériale des Sciences, Belles-Lettres et Arts de Rouen decided to give Bouilhet their medal of honour. The intellectual and social élite of Rouen duly assembled to listen to a lengthy speech in praise of his achievements. Unknown to the original audience, the speech had been written by Flaubert. It is an impeccable piece of ironic mischief, worth reading for its mimicry of the official high style, which Flaubert so detested, and for its oblique expression of his deepest feelings about the situation of the artist:

  One final word, gentlemen. The life of the man of letters is now, as I have been told, a painful business for those who have a higher regard for Art than for vaunting their own names or swelling their fortunes. Innumerable obstacles impede this career in which one is assailed by calumny and slandered by stupidity as one is obliged to trample one’s way over those Lilliputian vanities that writhe in the dust! Even after all the anguish of giving birth and the disappointments of the ideal, once the task is completed, nothing is achieved. Then one is subject to indifference, to rejection, to disdain, to insult, to the promiscuity of banal applause or to the sarcasm of the malicious; obliged to avoid the plots of the jealous and to stay for ever silent in the face of triumphant mediocrity. And yet there are men who, by force of talent and energy, soon grasp the prize for which so many are striving. He of whom we have been speaking is one of that number, gentlemen! The unexpected favour which you here bestow upon him is a consecration, a homage and an encouragement.

He will regard it, I am sure, as a token of your bounty.

There was a prize for those who, like Bouilhet, but unlike Flaubert, played this game through to the end: a modestly dignified official sinecure, a post in a library or one of the quieter government departments. Bouilhet collected his reward in 1867 when, after much manoeuvring by the Flaubert family on his behalf, he was appointed to the post of chief librarian in Rouen. The poet was installed in an office in the Hôtel de Ville: a bizarre apotheosis for the friend of the great bourgeois-baiter. But for Bouilhet I imagine that the municipal library was a congenial refuge from the boisterous, slippery, entrepreneurial world of journalism and the theatre, the world into which he had launched himself, with many misgivings, 15 years earlier. He had come home again, raised to a brief and modest eminence in the last years of his life.

Maupassant, a pupil at the Lycée de Rouen in the late 1860s, and always eager to visit Bouilhet, remembered the two men clearly and sympathetically.

When I went into the poet’s study I saw through a cloud of smoke two large stout men slumped in their armchairs smoking as they talked. Gustave Flaubert was sitting there opposite Louis Bouilhet. I kept my poems in my pocket and I stayed sitting quietly in the corner, listening. At about four o’clock Flaubert stood up. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Come with me to the end of the street. I shall walk back down to the boat.’ When we reached the boulevard where they hold the market and the fair, Bouilhet suddenly said: ‘What about a walk around the stalls?’ And they began their slow progress, side by side, head and shoulders taller than anyone else ... enjoying themselves like a couple of children, swapping remarks about the people they saw. They were imagining the characters from the faces, making up conversations between husband and wife. Bouilhet spoke the man’s part and Flaubert was the woman, complete with Normandy idioms, the drawling accent and that look of perpetual surprise they all have.

It is a surprising and appealing scene: two large, plump, middle-aged men, dressed in black, one of them wearing his Legion of Honour insignia, both boyishly engrossed in their game. Bouilhet died not long afterwards, in July 1869, just a few months before the publication of L’Education sentimentale. The book that he had overseen so diligently never received his final imprimatur. Yet their dialogue was not to be silenced by death. At Bouilhet’s funeral Flaubert could still hear his friend’s voice. ‘He was talking to me inside my head, it was as if he was there, by my side, and we were following someone else’s coffin together.’ The disembodied Bouilhet, the Bouilhet within, regaled Flaubert with a string of cheerfully mocking remarks, revelling in the grotesquerie of his own funeral.

All through the 1870s, the last decade of his life, with no visible Bouilhet to talk to, Flaubert was the bustling champion of the public memory of his friend. For Bouilhet he was prepared to enter the public arena and take on the enemies of art, something he had always abstained from doing on his own behalf. He worked on Bouilhet’s unfinished play and had it staged. He edited his uncollected poems, wrote a preface for them and badgered a publisher into taking on the volume. He campaigned ferociously for a public monument to Bouilhet to be erected in Rouen. The municipal council kept stalling. In January 1872, Flaubert was stung into a uniquely public denunciation of the enfeebled bourgeoisie of the infant Third Republic. It was published in the form of an open letter:

In itself this business is of little importance. But one can take it as a sign of the times – as a characteristic feature of your class – and I am no longer merely addressing you, gentlemen, but all of the bourgeois. I therefore say to them ... You have no skill with the pen or the rifle! You allow yourselves to be plundered, imprisoned and slaughtered by a crowd of convicts [the recent events of the Paris Commune]. You no longer have even the brute instinct of self-defence; and, when it is a question not merely of saving your skin but your purse as well (which should be the more precious to you), then you do not even have the energy to walk as far as the ballot box. With all your capital and your cleverness you cannot organise the equivalent of the ‘Internationale’!

  Your only intellectual effort consists in shuddering at the thought of what the future holds.

  Use your imaginations. Quickly though! or else France will sink ever lower, caught between a hideous demagogy and a stupid bourgeoisie.

Who was Louis Bouilhet? How was it that the care of Bouilhet’s good name could have elicited from Flaubert such thunderings of indignation? The last word ought perhaps to be in the style of the famous Dictionary of Received Ideas, where we will not find the following pair of entries:

BOUILHET, LOUIS: Medical student, poet, dramatist and latterly librarian. Gave Flaubert the idea for Madame Bovary. Flaubert and Bouilhet looked exactly alike, apart from their earlobes. Mention the rumour that they were half-brothers and insinuate that they were ‘practising homosexuals’. Declare, in a lofty tone, that Bouilhet was Probably the Greatest French Poet of the 19th Century! If cornered, confess judiciously that he was a mediocre minor poet but acclaim him as an editor of genius nonetheless ... See FLAUBERBOUILLER.

FLAUBERBOUILLER: Apocryphal verb coined in 1860 by a mutual friend, Charles Le Boeuf, comte d’Osmoy, to describe epistolary traffic between Louis Bouilhet and Gustave Flaubert. ‘A gloomy duet, mainly cries of pain and despair. As soon as one stops groaning, the other one starts howling. And so on, alternately, for twenty years.’