The books Gustave Flaubert never wrote #WritersWednesday

From Julian Barnes’ “Flaubert’s Parrot”, chapter 9, The Flaubert Apocrypha.

Anna Plesingerová-Božinová (20. 4. 1883 - 24. 11. 1977)His Autobiography: “One day, if I write my memoirs – the only thing I shall write well, if ever I put myself to the task of doing it – you will find a place in them, and what a place! For you have blown a large breach in the walls of my existence.” From one of his earliest letters to Louise Colet; and over a seven-year period (1846-53) he makes occasional references to the planned autobiography. Then he announced its official abandonment. But was it ever more than just a project for a project?

Story of Mycerinus: in 1850, while in Egypt, Flaubert spends two days pondering the story of Mycerinus, a pious king of the fourth dynasty who is credited with reopening temples closed by his predecessors. In a letter to Bouillhet, however, the novelist characterises his subject more crudely as “the king who fucks his daughter”…

Three projects: in 1850, from Constantinople, Flauberts announces three projects: “Une nuit de Don Juan (which reaches the planning stage); “Anubis”, the story of the woman who wants to be fucked by a god”; and “My Flemish novel about the young girl who dies a virgin and a mystic… in a little provincial town, at the bottom of a garden planted with cabbages and bulrushes…” Gustave complains in this letter to Bouillhet about the dangers of planning a project too thoroughly: “It seems to me, alas, that if you can so thoroughly dissect your children who are still to be born, you don’t get horny enough actually to father them.” In the present cases, Gustave didn’t get horny enough; though some see in his third project a vague forerunner of either Madame Bovary or Un coeur simple.

La Spirale“: in 1852-3 Gustave makes serious plans for “La Spirale”, a “grand, metaphysical, fantastical and bawling novel”, whose hero lives a typical Flaubertian double life, being happy in his dreams and unhappy in his real life. Its conclusion, of course: that happiness exists only in the imagination.

Chivalry: in 1853, “one of my old dreams”is resuscitated: a novel about chivalry. Despite Ariosto such a project is still feasible, Gustave declares: the additional elements he will bring to the subject are “terror and a broader poetry”.

Insanity and theatre: in 1861 “I’ve long been meditating a novel on insanity, or rather on how one becomes insane.” From about this time, or a little later, he was also meditating, according to Du Camp, a novel about the theatre; he would sit in the green room jotting down the confidences of over-candid actresses. “Only Le Sage in Gil Blas has touched upon the truth. I will reveal it in all its nakedness, for it is impossible to imagine how comic it is.”

Harel-Bey“, an Eastern story: “If I were younger and had the money, I’d go back to the Orient – to study the modern Orient, the Orient of the Isthmus of Suez. A big book about that is one of my old dreams. I’d like to show a civilised man – to develop that contrast between two worlds that end up merging… But it’s too late.”

Battle of Thermopylae: he planned a book about the battle after finishing Bouvard et Pécuchet.

A novel featuring several generations of a Rouen family.

A Parisian Household” or “Under Napoleon III“: “I will write a novel about the Empire and bringing the evening receptions at Compiègne, with all the ambassadors, marshals and senators rattling their decorations as they bend to the ground to kiss the hand of the Prince Imperial. Yes indeed! The period will furnish material for some capital books.” (Du Camp reports him saying.)

Un “roman trouvé“: was found by Charles Lapierre, editor of Le Nouvelliste de Rouen. Dining at Croisset one evening, Lapierre told Flaubert of the scandalous history of Mademoiselle de P-. She had been born into the Normandy nobility, had connections at Court, and was appointed reader to the Empress Eugénie. Her beauty, they said, was enough to damn a saint. It was certainly enough to damn her: an open liaison with an officer of the Imperial Guard caused her dismissal. Subsequently she became one of the queens of the Parisian demimonde, ruling in the late 1860s over a loucher version of the Court from which she had been excluded. During the Franco-Prussian War, she disappeared from sight (along with the rest of her profession), and afterwards her star waned. She descended, by all accounts, to the lowest level of harlotry. And yet, encouragingly (for fiction as well as for herself), she proved able to rise again: she became the established mistress of a cavalry officer, and by the time she died was the legal wife of an admiral.

Flaubert was delighted with the story: “Do you know, Lapierre, you’ve just given me the subject of a novel, the counterpart of my Bovary, a Bovary of high society. What an attractive figure!” He copied down the story at once, and began to make notes on it. But the novel was never written, and the notes have never been found.

All these unwritten books tantalise. Yet they can, to an extent, be filled out, ordered, reimagined. They can be studied in academies. A pier is a disappointed bridge; yet stare at it long enough and you can dream it to the other side of the Channel. The same is true with these stubs of books.

Image: Anna Plesingerová-Božinová (20. 4. 1883 – 24. 11. 1977)

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