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)

Of Fred and Sarah, #quote from Julian Barnes “Levels of Life”

Sarah Bernhardt photographed by Félix Nadar 1865The next evening, he watched her performance, came to her dressing room, and saw many of the same faces. He made sure to pay proper attention to Mme Guérard: having been in foreign courts before, he knew to recognise the power behind the throne. Soon – much sooner than the fiercest optimism could have imagined – she came across, took Barnaby’s arm, and bade her coterie goodnight. As the three of them left, the scrimmage of Parisian dandies took care of not to appear put out. Well, perhaps they weren’t.

From Julian Barnes, “Levels of Life, On the Level” (© Julian Barnes 2013)

Image: Sarah Bernhardt photographed by Félix Nadar 1865

#amreading: The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

You get towards the end of life – no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of the likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment to pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?” ~ Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

I Capture the Castle I am a happily married man. Gorgeous and I rarely argue about anything of substance, and when we do, it is with the certainty that I will quickly realise my error. Books, and the interpretation of certain books may be the exception. I tend to take the viewpoint of the author, or at least what I guess that might be. She, is the Reader.

So it is that, a few of days ago, I picked up Her copy of Julian Barnes “The Sense of an Ending”, and proceeded to read it the same day, on a train journey to Paris. The novella moved me to tears. I found Barnes’ description of ageing, of the confusion of memories and feelings this implies, the nostalgia of the whole tale, and the tragedy of the characters, simply overwhelming. I understood the Man Booker Prize jury and their decision in 2011. This is a small masterpiece, a jewel of a book that one must read and re-read.

I found poignant the description of the college boys growing up, their hopes, their shattered illusions, their eventual defeat once they accepted that Life would definitely not turn out as Literature. I identified myself with Tony Webster, the gentle (my view) fellow who learnt to survive, was victim of a manipulative and heartless young woman in the person of Miss Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, to my mind fully deserving Tony’s own description of bitch and “cockteaser”.

I too believed that History was the lie of the victors. And my taste in music were not that different from Tony’s own. So, I too felt “like a survivor from some antique, bypassed culture whose members were still using carved turnips as a form of monetary exchange.” That actually made me laugh – on a good teasing day Gorgeous calls me her “Neanderthal”. If you haven’t read the book then stop reading this post now. The rest would spoil your pleasure when you come to reading it.

I have my interpretation of the tragedy, and was even more disgusted at Veronica’s antics when Tony, with good reasons, attempts to contact her again: this confirmed to me his correct diagnosis regarding the lady. But of course nothing is that simple.

Gorgeous said then that since I’d finished the book she wished to have my views on it. I was happy to discuss it and had no concern about the outcome. I gave my wife my views of the book, in a literary sense, and then of the story and of the characters. It turns out that her interpretation was completely different. For a start her belief was that it was Tony who had made Veronica’s mother pregnant. This made/makes no sense to me although I admit that my reasoning is solely based on the fact that Mrs Ford mère – Sarah – left Adrian’s diary in her will specifically for Tony, with a note saying that Adrian’s last months had been happy. To my mind, Adrian, the philosopher, had somehow got close enough to Veronica’s mum and made her pregnant, “at a dangerously late age”. Of course there is still an unexplained mystery as to how and why. To my mind the explanation may be that young Veronica behaved just as badly with Adrian as, before him, with Tony, and had taken him to bed merely to frustrate Tony – didn’t she push Adrian to write to Tony that they were “going out”?  – Upon which the said Adrian followed Tony’s recommendation and visited Mother with the unplanned consequences. Wife was not convinced. Wife thought Tony Webster was a fine example of male brutishness and insensitivity, in one word another stupid prick, although She admitted that I may be right about the paternity. As for Veronica’s attitude and “cockteasing”, Wife declared, to my stupefaction, that a young woman had a right to chose her own ways to satisfaction. I  nearly choked, and felt awkward since that affirmation is, of course, undeniable. But I thought it was about a relationship, and what of the mess that evidently ensued, and that Tony in his older age only discovered as a result of receiving Mrs Ford’ s letter via her solicitor? What of Veronica’s refusal to explain anything to him but let him guess at some of the truth through parables and a display of contempt that surely would infuriate anyone? What was her right to withhold, perhaps destroy, Adrian’s diary that her mother had legated to Tony? I was on the wrong track. As Tony says: “There was no arguing against “feelings”, because women were experts in them, men coarse beginners.” Well now, for a start I have never thought the “Sixties” were a time of “permissiveness”. For a tiny minority of “artists” maybe, but for most of us – here and there and everywhere – the decade was a time of hypocrisy and lies. The main problem then for young people was contraception, when things were not cheap and not easy to get, and we were poor.

“But I was wrong about most things, then as now. For instance, why did I assume she was a virgin? I never asked her, and she never told me. I assumed she was because she wouldn’t sleep with me: where is the logic in that?” – I really felt for Tony reading this. Gorgeous said he was an idiot. And by inference I was on my way to become one too!

He had been warned. Mother had told him: “Don’t let Veronica get away with too much.” I am sure Mother knew what a bitch daughter was, and Tony was evidently not Miss Ford’s first victim… Still. Some forty years later he tries to understand. Yes he wrote that odious and very stupid letter, and rather than warn his friend, as a true comrade should have done, he insulted him, and her. I said to Wife that I would never have done such a thing, Wife looked at me critically.

I said, “Whichever way one reads the book, Miss Veronica Ford is the personification of all that can go wrong with human relationships.” Gorgeous smiled: “and of course it had nothing to do with him?” I thought again of Mr Tony Webster: “Why should we we expect age to mellow us? If it isn’t life’s business to reward merit, why should it be life’s business to give us warm, comfortable feelings towards its end? What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?” But Gorgeous had the last word, when she quoted Adrian himself: “If life is a wager, what form does the bet take?”

If you have read “The Sense of an Ending”, we are interested in your interpretation of the book and its characters!