Reading Resources: The Trial of Madame Bovary

Below are my notes on the obscenity trial for Madame Bovary. If you have a specific question regarding any of the below information, or if you have better information than I have ("I don't think Emma Bovary ever discovered an alternate planet Earth filled with apes, Mike."), please feel free to send me an email (mbevel2002 at yahoo dot com) or reply in the comments.

The two books I consulted the most:

Madame Bovary, Norton Critical Edition
Flaubert and Madame Bovary by Francis Steegmuller

Madame Bovary Trial

Madame Bovary is published serially in the Review de Paris starting in 1856.

Several scenes – most notably the super sexy carriage ride – are cut by Maxime du Camp.
  • Decree from Napoleon had abolished freedom of the press; newspapers were under increased scrutiny
  • Review de Paris was known to authorities of the Second Empire as a periodical purveying objectionably liberal, republican, and generally "advanced" views.
The novel is put on trial 30 January 1857. It lasts one day.
  • There are several suggestions that it was Flaubert's public reaction (he has a note inserted into the number with the missing cab ride declaiming the edit and disavowing his participation in that number) that drew the court's attention to Madame Bovary.
  • The prosecutor, Ernest Pinard, also seems to have some sort of vendetta against Flaubert.
Pinard opens by recapping the entire novel, then brings his two charges against Flaubert:
  • Offense to public morality (all the scenes of sexual excess)
  • Offense to religious morality (voluptuous images mixed with sacred things)
Pinard sites four scenes -- what he calls "paintings" -- that he feels best exemplifies the prosecution's case:
  1. Loves and fall with Rodolphe
  2. Religious transition between the two adulteries (Emma's near-death)
  3. Fall with Leon
  4. Death of Emma
Loves and Fall with Rodolphe
  • Rodolphe seeing Emma's bodice pulled tightly during the bloodletting scene
  • No remorse after first adultery
  • Emma glorifies adultery
  • Emma sneaking from her sleeping husband
  • Emma grows in beauty through her adultery
Religious Transition Between Two Adulteries
  • Lingering as a child with made-up sins to prolong her religious fiction
  • That she seeks communion without the guise of the Magdalen
  • Praying to God with words usually addressed to a lover (p 325 of Norton Critical Edition)
Fall with Leon
  • Carriage scene
  • Seeing the play of Lucia de Lammermoor
Death of Emma
  • Suicide (it's a sin; it's also not earned)
  • Extreme unction (Pinard feels that Flaubert adds too much of the voluptuous to this scene)
  • She dies at the moment a lascivious song is sung 
"But...but...she dies: isn't that punishment" To which Pinard replies:

"But after all, the novel is fundamentally moral, since the adultery is punished?

Two answers to this objection: if I hypothetically assume the work is moral, a moral conclusion could never grant amnesty for the lascivious details that may be in it. And then I say: the work is not fundamentally moral.

Gentlemen, I say that lascivious details cannot be covered up by a moral conclusion, or else one could talk about all imaginable orgies, describe all the base acts of a prostitute, by letting her die on a pallet in the hospital.

She dies not because she is adulterous, but because she wanted to die; she dies in all the splendor of youth and her beauty; she dies after having had two lovers, leaving behind a husband who loves her, who adores her…Thus if in all the book there is not one character who can make her bend her head; if there is not one idea, one line in virtue of which adultery is denounced, then I am right: the book is immoral!”

The defense, of course, wins. (Marie-Antoine-Jules Senard) But not because his arguments are good.
  • It's rumored that many are uncomfortable with Pinard's passion in denouncing the book
  • His main argument is that the novel is religious and moral – that Flaubert is translating "incitement to virtue by the horror of vice."
The "moral and religious argument" seems flawed. We have several letters Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet about Madame Bovary: 
  • "There are no noble subjects or ignoble subjects...There is no such thing as a subject. Style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing things." (16 January 1852) 
  • "No lyricism. No comments. The author's personality absent." (1 February 1852) 
  • "Nowhere in my book must the author express his emotions or his opinion." (8 February 1852)
There's a lovely irony: The prosecution reads the novel better than the defense (who takes an almost bourgeois read of it, what with his trumpeting morality every other sentence). There's no complexity to the defense's interpretation; the prosecution, however, seems infected by the ideas Flaubert wants to be communicable. (That's too much of a metaphor right there. Don't tell anyone I used it.)

As part of the defense's playing up of how morally and intellectually upstanding Flaubert is as a human being, the defense says of Flaubert, "Qui mores multorum vidit et urbes." [He saw the manners and cities of many.] Let's take a peek at a couple of entries from Flaubert's travel journal to see what kind of seer of manners and cities he was: 
  • "The Temple of Edfu serves as a public latrine for the entire village." 
  • "Jerusalem is a charnel house surrounded by ramparts"
Defense essentially wears down the Court with his opening statement: 
  • Prosecution = 21 pages in my Norton Critical Edition 
  • Defense = 48 pages in my Norton Critical Edition

Reading Resources: Flaubert Biography

Below are my notes on Flaubert's biography. If you have a specific question regarding any of the below information, or if you have better information than I have ("No, Mike, Flaubert wasn't an exotic dancer for a brief time."), please feel free to send me an email (mbevel2002 at yahoo dot com) or reply in the comments.

The two books I consulted the most:

Madame Bovary, Norton Critical Edition
Flaubert and Madame Bovary by Francis Steegmuller

Flaubert Biography

b. 12 December 1821 in Rouen, France.

Sickly child – or, rather, “sickly”; there might be some hypochondria going on. (For instance, almost all of his epileptic episodes seem to occur shortly after Flaubert doesn't get his way.) 

When his sister marries, poorly (the Flauberts feel), the family decides to go on the honeymoon with her and her new husband thinking that she couldn’t possibly want to be alone with him.

He sees the painting of the temptation of St Anthony by Breughel, and becomes obsessed with the image. His overworked The Temptation of St Anthony is his personal favorite of all of his works.

Also, at 14, sees the breast of a woman breastfeeding, becomes obsessed, stalks her dog (whispering sweet-nothings in its ear), and then later has sex with his mother’s chambermaid. Later, he’ll write Sentimental Education, based, in part, on this early “love.”

His sister and father die close together: he of an abscess on his thigh; she of puerperal fever. This sort of seals the deal on his maternal entrenchment.

Meets Louise Colet; much whining ensues
  • Married to Hyppolite Colet
  • Lover of Victor Cousin
  • Neither man acknowledged paternity to Louise’s daughter Henriette
  • Louise expresses “concern” about the adultery she’s committing with Cousin (and, of course, Flaubert); Flaubert tells her that “adultery is glorious; a revolt against the most bourgeois and detestable of institutions.”
Favorite line of a Flaubert letter: “I can continue no longer a correspondence that is becoming epileptic.”

Takes a long, Oriental journey with his friend Maxime du Camp
  • Obsessed with prostitutes and eunuchs and dwarfs: 
I saw the mosques, the seraglio, Santa Sophia. In the seraglio there was a dwarf, playing with white eunuchs outside the throne-room. The dwarf was richly dressed, European style, spats, overcoat, watch-chain – hideous. As for eunuchs, the black ones (which were the only ones I had seen up to now) had no effect on me. But the white eunuchs! I was not prepared for them. They look like nasty old women. The sight irritates the nerves and torments the imagination. You are filled with a devouring curiosity, and at the same time a bourgeois feeling makes you hate them. There is something so anti-normal in them, physically speaking, that your vitality is shocked. Explain that to me. Nevertheless, they are one of the most curious products of the hand of man. What would I not have given in the Orient, to become the friend of a eunuch! But they are completely unapproachable. (Flaubert to Louis Bouilhet, 19 December 1850)
  • Max takes numerous photos, using an “extremely handsome Nubian” – for scale, he says. 
After his return, his friend Louis Bouilhet tells him the story of Eugene Delmare – a country officier de sante with a pretty wife who overspends and entertains a lot of gentlemen callers. Oh, and she commits suicide.

According to Flaubert, in writing Madame Bovary, it took him 4 days per page; 39 pages in 3 months; 114 pages in 10 months.

d. 8 May 1880 (58) – Prussian soldiers occupy his house, his mother dies, he’s riddled with all sorts of venereal disease (Flaubert had a thing for the working girls), and he finally has a cerebral hemorrhage.

In which the author bosses you around (kind of) about Tolstoy

My friend Geoff mentioned in an email that he had never read Tolstoy, and wanted to know where to begin. ("At the beginning," the King of Hearts tells us, "and when you get to the end, stop."):

"For Tolstoy, I think you would do very well to start with Anna Karenina. I recommend the Constance Garnett translation (and I especially recommend the Modern Library edition of the Constance Garnett translation, found readily in any Barnes & Noble, because it has a gorgeous essay by Mona Simpson). Tolstoy isn't necessarily one for lovely sentences; like Steinbeck, he's a story teller more than any sort of sentence-crafter. And actually, more than a story teller, Tolstoy just has the most compassionate eye of any writer I've ever met. He's also very generous with his writing. There's a wonderful moment in War & Peace where he describes a dinner party, and the frustrations of a German tutor who is passed over during one of the wine courses*. The German tutor won't be mentioned again at all; he's in no way integral to the story; and yet his heartbreak at missing one of the wines, and not being able to send home a complete account of this spectacle ofa dinner party, is funny and moving and necessarily unnecessary. That's the kind of writer Tolstoy is."

[* "The German tutor was trying to learn by heart a list of all the kinds of dishes, desserts, and wines, in order to write a detailed description of them to the folks at home in Germany, and greatly mortified that the butler with the bottle in the napkin passed him over. The German knitted his brows, and tried to look as though he would not have cared to take that wine, but he was mortified because no one would understand that he had not wanted the wine to quench his thirst, or through greed, but from a conscious desire for knowledge."

The above is from the Constance Garnett translation -- the best translation, in my opinion. Here is how Aylmer Maude translates the same passage:

The German tutor was trying to remember all the dishes, wines, and kinds of dessert, in order to send a full description of the dinner to his people in Germany; and he felt greatly offended when the butler with a bottle wrapped in a napkin passed him by. He frowned, trying to appear as if he did not want any of that wine, but was mortified because no one would understand that it was not to quench his thirst or from greediness that he wanted it, but simply from a conscientious desire for knowledge.
"Learn by heart" is much more descriptive than "remember" -- and goes more towards creating a full-formed character. We see the German tutor, possibly muttering details under his breath in a sort of repetitious incantation, the ultimate outcome of which is hoped to be memory. "Detailed description," I think, is also much richer than "full description." It's more expressive of what the German wants to accomplish. It's likely he comes from a family of limited means; it's likely his family has never had a variety of wines at table, not to mention courses, soups, desserts, and silver. He can't feed his family from this disgustingly voluptuous table, but he can feed their imaginations. "Knitted his brows" is in a league of its own over "frowned." I also don't think he's frowning necessarily. His expression is complicated the way knitting is complicated, with knits and purls, and dropped stitches. I could go on -- but I'll close by saying that Garnett understands the scene better than Maude may understand the Russian (and that's an argument used against Garnett -- that she mistranslates the Russian; that she's a Victorian prude). And for a translation, I think that's more important.]

In which the author writes an open letter to Lev Grossman

I read your piece in the Wall Street Journal about the return of plot to the novel.

Upfront, I'll say that I read Victorian novels almost exclusively. I'm a pair of spats and a chamber pot from my own case of consumption. Early in your essay, when you say that Modernists "were...the single greatest crop of writers the novel has ever seen" I reminded myself that I'm probably too close to this case, in the parlance of all those cop movies that are set three days before the lead cop's retirement; he will also say, at some point, "I'm too old for this shit" before doing something like chasing down a crazed East German bio-terrorist over rooftops or before donning hooker-drag to trap a weird cartel of Indonesian white-woman sex-slave traders.

But I digress.

However, later, you make this point: "The orderly, complacent, optimistic Victorian novel had nothing to say to them. Worse than nothing: it felt like a lie." I...don't recognize those Victorian novels you're referencing there. Not that there aren't orderly, complacent, and optimistic novels written during the Victorian era; however, the bulk of what's written in the nineteenth century is almost anything but the three adjectives you chose.

Orderly? Have you read Wilkie Collins? Complacent? Have you read Shirley? Optimistic? Have you read anything by Thomas Hardy or George Gissing? (Or, if you're going to ding me for both of those gentlemen being too far removed from the heart of the Victorian era -- and that would be a fine thing to ding me on -- I'll return that volley with Villette.) Heck, even reaching the end of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (which, I know, isn't Victorian; it is, though, nineteenth century), one isn't left feeling terribly optimistic that the marriage between Fanny and Edmund is going to be a success.

It feels a little as if you're pitting the nineteenth century against the twentieth; however, I don't feel you make a compelling case of this. Put baldly, it seems as if you're saying that the Victorian novel is muzak to James Joyce's Beethoven.

I was also confused by this statement: "Say what you like about the works of Dickens and Thackeray, you pretty much always know who's talking, and when, and what they're talking about. The Modernists introduced us to the idea that reading could be work, and not common labor but the work of an intellectual elite, a highly trained coterie of professional aesthetic interpreters." Not knowing who's talking isn't an intellectual exercise when reading. It's a frustration. It would be like filming a movie with the lens cap on and calling it groundbreaking because the audience isn't sure who is doing what to whom.

I guess, ultimately, I disagree with your thesis -- that "plot" is a dirty word. It's what makes a novel readable. (And by the way, of those in your list of Modernist masterpieces -- i.e. The Age of Innocence, Ulysses, A Passage to India, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Lady Chatterley's Lover, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and The Sound and the Fury -- it's only the Woolfs that lack anything resembling plot. Even "The Sound and the Fury" is plotted as tightly as a Dickens novel.)

While I disagree with your thesis, I agree with your sentiment: Plot isn't a terrible thing, and we should expect more from novelists than blank experimentation.

(If you've read this far, thanks.)



I'm Imagining You in Your Underwear (and it's not helping)

Back in January, I gave a "lecture" on the Victorian novel at the Bethesda library. I wrote everything out, I had about an hour's worth of material, I had clean pants, and I forgot how terrible I am at public speaking.

Because I am terrible at public speaking.

For one thing, I don't know how to prepare. I thought I was in the clear, just writing the whole thing out. I wrote in pauses. I wrote in witty asides. I couldn't see how this couldn't be a speech-writer's speech. I read it aloud two or three times (don't believe Zach when he tries to add "hundred" to the "two or three" -- he hates being read to, and so magnifies each episode), sure, and even double-spaced my copy for easier reading. Nothing, I thought, could go terribly wrong.

"I can't believe you memorized your whole speech," one of the ladies said to me right before I was to take the podium. "I...what?" I asked. Because I hadn't. Memorized. It never occurred to me to memorize. "Was I supposed to memorize this?" I whispered to Zach.

"You oversold these desserts. Doesn't anyone bake anything anymore?"

"You've been a big help."

So, with my speech unmemorized, I took to the podium and proceeded to lose about 25 pounds in water weight as I sweated through the most uncomfortable 40 minutes I've ever spent conscious. I stammered. I raced through my planned pauses. I stumbled over my witty asides. At one point, I seriously considered faking a seizure.

I mention all of this because it's likely I'll be doing this again. A lecture. In January. Because I don't learn at all from past experience, and because I still stupidly believe in getting back on some metaphorical horse when I actually don't even like horses, truth be told, because they're big and move unexpectedly and I don't think they've ever actually given informed consent to be ridden and with my luck I'll end up on the Norma Rae of horses and all of a sudden we're no longer really talking about my speech, are we. Not even metaphorically. We've delved into my fear of large mammals.


This lecture, which I'll need to write out (only not completely out -- because that was a Lesson Learned from last time. I wrote the whole thing out, and then read directly from the sheet, and it was awful. However, at several points, I spoke ex cathedra if you will, and those spontaneous diversions from the script sounded MUCH better than the pre-written stuff. I work best with notes, it turns out, and extemporaneously*), will be on women in the nineteenth century, since the 2010 series of books to discuss is titled "Women and Other Difficult Topics." I'll also cover the list of books, and give a reason for each choice. I don't have a date set; however, it will be some time in early January.

[* So, it's my freshman year at Southern Oregon State College and I'm in a Small Group Communications class. Our final project is to find some sort of worthwhile endeavor and "present" it to the class as if we're presenting it to a city council. My group picks Preventing Teen Pregnancy. There are five or six of us in the small group. Each of us takes on a task. This one guy says, "I'll be the speaker. I did great at extemporaneous speaking. This is totally my thing. We're guaranteed an A."

Here's how he opened his extemporaneous speech: "Oh yes we've got trouble. Right here in Ashland City. And that starts with a T and it rhymes with P and that stands for Pregnancy."

Dudes, seriously. And we didn't get an A.]

The Book You're Not Reading: Lewis Carroll: A Biography

Not including the appendix, this bio clocks in at 533 pages. I'm approaching page 50, and Carroll is still at university. The most interesting part of the biography is a 12-year-old's dream. I present it to you unedited, and with no further comment:

Fagging was, in fact, one of the sanctioned elements in the Arnold-Tait hierarchy, where older boys governed the houses and imposed discipline on the younger ones. Ruled by the elite sixth form, undisciplined youths were supposed to be transformed into responsible, dutiful men.

Two typed of fagging existed: school fagging and house fagging. If a member of the sixth wanted a fag for any outdoor activity, like umpiring cricket, he merely picked one of the three hundred or so boys in the lower forms. House fagging was more arduous and humiliating, ranging from scullery work to running errands. On call virtually all the time he was not in class, the fag could not call his life his own.

If a fag did not perform his duties or was found wanting, he was punished. "For minor offenses," Rouse wrote, "there was a 'study-licking' of three strokes; for others, a more serious chastisement administered before the Sixth, or 'hall licking.'"
Well, actually, a couple of comments: This biography is from 1995. And the guy writing it teaches (or taught; he was old in 1995) at City University of New York. Actually, not just teaches; he's Professor Emeritus. I mention this because I guess maybe I don't want to feel entirely responsible for the immaturity of my thoughts. As an adult, I should be able to read words like "fag," "fagging," and "licking," and not snicker like an asshole while poking Zach to take a look at my book. However, as a Professor Emeritus, maybe homeboy could invest in a thesaurus. I'm just saying.

Oh, and from the Victorian Web, I give you this picture: A Boy in the Lower School Fagging.

One of the things that made the Steegmuller bio of Gustave Flaubert successful is that his focus is narrow: he's giving us an account of the period that leads Flaubert to writing Madame Bovary, and then gives us the fallout from the publication of Madame Bovary. What's germane to this action is what makes it into the biography.

The Carroll biography, on the other hand, simply has Carroll's whole life as the focus -- and thus feels like one of Henry James's "baggy monsters." In several places, Morton Cohen, (the author), glides into speculation while quoting extensively from outside sources:

We do not know whether matriculation provided Charles with hsi first view of Oxford. Perhaps he saw it as a fellow Oxonian first did, from Magdalen Bridge, when one could look "straight acoss the Christ Christ cricket-ground to th meadows beyond Cherwell...[for] an uninterrupted view of every tower in the city from Magdalen to the Cathedral...a fairyland of spires and pinnacles, rising from a foreground of trees and verdure...'the noblest of cities.'"
There are now two camps in Carroll scholarship: those who think that Carroll was a pedophile, and those who think he was simply a Victorian with a camera and no funds for costumes. Cohen is firmly in the former camp, and yet feels some responsibility to rehabilitate Carroll as he goes along. While at Christ Church, Oxford, Carroll writes a series of essays for his finals, each taking a Latin phrase as its thesis. Cohen sees these as Carroll's first attempts at recognizing the "forces he felt operating within him and of his intention to control them, to follow the righteous road, to serve God in every deed. This struggle--" Cohen will repeat this idea several times over "--is a keynote to his character."

Of course, I'm only nearing page 50. I'm nowhere near Carroll's first nude photograph of a little girl. If I had to hazard a position now, though, I might suggest a middle ground between Carroll's obsession with very young girls and the Victorian era's obsession with the innocence and purity of childhood. It had to be a confusing time to be a pedophile, to see naked cherubs on all the household decorations (especially around Christmastime, with the ultimate naked baby, Jesus, lying there all nude-like in his messianic splendor), but then to also know that any pursuit of a relationship with these children would not be looked on as at all appropriate. (You had to wait until the girl was at least 12 to begin pestering her parents for the permission to marry her. Usually.)

And while not defending them at all now, I will say that the confusion hasn't gotten any better for today's modern pedophiles. We rightly forbid them to touch children; and yet we sexualize children in our culture and our advertising all the time. "We can exploit children sexually for profit," the rule seems to go; "but you cannot exploit the children at all sexually for your needs because that's where we draw the line." And I'm not suggesting that's a terrible place to draw the line at all. I just wish maybe we weren't in the line-drawing position in the first place. Maybe sexualizing children for profit should be as forbidden as sexualizing children for personal pleasure.

Two other quick bits from this biography before I close this:

(1) A nephew of Carroll's, S.D. Collingwood, wrote a biography of him which included this tidbit: "In this quiet home the boy invented the strangest diversions for himself...He tried to encourage civilised warfare among earthworms."

(2) He stays for a time with an uncle, Skeffington Lutwidge (I KNOW) (it's Skeffington who introduces him to photography), and his uncle Skeffington is "a barrister and Commissioner in Lunacy." Well, of course he is.

Why We Might Be Doing it Wrong

I send periodic email updates to the folks who participate with me in a monthly discussion group about nineteenth century and Victorian literature. (There's a difference. It's pedantic, but I'm nothing if not a pedant.)

That's the website for a male-only book group that started in Boston. Why male-only? Well, as the founding member, Tanaka, explained in the New Yorker's Book Bench blog: "I started this club as an anti-establishment book club that spits in the faces of the traditional girlie clubs where people don’t discuss the book, and just drink wine and talk about relationships. I have a good number of smart, successful friends who are very well read, and want to kick ass like I do."

Clearly, we need to kick more ass. (Also: we need to serve more wine.)

We also might want to think about incorporating more of what The Scorpions (that's the name of that particular group) do in their monthly meetings: "Discussion of selected reading material as well as competition, gambling, tests of strength (mental and/or physical) and trivia." It's not enough, as it turns out, to read and understand a novel while also having a penis. One must Smash Things and Drink and then Pee on Things while also remembering things like RBIs and how many nude scenes Bo Derek has in 10.

Also, no Jane Austen for these He-Men. No. They want the heavy-hitters like Cormac McCarthy and Graham Greene and Earnest Hemingway (who, if I remember correctly, struggled with his own sense of masculinity -- but don't tell these boys; you don't want to interrupt them while they're doing something manly.)

When we meet this Tuesday, 18 August, to discuss Tolstoy's very unmasculine Kreutzer Sonata, let's think about what we can do to make our discussions more hard-core. What I'm saying is: be prepared for a belch-off.

Masculinely yours,


The Book You're Not Reading: Flaubert and Madame Bovary

It is impossible for me to continue any longer a correspondence which is becoming epileptic.
The letters between Flaubert and Louise Colet are exasperating.

Flaubert meets Colet (and not Colette, whom I thought Flaubert was involved with for, like, 15 pages before getting my timelines straight) in Paris, and they fall in love, which is weird, because Flaubert up to this point had been pretty same-sex oriented, what with his infatuation with his friend Alfred and all. I mean, sure, there's the scene where, desperate to have some kind of sex at all, he creeps into the chambermaid's bed and has his way with her (it's not clear, from Steegmuller's account, whether it was consensual or not; however, I'm guessing "not") and there's the lady whose boob he sees and he spirals out of control about that for the rest of his life. But he's emotionally present for Alfred (and several other male friends) in ways he just isn't to Colet (or Boob Lady or Maybe-Raped Chambermaid).

Anyway, the meet, fall in love, have a great week or so together, and then Flaubert heads back home to Rouen (home of the Flame Broiled Joan) and he and Colet begin their correspondence.

It doesn't go well.

But let me back up for a moment. Because it starts out just fine, the way new romantic penpals always start out fine. The envelopes between Paris and Rouen fly as if on Cupid's wings, and they write to each other sometimes several times a day. Soon, though, Colet wants to see Flaubert again. And Flaubert is actually really fine with love-via-post. For one thing, leaving Rouen to head to Paris would mean leaving his mother behind, and Flaubert's a bit of a mama's boy. And mom isn't doing all that great, either, what with both her husband and her daughter dying in close succession. However, in the letters that Steegmuller shares, one doesn't get the sense that Flaubert is staying close to home because he wants to care for his mother. He's staying close to home because the attention he gets from his mother is entirely one-sided. The mother expects very little of Flaubert, and only gives unconditional love.

Colet has some conditions on the love she wants to share.

One of the things that drew Flaubert to Colet was her status as a poet. She had won a prize for a poem she wrote, "Le Chateau de Versailles" (imagine the "a" in "Chateau" has one of those hats on it), and had other successes in poetry. In Colet, Flaubert assumed he had found a kindred artistic soul. In Flaubert, Colet found someone she liked doing it with. Flaubert found this sort of sordid. Colet found Flaubert very frustrating. Steegmuller quotes exhaustively from the Flaubert side of the correspondence, and I grew tired of everyone before long.

Some choice moments:

  • "[I] have gathered this little rose which I am sending you. I have kissed it; put it quickly to your mouth and then -- you know where."

    (Um, no. No, I don't know where. Okay, I do know where, but I mean COME ON. It has THORNS, Flau. Also: Flaubert is cheap. Many of the letters, especially the letters sent around New Years, show him at his skin-flintiest. Rather than sending Colet the customary New Year's present, he would send her a kiss. In a letter. That his mother paid the postage on.
  • "You are convinced that I love this woman seriously. That is not true. Only, when I was writing to her, with the faculty I have of being stirred when I hold a pen, I took my subject seriously -- but only when I was writing."

    (Flaubert had asked Colet to look up the address of the woman whose boob he had glimpsed. Colet didn't take this well. Flaubert couldn't understand why.)
  • "Is it possible that you reproach me even for my innocent affection for an armchair? If I told you about my shoes, I think you would be jealous of them."

    (I wrote in the margin, "Hee! Also: v. true.")
  • "It is a long time since I made a practice of spending New Year's Eve in a brothel, to inaugurate the year, and even when I did it, it was more of an affectation than a real pleasure."

    (Can you believe that Flaubert never married? Never?)

The Book You're Not Reading: Lost Illusions

Oh, Lucien*.

Of course, that's part of the problem. The world isn't really meant for guy's named Lucien, especially guys named Lucien who want to be poets, and especially guys named Lucien who want to be poets in Paris.

Lucien is that pretty guy in high school that you sort of want to date, but you also sort of don't want to date, because he's pretty and sensitive and you've caught him crying a couple of times. And recognizing that I'm feeding into corrosive ideas of gender roles -- crying men aren't sexy. Well, maybe one masculine tear, or that tiny hitch of a sob in the voice. That might be sexy is pretty freakin' sexy. But guys like Lucien cry all the time. They cry when you pay attention them. They cry when you don't pay attention to them. It's irritating that Lucien's skin is often described as clear and glowing; since he cries so much, I had hoped he would be suffering from dehydration.

Lucien is also hesitates to say "hero" of Lost Illusions, since he cries too much to be a hero and, at least as far as page 214 is concerned, he's yet to do anything heroic, other than spend heroic amounts of money he doesn't have on clothes he doesn't need because he's already made a laughing-stock of himself in Paris because he's a weeping poet named Lucien. Lucien starts out in a small country town, and he's easy to notice there because he has all of his teeth and doesn't smell of manure. But when he follows his lover, a married woman also from the country town, to Paris, all of his shortcomings appear starkly, as in bas relief.

As one character asks, after Lucien shows up in clothes entirely too new and trying entirely too hard, "Do ask who is this extraordinary young man who looks like a tailor's dummy?"

Balzac also gives us this telling description, describing a Parisian sizing Lucien up and finding him lacking: "This lion of Paris let his eyeglass drop in such a way that to Lucien it suggested the blade of the guillotine."

Balzac isn't necessarily fond of Lucien, either, which is one of the joys of the novel. After the above cutting encounter, Lucien says:

"Oh, God, what am I doing here? But I will triumph! I will ride along this avenue in a caleche with a footman! I will possess a Marquise d'Espard!" Which is all well and good, and sounds triumphant in the way that Scarlet O'Hara's "As God is my witness!" speech is heroic, but the Balzac tells us:

"And flinging out these words of rage, he went to dine at Hurbains for forty sous."

Any one who wants to be a writer should probably spend some time reading Balzac's Lost Illusions. Any one who thinks that he's going to be a famous writer should probably have the book forcibly read to him. All others should just read the book because it's blisteringly funny and mean and heartbreaking.

At least up to page 214.

* So, as it turns out, I wrote a bunch of nonsense about Lost Illusions back in 2006. Read my stupidity here:

In which the author is asked to recommend a movie...

My friend Steve sends this email to me:

Now what the fuck am I supposed to do? I see the trailer for "The Soloist" and I think, "No way." Then I see a teaser for Stephanie Zacharek's review at Salon, and it says, "Ignore the trailer, this movie is really good." (Zacharek is not someone I consider a completely reliable anti-authority, someone I can trust to be wrong.) I mean, I'm all about classical music, and the movie is all about classical music, right? I'm about to decide to see the movie, and down at the bottom I notice the usual Salon teaser for "Related Stories" that are probably chosen by a robot following some arcane algorithm, because these aren't reviews of "The Pianist" or "The Piano" but instead it says "Pride & Prejudice": "This deliciously intelligent adaptation of Jane Austen's beloved classic shakes off the dust and sparkles with life." Now "P&P" was very nearly the worst movie ever made. My comment after seeing it was that you could not find, anywhere in the movie, four consecutive seconds that were good, because those wonderful houses were only on the screen for three seconds at a time, and whenever Judi Dench got to speak for three seconds she was answered by Keira Knightley. Donald Sutherland's portrayal of Mr. Bennett was the sort of thing that turns people like me into serial killers. But supposing that I bowed to all the people I know who found it good, or at least tolerable, and I forgot about the book and just saw it as a harmless romantic comedy set in 1813, and someone set me the assignment of saying ten good things about it, I just don't think I would ever have hit on "intelligent" in less than a million years. So do I see "The Soloist" in spite of a recommendation by Stephanie Zacharek? Can you give me any guidance?
I can. And I did:
The Soloist is going to teach you to love again. It's going to stir up your emotions and make you proud to live in a country where black mentally ill cellists are saved by Robert Downey Jr. If you see it, you'll be able to say "YES!" to the other ladies in your bridge club who'll ask if you saw Jamie Foxx's second-Oscar(tm)-winning performance, and then you'll all talk about how naughty you've been because you've each eaten one "bad" thing not on your diet list. But you earned it, because you saw The Soloist and being manipulated by Hollywood is an aerobic activity when accompanied by crying. When each of you goes home, back to your lady-pads, you'll go to and buy the soundtrack to the film and think about what minorities are left that you can save through the power of the human heart and understanding.
You should totally see this movie. It sounds incredible.