Flaubert, C’est Moi

Bouvard and Pécuchet

by Gustave Flaubert, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, with a preface by Raymond Queneau
Dalkey Archive, 328 pp., $13.95

Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert; drawing by David Levine

One of these animal freaks—a five-legged sheep—illustrates both Flaubert’s egregious tastes and his dogged, retentive nature. He first came across it on his walking tour of Brittany with Maxime Du Camp in the spring of 1847. At the Guérande fair they encountered “the young phenomenon,” as it was advertised—the phrase delighting Flaubert as much as the animal itself. After visiting the sheep in its tent, Flaubert and Du Camp invited its owner to dine with them, and they all got drunk together. As they traveled on, Gustave started calling his friend Maxime “the young phenomenon.” Later, at Brest, they fell in with the sheep and its owner again, and again got drunk with him.

This might have been enough for most people, but not for Flaubert. The following year, Du Camp was confined to bed in his Paris rooms after being wounded in the 1848 Revolution. Flaubert burst in and announced that he had a surprise for his friend. A short while later, he returned with the young phenomenon, which he had discovered at a fair and managed, with the aid of the showman, to maneuver up the stairs to Du Camp’s apartment. Flaubert was triumphant and buffoonish, Du Camp recalled in his memoirs; also eager to shock some elderly visitors in a neighboring room. After a quarter of an hour, the invalid tired of the ambulant sideshow, dismissed the beast and its owner, then had his room swept of ovine droppings. Flaubert, however, rarely tired of anything once it had lodged in his mind. “This joke,” Du Camp wrote, “clung to Flaubert’s memory as if it had been a deed of valor. A year before his death he reminded me of it, and laughed as much as upon the first day.”

What Du Camp writes about Flaubert has to be treated with a certain skepticism. He was the only close friend of Flaubert’s youth to survive him, and their long relationship had contained froideurs, fallings-out, suspicions, and jealousies. Flaubert disapproved of Du Camp’s worldliness (not that the author of Madame Bovary didn’t preen himself when high society in its turn took him up), of his facility, his journalism, his honors-seeking. When Du Camp was elected to the Académie française in February 1880, Flaubert—then only three months from death—wrote a typical letter of congratulation: “Your pleasure is mine, but I am nonetheless astonished, amazed, stupefied, and I wonder why you bothered.”

Du Camp, for his part, liked to present Flaubert as someone who regrettably never developed, who stuck all his life to the convictions and projects developed in early manhood, and whose determined clinging to the high ideals of art was a kind of unrealism and immaturity. Du Camp ascribed this partly to temperament—a Norman heaviness, as opposed to a Parisian dartingness—and partly to Flaubert’s epilepsy. It was Du Camp, in his Souvenirs littéraires of 1882, who first disclosed this long-kept…

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