Letters & Essays

Two Deaths

Gustave Flaubert

From Flaubert's account of the death of his friend Alfred Le Poittevin. The text was recently discovered at the back of a desk drawer and was published in English for the first time in the spring 2007 issue of The Paris Review. Translated from French by Esther Allen.

 

Alfred

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, April 4, 5, and 6, 1848.

I was setting to work on the 6th volume of St Augustine—I had just awoken. It was after three. My mother brought me Mme. de Maupassant’s letter—we left—heat terrible in Rouen—I had the carriage ready very quickly, I got the shaft on while Eugène went for the horses. At the port, across from the Guillaume-Lion gate, a man on horseback in summer pants and black tails passed by and I took him for Alphonse Karr. At the top of the rise we went into a tavern, my mother and I, Au jeune Ermite, where I had a grog with kirsch; Eugène a glass of cider—(We’d been there to see the church, in a hackney-coach with Max, the winter before my Father, Caroline and had a few little glasses.) We said almost nothing the whole trip—the left horse was galloping, I watched its head—

Mme. de Maupassant came down the stairs, embraced us, weeping, then Monsieur—he said a line of Latin Doluit was all anyone could remember. Then my mother left—I went up he was on an iron bed, his bones, especially the knees, poked up through the sheets—a cloth over the face—I raised the cloth—eyes half open—his nose seemed longer—very stiff in his white cravat, cotton cap pulled down too low on the forehead—hands lying flat—along the body—The window with its shade open, on the night table two gilded brass candlesticks—a small crucifix—a boxwood twig in a plate of holy water—The guard, a little plump woman, a bit withered, black eyes—speaking purain—I only had a good look at her the next day—Anna, the chambermaid, tall and plump, pallid face, broad white forehead, sad look about her.

Dinner—Mme. Renard next to me—brainless smile. I believe she is making eyes at me. “M. Alfred was too systematic.”—M. de Maupassant: “He would read Spinoza until one in the morning—he never worked for pleasure. He always took notes.” Old mother Pluchard finds Spinoza rather odd—“passes for some sort of Descartes.” All this reading strips life of its enchantment (repeated several times), erroneous systems—The word erroneous used every which way. I eat quite a lot and have a sense of well-being at the end of dinner——

Two cigars in the garden—stars—I go up—and sit in an armchair next to a mahogany dressing table. I want to put the candlesticks there—the guard is against this—they give me the lamp—I was reading the second volume of Creuzer (the notes), Anna was reading a little English book Consolation for the mourners—to a mother who has lost her only son—

The two women do not want to lie down. The guard on the little sofa complained greatly of headache and dabbed her temples with vinegar—smell of chlorine. They settle on the bed at a quarter to ten—I looked at the candle

sticks and thought how people had played cards around them—salons—balls. I read—at 11 the faraway, faraway song of a hunting horn—sweet—came from far off in the woods. I smoke, I read, the night seems long—and yet I am thinking so much I fear being unable to return to this state the next night—at 1/2 past 1—I go back to my room—I open my window—I smoke—stars—I sleep poorly.

The next morning—I go back in—the guard is darning black stockings—after breakfast I go to the forest across the way—I sit on my redingote in the shade of a tree trunk—two ravens croaked, first one, then both in harrowing fashion—they were flying across the blue, wheeling, I glimpsed their wings, other ravens came and they all flew off—I went back home—Explanations from Mme. de Maupassant that explain very little—a stroll through the valley—Diane, the bitch that howled the night before his death, follows me—I walk a long time—from time to time along the slopes men were felling trees—I fell asleep against a heap of cut broom. When I got up to leave the bitch leapt for joy—great heat. I sat down facing some kind of boulder—I went back, a fellow complained to me about his trade as a stump remover—another man with a King Charles spaniel that he had stand on its hind legs—I sit down once more against the slope of a hill and smoke again—I look at the house and think about the past—

Dinner none too sad.

Evening—with my Father’s coat. The women lie down—from time to time a lizard on the lamp—once I shivered thinking I’d touched it but it was the screen—I dare not touch the bed with my foot—my reading interests me, first Les Feuilles d’automne the edition we read in Laure’s room at Fécamp then Creutzer. I have a long dream about the night of Don Juan—fire in the fireplace that I rearrange, the first night there was none—I went to have a look at the little shelf where I found Les Feuilles d’automne which I read during the early part of the night and take down two small keepsakes, in one I find a short poem by Dumas, “Midnight” with “One day the obstinate struggle that made destiny crumple beneath my knee, etcetera”—and which he so often declaimed—tea at 4 o’clock—I refuse—I pull back the sheet and veil—I pick him up to turn him—foul odor—everything is awry—the gown blackened and pulled up over the left buttock—the guard pulls it back down—I feel the coldness of the arm—then I picked him up once more by the shoulders and head—When he was all wrapped up and tight he looked like an Egyptian mummy—The blind was open—mist in the morning—the woods—the birds, the two candles burning yellow. “He will go forth, joyous bird, to sing the rising sun among the pines”—I was unable to free myself from that line the whole day, it brought me great pleasure, and the idea in particular. Anna said Mme. Alfred wanted a lock of hair and he was uncovered once more—the guard dared not take any from the right side—his head was turned that way and his eyes were open. On the left side, I kissed his temple and of course tormented myself with hesitation before, wondering if I would do it.

Solderers—The two coffins down below in the vestibule draped in white—they stuff it with wool, then melt the lead—light rain—talk—worker—carpenter—small man—veteran—pleasantries between the guard and François the servant—she pinches him. In the salon he told me he had never been up to any mischief in his masters’ home—The women leave too much uncovered—M. de M. close-fitting trousers, some sort of shoes in place of slippers—eyes swollen—has no tobacco—neither he nor the guard.

Breakfast—Béjaune and the younger Cord’homme. Boivin—Narcisse—talk of bankers—I go upstairs with Boivin to smoke—Hamard and Bouilhet—comings and goings on my part. Old Parain—I take my packet of books.

We set out—candles—the little pathway through the grounds too narrow—movement of the coffin that goes like a boat—we take turns—an honorary bearer, powdered and in tails—Lambert in idiotic fine fettle—M. de M. in a blue paletot—green hedges—pear trees dusted with white—a blacksmith who watches us pass by—a boy—roosters—the countryside is beautiful—

Church—women everywhere in the nave—A brass instrument and the slow psalmodies that I was enjoying at first—but I can no longer bear it—I was between young Cord’homme and Béjaune—grotesque effect of the altar boy’s voice—a candle flame flickered in a stained-glass window—his soul? I’ve been looking for it since Tuesday in the stars, the birds.

Cemetery—rich earth—rich—they take forever about it—the same eternal sound on the wood, I could not keep from going to the edge of the grave and standing there—There was an arid bitterness—I could not weep—I had sobs in my belly—How the spadefuls of earth fell! To me it seemed as if a hundred thousand of them fell—I had a notion that I looked as if I were posing—perhaps (I was cold, I had buttoned one button of my redingote and placed the candle on the ground against one of the trestles the coffin was resting on) and I moved away—Béjaune was weeping behind me.

Signing of the certificate at the priest’s house—

Return alone with Boivin who opined, as I was making preparations, that I was wrong to smoke. We talked about him—He was very sad the day of his wedding—Several days before he had a notion to break it off—and had asked B. to bugger off with him. Another breakfast—not me—much talk—politics again!

On the seat outside with Bouilhet—rain—overcoats—fast going—the fresh air does me good—at the house a bottle of champagne cut with water—Mme. Le Poittevin—return to Croisset—I fall asleep after Bapeaume.—Weather still bad—I go to bed early and sleep 13 hours without dreaming of him. The next day in the afternoon on my bearskin, the dream of Pimpenpohé—

Written Saturday evening the 8th and Monday evening the 10th of April 1848—Croisset.

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