On Cataloguing Flaubert


At Work

Joanna Neborsky is a book lover’s illustrator. She may be as passionate and romantic about books and bookmaking as anyone I’ve met. She also draws the kind of pictures I’ve always wanted to make. They are deceptively simple due to the naive charm of each wobbly line, and they owe a great deal to the inspiration of mid-twentieth-century illustration—an obsession she and I both share. A few years ago Joanna and I collaborated on the cover of John Bowe’s Americans Talk About Love. A recent art school grad, she was willing to endlessly modify caricatures of the people interviewed for the book. The final package made for a witty and accessible take on social history. I always urge the artists I work with to keep me apprised of new projects, and so a few weeks ago I was tickled to discover a jpeg of Joanna’s poster “A Partial Inventory of Gustave Flaubert’s Personal Effects, As Catalogued by M. Lemoel on May 20, 1880, Twelve Days after the Writer’s Death” in my inbox. We had to share it with readers of The Paris Review, and now I wanted to share a little about how it came to be.

How did you first come up with this assignment? Have you always been fascinated by Flaubert or were you reading Madame Bovary and it just hit you?

I’m lucky to have friends who read widely and weirdly, and several pointed me toward Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas as I wrestled with the Great Illustrator’s Block of Early 2012. I went to the Brooklyn Public Library to learn more about the satirical dictionary and picked up Geoffrey Wall’s Flaubert: A Life. In the back of the biography, I found the list of Flaubert’s belongings. Is it absurd to say the book fell from my hands and opened onto the very page? I’m pretty sure this happened. Wall calls the catalogue, which was compiled by a notary public twelve days after Flaubert’s death on May 20, 1880, “a strangely cold mirror of the life that had unfolded in and amongst this elegant constellation of things.” The list is barren, orderly, lyrical. It spoke of a life in the way “That vase” speaks of a life now gone in Philip Larkin’s “Home Is So Sad.” On a more tactile level, I saw that I would get to draw javelins, animal skins, and thirty-five champagne glasses.

What is your research process like?

I pack some crackers and live for a few days at the library on 42nd Street. As an illustrator, I hold to the idea that rare research materials will perfume the work with some air of authenticity, so I found myself on odd keyword searches for “Interiors—Masculinity in Art—Art, French—19th Century” and “Inkwells—Collectors and Collecting.” Books on French clocks and Second Empire snuff boxes were delivered by elves and library staff to my table in the Art and Architecture Room. I might have to chain myself to those lions if they do what they’re threatening to do to the NYPL’s research stacks. That place is a gift.

Did you take artistic license with the colors and details, or did you feel it very important to be as accurate as your style allows?

While I took some pains to build a plausible theory of Gustave’s décor, I wasn’t about to kill myself chasing down exact tassel or thread counts. The drawings are loose, the colors improvised. These are his gloves and his oyster-knives as best I’ve imagined them.

What most surprised you about Flaubert’s belongings?

Why did he have shirts but not pants? Why did he have a table but no chairs? This, before I realized the list I was using was highly condensed from a much longer, seven-page folio. Not only did Flaubert have pants, he had buckskin breeches! I also learned that a Basque drum is a tambourine.

A writer told me that these elegant objects laid out like so reminded her of the material ambitions of Madame Bovary. I don’t know what Flaubert’s spoon can tell us about Flaubert, but his biographer notices the attentiveness in his fiction to “the rich stagnation of mere things, and all the magic powers that we bestow upon them.” Right now I’m reading Sentimental Education, and Flaubert’s thing for thingness keeps coming up. Frédéric dreams of a home where “the dining-room would be hung with red leather; the boudoir in yellow silk; there would be divans everywhere! And what cabinets! What Chinese vases! What carpets!” Chez Arnoux, “the dining-room was hung with embossed leather, like a medieval parlour; a Dutch whatnot stood opposite a rack of chibuqs; and, round the table, the Bohemian glasses, variously coloured, gleamed among the flowers and fruit like illuminations in a garden.” What’s with all the leather walls? And what’s a chibuq?

As this is a partial inventory, how did you decide what to leave in and what to leave out?

For its poetic succinctness, I used the list from Wall’s biography. Yvan Leclerc, a Flaubert scholar at the University of Rouen, pointed out that the poster was missing the Buddha. He sent me a 1931 auction catalogue, from which I borrowed the figurine and, because it was beautiful, a candelabra. But a lot is missing. Flaubert frequently threw himself, exasperated, on something called a Morocco divan. That isn’t here.

Do you imagine this as a series of projects—odes to other, now deceased writers?

Oh, gosh, if this poster sells at all beyond the grad student bloc and the Madame Bovary reading group … This might be a question to open up to the floor. Should I do another? My first choice would be Bellow. I realize this poster may play to that weird subculture of author worship, of professional literary tourism, the people who fall to their knees at Melville’s wash basin, or paw mystically at Conan Doyle’s razor brush. As a breathless fangirl myself, I’m all for it.

If someone were to make a poster of your personal belongings, what would it include?

In my eight years in New York I’ve moved fifteen times, so I’m a bit lean in belongings. Most of it is very dull—paper clips, lint rollers, mystery wires, scratched CDs, Ringo Starr bobble-head, translucent Beatles window panel, Buffy Sainte-Marie poster, Jim Dine poster, 1940s glamour shots of Florine Steinbach (grandmother), art books, to-read New York Review of Books, diaries abandoned after four to five pages, free glasses cases from Dr. Capetola, Visine, Vaseline, body oil, tennis socks, wide-brimmed black hat, San Diego Chargers hat with three-dimensional lightning rods, Pee-Wee Herman pin, Gilbert & George coffee mug, Mexican drinking glasses, carved Russian jewelry box, American-flag kaleidoscope, Afghan rug, Southern quilt, Italian records found on street, drumsticks, rocks, shells, CVS and Lemongrass Grill receipts, calligraphic pens, oversize tiger pencil, adult scissors.

Charlotte Strick is the art editor of The Paris Review. You can buy a copy of Joanna Neborsky’s “A Partial Inventory of Gustave Flaubert’s Personal Effects, As Catalogued by M. Lemoel on May 20, 1880, Twelve Days after the Writer’s Death” poster here.