Issue 180, Spring 2007
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.
Gustave flaubert’s niece, Caroline Franklin Grout, once made note of a habit he had “of writing out his most profound impressions for himself alone, at the moment of experiencing them, then placing them in sealed envelopes.” He did this, she recalled, at the deaths of his friends Alfred Le Poittevin and Louis Bouilhet, and perhaps also at the death of his sister. Because no such documents had ever been found, little attention was paid to her comment until two years ago, when someone came to the Centre Flaubert at the University of Rouen with a cache of papers discovered at the back of a drawer. There, copied out in violet ink in Caroline’s large, slanted handwriting, were two of the texts written by Flaubert for himself alone, one at the death of Le Poittevin in 1848, and the other, twenty-one years later, at the death of Bouilhet. They are published here for the first time in English.
In 1840 an old family friend, Dr. Jules Cloquet, had recommended to the twenty-year-old Gustave that he write out all his ideas, seal up the paper, and wait fifteen years before reopening it: “You’ll find another man.” The intimate notebook in which the fledgling writer followed this advice includes these lines: “I yearn to tell myself about myself . . . If I write something, it is to be able to read myself.” In his voluminous correspondence (sometimes considered his greatest work) the older Flaubert would famously and vehemently reject the practice of autobiography. Now we know that at moments of duress throughout his life he would return to that youthful impulse to write for himself alone. In the case of these two texts, however, no future reader seems to have been envisioned, not even their author. Dr. Cloquet’s fifteen-year waiting period does not seem to have been part of the plan here. Julian Barnes has very plausibly wondered whether Flaubert wrote these two necrologies in order to permanently seal them away in “a literary entombment to match the actual one.”
Alfred Le Poittevin (1816–1848) was Flaubert’s first and best friend; their mothers were friends before the two were born, each man’s father was the other’s godfather, and twenty-five years after Le Poittevin’s death, Flaubert would write, “I don’t spend a single day without dreaming of him.” The friendship with Louis Bouilhet (1822–1869) was formed in 1846, around the time of—and perhaps in response to—Le Poittevin’s marriage, to which Flaubert objected so violently that he would later write to Le Poittevin’s sister, “For me, he died two deaths.” Bouilhet became Flaubert’s supreme confidant, partner in anticlerical devilry, literary collaborator, “obstetrician,” “compass,” and doppelgänger (the two men bore a startling physical resemblance to one another). Even so, here, too, there was a rupture two or three years before the death. With Le Poittevin it had been over marriage, but with Bouilhet it arose from more nebulous tensions first learned of in the newly discovered text. In both cases, as well, the death was described in a detailed letter to Maxime Du Camp, Flaubert’s other closest friend, and the only one to survive him. The letters to Du Camp differ significantly from the private writings and have been included here for that reason.
At the end of the Bouilhet necrology, Flaubert states that he has renounced all further intimate writing of this kind: “I find nothing more to say to myself.” Nevertheless, there are a few more lines in a similar vein on the fourth page of a working notebook from 1870 or 1871, when Flaubert was reaching fifty. The page begins with an encomium to suicide: “the most consoling idea of all.” Farther down are the words: “The first A (lf) left me for a woman, the second B (ouil) for a woman, the third D (uc) left me for a woman! All of them! All! Am I a monster?”(Neither Bouilhet nor Du Camp, it should be noted, is known to have broken with Flaubert over a woman.) Then a quotation: “The absurd man is the man who never changes.” And finally, at the bottom of the page, “The absurd man is me. Poor old fool who still carries with him at fifty the devotion that they had (perhaps) at eighteen!”
“It is a fact,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges in 1954, “that if we did not already know that one and the same pen wrote Salammbô and Madame Bovary, we would not guess it.” The death of Alfred is written by the author of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the death of Bouilhet by the author of The Sentimental Education, and the contrast could hardly be greater. One Flaubert forces himself to press his lips against the corpse’s temple; the other can’t bring himself even to view the dead body and pays a quick visit to a prostitute before catching the train to the funeral. Yet the author is unmistakably the same man because the procedure—the particular way of confronting death with writing—is completely unchanged. As Borges concluded, “None of Flaubert’s creatures is as real as Flaubert.”