When Truman Capote's New York society friends cut him off upon reading the first part of his self-described "Proustian" novel about them, Answered Prayers, he said he couldn't understand why they felt so betrayed. "What did they expect? I'm a writer!" was his line. It's a great line, and it comes back to me now and again, most recently during the reading of a small book with a long title which caught my eye down in the fabled Central City Library basement.
Francis Steegmuller being a noted Flaubert scholar and translator of Madame Bovary, not to mention a friend of Graham Greene and author of a French version of The Owl and the Pussycat, a masterpiece called Le Hibou et la Poussiquette, all of these points featuring in a Books in the City post a few years ago.
The artwork on this jewel was as enticing as the title. The front cover was a plunge into colourful Orientalism, a detail from Delacroix's Women of Algiers, while the back was given over to a period black and white photograph of sunbaked houses, their peeling facades chaotically arrayed with wooden-latticed balconies, a few scruffy acacias in the foreground. Did Flaubert take this photo? I wondered.
To my surprise the jacket flap claimed that it was a photo not by Flaubert, but of Flaubert! Flaubert in garden of the Hotel du Nil, Cairo, photo by Maxime du Camp, it clearly said. But where was he?
The mystery was solved when I got the book home and began reading it. A few pages in, a list of illustrations revealed that Flaubert in the Hotel du Nil garden was also reproduced opposite page 40. And sure enough, there he was -- dressed as a Nubian, yet.
The caption reads: Flaubert in Cairo, 1850. 'I would never allow anyone to photograph me. Max did it once but I was in Nubian costume, standing, and seen from a considerable distance, in a garden.' The garden is that of the Hotel du Nil, the name of one of whose proprietors, Bouvaret, Flaubert did not forget.
Yes, because Madame Bovary was still in Flaubert's future. For now, he was 28 years old, with drawers full of unpublished manuscripts in his study at his mother's house, proclaiming in a letter to her how little that mattered:
"Haven't I everything that's most enviable in the world? Independence, the freedom of my fancy, my two hundred trimmed pens, and the art of using them. And then the Orient, especially Egypt, flattens out all the little worldly vanities... The sight of so many ruins destroys any desire to build shanties; all this ancient dust makes one indifferent to fame..."
One of my favourite moments is when his mother suggests that on his return he might get "une petite place", a small job. "Frankly, and without deluding yourself," he replies, "is there a single one that I am capable of filling?" And anyway, "Isn't not to be bored one of the principal goals of life?"
The letters are full of experiences which would keep one from being bored. Flaubert sees dervishes stuck through with iron spikes, he visits a Coptic church and thinks of what Voltaire would have said, he observes the ceremony of the Doseh ('Treading') where a sheik rides on horseback over a human plank of 200 prostrate men, he holds a charmed snake, he gallops off to take in the Sphinx, the sight of which nearly makes him giddy.
A high point of the adventure, perhaps the high point, is convincing the famed dancing girl Kuchuk Hanem to dance "the Bee", the most notorious of the oriental dances, banned by the authorities. The door has to be closed, everyone sent away except for the musicians, who are blindfolded. I expected that "the Bee" would be Kuchuk flitting around as if she were a bee, but no, it is Kuchuk pretending to be fighting off a very pesky bee, shedding her clothing piece by piece. "Finally she was naked except for a fichu which she held in her hands and behind which she pretended to hide, and at the very end she threw down the fichu. That was the Bee." And then to bed, together. "She insisted on keeping the outside."
In a note, Steegmuller tells us that Flaubert's mistress read his travel notes and in her jealousy, seized on a mention of Kuchuk's bedbugs, saying they degraded her. Pas de tout, replied Flaubert. The smell of Kuchuk's bedbugs were "the most enchanting touch of all. Their nauseating odor mingled with the scent of her skin, which was dripping with sandalwood oil. I want a touch of bitterness in everything -- always a jeer in the midst of our triumphs, desolation even in the midst of enthusiasm."
The most striking passage for me is contained in a letter to his dear friend Louis Bouilhet, sent from Cairo, at the end of his trip, June 1850. Perhaps it was a thought which came to him there among the scruffy acacias of the Hotel du Nil.
"Let's not get lost in archeology -- a widespread and fatal tendency, I think, of the coming generation... the world is going to become bloody stupid and from now on will be a very boring place. Max and I talk constantly about the future of society. For me it is almost certain that at some more or less distant time it will be regulated like a college. Teachers will be the law. Everyone will be in uniform. Humanity will no longer commit barbarisms as it writes its insipid theme, but --- what wretched style! What lack of form, of rhythm, of spirit!"
A year after his return to France, he began Madame Bovary, going off in a new direction from all that he had written before, taking literature ("the old whore" as he calls it in one of his letters) in a new direction as well. But as Steegmuller points out, romantic echoes of Egypt still sounded now and again. In The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the Queen of Sheba tempts the saint by telling him "I dance like a bee".
Flaubert in Egypt ed by Francis Steegmuller
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert
Answered prayers by Truman Capote