By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
This is Flaubert, of course, in a copy by Caroline Franklin-Grout of an etching by Eugène Champollion. It adorns the cover of Michel Winock’s new biography of the writer, published by Gallimard. Franklin-Grout was the writer’s niece.
In Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes’s protagonist Geoffrey Braithwaite, a retired doctor, widower and amateur Flaubert enthusiast, spends a chapter demolishing Enid Starkie’s biography of the writer. He points out that in the first volume (1967), Starkie chose as the “frontispiece” a portrait of “Gustave Flaubert by an unknown artist”. “The only trouble is, it isn’t him. It’s a portrait of Louis Bouilhet . . .”. Bouilhet was a minor poet and dramatist, and a contemporary and close friend of Flaubert.
Braithwaite goes on to say: “I once heard Dr Starkie lecture, and I’m glad to report that she had an atrocious French accent” (Starkie taught at Oxford). In a chapter entitled “Emma Bovary’s Eyes”, he quotes from the biography: “Flaubert does not build up his characters, as did Balzac, by objective, external description; in fact, so careless is he of their outward appearance that on one occasion he gives Emma brown eyes (14); on another deep black eyes (15); and on another blue eyes (16)”.
Flaubert actually wrote: “quoiqu’ils fussent bruns, ils semblaient noirs à cause des cils . . .”, and later: “Vus de si près, ses yeux lui paraissaient agrandis, surtout quand elle ouvrait plusieurs fois de suite ses paupières en s’éveillant; noirs à l’ombre et bleu foncé au grand jour, ils avaient comme des couches de couleurs . . . ”. (". . . brown eyes, but made to look black by their dark lashes . . . "; "Seen so close, her eyes appeared enlarged, especially when she blinked them open several times in succession on waking. Black in the shadow, and a rich blue in broad daylight, they seemed to hold successive layers of colour, , . . " Alan Russell's translation)
The killer lines come at the end of the chapter: “All in all, it seems a magisterial negligence towards a writer who must, one way or another, have paid a lot of her gas bills”.
“Why write a biography of Flaubert? One more . . . ”, asks Michel Winock in his preface. Winock claims no expertise when it comes to Flaubert – he’s an intellectual historian – and craves the indulgence of Flaubertians. Yet he relates how when he was studying at the Sorbonne, he and his fellow students would wander over to the Luxembourg Gardens where they’d recite whole passages from L’Éducation sentimentale to each other.
Winock follows on the heels of Geoffrey Wall's biography of 2001, which the TLS reviewer Maya Slater described as “magnificently readable” if light on the work itself (October 10, 2001). More recently, Frederick Brown published a 650-page Life in 2006, which the TLS reviewer Victor Brombert commended for its "impressive capacity for documentation", and its "literary flair and restraint" (September 1, 2006). Brombert points out that Brown has made "especially good use of the extraordinary letters that Flaubert wrote . . . ". See Julian Barnes's review of the fifth and final volume of the letters.
It remains to be seen whether Winock has managed to come up with anything new, although he claims to bring a historian’s perspective to bear. He has provided a “Petite anthologie” of Flaubertian wisdom, from “Absolu” to “Vérité”: e.g. under Avenir: “L’avenir est ce qu’il y a de pire, dans le présent” (1839); Gens de lettres: “Les gens de lettres sont des putains qui finissent par ne plus jouir” (1852); Haine: “La Haine est une vertu” (1872); Style: “Que je crève comme un chien plutôt que de hâter d’une seconde ma phrase qui n’est pas mûre” (1852).
Winock's book will be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS.