Sunday, May 15, 2005


Flaubert and the Study of Greek

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) was expelled from the Collège de Rouen at the age of eighteen, for protesting against the dismissal of a favorite teacher, the philosophy master Mallet. Two years later (January 22, 1842) we find him writing these words to another former teacher, the literature master Gourgaud-Dugazon:
I continue to keep myself busy with Greek and Latin, and perhaps I'll always keep myself busy with them. I love the perfume of those beautiful languages; Tacitus is for me like bronze bas-reliefs, and Homer is beautiful like the Mediterranean: both have the same pure blue waves, the same sun, and the same horizon.

Je continue à m'occuper de grec et de latin, et je m'en occuperai peut-être toujours. J'aime le parfum de ces belles langues-là; Tacite est pour moi comme des bas-reliefs de bronze, et Homère est beau comme la Méditerranée: ce sont les mêmes flots purs et bleus, c'est le même soleil et le même horizon.
In someone else's mouth, this might have been mere youthful braggadocio, but in fact Flaubert did continue to study the classics throughout his life, and his letters are filled with references to his reading.

On December 31, 1841, he told Ernest Chevalier that he planned to get up at four in the morning on New Year's Day, read Homer, and smoke his pipe while looking at the moon over the roofs of neighboring houses.

In the summer of 1845, he wrote to his closest friend, Alfred Le Poittevin, that he was reading a little Greek every day, had finished the second book of Herodotus, and was hoping to understand Sophocles in a year, with perseverance. His progress with Sophocles was slow -- on September 30, 1853, he wrote to his mistress Louise Colet that he was at last beginning to understand Sophocles a little.

He complained to Louise Colet on September 13, 1846:
At the moment I'm reading an Indian play, Sakountala, and I'm doing some Greek. It's not going well, my poor Greek -- your face always intrudes itself between the book and my eyes.

Je lis maintenant un drame indien, Sakountala, et je fais du grec; il ne va pas fort, mon pauvre grec, ta figure vient toujours se placer entre le livre et mes yeux.
In the middle of a trip to Egypt with Maxime DuCamp (March 13, 1850), Flaubert wrote to Louis Bouilhet that he was reading Homer's Odyssey every day in Greek and had completed four books of it since they had been on the Nile.

Later in the same trip the travellers spent six weeks in Greece, including a visit to Thermopylae on January 8, 1851. According to DuCamp, Souvenirs Littéraires (Paris: Balland, 1984), p. 168, Flaubert went into raptures, quoted the famous epigram on the Spartans who died there defending Greece against the Persian invasion, and said the battle would be a good subject for a novel. Flaubert's own account in his travel notes was much more restrained. He compared the topography with Herodotus' description of the battle and even expressed doubt that the guides had taken them to the right spot!

During their stay in Greece, the travellers were plagued by heavy rain, lack of funds, and general fatigue, but these minor irritations did not adversely color Flaubert's perception of the country or dim his enthusiasm for ancient Greek literature. A couple of years later, in letters written during the composition of Madame Bovary, Flaubert occasionally mentioned with regret that he was temporarily suspending his study of Greek, because of ill health or because the novel was giving him so much trouble and claiming all of his attention (1853 letters to Louise Colet, on January 12 and 15, April 16, and October 12).

After his masterpiece was completed, however, Flaubert gave himself up the study of Greek once again with undiminished zeal. In a letter to Ernest Feydeau (December 19, 1858), he described his reading during the past eighteen days, which included Xenophon's Anabasis, six treatises of Plutarch, and the Homeric hymn to Demeter.

Flaubert's historical novel Salammbô was the subject of a hostile review by the orientalist Guillaume Froehner. In an open letter, dated January 21, 1863, Flaubert struck back and blasted the pedantic Froehner with a flurry of citations from relatively obscure Greek authors, among them Aelian, Athenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Diodorus Siculus, Eusebius, Pausanias, Philostratus, Polybius, Strabo, and Theophrastus. Flaubert admitted that he often relied on translations rather than on original texts, but the display of learning in this letter is nevertheless impressive testimony to his close study of Greek literature. Enid Starkie, Flaubert: The Making of the Master (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967), p. 338, said that Flaubert could have been a great scholar, had he not devoted himself to art instead, and Flaubert's counter-attack on Froehner confirms the truth of Starkie's observation.

Towards the end of his life Flaubert was still planning to write the novel on the battle of Thermopylae that he had mentioned years earlier to DuCamp, according to letters to Mme. Roger des Genettes (November 10, 1877) and to his niece Caroline (December 20, 1878, and June 19, 1879). He even talked about another trip to Greece, to do research on the spot. Concerning this proposed trip he wrote to his niece (November 19, 1879):
Yesterday I spent a pleasant afternoon alone with [Georges] Pouchet, who's a fine fellow, so intelligent and so unpretentious! We daydreamed together about our trip to Thermopylae, when I've finished with Bouvard and Pécuchet. But by then, that is in eighteen months, do you think your old man will be too old?

Hier j'ai passé un excellent après-midi, seul avec Pouchet, qui est un charmant homme, si instruit et si simple! Nous avons rêvé ensemble le voyage aux Thermopyles, quand je serai quitte de Bouvard et Pécuchet. Mais à cette époque-là, c'est-à-dire dans dix-huit mois, Vieux ne sera-t-il pas trop vieux?
Flaubert was too old. He died less than six months after writing these words, without finishing Bouvard and Pécuchet and without starting The Battle of Thermopylae.

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