Kapoor on Le Calvez (2019)

Calvez, Éric Le, editor. Flaubert voyageur. Classiques Garnier, 2019, pp. 359, ISBN 978-2-40607-239-3

It is not without reason that Gustave Flaubert is known as the hermit of Croisset. He travelled little during his lifetime. Yet, Flaubert travelled widely throughout his imagination and his writings. It is perhaps this paradox of the hermit-traveler that has inspired commentators over the years to produce critical editions of his travel accounts as well as to focus on how his brief travels to the Orient shaped his vision as a writer. 

Flaubert voyageur is both a close-up and a panoramic study of the author’s travel writings—from the jottings he made in the South of France in 1840 as a young adult to celebrate his baccalauréat to the laborious notes he took in Carthage in 1858 in order to recreate the ancient past of the city for a historical novel. It also covers Flaubert’s excursions between 1873 and 1877 as a mature writer in Normandy with a view towards creating the ambience of an agricultural farm in his last novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet. A mélange of the real and the imaginary, the travel notes emerge in this book largely as aides-mémoires, not aimed at publication. Nonetheless, they also function as dense avant-textes, assimilated by the writer-traveller in descriptive works of fiction.

In addition to Éric Le Calvez’s preface and Thierry Poyet’s critical introduction, the book has three parts, each containing five to six chapters written by contributors from different parts of the world. While the first part focuses on Flaubert’s early travel, the middle section highlights Flaubert’s voyage through the Orient. The final part is devoted to understanding the legacy of Flaubert’s travels in the Orient and elsewhere. Despite its tripartite division, the book approaches its topic from the dual perspectives of Romanticism and Realism. 

In part one, Alexandre Bonafos emphasizes the liberating aspect of travel, but also shows, among other things, the alternation of lyricism and satire in Par les champs et par les grèves, Flaubert’s personal inventory of travel. In the next chapter, Abbey Carrico comments on the sense of void in Par les champs et par les grèves before going on to examine Flaubert’s pantheism in Pyrénées-Corse. In chapter three, Jeffrey Thomas goes back in time with Flaubert to the ancient Roman sites of Nîmes and Arles in France. The ruins at Nîmes inspire Flaubert to articulate what history has left unsaid: “Tout ce que la pierre n’avait pas dit, la prose se chargera de le dire” (94). In chapter four, Flaubert and Barthes become co-travellers as Khalid Lyamlahy reads Flaubert’s notes in the fragmentary text Voyage en Italie in light of Barthes’s La Préparation du Roman. Christophe Ippolito, the author of the final chapter entitled “Eurydice en Bécassine dans Par les champs et par les grèves”, observes that history lies at the center of Flaubert’s juvenilia (123).

The second part starts with Lúcia Amaral de Oliviera Ribeiro’s signposting of the telegraphic and precise nature of Flaubert’s travel notes. She also compares the visual element in them to those of Fromentin, Maxime Du Camp, Delacroix, as well as Gautier’s Oriental tableaux. According to Ribeiro, the landscape itself becomes the story in some of Flaubert’s descriptions. In the following chapter, Asmaa El Meknassi shows Flaubert absorbing the sensual pleasures of the Orient, but expressing sadness and introspection at the same time. Catherine Thomas-Ripault’s and Vesna Elez’s chapters revolve around Flaubert’s correspondence about the Orient. According to Ripault, Flaubert creates a personal space in his letters, where he freely discusses intimate subjects such as his sexual encounter with the Egyptian courtesan Kuchiuk-Hanem. Elez refers, on the other hand, to Flaubert’s penchant for pyramids and ruins and his repeated descriptions of cemeteries in Egypt. She also draws our attention to Hassan el Bilbeis, a dancer who Flaubert met in Cairo and described as a great unknown artist (199). While Stéphanie Dord-Crouslé underlines how Flaubert’s philosophy of traveling differs greatly from that of the common tourist, Martine Breuillot focuses on the final part of Flaubert’s Oriental tour when, leaving Constantinople behind him, he sets out for Greece. Informing us that Flaubert journeyed mainly to the sunny parts, Breuillot stresses the importance of light in Flaubert’s chosen itinerary and his interest in modern Greece.

In part three, whereas Nathalie Petibon shows the difference between Flaubert’s trips to Italy in 1845 and 1851, Moulay Youssef Soussou demonstrates how Flaubert’s Egyptian tour contributed to the objectivity of Madame Bovary. Next, Rosa Maria Palermo Di Stefano shares the extensive notes Flaubert took during his Palestinian visit, arguing that they be considered as the true avant-textes of Hérodias, revealing Flaubert’s painful awareness of the tragedy of the history of Christianity. Ôphélia Claudel comments on the economy of the notes Flaubert took in Carthage in 1858: “On ne cherche pas à décrire, à faire du style” (288). Biagio Magaudda turns to the often nostalgic letters Flaubert wrote while travelling to Algeria and Tunisia in 1858. In a letter to Louis Bouilhet, Flaubert described how deeply emotional and thoughtful he became after revisiting Hôtel Richelieu in Marseille where he had spent a passionate night with Eulalie Foucaud in 1840 before she left for America. The final essay by Stella Mangiapane unveils the meticulous notes that an aged Flaubert took during excursions around Croisset in his native province to find a setting for Bouvard et Pécuchet, and to research the chapter focusing on agriculture. 

This lengthy volume proves that though Flaubert traveled little, his journeys form a significant area of study for scholars. Combining analyses of Flaubert’s lesser-known Western travels with those of his famous Oriental voyage, the tome gives a more holistic idea of Flaubert’s travels than existing studies, which focus mainly on the Orient.