Gustave Flaubert might not have been the first, but he was perhaps the most successful novelist at expressing an oppressive monotony of mid-19th C French provincial life. While France was not yet entirely finished with a century’s worth of revolutions, Flaubert was tugged in the 1840s by the need to (what I have come to call in my own nearly obsessive wanderlust) “change the scenery.” [I will be writing more about that from my own perspective in a forthcoming posting.] In that regard one’s thoughts almost reflexively run to Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s masterpiece.*
What is learned from the book under consideration here is that Flaubert might well have gotten his inspiration for the novel he did not write until his return from his travels in Egypt from his traveling companion the photographer Maxime Du Camp. On a walking tour through Blois, on the Loire, before they left for Egypt Flaubert made the following notes to himself:
At Blois the streets are empty, grass grows between cobbles; down both sides stretch long grey walls enclosing large gardens, with here and there a discreet little door that gives the impression of being opened only at night, to mysterious visitors. You feel that all the days must be the same here; that in this calm monotony––which nevertheless has its own sweetness, like the sound of church bells striking the hour––they must be full of exquisite melancholy and tender longings. One likes to imagine some deep, great, intimate story being lived here amid these peaceful dwellings, a passion like a sickness, lasting until death, the him about it, life-long love that one finds in a pious old maid or a virtuous wife; one can’t help thinking that this would be just the place for some pale beauty with long nails and delicate hands, a high-born, cold-mannered lady married to her, a miser, a jealous husband, and who is dying of consumption.[p. 16-17]
Then Flaubert was off to Egypt where the circadian rhythms might be as predictable in its villages as were those at Blois, but where the muezzin’s call to prayer replaced the church bells and the not so pale beauty was likely an ameh in a local brothel certainly gave things a more exotic flavor. That is the way I certainly feel having been from Upper to Lower Egypt (that’s actually from South to North) and from the Libyan desert in the Northwest to Sharm el Sheik in the Sinai over the course of four visits, and I still can’t resist buying every damn book about its history.
Although there is a timelessness to Egypt–-Herodotus wrote up some of the same sites that Flaubert and myself have chronicled––but the nature of travel there has changed over time. Flaubert had the means to travel at length and relatively comfortably for the mid-19th century. He could sleep in the better hotels, when they were available, and had companions and a dragoman. There was a residue of the Napoleonic misadventure there a half-century earlier that provided for the regular correspondence Flaubert maintained with his dear mother back home, but travel was a good deal more arduous and dangerous in those days. It could be made even more perilous by the sexual adventures of Flaubert and his entourage about which the author accounts with surprising detail and candor. Flaubert himself appears to have had some, let’s say “itchy,” encounters with the Arab and Nubian women he favored, but he mentions others in his entourage taking long term mercury treatments for syphilis. It is also noted that that “river blindness,” opthalmia, was also prevalent at the time, and plague outbreaks were also mentioned, no doubt the result of the large number of rats to which he refers.
I had to envy Flaubert his arduous climb to the top of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, even though by his account he arrived at the summit bloodied and exhausted. At the top, that no longer is crowned by the gold capstone, the stones are graffitied with previous visitors must have seemed ancient to Flaubert. Having myself climbed a few courses of the huge stones [See “Night of the Pyramids”] I can appreciate that the tomb of Khufu is no easy 481-foot staircase. However, I can say that I literally did walk in the footsteps of Flaubert who preceded me in perambulating the base of the Great Pyramid at nighttime.
But the sands of time literally do make a difference between our respective visits. Here are Flaubert’s notes on the visit to Sphinx, which they arrive at on horseback.
About half-past three we are almost on the edge of the desert, the three pyramids looming up ahead of us I can’t contain myself no longer, and dig in my Spurs; my horse bursts into a gallop, splashing through the swamp. Two minutes Maxime [du Camp] follows suit. Furious race. I begin to shout in spite of myself; we climb rapidly up to the Sphinx, clouds of sand swirling about us. At first our Arabs followed us, crying ‘Sphinx! Sphinx! Oh! Oh! Oh!’ It grew larger and larger and rose out of the ground like a dog lifting itself up. [p. 50]
But Du Camp’s photo of the Sphinx shows that at the time it was still buried in sand nearly to its shoulders.
Yet each difference seems to be countered with a similarity. I again had a fraternal feeling toward the Frenchman from his several references to the khamseen, the hot winds that blow across Egypt or fifty (hence the name) days [see, Clapp, “The Winds at Fifty”], another humbling timeless feature of the land of the pharaohs.
But Flaubert seemed to require the regular services of more immediate and transitory pleasures. Again, I could not related better than he does himself.
At Esna I saw Kuchuk Hanem again; it was said. I found her changed. She had been sick. I shot my bolt with her only once. The day was heavy and overcast; her Abyssinian servant was sprinkling water on the floor cool room. I stared at her for a long while, so as to be able to keep a picture of her in my mind. When I left, to her we would return the next day, but we did not. However, I intensely relished the bitterness of all; that’s the main thing and I felt it in my very bowels. At Kena I had a beautiful whore who liked me very much and told me in sign language that I had beautiful eyes. Her name is Hosna et-Taouilah, which means ‘beautiful tall one’; and there was another, fat and lubricious, on top of whom I enjoyed myself immensely and who smell of rancid butter. [200-201]
Yet, it really was not only his physical needs Flaubert hankered to satiate in Egypt’s brothels. He wrote more of Kuchuk, and near the end of his notes, when he was ruminating upon travel and “what a tiny place you occupy in the world,” his thoughts returned to the whore. “How flattering it would be to one’s pride, if at the moment of leaving you were sure that you left a memory behind, that she would think of you more than the others who had been there, and that you would remain in her heart!”
All that lingers of his pleasures is the pleasure of “being there” in reading of them.
© 2012, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.9.2012)
*In my capacity as a to her escort and lecturer over a period of 25 years I have met a variety of “Emma Bovarys,” not in the adulterous manifestation that name, but urge to travel to foreign places by some degree of banality or emptiness in their lives. I note this because women by far made up the great portion of my clientele, their husbands preferring to remain close by their jobs and local pastimes. A few indeed were in quest of some sort of Bovarian assignation, but most I think were seeking a wider world, and new experiences and insights.