Friday, July 4, 2008

"Flaubert in Egypt" Book Review

Having enjoyed "Salammbo," which is a technicolor sandals and swords Panavision epic a century before its time, I wondered about Flaubert's earlier travels in the fall of 1849 in the desert realm. He probably behaved no differently than any other twenty-seven-year-old aesthete from Europe among the natives, and this remains less an indictment of "orientalism" in our P.C.-sensitive era than a pair of journals by him and his companion Maxime du Camp, with commentary by the Flaubert expert Francis Steegmuller. Parts ramble on without a lot of interest, and other sections captivate you, but like any diary and the expanded journal entries made later by Flaubert, the work as a whole is more a miscellaneous notebook of impressions and observations, much as one might expect of this formidably articulate tourist.

I think the relatively few sexual episodes get, if understandably for their candor, too much of the attention here compared to the bulk of this slender book, which is given over to the sights. There's amidst the itinerary and dutifully recorded letters to his mother many marvelous descriptions. Not all were addressed to his mother! You get the sense of the languid pace of a brothel, an early visitor's curious wanderings among the colossal statues of Luxor or Thebes, the sun rising over the graffitied Pyramids, his first sight of the Sphinx-- Steegmuller's notes remind us how magical this would have been before the ubiquitous photographs-- and the decaying splendors of Karnak.

Here's a sample of the prose about this last attraction.
"The first impression of Karnak is of a land of giants. The stone grilles still existing in the windows give the scale of these formidable beings. As you walk among the forest of tall columns you ask yourself whether men weren't served up whole on skewers, like larks. In the first courtyard, after the two great pylons as you come from the Nile, there is a fallen column all of whose segments are in order, despite the crash, exactly as would a fallen pile of checkers. We return via the avenue of sphinxes: not one has his head-- all decapitated. White vultures with yellow bills are flying around a mound, around a carcass; to the right three have alighted and calmly watch us pass. An Arab trots swiftly on his dromedary." (169)

Out of such awesome silence, Flaubert also gained inspiration for "Madame Bovary," unlikely as it may seem. He also learned early about the fickleness of women, no matter where they might live, in his closing comments to Louise Colet about an "almeh," a lady of the night who often entertained him, Kuchuk: "
You and I are thinking of her, but she is certainly not thinking of us. We are weaving an aesthetic around her, whereas this particular very interesting tourist who was vouchsafed the honours of her couch has vanished from her memory completely, like many others. Ah! Traveling makes one modest-- you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world." (220)

These remarks remind us that Flaubert cannot be seen as a mere pawn of mid 19-c imperial strategems. He took advantage of his position, but he also realizes his complicity and the whole game that he by his privilege is able to indulge himself in as long as he pays the price. Another will always be found to accept his payment and render services accordingly, Those who denigrate Flaubert's typically frank account for its coolly documented exchanges might well contemplate how we today are enmeshed in a far greater contest, that began in such initial encounters, a century and a half before the vogue of globalization.

Image: This is on the cover of the book, a fitting evocation of its time and perspective. Eugene Delacroix, "Women of Algiers." (Posted today to Amazon.)

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