Flaubert in Jerusalem: Notes From A Journey

Flaubert in Jerusalem: Notes From A Journey

Over the weekend I started reading Lydia Davis’ wildly entertaining new translation of Flaubert’s "Madame Bovary." I say masterly with little authority, I admit, given that I don’t read French and have never read any other translation. Still, it takes some doing to make a classic seem like more than mere homework.

Reading Flaubert also got me thinking: is there anything Jewish in it? Short answer: no; longer one: sort of. I’ll explain.

Flaubert, born in Rouen in 1821, suffered through a long period of professional malaise. His first novel, written in 1849, was a romanticized retelling of the life of Saint Anthony. Critics hated it; Flaubert himself told his friends to burn it. But the alternative to being a writer was..what? His father, a doctor, and well-born mother, wanted him to go to law school, which he did begrudgingly. (Not the Jewish part.) But he hated law and was zealously committed to a life in literature.

After the failure of his first book he needed inspiration, and he found it in Jerusalem. Well kind of–he visited Jerusalem in 1850, part of a year long trip throughout the Middle East. In Egypt, Turkey and Syra, he visited pyramids, mosques, and many many prostitutes–male as well as female–all in an effort to liberate himself from the suffocating confines of his well-to-do life.

It worked. As soon as he returned, he began work on what would become, seven years later, his breakthrough: "Madame Bovary." The book was a sensation when it was first published in 1857, and also caused a scandal. He was put on trial (later acquitted) for undermining public morality for his depiction of the book’s tragic heroine, Emma Bovary.

Like Flaubert in the Middle East, Bovary goes on a series of escapes trying to escape her dull life married to a well-off doctor. There are affairs a plenty, and eventually death, told in a way that passes no judgment on Bovary’s choices. It was, you’ll excuse the pun, sentimental in the least.

There is some scholarly contention as to how directly the Middle East trip affected "Bovary." His travel buddy, Maxime Du Camp, wrote that it was while they were boating down the Nile that Flaubert shouted, "Eureka! Eureka! Je l’appelerai Emma Bovary!" (Loose translation: "Holy s***! I got it! I’ll call her Emma Bovary!) There is no similar observation in Flaubert’s own letters about this revelation, but few would doubt the entire trip was a critical turn in his creative development.

As for Jerusalem specifically, I’ve had some trouble finding direct quotes from his time there, at least through the admittedly lazy means of a simple Google search (though I did look through 10 pages!). The only direct quote I could find was posted on an right-wing Zionist blog, but given its unsavory portrayal of the Holy City, I’m willing to say I’d trust it. (The blogger uses the quote to prove Jews lived in Jerusalem well before mass Jewish immigration began at the turn of the 20th century.)

The quote’s worth mentioning too if only because it gives a glimpse of Flaubert’s gift for uncannily realistic observation. After all, "Bovary" and many of the novels after it, are remarkable for beginning the so-called realism movement in fiction. Before him, fiction was mostly the stuff of romance, legend and fantasy, but with "Bovary" real life, things as they were, became something the novelist was entitled to write about. The current vogue for postmodern fiction notwithstanding, we owe it to Emma that guys like Jonathan Franzen can keep the tradition of realism alive.

Anyway, here’s what my Zionist blogger friend Emet m’Tsiyon says Flaubert wrote about Jerusalem, in a letter postmarked August 9, 1850: "Jerusalem has the effect of a fortified pile of corpses. There, old religions rot in silence. One walks over s— and sees only ruins. It is enormously sad."

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