Book Review

Flaubert in Egypt by Gustave Flaubert (kind of)*

Photo on 18-11-2015 at 20.23

Flaubert in Egypt is ostensibly (though it isn’t) a book written by Gustave Flaubert about his hedonistic travels through Egypt in 1849/1850. However, this is not a book Flaubert ever wrote. Most (about 70%) of the words within Flaubert in Egypt are translated from words written by Flaubert, but not from any collated manuscript he ever produced. Instead, this fascinating and lewd book is a revolutionary (and, to my knowledge, unrepeated) literary collage created from letters, diaries and journals by Francis Steegmuller, a fiction writer, translator, Flaubert scholar and friend of Graham Greene.

Steegmuller published a varied assortment of texts (see here), but Flaubert was a keen and central figure to Steegmuller’s output throughout his life: Steegmuller first published a book about the French novelist in 1939, and his final published volume was a translation of his muse’s correspondence, 54 years later in 1993. The men were intertwined in Steegmuller’s mind, and especially so in his pen, so when he produced Flaubert in Egypt in 1972, he perhaps quite honestly saw the text as the work of Flaubert rather than his own.

Flaubert’s voice is there, Flaubert’s voice just before he began to write Madame Bovary – his use of the telling, deceptively minor, detail is present, his interest in the flesh, in desire, in depression/dissatisfaction, in human relationships and in sex or motherhood as central to male/female interaction is all here, just waiting to come out. But what this voice is describing is something far different to the intrinsic unfeasibility of happiness in the age of mass communication (which, I firmly believe, is what Madame Bovary is about – see my review here) and Flaubert in Egypt instead describes a very uninformed man travelling around barely understood sites of Ancient Egypt, caring very little about much other than the chances to watch people beat each other with cudgels or the opportunities to fuck prostitutes, which he does almost all the time.

Flaubert travelled with Maxime Du Camp, a writer and photographer who took some of the first photographs of many of the places the two visited. Like Flaubert, Maxime was into whores, and Steegmuller also incorporates extracts from Du Camp’s two memoirs about the trip. Tellingly, one – published a couple of years after they got back but before Flaubert had completed Madame Bovary – doesn’t mention Du Camp’s travel companion at all, implying that he was travelling alone bar a manservant; yet the one he wrote later retells the same events with the literary badman included as a central figure. Flaubert’s friends, just before he made this journey, had all read and trounced his early novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (eventually published in a different form in 1874), and he was actively seeking inspiration and some kind of sign that literature was worth pursuing.**

Just made myself another coffee after than mammoth footnote. Need to stop doing both (annotation and caffeination***).

The two men wander through Alexandria, Cairo, Thebes; they trek through the desert on camelback (I did that in Morocco, also whilst having a creative and philosophical crisis – CLICK); they cruise down the Nile on a boat; they visit and go inside and all over the Pyramids at Giza; they see the Sphinx; they attempt to read hieroglyphics; they go to numerous brothels and fuck many different types of prostitute, they even visit a Turkish bath and, as it’s traditional, sodomise the teenage male attendant. Flaubert and du Camp are, more than anything, sex tourists. There is a firm strain of homoeroticism floating through the text – not just in the fact that Flaubert directly describes having sex with male child prostitutes****, but in the way he draws most men he encounters, and the way he and du Camp both imply – but do not state, even in their most open letters – that the two of them are lovers. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, but Flaubert (other than one moment where it counts, after receiving some bad news) is broadly Priapic, masturbatorially thinking of his times in the brothels when he is far from them, aware of the prostitutes’ indifference to him, knowing that though he elevates the women he splendidly fucked as true moments of experience in the midst of his travels, he knows that for all of them he is just another man squeezing his seed into their transactional, over-fucked, bodies.

Steegmuller offers commentary, and the occasional passage of exposition helping to move the journey along, but the vast majority of the text is Flaubert expressing his travel to himself (in diaries), to his friends (in horny horny sex language) and to his mother (in gently scatological postcard prose). Maxime Du Camp’s passages – taken from actual published books – are a little more reserved and a little less bawdy, but even these still make clear the normalisation of the sex trade in all of these places. What, one could argue, is most impressive about Flaubert is that he was able to spend 2 years doing little more than wiggling dick in hundreds of prostates and prostitutes***** before returning to France and producing one of the most nuanced and impressive novels about female sexuality of his time. Emma Bovary is a rounded character – the edges of melodrama to her life are created by her on purpose, in order to gift it colour. Flaubert fucked 1,000 whores but understood they were all people. Which isn’t really what one expects.

Flaubert in Egypt is a masterful, postmodern treat. It tells a story Flaubert never wanted told, and it describes events that informed a life that would go on to redefine literature – certainly there is nothing from the 19th century that boasts as much relevance and energy as Madame Bovary. This is sexually explicit stuff – strong, not for the faint hearted, particularly all the bits about diseases that Flaubert was happy to ignore in the dark when the Lust hit him.

This is an interesting travel journal, but it is far more an insightful piece into unrestrained sexuality in a country where people were still property in the middle of the 19th century. In many ways, Flaubert’s actions are unforgivable – certainly many of them would be now. And in the context of this book they are bawdy, racist anecdotes that one doesn’t really know how to respond to.

Flaubert definitely fucked prostitutes who had suffered female circumcision, some of whom were almost certainly pre-pubescent. Does that affect how we should read his novels? I don’t think so, but I’m willing to bet a lot of people do. Boycott Flaubert? Or just ignore Flaubert in Egypt if you’re a reactionary liberal? Not a great decision to have to make, really.

As a book, difficult to judge. But I’m very glad I read it…


* Footnote in the title, ey? Haven’t done that in a while. That’s because it’s an excessively punctuated way to start a piece, and if the blog posts I write start to alienate the handful of people I share literary interests with by throwing too much punctuation about, I’m in trouble. Also, the very first sentence of this blog is going to discuss what I mean by that “kind of”, rendering this whole footnote pointless. I won’t delete it, though.

** Flaubert’s 28th birthday occurs whilst he is on his travels here. Wow, I thought, reading that, Gustave Flaubert, one of the greatest writers didn’t get anything published until he was in his 30s. I can relax, I may still get to create something of merit/any value at all. But, then, I remembered that Flaubert had the self-importance and confidence afforded by private means, and that he was able to do nothing but write that wonderful novel, Madame Bovary, for the years it took until it was done. I don’t have the time to do that, nor the self-importance required, evidenced here by his ability to fuck prostitutes, which I think is telling. Flaubert felt no shame in doing this, which I take as a microcosm of the selfishness and sense of purpose required to become the renowned novelist that the man was: until I can detach my literary mind (with its literary morals) from my literary loins with their literary horn, I am doomed to this blog and nothing more. Am I overanalysing or making excuses for the continued failure to begin a third novel? On a day trip to Hull yesterday, actually, I saw several things that gave me wonderful and expansive inspiration for a long work of fiction, which I went there looking for. However, I’m kind of (that phrase again, the mark of an unrefined and rotting prose style) too trapped into habits I’m not happy with to resume proper writing, and I still don’t have the time. On this, my one day off and at home this week, I ended up spending about 30/40 minutes writing work emails, 30 minutes plus on various work-related phone calls, an unnecessary 90 minutes in work correcting administrative errors I didn’t make, an hour trying and failing to book a holiday, 30 minutes preparing a meal my girlfriend wouldn’t eat because it was “seasonally inappropriate” and about an hour (by the end over two), drinking coffee and thus being easily distracted, composing this. I need a new Word file, I need silence, I need no coffee, no phone, no bottle of prosecco crying out to me in the fridge (so far ignored, but I can’t hold off – I’m like Flaubert watching a belly dance)… I always used to scorn at people saying it was the distractions of life preventing them from producing, but now I’m suffering from the same thing. There’s no block, no loss of flow, just loss of the piece of mind to write fighting against the awareness, deeply held, that what I could produce now (if I slept properly every night, cut down the booze and coffee, ate more vegetables), having cut out the antidepressants – which truly were slowing down my thoughts – would be wiser, stronger, more nuanced and more adult (as in mature, not pornographic (though some of it would be pornographic)) than anything I have ever written before. The difficulty is stepping away and out of myself far enough to be able to do so. But as I cannot ignore my professional life for 24 hours without something going wrong, it’s fucking tough. I’ve been called twice whilst writing this blog. And my work email account has pinged repeatedly from my phone in the same amount of time. My girlfriend has demanded my attention and so has my cat. I fantasise about having a dog but that wouldn’t give me the peace I need either. An old, dying dog who I can look at and smile melancholically. Ahhh. I’ve completely lost the thread, and when I do this it isn’t charming like Kerouac, is it? It’s tiresome like Joyce. And so fucking self-involved. Even I’m bored of expressing this frustration but it is fear that is keeping me here, drowning my creative urges in honest footnotes to barely-read book reviews. One idea: someone hospitalise me – without damaging my hands, my eyes or my brain – so I can write every day for a week, two weeks, six months. Is that too much to ask?

*** Maybe, I type, eyelid twitching, should retitle the blog that???

**** “By the way, you ask me if I consummated that business at the baths. Yes – and on a pockmarked young rascal wearing a white turban. It made me laugh, that’s all. But I’ll be at it again”, Flaubert wrote to his friend Louis Bouilhet. Steegmuller – who comes across as very openminded, particularly for a man born in the USA in 1906 – comments on this quotation by pointing out the following: Sartre, who wrote a HUGE biography of Flaubert, believes the novelist was lying in this letter, trying to appear adventurous, free and scandalous to his stay-at-home friend (the one who had voiced the most aggressive criticisms of The Temptation of Saint Anthony). Steegmuller neither agrees nor disagrees, but fucking a few boys is hardly – in the context – less reprehensible than many of the other sexual transactions Flaubert is involved in. The open acknowledgement – without condemnation – of normalised female circumcision is a particularly trying point for the contemporary reader.

***** Another great title for a very different work.

1 comment on “Flaubert in Egypt by Gustave Flaubert (kind of)*

  1. For what it’s worth, I actually enjoy reading your footnotes- making a point of flicking back-and-forth to them- and I find your book reviews joyfully refreshing. I share your sentiments when it comes to writing- I’ve got several novels, novellas and a short story collection planned out, but absolutely no time or impetus to get these written due to work, family and a general lethargy towards any sustained writing since uni. If I locked myself away in a cave or a country house for a month or two I could probably churn out a few tomes, but none of them really suit the scattergun approach, writing a little bit here and then when I get a spare moment. I don’t think that that is overly conducive to sustained narrative. Then I also have the problem of being terrified about submitting anything I have already written to a publisher. I’ve just got an awfully fixed mindset when it comes to rejection. Sorry for the digressions- keep reading, and keep up the good blogging!


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