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R. M. Peterson
- Publié sur Amazon.com
In 1849, at age 28, Gustave Flaubert (who had not yet distinguished himself in literature) embarked on a trip to the "Orient", as it was then called. His traveling companion was Maxime Du Camp. From November 1849 to July 1850 they were in Egypt. From there they went on to Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. This book is an account of the Egyptian portion of the trip.
FLAUBERT IN EGYPT actually is a composite, assembled from several sources: Flaubert's own travel notes, in their original version and as later re-written by Flaubert (but never published); letters Flaubert sent from Egypt to his beloved mother and to his good friend Louis Bouilhet; and the papers and several publications of Du Camp. Francis Steegmuller has done a brilliant job of selecting, inter-weaving, and translating these various extracts, and then interpolating them with helpful and non-intrusive notes and commentary, so that the result is a very coherent and eminently readable travelogue.
True to its title, the book reveals as much about Gustave Flaubert as it does about Egypt, and to me they are equally engrossing and fascinating. Egypt of 1850 was an extraordinary and exotic place, and Gustave Flaubert was an extraordinary sojourner, highly receptive to the exotica of Egypt. His writing, as translated and edited by Steegmuller, is more literary, readable, and entertaining than that of Sir Richard Francis Burton, who began his famous travels and accounts a few years later, in the 1850s.
FLAUBERT IN EGYPT abounds with the odd, the colorful, the curious, and the grotesque. One example: Flaubert and Du Camp spent five hours perched on a wall watching the ceremony of the Doseh, whereby a sheik (priest) rides his horse over the bodies of more than 200 men, lying on the ground and arranged and pressed together in a row like sardines. According to legend, in so doing the sheik cannot hurt any of the men; if they die, "it is due to their sins." Another: Sailing up the Nile, they passed a Coptic monastery, from which dozens of monks, totally naked, spilled into the river and swam towards their boat shouting "Baksheesh, baksheesh", while the crew of the boat tried to beat them off. Elsewhere, Flaubert writes that baksheesh and the cudgel "are the essence of the Arab." The essence, or symbol, of Egypt turns out to be bird[poop]. Actually, Flaubert, as translated, uses a more vulgar term: "Bird[poop] is Nature's protest in Egypt; she decorates monuments with it instead of with lichen or moss."
As the above suggests, the strait-laced and the politically-correct of today may find offense in some passages of FLAUBERT IN EGYPT. There is much that is vulgar, and a few of Flaubert's observations would quickly be condemned by some as racist. He also described, and participated in, rather exotic venery. Of one night with an "almeh" (dancer/whore), during which he counted "coup" five times, he wrote: "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 of the others who have been there, that you would remain in her heart!" Be that as it may, Flaubert himself left Egypt with a venereal problem for which he received mercury treatments for the rest of his life.
Steegmuller gently pushes the notion that the expedition and the travel notes Flaubert maintained during it marked an important transition in his writing and aesthetic perspective from romanticism to realism. Along those lines, one of the excerpts from Du Camp's writings tells about Flaubert, on the summit of Gebel Abusir overlooking the Second Cataract of the Nile, suddenly crying out, "I have found it! Eureka! Eureka! I will call her Emma Bovary!"