Wednesday, 26 March 2014

That’s why there are cacti in Salammbô: Borges on Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert. I read Madame Bovary a few years ago and never returned to him, not because I didn’t consider his novel masterful, but, hm, actually I don’t know why I didn’t return to him. Madame Bovary was funny, vicious, one of the best putdowns of romantic love I know of, and excellently written. Somewhere on my ambulatory book pile I have A Sentimental Education. It may take a while to reach it. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy with Flaubert.

As you should all know by now, back in the 1980s Osvaldo Ferrari and Jorge Luis Borges used to meet in weekly radio programs to have informal chats. One day Ferrari, who usually picked the theme, got the master to talk about Flaubert. As always, it derailed into lots of extraneous but amusing stuff, from literary magazines he tried to found in his youth, to anecdotes about George Moore, to philological reflections about the words moon and sun (in English), but I’ll try to stick to Flaubert here.

Borges, I was under the impression, no doubt I thought I’d read it somewhere, didn’t like Flaubert very much. But Borges himself corrects me towards the end of the chat. I wasn’t wrong, however, about his not considering himself “a reader of novels.” However he opened an exception for the Frenchman. “But not having read Flaubert would be a mistake, I’d have impoverished myself if I hadn’t read him,” he explains. I agree so much with him. One thing I remembered correctly, his favourite Flaubert was Bouvard and Pecuchet.

And, well, I like Flaubert very much, and especially his Bouvard and Pecuchet; and I have a first edition, which cost me three hundred pesos, of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, one of the most extraordinary and least read books by Flaubert. I think I also have a first edition of Salammbô – a less fortunate work. Anyway, I have Flaubert’s entire work, and I especially think on the first chapter of Bouvard and Pecuchet: I don’t know, gentle, ironic, and so moving; because the initial topic is friendship… and that’s not very common, is it? That’s the theme, of course there are friendships in all literatures: friendship is especially an essentially Argentine theme, I’d say, for I think we feel friendship more intensely than other passions.

And yet off the top of my head I can’t remember a single short-story about friendship by Borges.

But to return to Flaubert, the matter is literature as a vocation. “Why, in Flaubert’s case, well, he was a writer and exercised it like priesthood, didn’t he?” says Borges, and he continues: “There’s a very beautiful sentence by him: Je refuse d’hatêr ma sentence; that is: I refuse to rush my sentence. That is, he laboured on a sentence and didn’t move on until it was perfect.” Borges’ explanation for his devotion to the mot juste is excellent and turns it upside down. “Why, he didn’t do it with vanity; he wrote that a genius could make grave mistakes with impunity, and I think he quoted Shakespeare, Cervantes and Hugo; but since he didn’t consider himself a genius he couldn’t afford to make grave mistakes and he had to be very careful with what he wrote.”

Next he takes us to the mot juste. “Besides, when Flaubert said the mot juste (the exact word) he didn’t necessarily, inevitably mean the amazing word; no: the exact word, which could many times be trivial or a cliché, but is the exact word.” This prompts Borges to consider the word perfectionism. “Well, there’s a word that’s often used and was coined, I think, by Flemish painters; it’s the word perfectionism. Now, perfectionism doesn’t necessarily mean vanity; we search perfection, well, because we can’t search anything else. Especially Flaubert, who had that somewhat phonetic concept of style; he wanted every sentence by him to be easy and pleasant to read. He went so far as to say that the exact word is always the most euphonic one.”

And this opens up one of Borges’ usual labyrinths about words, meaning and variations. “But that sounds strange… well, perhaps what is the mot juste in French isn’t the mot juste in Spanish or German, maybe not. We’d then have to think that, according to the variations of the tongue, the exact words are others because the sounds are different, since the sound is so important for it.” This in turn leads him to talk about cacophony and repetition of similar words on the page, saying that repetition is a problem only visually but that “orally has no importance.”

This also takes us to some of Borges’ ideas on aesthetics and the craft of writing. He’s not a believer in drafts. “The idea that one writes well on the strength of drafts seems a mistake to me.” To him finding the right word, writing the right sentence, is more than just writing for hours, it’s something more metaphysical. “A person finds the word or doesn’t. There’s always, well, like I’ve said many times, something of chance, there’s a gift that either you received or didn’t.” Then there’s his approach to the Muse, for which he borrows from T.S. Eliot: “Well, Eliot said that he wrote many texts that weren’t in fact poetry, but that were in verse. And he spoke also of the occasional visit of the muse, that is, inspiration.” However, Borges, continues, “that person had to practice the habit of writing to be worthy of that occasional or possible visit from the muse because if a person never writes, and feels inspired, he may be unworthy of his inspiration or not know what to do with it.”

Osvaldo Ferrari temporarily changes the subject to his readership, or rather for who Borges thinks he writes. And his is a remarkably honest answer:

…This morning I was asked if I wrote for the majority or the minority. And I replied, like I’ve replied many times, that if I were Robinson Crusoe on my deserted island, I’d continue to write all the same. That is, I don’t write for anybody, I write because I feel an intimate need to write. That doesn’t mean I approve what I write; it may not please me, but I have to write that, in that moment. Otherwise I feel… unjustified and unhappy, yes, wretched. On the other hand, if I write what I write may not be worth anything, but while I write I feel myself justified; I think: “I’m fulfilling my destiny as a writer, regardless of what my writing may be worth.” And if I were told that everything I wrote will be forgotten, I don’t believe I’d receive that news with satisfaction, but I’d continue to write. For whom? For nobody, for myself; it doesn’t matter, I fulfil that task.

Ferrari returns to Flaubert, for the funniest part of the conversation. He mentions Flaubert’s famous insistence in research, his surrounding himself with books in order to be accurate and faithful. And Borges slyly catches a factual mistake by him. “For instance, before writing Salammbô – to write Salammbô he went to Carthage – he met Carthage and saw cacti there. That’s why there are cacti in Salambo, but he didn’t know those cacti had been imported from Mexico. So the observation was fair, but the cacti were, well, futuristic, let’s put it that way.”

Flaubert’s devotion to the craft eventually takes Ferrari to ask for Borges thoughts on the concept of art for art’s sake, with which Flaubert was associated. Borges is very predictable here. “Very good that thing about art for art’s sake, it makes sense, doesn’t it?” For him it’s necessary for “art to be its own end and not a simple instrument of, say, ethics or politics; or, nowadays, sociology.” One should expect this position from him, especially in light of what he once wrote about Franz Kafka, the praise he heaped upon his writing for not dating itself with the ideas and concerns of its time.

But Borges also recognizes the dangers of such position, since it can lead to a “precieuse art, like the French say, a vain art, a decorative art. But that’s not the idea, the idea is that a poem, for instance, is something no less real than any other fact in the universe. Then why not search that beauty in a poem, or in a short-story, or in a canvas, or in a musical partiture; it’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

I think so. And I hope everybody enjoyed Borges discussing Gustave Flaubert.


  1. Thanks, I did, I did very much enjoy Borges discussing Flaubert. I do not recall the cacti in Salambo, but I suppose if any book should have cacti it should be that one (and how timely - I was just thinking of Salambo today and considering a reread).

    Have you read Camus' The Plague? One of my very favorite characters in literature, Joseph Grand, is the embodiment of Flaubert's search for "le mot juste."

    1. Scott, I certainly remember that character, even if I never associated him with Flaubert's mot juste. I remember him more as a symbol of optimism and Mankind's undying spirit, and thinking of his constant re-writing of that one sentence as part of that positive belief, his not giving up, not even in the face of a world dying around him.

  2. I enjoyed reading this, and if you enjoyed how Flaubert treated romantic love, I think you'll appreciate all of the sendups of cliches in 'Bouvard and Pecuchet'.

    1. Mark, thank you for stopping by. I will certainly read B&P, but first I have A Sentimental Education to tackle.

  3. Eh, my hand-crafted comment, where did it go?

    The gist was: 1) I did enjoy this, 2) Borges is somewhat wrong about Salammbô, which is both awful and awesome, and 3) there is in fact a single lonely cactus in Salammbô.

    1. Tom, I've heard more good things than bad things about Salammbô, (and in my laziness I used the Portuguese title) so I take Borges with a pinch of salt.

      That single lonely cactus sounds ominous; does it serve some purpose in the narrative?

    2. I don't know. I think it is merely descriptive.

      "there were long, green lines of olive-trees; rose-coloured vapours floated in the gorges of the hills, while blue mountains reared themselves behind. A warm wind was blowing. Chameleons were crawling on the broad leaves of the cactus." (Ch. 2)

      Perhaps it is a nod to other thorny things. It is only a few pages later in the same chapter when the crucified lions appear.

    3. Crucified lions? This novel gets more and more delicious.