A Bicentenary New Year’s Eve Toast to Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Dostoevsky
By Stuart Mitchner
The news isn’t just breaking, it’s running wild.” So began my June 3, 2020 column on Allen Ginsberg’s birthday. That was then. The belief that literature, inspired acting, poetry, and music is always timely, always worthy of interest, has been the motive force driving these pieces week after week, year after year. When terrorists attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015, I brought in Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, and Daumier; when they shot up the Bataclan that November, I connected by way of Henry Miller, Rimbaud, and the Velvet Underground. Four years later when Notre Dame was burning, I brought Balzac, Swinburne, Hugo, and the Mueller Report on board.
Three Giants at 200
I’m setting the last column of 2021 in Paris because three bicentenary literary giants — Feodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), and Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) — were there at roughly the same time, in summer-fall 1862. Since there’s no evidence I can find that the author of Crime and Punishment got together with the author of The Flowers of Evil, or with the author of Madame Bovary, I’m bringing them together with the help of quotations, observations, and occasional imaginary conversations, thanks in part to The Arcades Project (Harvard 2002), the compendium Walter Benjamin mined from the printed depths of 19th-century Paris. The 1,070-page volume is described in the translators’ foreword as the “blue-print for an unimaginably massive and labyrinthine architecture, a dream city, in effect.”
If the world has a dream city, it’s surely Paris, and if Benjamin’s “immense gallery of anecdote” has a hero other than the man who conceived and compiled it, it’s Baudelaire. If this column has a hero, however, it’s Flaubert, who had the stage to himself until I found out that Dostoevsky and Baudelaire were also born in 1821. Since there’s no way I could ignore those two giants, they joined the party.
Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky has him arriving in mid-June 1862 and remaining for two weeks. The first of his two letters from Paris in Frank’s edition of the Selected Letters (Rutgers Univ. Press 1987) portrays the City of Light as “a most tiresome town, and if it were not for the many really remarkable things it possesses, one could die of boredom here.” In the second letter he says, “I don’t care for Paris, although it is absolutely magnificent.” Feeling his age at 40, he admits that it would be “very different” had he come to Paris as a student. Otherwise, “the best thing about this place is its fruit and its wine.”
Imagine Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who regards his 40th year as “extreme old age,” hanging out in a bar on Place Pigalle with Baudelaire, who greeted his 30th a decade earlier asking himself: “If I have lived three minutes in one … am I not ninety years old?” The negative electricity generated the instant these two men made eye contact would make the air crackle and hiss. In Arcades, Benjamin quotes André Gide’s emphasis on the “centrifugal and disintegrating” force that “Baudelaire, like Dostoevsky, recognized in himself and which he felt to be in opposition to his productive concentration.”
In a photo said to have been taken when he was in Paris, Dostoevsky resembles my image of the anti-hero narrator of Notes from the Underground (1864), a man who has come “not out of the lap of nature but out of a retort.” As for Baudelaire, “if looks could kill” the photographer would be as dead as a Dickensian doornail.
So it’s safe to say the conversation might begin with a conflict in personal terminology, Baudelaire saying “what your sick unto death man calls inertia I call ennui,” and Dostoevsky retorting, very much on his guard, “How is it you know of my Notes when I haven’t published the damn thing yet?”
Since absinthe makes the heart grow fonder, it’s not long before the splenetic facades are in ruins, suddenly it’s New Year’s Eve in July, and goodtime Charlie is telling his old pal Dusty “Be drunken, always! That’s the point; nothing else matters.” When Dusty says, “Drunken with what?” Charlie’s ready for him: “With wine, with poetry or with virtue, whatever you please. But be drunken. And if sometimes you wake to find the drunkenness half or entirely gone, ask of the wind, of the wave, of the star, of the bird, of the clock, of all that flies, of all that speaks, ask what hour it is; and wind, wave, star, bird, or clock will answer you —” Dusty picks up the cue, chiming in, “Yes, it’s the hour to be drunken!”
Fresh from North Africa, Flaubert has come to meet the Russian writer his friend Turgenev has been telling him about. Still half a year short of 40, he’s the youngest of the three but doesn’t look it. According to his biographer Frederick Brown, quoting Jules de Goncourt, Flaubert is “a conglomeration of ruined features — red mottled skin, puffy eyelids, bulging eyes, full cheeks, a rough drooping mustache,” yet “many women still find him attractive.” All he can talk about at first is his Carthaginian novel Salammbo, in which he means to “exhale all the energies of nature” that flowed through him in Africa. One sip of the green demon absinthe and he’s letting it all hang out. “May the power to resurrect the past be mine. Mine!” In the next breath he’s saying “you’ll never know how depressed I had to be to undertake the resuscitation of Carthage!” Staring up at the gaslit lantern that has been flaring on and off ever since the bear of Rouen lumbered into the bar, he calls on “the God of souls to have pity on my will, and my strength and hope!”
Moved, Dostoevsky throws a drunken Russian arm around Flaubert and growls, “Gospodin! Turgenev doesn’t understand you. Tell me about the parrot.” To which Flaubert says, “But I haven’t written that tale yet. It’s still brewing, it’ll be a sequel of sorts to Bovary, and it won’t come easy. I’ll need to be on the verge of death to write it. As the parrot never fails to remind me, ‘Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out melodies for bears to dance to while we long to make music that will move the stars.’ “
At this point, there’s a three-way toast, as Flaubert tells Baudelaire, “I’m in awe of the way you celebrate the flesh without loving it, so melancholy, so detached! How well you understand the boredom of existence!”
Flaubert Cuts Loose
After toasting the boredom of existence, the three stagger out of the bar. Energized by the impact of the cool night air, Flaubert cuts loose: “I can see myself all through history! I was a boatman on the Nile, a procurer in Rome at the time of the Punic Wars, a Greek rhetorician in Suburra. I died during the Crusades from eating too many grapes on the beach in Syria. I was pirate and monk, mountebank and coachman!”
Baudelaire is quick to say, “My friend, the greatest role you’ll ever play is that of a French adulteress buried in that bouillabaisse of banality, the provinces. That’s why in everything that’s most forceful and ambitious in her nature, Emma’s a man. Just as Pallas Athena sprang fully armed from the head of Zeus, so this strange androgynous creature has kept all the attraction of a virile soul in a charming feminine body. All truly intellectual women should be grateful to you for raising the female to so high a level, yes, for having made her share in that combination of calculation and reverie that constitutes the perfect being!”
“This is the man who read my mind when he read Bovary,” a delighted Flaubert tells Dostoevsky. “No one else understood the book. While the courts were prosecuting me for obscenity, only he knew my deepest intentions.” Quoting Baudelaire: “We shall stretch a nervous, picturesque, subtle, exact style over a banal canvas. We shall pour huge feelings into the most trivial adventure. Solemn, decisive words will escape from inane mouths. And into his impersonation of this doomed woman, his heroine, Flaubert gives the depth of his devotion to her fantasies of a superior world. That alone makes her fascinating.”
Hugging Baudelaire, Flaubert says, “It’s as if our brains were mated! You felt it and understood it thoroughly.” Then, giving Dostoevsky a flirtatious smile, he says in a stage whisper, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!”
New Year’s Eve
In the past I sometimes imagined a New Year’s Eve party around the centenary celebrities of the previous year. In 2011 I set the party at a jazz club on Times Square. The class of 1921 might have swung in the same direction, with Steve Allen as emcee, and Errol Garner and Wardell Gray joining forces for a performance of “Blue Lou,” Betty Hutton and Carol Channing belting out “I Can Do Anything You Can Do Better,” and Matthew Arnold reading “On Dover Beach.”
Of course this year with partygoers facing pandemic protocols and the rise of the Omicron variant, we’re better off with Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Baudelaire toasting each other in a bar on Place Pigalle.