Dear colleagues and friends,
This page includes some of my
journal notes and a few slides from travels this past summer. My
walking guides were Flaubert's Par les Champs et par les Grèves
(Voyage in Brittany)and
Andover, November 2004
Flaubert describes Brest as an arsenal with a town around it and it’s still that way even after having been entirely rebuilt. I went up the rue de Siam, a street I remembered from Prévert’s poem, Barbara, but I went there to find a cyber café, an internet café that I finally found at L’Ecole Buissonnière just above Place de la Liberté.
La pointe St Mathieu
A hike near Brest took us to the Pointe Saint-Mathieu, an extremity of the Finistère sticking out into the Atlantic. Flaubert is right that the ruins of the Abbaye there are lovely. We had a picnic on the rocks near the Pointe St. Mathieu and then joined the grande randonnée, a main hiking path, walking back towards Brest along the cliffs and then in another direction towards Le Conquet until it started to rain too hard to continue. So far it’s rained everyday. It’s fine when there’s light rain, but in three different places we’ve gotten caught in a downpour.
Each of the peninsulas where we’ve hiked has had a different character. Quiberon has high winds, steep cliffs and big surf, very dramatic and wild and isolated; by Pont-l’Abbé the coast seemed very calm and flat although rocky; la Pointe St. Mathieu seems less treacherous than la côte sauvage. There are lots of French walkers around, many with hiking sticks, people of all ages. The cliffs are high and the views are beautiful but it's quite different from the Quiberon peninsula where sometimes we wouldn’t see another hiker all day. The one drawback is that there are too many reminders of WWII near la Pointe Ste Mathieu. Flaubert is right. The Arsenal is the real city, and the signs of war even extend from Brest to La Pointe St. Mathieu.
It rained again. I keep wondering what Flaubert did when it rained. He apparently smoked a pipe and used a stick. I try to picture him covering up. Did he have anything waterproof? How fast did he walk? How long a day?
People we meet are saying they went to the south of France last year but it was too hot so they went to Brittany this year and it rained every day.
The Hôtel de la Corniche in Brest is very comfortable and, as in the other inns, the owners are very kind. For breakfast they served four kinds of bread: croissant, pain au chocolat, brioche, and baguette and that had fresh squeezed orange juice, café au lait or hot chocolate and different jams and honey.
“Saint-Malo, bâti sur la mer enclos de ramparts, semble, lorsqu’on arrive, une couronne de pierres posee sur les flots dont les mâchicoulis sont les fleurons.” (Saint-Malo, built on the sea, enclosed by ramparts, seems, when you arrive, a crown of stones set on the waves, a crown of which the machicolations are the jewels.)
It was July when Flaubert got to St. Malo. He’d been walking for two months, but still at a pretty good pace it seems, and certainly not in a straight line.
Our hotel in St. Malo, Le Palais, was 53 euros and very close to the ramparts and we had a good dinner nearby at la Marée. Flaubert says the walk around the ramparts is one of the most beautiful walks anywhere and no one does it. He’s right about the first part, but lots of people are doing it now. Walking around the ramparts at 11 pm we were hardly alone. Everyone seemed to be out for the sights including some kids walking precariously on the edge of the ramparts. At 7 am we went back and then we had a fantastic view from the ramparts in all directions. After walking around St. Malo we were able to walk out to an island behind it at low tide. Then returning just 40 minutes later, after breakfast, we found that the island was surrounded by water again. We were just glad we hadn’t lingered out there. The tide and currents seemed strong. We got out of St. Malo fast before it got crowded again.
The next stop was an
impromptu one: Rouen, Flaubert’s hometown, and there we visited
Flaubert’s house and
the hospital where his father worked, now the musée Flaubert. The rooms devoted to phrenology and the 19th
century medicine proved interesting, but I’d wanted to go there for one
the one where Flaubert was born, the one with the parrot, Félicité’s
parrot, and the parrot of Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes. Overcome by a strong emotion in that
room, I was becoming a true fan of Flaubert, fan or fana.
Back in Paris Mark bought me a copy of the Sand-Flaubert correspondence and I started to read it. Both of them come across well in their letters – very kind, witty, and generous, and of course interesting and brilliant. He hadn’t liked her books much originally, but she was so kind, as well as insightful, about writing good reviews for him when no one else did, that he ended up having a deep loving friendship with her. Mark and I had a wonderful day in Paris on his last day in France. We walked to the Louvre, spent an hour or so there, and on the walk back made a number of fortuitous stops, including one to hear a young and talented opera singer give a concert in the courtyard of Le Palais-Royal. We had a snack on the rooftop of la Samaritaine at sunset, at a corner table, overlooking the Seine; down below we stopped to watch the stunts of the roller bladders on the bridge in front of Notre Dame, and to see Paris Plage being dismantled, sand, cabanas, and all on the other side of Le Pont Neuf. It did rain a little.
After Mark left I started to read L’Education Sentimentale every day and to walk in the neighborhoods and streets that Flaubert wrote about. I usually make some plans for the day in the morning while I have my morning coffee and croissant at Place de la Contrescarpe and then walk from 10 am to 4 pm with a 45 minute stop for lunch. The bakers at S.Hervet across the street from L’Hôtel St. Christophe started to give me pastries and croissants after I showed them that Patricia Wells had written up their bakery and gave them her book. Their sourdough bread is supposed to be the best in Paris.
Whenever I mention where I’m planning to walk people tell me it’s too far to walk. I’d probably say the same myself if I lived here, but now the walking itself is the plan, the substance, more than the destinations. Flaubert walked everywhere as a student, and his character, Frédéric walked everywhere. Only the bourgeois traveled by coach.
While looking up some of the places mentioned in l’Education Sentimentale in a book I found at the Librairie Joseph Gibert I stumbled on some facts about Flaubert’s travel journals. When I was reading Par les Champs et Par les Grèves I thought at times that Flaubert seemed to have a zen sensibility in his enthusiasm for nature, his lack of self-censorship, and his non-attachment. I found out from Maxime du Camp, Flaubert’s walking companion in Britanny, that they did most of their walking in the morning and then they had lunch and walked to where they were staying and took notes. They had started by taking a week off whenever they needed to write a chapter but then decided not to break up the walking, just to take notes and write up the chapter later. Du Camp explains that they planned not to publish their writing though they worked hard on it. They wanted to be completely free and irreverent. It’s odd if Flaubert was apparently more concerned about reactions to the travel journals than the novels even though the novels got panned or banned. Also while looking at the pictures in a Victor Brombert book there I saw that Flaubert had a Buddha in his study in Croisset.
I had first-hand verification that the journals could still prove controversial. Even in 2004, a hundred and fifty years later, B. was saying, only half jokingly, that GF didn’t have anything nice to say about Rennes. Translation of what he concluded:"When the seals (trained seals that he’d seen) have left, there won’t be anything to see in Rennes.”. And J-P had said he didn’t like what Flaubert had to say about Carnac - that ultimately the menhirs were just big stones.
The grands magasins, department stores, Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, had just been built in the Paris Flaubert describes in L’Education Sentimentale. At Le Bon Marché, I stopped in at La Grande Epicerie and just bought une fougasse aux noix et aux raisins, which I later ate in my room, marveling that something that cost just a euro could be so fabulously delicious and such a treat.
Flaubert studied at the Faculté de Droit near the Panthéon and I’m staying at l’Hôtel St. Christophe on rue Lacépède on the other side of the Panthéon. Rue de l’Ecole Polytechnique runs into rue Descartes which runs into rue Mouffetard from which I take rue Lacépède at Place de la Contrescarpe. Going up rue Cardinal Le Moine just a few steps from Place de la Contrescarpe to #74 you can see where Hemingway lived on the fourth floor. He referred to it in Paris est une Fête, a Moveable Feast, as the Paris they knew when they were poor and happy and the sign on the building said it was his favorite neighborhood. It’s still a great neighborhood, so he was right about that. It’s interesting that it was as appealing in the 1920s as it is now. La Rue Mouffetard has been a market street for centuries. The nearby rue Monge still seems a normal neighborhood with supermarkets, and chocolate shops, cafés, three bakeries, and an open market on Saturdays. In Le Monde I read a piece about Julia Child (in her honor and memory, she just died) in which she described how she worked hard to get the best produce for her guests at the markets when she lived in in France. The hard work consisted of flattering vendors at the market to have a good experience and to get the best produce. It's true that people are very sweet and appreciative when they have something good and you compliment them. Right now the little fraises des bois, wild strawberries, are particularly good.
Today, August 24, the news is about the 60thanniversary of the liberation of Paris. August 25 1944 was the day the Americans arrived on the Champs Elysées and De Gaulle said,”Paris outragé, Paris brisé, mais Paris libéré.”
I went to the TGB, known as the Mitterand Library to check on the two versions of L’Education Sentimentale. I walked through the Jardin des Plantes, past the long-haired ponies from le Poitou, tigers and panthers, crocodiles and ostriches, boa constrictors and pythons. At one point I passed a lawn that I thought at first looked uncharacteristically messy for France. But no. On closer inspection, it was not an unkempt lawn but a prairie, replanted twice a year and left to grow.
the Seine, the TGB looks like four big glass towers
top of a pyramid platform formed by steep flights of steps. I walked over to the east side and up the
steps and then down an escalator to the east entrance. There I saw that
the TGB was built around a lower courtyard planted with trees that you
look down on. All four towers are linked,
not separate, as they look from outside. Most
of the library is underneath. First I went
to the expo on la chanson française where I spent a
lot of time listening to songs under speakers that looked like big
round hairdryers. Then I
listened to various French personalities telling what their favorite
song was and why. I loved the way they
told the reasons they liked particular songs. It
usually had to do with very personal associations and coincidences in
Finally I went to the reading room where I found “La première Education Sentimentale” and I found out where Flaubert had lived in Paris, near l’Odéon and near the Luxembourg and also that the first Education Sentimentale would have been considered a separate major work if it had not had the same title. I think that Flaubert didn’t give it another title because it was too closely autobiographical and he didn't intend to publish it. As it was, even in the second Education Sentimentale, Flaubert’s friends could recognize all of the characters as people Flaubert had known in Paris when he was about 25. Almost everyone in the TGB except me was about 25. You buy a card like a metro card that you use to go in and out of the reading and reference rooms.
The TGB looks impressive and a bit eerie from outside, perhaps because I entered and left in an unusual way. I followed the sortie signs and went up the escalator to the open air, way above the trees of the courtyard. The wind was blowing fairly hard and I was on the roof with no one in sight. I walked to the edge where I saw some trees in cages that I’d seen on the way in. Then I made my way down the stone stairs, essentially down the side of the building. I can’t imagine an 80 year old going there that way, in fact no wonder no one else over 25 was hanging out there, but I liked the adventure. It was like trying to figure out how to penetrate a mysterious glass fortress. It’s one of the most fascinating places to visit in Paris but my supposedly hip Avant-Guide which devotes many pages to shopping doesn’t mention the TGB at all.
Flaubert talks a lot about the Tuileries and the Madeleine and the rue Tronchet in L’Education Sentimentale. The Seine is in a sense the main character and the distinctions made between the people who live on the right bank and the left bank remain similar to the generalizations made today. The students are on the left bank, the bourgeoisie on the right.
I went to the Musée d’Orsay to stop thinking about Flaubert for a while but that was when I noticed that Gustave seemed to be a common 19thcentury name, at least for artists, and I saw an exhibition of paintings of Paris in the 1840s, by a Dutch painter, Jongkind. He and Flaubert were in Paris at the same time, at the same age.
When Flaubert was in Paris the musée d’Orsay was not even the Gare D’Orsay. Now, in the museum, you see people standing in front of paintings, facing out and smiling into space - instead of facing the paintings and looking at them. Several times that took me aback until I realized it was because their friends were taking pictures of them with cell phones. The paintings had become a backdrop.
At the time of L’Education Sentimentale, the galleries, the 19th centry shopping malls, were being built and they caused a sensation. You can still walk from one galerie to another starting from the galerie Véro Dodat above the Palais Royal and going all the way up to the Grands Boulevards. One of the most famous ones was le Passage des Panoramas (1831-4) and Flaubert mentions it. One of the ones that’s most unchanged is the Passage Choiseul (1829), near rue des Petits Champs. Walter Benjamin’s book is very interesting on that subject. Flaubert mentions the Palais Royal a number of times because on a special occasion the place to go for dinner was Les Trois Frères at the Palais Royal. It’s not there any more but the gorgeous nineteenth restaurant Le Grand Véfour is still there.
Frédéric and his fellow students typically went to the inexpensive left bank restaurants, as students still do today – the restaurants on rue de la Harpe and rue St. Jacques. The rich people went to the right bank restaurants as they do today – to places like Le Grand Véfour at the Palais Royal.
In L’Education Sentimentale, the family of the banker, Dambreuse, lived on the right bank, on rue d’Anjou, now the faubourg St. Honoré, and Arnoux, the businessman, lived on rue de Choiseul after rue du Paradis. His business place, L’Art Industriel, was on the boulevard Montmartre.
When Frédéric goes for a walk in Paris he often gets lost in sort of a labyrinth of Paris streets. There’s a certain disorderly, meandering quality that’s easy to emulate. Once Frédéric ends up at the Champs Elysées by mistake.
When the left bank students start out for the right bank they assemble on the rue St. Jacques and on the rue Soufflot near the Panthéon. They were “les insurgés”, the insurgents.
I left Frédéric, the
hero of ES, and walked down the
rue d’Ulm to see L’Ecole Normale Supérieure on the other side of the
Montagne Ste Geneviève – in my territory this time.
I wanted to think about Sartre, studying in Paris a ten
minute walk and a
century away from Flaubert’s locale at the Faculté de Droit. Sartre’s study of Flaubert, L’Idiot de
Famille , the Family Idiot, refers to the fact that at first
Flaubert seemed to be the guy who couldn’t succeed at his law studies. Sartre may have been famous for coming first
on the aggrégation, but he failed it the first time, so they had
something in common.
As I walked up and down and around la Montagne Ste Genevieve the last couple of days I noticed that the cafés like le café de la Maierie at la Place de l’Estrapade, that had been closed in August, were starting to open again. That café is supposed to be “très tendance” meaning very trendy. I looked in to see what was special about it. “Convivial” says le Nouvel Observateur. But I couldn’t tell by looking in. The most sought after cafés are the most traditional and unchanged-looking ones, the regular cafés.
The Seine, the most important place in Flaubert’s geography of Paris places, was instinctively the most important place for me too as I crossed it every day. My walks began and ended with the Montagne Ste Geneviève, with the Panthéon, the ridiculous Panthéon, on top of it. Ugly, sexist, big, inconsistent, chauvinistic. I wonder if anyone likes it. I thought Sartre sounded egotistical saying in advance that he didn’t want to be buried there, but I can see why he’d want to make sure. In front of the Panthéon is the Café Soufflot, where I met B. It’s a very significant café in L’Education Sentimentale because that’s where Frédéric met Deslauriers when the 1848 revolution was starting. The next day the students crossed the Seine and went around the Madeleine and down to the Place de la Concorde and on to the Tuileries. Paris was invaded from all directions. The bourgeoisie joined the students against the government. The city of Paris rose up against the seat of power as symbolized by the Tuileries.
Frédéric had a
rendez-vous with Mme Arnoux (Mme Schlesinger) on the rue Tronchet but
she didn’t come. He
didn’t care. Frédéric found out much later
that her son had been very sick, but by then both of their lives had
taken a different turn.
Why was Flaubert so attractive and such a great walker in Brittany in 1847 and so different two or three years later when he went to Egypt? Did he really choose his work or did life disappoint him? How did someone so outgoing become so reclusive? How could he be such a risk taker on Belle-Isle and lead such a quiet life after that?
Maybe Flaubert changed so fast physically because he was as excessive in sitting and writing as he was in walking. After the year in Paris, the summer in Britanny, and the events of 1848 he had a lot to write about. In any case, the three-month walk through Brittany and the Loire Valley was an extraordinary physical feat, one that I wouldn’t have expected of Flaubert before reading his journals. After 1847, he was considered almost an invalid because of his nervous disorder.
I had read somewhere that Flaubert was repressed. He didn’t seem that way from the travel journals. He chose writing because he loved it and he knew he had a great gift. At a certain point he didn’t want to take much time away from his work, because he knew he was on to something. Probably he couldn’t have produced the work he produced without becoming a recluse. Even though his work was a different kind of endeavor, I understood it as another kind of risk taking after reading about his continuous 14 hour walk on Belle Isle during which he explored a remote and wild part of the island where he easily could have been trapped by tides and bad weather.
As the cafés started
to reopen in September, my friends started to come back to town, and
they assumed I’d been bored and lonely in Paris by myself.
I'd had a great time though, reading L'Education Sentimentale,
walking around Paris, and seeing it through the eyes of Frédéric Moreau
in the 1840s.