A bicentennial New Year’s toast to Flaubert, Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky


By Stuart Mitchner


TThe news is not only topical, it is unleashed. So began my column on June 3, 2020 on the occasion of Allen Ginsberg’s birthday. It was then. The belief that literature, inspired play, poetry and music are still relevant, still relevant, has been the driving force behind these pieces week after week, year after year. When terrorists attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in January 2015, I brought in Victor Hugo, Baudelaire and Daumier; when they shot the Bataclan in November, I connected through Henry Miller, Rimbaud, and the Velvet Underground. Four years later, while Notre-Dame was on fire, I took Balzac, Swinburne, Hugo and the Mueller report on board.

Three giants at 200

I put the last column of 2021 in Paris because three bicentennial literary giants – Feodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) and Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) – were there around the same time, in summer -Autumn 1862. Since there is no proof, I can find that the author of Crime and Punishment met the author of the Flowers of Evil, or with the author of Madame Bovary, I put them together using quotes, observations and sometimes imaginary conversations, thanks in part to The arcades project (Harvard 2002), the collection that Walter Benjamin extracted from the printed depths of 19th-century Paris. The 1,070-page volume is described in the translators’ preface as “the blueprint of an incredibly massive and labyrinthine architecture, a dream city indeed”.


If the world has a dream city, it is Paris, and if Benjamin’s “immense gallery of anecdotes” has a hero other than the one who conceived and composed it, it is Baudelaire. If this chronicle has a hero, however, it is Flaubert, who had the scene all to himself until I learned that Dostoyevsky and Baudelaire were also born in 1821. As I could not ignore these two giants, they joined in the fun.

” Absolutely stunning “

Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoyevsky makes him arrive in mid-June 1862 and stay there for two weeks. The first of his two letters from Paris in Frank’s edition of Selected letters (Rutgers Univ. Press 1987) describes the City of Lights as “a most boring city, and if it weren’t for the many truly remarkable things it has, one could die of boredom here.” In the second letter he says: “I don’t like Paris, even though it is absolutely beautiful. “Sensing his age at 40, he admits that it would be” very different “if he had come to Paris as a student. Otherwise, “the best thing about this place is its fruit and its wine.”

Contact lenses


Imagine Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who considers his 40 years to be “a great old age”, hanging out in a bar in Place Pigalle with Baudelaire, who welcomed his 30th birthday a decade earlier by asking himself: “If I have lived three minutes in one… am I not ninety? The negative electricity generated the instant these two men made eye contact would make the air crackle and hiss. In Arcades, Benjamin quotes the emphasis placed by André Gide on the “centrifugal and disintegrating” force that “Baudelaire, like Dostoyevsky, recognized himself and that he felt opposed to his productive concentration”.

In a photo allegedly taken while in Paris, Dostoyevsky looks like my image of the anti-hero narrator of Metro Notes (1864), a man who did not come out of the bosom of nature but from a retort. As for Baudelaire, “if looks could kill,” the photographer would have died like a nail in a Dickensian door.

So it’s safe to say that the conversation could start with a conflict of personal terminology, Baudelaire saying “what your mortally ill man calls inertia I call boredom“and Dostoevsky retorts, very on his guard,” How do you know of my Remarks when I haven’t posted that damn thing yet? “

Get drunk!

Since wormwood makes the heart more affectionate, it doesn’t take long before the splenic facades are in ruins, suddenly it’s New Year’s Eve in July, and good times Charlie says to his old pal Dusty “Be drunk, always! That’s the point; nothing else matters. ”When Dusty says,“ Drunk on what? Charlie is ready for him, “With wine, with poetry or with virtue, as you wish. to get drunk. And if sometimes you wake up to find the drunkenness half or all gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, whatever flies, whatever. speak, ask what time it is; and the wind, wave, star, bird or clock will answer you – “Dusty picked up the signal, sounding,” Yes, it’s time to get drunk! “

Between Flaubert

Newly arrived from North Africa, Flaubert came to meet the Russian writer about whom his friend Turgenev spoke to him. Still six months under 40, he’s the youngest of the three but doesn’t look like it. According to his biographer Frederick Brown, citing Jules de Goncourt, Flaubert is “a conglomerate of crumbling features – mottled red skin, swollen eyelids, bulging eyes, full cheeks, a rough, drooping mustache”, yet “many women still find him attractive” . All he can talk about at the start is his Carthaginian novel. Salammbô, in which he intends to “exhale all the energies of nature” which crossed him in Africa. A sip of the devil’s green wormwood and he lets it all hang out. “May the power to resuscitate the past be mine. To exploit! “In the next breath he said” you will never know how depressed I must have been to undertake the resuscitation of Carthage! “Looking up at the gas-lit lantern that has been on fire since the bear of Rouen rushed into the bar, he called “the God of souls to have mercy on my will, my strength and my hope!”

Moved, Dostoyevsky throws a drunken Russian arm around Flaubert and growls: “Gospodin! Turgenev does not understand you. Tell me about the parrot. To which Flaubert replies: “But I have not yet written this story. It’s still brewing, it will be a kind of sequel to Bovary, and it won’t come easy. I will have to be on the verge of death to write it. As the parrot never fails to remind me, “The tongue is like a cracked kettle on which we beat melodies to make the bears dance while we aspire to make music that will make the stars vibrate. “

At this point there is a three way toast, as Flaubert says to Baudelaire: “I am amazed by the way you celebrate the flesh without loving it, so melancholy, so detached! How well you understand the boredom of existence!

Flaubert goes wild

After having toasted the boredom of existence, the three stagger out of the bar. Energized by the impact of the cool night air, Flaubert says: “I see myself again through history! I was a boatman on the Nile, a pimp in Rome during the Punic Wars, a Greek rhetorician in Suburra. I died during the Crusades eating too many grapes on the beach in Syria. I was a pirate and a monk, a mountebank and a coachman!

Baudelaire hastens to say: “My friend, the greatest role you will ever play is that of a French adulterous woman buried in this bouillabaisse of banality, the province. This is why in all that is the most energetic and ambitious in her nature, Emma is a man. Just as Pallas Athena emerged fully armed from the head of Zeus, so this strange androgynous creature has retained all the attraction of a virile soul in a charming female body. All truly intellectual women should be grateful to you for raising woman to such a high level, yes, for doing her part in that combination of reckoning and daydreaming that constitutes the perfect being!

“This is the man who read my mind when he read Bovary»Says Flaubert delighted to Dostoevsky. “No one else understood the book. As the courts pursued me for obscenity, only he knew my deepest intentions. Quoting Baudelaire: “We will extend a nervous, picturesque, subtle, exact style on a banal canvas. We are going to pour enormous feelings into the most trivial adventure. Solemn and decisive words will escape from foolish mouths. And in his personification of this doomed woman, his heroine, Flaubert gives the depth of his devotion to his fantasies of a higher world. That alone makes her fascinating.

By hugging Baudelaire, says Flaubert, “It’s like our brains are mated! You have felt it and understood it perfectly. Then, giving Dostoyevsky a charming smile, he said in a stage whisper: “Madame Bovary, It’s me! “

new year’s eve

In the past I sometimes imagined a New Year’s Eve party around the hundred-year-old celebrities of the previous year. In 2011, I threw the party at a jazz club in Times Square. The class of 1921 may have tipped 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 singing “I Can Do all you can do better “, and Matthew Arnold reading” On Dover Beach “.

Of course, this year with revelers confronted with pandemic protocols and the rise of the Omicron variant, we are better off with Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and Baudelaire drinking glasses in a bar on Place Pigalle.


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