Monday, December 6, 2010

Classic Travel Writing and Smut...

Hemingway image credit

I am currently reading Immanuel Wallerstein's World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, as well as Christina Stead's The Man who Loved Children. Which was a largely ignored 1940 novel by an Australian author; however, the novel won critical acclaim when it was republished in 1965 and subsequently made it onto the TIME magazines 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005. And just arriving in the mail box this morning was a copy of Ernest Hemingway's The Garden of Eden which was the second Hemingway novel posthumously (there have been many more) and it has recently been adapted into a film.


I have just finished reading Flaubert In Egypt translated and edited by Francis Steegmuller, it contains Gustave Flaubert's travel notes and letters as well as excerpts of his travel companion, Maxime de Camp, and his book Souvenirs Litteraires. They traveled from Alexandria to Sudan and back again (and then onto Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Greece and Italy - however these journeys are not recounted in this collection). I marveled at the various narrative voices, not just because there is more than one author, but because Flaubert is full of contrasts. He is so candid in his travelogue and so saccharine in the letters to his "dear old darling" Mother. Yet it is the letters to his friend Louis Bouilhet that are the most charming and informative; the letters are warm, familiar, honest and at times vulgar. He writes to Bouilhet about his brothel adventures, about the dancing women and the famous courtesans.


In one letter he writes about his visit to a Turkish woman in silk robes embroidered with gold, he tells Bouilhet that "This is a great place for contrasts: splendid things gleam in the dust. I performed on a mat that a family of cats had to be shooed off - a strange coitus, looking at each other without being able to exchange a word, and the exchange of looks is all the deeper for the curiosity and the surprise. My brain was too stimulated for me to enjoy it much otherwise. These shaved c***s make a strange effect - the flesh is hard as bronze, and my girl had a splendid arse."

Flaubert also shares tall-tales about public displays of coitus and buggery, with men, women and animals alike, that he has heard stories of and even a man dying of masturbating too much. For every drop of semen, Flaubert informs his friend, costs a litre of blood. Contrasting the sexual liaisons of Flaubert and du Camp are wonderful descriptions of the desert, the Nile, camels, stubborn donkeys and always monuments covered in bird droppings (Flaubert never fails to describe the way the white lines of the poo are wider at the top than the bottom the of the monument).

In 1849 and 1850 when Flaubert was making this journey, Madame Bovary was still along way away, he had so far had little success as a writer and Egypt was still being "discovered" by the West. Places like Abu Simbel were yet to be fully excavated and the Sphinx was still mostly covered in sand, with only the head and part of the neck uncovered, the entire body was yet to be rediscovered. This was a time of slave trading and cudgels (sticks to hit people with - Flaubert found these most amusing). And du Camp was busy photographing every monument he could, and was actually the first to photograph the Sphinx.


It was also a time when European travelers were able to behave in ways that would be unheard of today. For example, Flaubert writes of his adventure to a cave of mummies, where he walked over the bodies in the dark, breaking bones beneath his feet, and he took a foot as a souvenir. The foot went back to France with him and had pride of place upon his desk and apparently a well meaning servant even cleaned it up with some boot polish. Flaubert's companion took home with him two feet, two hands and a mummified head because he liked its hair.

So smut and European racism and barbarism aside, it is a wonderful collection of letters and reflections, full of history and colour. I enjoyed reading this book and I didn't struggle with the sexual nature of it as much as I did with the 19th century European world-view. The letters to his Mother are a delight - what she must have thought sitting at home waiting for him! - and du Camp's milder, much more edited reflections (he left out all of his encounters with women), corroborated the exotic nature of their travels together. It is difficult to imagine how little Flaubert and du Camp would have known about Egypt before their travels there - Flaubert was armed with a copy of Herodotus' Histories (written in 450 - 420 BC) - and they missed many of the sites now known to European tourists, simply because they had not been re-discovered yet. It really was an amazing adventure, even though Flaubert admitted to being bored often, I wasn't.

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