A Review of Flaubert in Egypt

This week resident book reviewer Adam  reviews Flaubert in Egypt by Gustave Flaubert.

Flaubert in  Egypt by Gustave Flaubert

(Translated and edited by Francis Steegmuller)


In 1849, the twenty seven year old Flaubert read out the first draft of his hallucinatory masterpiece The Temptation of St. Anthony (see earlier review) to some friends.  Less than encouraging, they urged him never to publish it.  With only a couple of short stories to his name, but possessing the sort of fierce literary ambition incompatible with his mother’s suggestion that he find ‘a little job’, he set out with one of them, the writer and photographer Maxime du Camp, on a six month tour of Egypt, taking in Cairo, the Nile, the pyramids of Giza, the temples of Karnak, the Grotto of Samoun (a bizarre pit of mummified humans and animals), and numerous bordellos and bathhouses along the way.

The result is a vivid, sensuous account of a travel experience, as Flaubert pays attention to details that lesser writers would cast aside as insignificant: a handshake between a man on a camel and a man on the ground; a monkey pleasuring a donkey in the street; a boy offering his mother for five paras and wishing him a ‘long prick’.  These last two demonstrate the largely lubricious tone of proceedings.  Street rapes by locals are dispassionatley reported, brief homosexual encounters in steam rooms are casually averred, while his brothel experiences are meticulously set down, particularly his fondness for the courtesan Kuchuk Hanem, whom he visits multiple times.

As sleazy as this sounds, akin to the wanderings of a Burroughsian sex tourist (see review of The Soft Machine), it could perhaps be viewed as part of a wider literary sensibility.  Flaubert was apparently bored by du Camp’s painstaking photographic work in the temples and tombs, and his descriptions tend less towards apprehending the ruins of antiquity than the life of the people in the streets.  However, his fascination with the ancient world is in evidence, for example in his rapturous, almost fearful prose upon seeing the Great Sphinx rise out of the desert at Giza, a statue that he would have known only from drawings.

Flaubert’s eye for scatological detail can be seen later in his brilliant classical epic Salaambo.  No doubt this trip was a major inspiration.  A visit to a hospital provides ample material, such as, not wishing to be too graphic, the anal chancres of a group of syphilitic Mamelukes.  Perhaps, that was too graphic.

From copious letters and journals, Francis Steegmuller has edited a coherent and palatable account, providing useful explanatory notes along the way.  Although it is certainly a book of interest for Flaubert fans, there is enough piquant material to make it a lively read.  If you like things like anal chancres, of course…

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