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As told in the final section of Voyage en Orient, Gustave Flaubert, accompanied by his friend Maxime du Camp, travelled to Istanbul in October 1850 after his visit to Egypt, the Lebanon and Syria. The two men had earlier travelled together and written about their experiences, an arrangement pleasing to both. Du Camp, the scion of an affluent family and knowledgeable in literature and art, proved to be a trustworthy and reliable friend — though somewhat effete. Six years later, he would serialise Madame Bovary in the Revue de Paris, which he edited. During their travels, as du Camp took the first photographs of the Middle East with his cumbersome camera, Flaubert was preoccupied with himself and his own future. In a word, he was burdened by his own troubles.

Flaubert's trouble, or rather burning pain, was the syphilis he had contracted in Beirut. He treated his festering wounds with medicines, strove to lessen his pain, wondered whether he had contracted the disease from a "Turk" or Christian and described it all in his letters in a tone of self-mockery. 

Having been on the road for more than a year, Flaubert suffered exhaustion and fatigue. His hair had begun to fall out and his teeth to come loose. Furthermore, he pined for home, his mother and his former life in Rouen. 

In Istanbul, Flaubert responded to a letter from his mother in which he learned of a friend's marriage and of her own curiosity about his marriage plans. When I dreamed of becoming a writer in my youth, I'd frequently turn to this letter dated 15 December, 1850, penned from "Constantinople", and would garner strength and succour from its exceptional words in the face of the hardships of staying on one's feet and on course as an author in Turkey. 

Flaubert wrote: "When is the wedding to be, you ask me, à propos of the news of Ernest Chevalier's marriage...When? Never, I hope." The prospective young writer of 29 then reminds his mother of his principles, emphasising that it is far too late to change them now. "I, too, am ‘established' in that I have found my seat, my centre of gravity. For me, marriage would be an apostasy: the very thought terrifies me." A few sentences later, he clearly expresses the view on the relationship between art and life that would later be developed by
Nietzsche and Thomas Mann: "You can depict wine, love, women and glory on the condition that you are not a drunkard, a lover, a husband or a private in the ranks. If you participate actively in life, you don't see it clearly: you suffer from it too much or enjoy it too much." Flaubert writes to his mother with the profound sense that the artist must be a freak of nature, an oddity outside of ordinary life, a monster of sorts: "So, I am resigned to living as I have lived: alone, with my throng of great men as my only cronies — a bear with just my bear skin as company." And he addresses his mother with the sentences I whispered to myself before I'd turned 30, sentences in which I tried to believe: "I care nothing for the world, for the future, for what people will say, for any kind of establishment, or even for literary renown, which in the past I used to lie awake so many nights dreaming about." And after writing these arrogant words, Flaubert adds one final line whose simplicity demonstrates his self-confidence and sincerity: "That is what I am like. Such is my character." 

In Istanbul, at the end of the 1970s, while trying to get my newly completed first novel published, living alone with my mother, I remember trying to locate the Justiniano Hotel in Galata, where Flaubert had spent his days and penned these words in 1850. Just like the "great men" that he had idolised, I tried to take Flaubert as my model. 

If one principle of the modernist literary ethic that Flaubert expressed with instinctive calm in his famous letter was to maintain one's distance from everyday bourgeois life and mundane success, another was to be awed by, and identify with, reclusive writers of stature who did so successfully and genuinely. 

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August 6th, 2009
2:08 PM

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