The Ambiguity of Imagination
Translator: Peter Christie
Gli incauti negozi sulla vita e sulle opere
di monsieur Gustave Flaubert, scrittore
was originally published in Italian in 2009
also available as ebook
officially “historical fiction”
MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
Writing this review turned out to be just as challenging as reading Gustave Flaubert: The Ambiguity of Imagination. And if you happen to read the synopsis, you will be even more confused: they talk about a certain Harel Bey, but he does not appear in the book until page 63. Before that, I had a hard time understanding what was going on, I even had to restart reading the whole book. There were some very interesting elements however.
So let’s indeed start with the positive.
The main idea behind this epistolary novel is interesting: Harel Bey is a character invented by Gustave Flaubert for a novel on the Orient that he never finished nor published. So that made him resentful against Flaubert. He wants his revenge for being created as an incomplete character, plus at having been created blind.
Now this may be the most interesting and clever point of the whole book. As you may remember in Madame Bovary, there’s this mysterious blind character who appears about four times in key moments of her life. A lot has been written about this blind person, without any consensus by the literary critics on the topic. So to associate Harel Bey with this blind character is very astute, I think, though he will end up totally changing the end of Emma’s life in this version by Cafiero.
Harel Bey delivers a manuscript made up of letters (the first part of the book), invented actually by himself. Caroline, Flaubert’s niece and only heir, asks Bouvard (a character by Flaubert in a book published but unfinished as well) to investigate the pages to know if the work is authentic and valuable, and if there’s any risk that Louise Colet, Flaubert’s mistress, would put claims on it and benefit from it financially.
Bouvard, also quite critical of his creator, ends up traveling with Harel Bey as a guide to pursue his investigation.
Certainly Gustave was ambiguously sadistic in his literary inventions and in his apodictic speech.
They go to places where Flaubert lived, stayed, or areas encountered in his novels, and this way they revisit his works (including more obscure pieces), and meet other characters, ending by Madame Bovary.
This latter work is presented in such a way you could imagine it is as erotic as Fifty Shades of Grey. In the context of Flaubert’s time, it was indeed so osé that it was considered scandalous. But nothing to excite modern readers, and you may even hardly understand why it was condemned at the time.
Harel Bey wishes “to carry out vendettas and to square accounts with whomever had rashly taken [his] place in the mind and stories of Monsieur Flaubert” (p.259). In the last part of the book, he thus plays Russian roulette with other characters by Flaubert.
If you like Flaubert’s work, you will enjoy meeting many of his characters, his works, and traveling with Bouvard and Harel Bey to the setting of each novel. You will enjoy also finding many quotations of his books and letters, as well as Flaubert’s style of description partially imitated by Cafiero.
I have to admit I really enjoyed that a lot at the beginning, for instance in the description of Egypt, but after a while, all the descriptions in groups of three or four (nominal or verbal groups) became really tedious and got really on my nerves – which it never did when I read Flaubert himself in my younger years (in French). This literary device became too artificial and attracted too much my attention to itself, pushing me to count instead of reading! Here is a variation of it in a not too attractive presentation of Paris:
Paris welcomed us after we had slipped away as best we could from the irreverent rashness of the choristers and wanderers who seemed to be lodging near the station, and the city beguiled us with a day of splendid colours , of intense perfumes, so that the Bedouin was intoxicated in the bewilderment and the consternation of his sense of smell, following trails of fragrances, odors of newly-opened flowers, of warm bodies, of rich sweats, of pools of sunlight, of dried-up dung, of oily scrap-iron, of flatulent viscera, of rotten teeth, of trees in leaf, of open sewers, of prostitutes’ genitals, of pigeon excrement, of priests’ cassocks, of newly-cut grass, of toilettes de nécessité, extremely convenient at 5 to 10 cents, of a city which presented itself, scantily dressed and neglected, to mockery, to gossip, to being the terminus for all the fortunes made in the provinces.
I could have quoted another description, a sentence almost one page long (page 63), but I decided to be merciful to my readers.
Another repetition that annoyed me was the use of the phrase “do you remember?” Again, it was coming so often that I counted: 41 times, in 284 pages…
There are also lots of passages from the Goncourt Brothers’ Journal (“ those evil-tongues infidels”) and from poems by Louise Colet.
As I have transitioned to the negative points of the book, let’s look at the structure.
I would be really curious to read the original in Italian. In fact, I looked for reviews or excerpts of it. Even in the Italian language, I could not really find one review of this book! Has anybody in Italy read it since its release in 2009?
I finally managed to look at the beginning of the book in Italian, and discovered the book was structured in parts, with the title Il Manoscritto given to the first part! Why on earth this was not translated in English? The whole story would have been so clear from the start! You have a collection of letters, but it’s only much later in the book that you realize their function.
In the very last letter (the last 30 pages), Harel Bey writes to Bouvard and explains how and why he orchestrated the whole thing. At last or at least the reader can finally understand what was going on, but there are far too many repetitions: we went there, we did this, I told you that, etc. The reader has already been through it all, so another solution to conclude the book would have been most appreciated.
Also, there are numerous problems in the editing of the book:
it’s very difficult to see the difference sometimes between one letter and the next, with no space in between
Is it normal that notes 36 and 39 would have the same text?
Note 40 is difficult to understand, not mentioning the word and repeated twice. And the line it refers to has two words left in Italian
Why is note 95 empty?
Note 42 seems to be a very bad translation from the French – and the French has a typo. There are plenty more typos in French: pages 140, 191 (two), 195, 241
There’s a major problem page 147. It reads: “We took to assiduously studying the Gospels – in particular, passages of Ecclesiastes, of Isaiah, and of Jeremiah – the Imitation of Thomas à Kempis and the Manual for Seminarists.”
Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, and Jeremiah not being part of the Gospels, not even of the New Testament, I went to check Flaubert’s passage in Bouvard et Pécuchet, not believing he would have done such a mistake. Of course he didn’t. The author, either Cafiero or his translator, totally got that passage confused. Actually, Flaubert only mentions the fourth Gospel, Saint John’s.
I don’t know if this was the case in the original Italian book, but there are many words and expressions in French without any translations. Being native French, it didn’t bother me, but I kept thinking of readers who do not know French, and the handicap this would represent for them. Plus, many expressions added nothing to the book for being in French, mon père for instance.
I would recommend first you read three or four major works by Flaubert before reading this book, otherwise you will not understand the references. Plus, the portrait it paints of the author is quite negative, I could even say repulsive at times, so you might be disgusted forever and never want to open one of his books. You would miss something big.
The negativity is often brought through the opinion of the Goncourt Brothers. Indeed they were sometimes bitter against him and felt a rivalry with him, but the three of them were also close friends. Unfortunately, I didn’t perceive this much in the book.
There is also a lot of sex, sometimes through rather disgusting and repelling scenes. I have read that actually Flaubert may have been more attracted to men, which again is not really reflected in the book.
As the subtitle hints at, the novel is certainly ambiguous. Some other books by the same author have been considered quasi biographies. I think it would be a mistake to consider this one as a biography of Flaubert. It is rather a visit of his books through the biased consideration of a character who felt cheated. A curious book of meta-literature at best.
VERDICT: A curious book of meta-literature for Flaubert’s fans.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
What would happen if a character, even if only roughly sketched in the mind of a writer, decided to take on a life independent of his creator in order to take revenge against all the other characters that this author had created in his other books?
This is what happens to the legendary writer Gustave Flaubert, when his character Harel-Bey comes to life with a grudge to bear. Even the imaginary characters of books that Monsieur Flaubert has never actually written, but had long pondered and discussed with his most intimate friends, begin to stir with their own motivations.
Quite unexpectedly, Harel-Bey begins a long and difficult journey through the writings of Monsieur Flaubert to try to understand the reasons that induced the writer to write so many books and stories, but never the one that would have had him as leading protagonist. As a vengeful killer, Harel-Bey is determined to murder all of the protagonists of the books and stories Flaubert has written.
In the company of a certain Monsieur Bouvard, himself the star of another book which Flaubert had started but never finished, Harel-Bey seeks his revenge. There’s will be a mission rich in disturbing discoveries, revealing the reasons and the irrationalities of fictionalised reality and unreal fiction.
NB: this is the official synopsis. In the book itself, the character is Harel Bey, not Harel-Bey
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Giuseppe Cafiero is a prolific writer of plays and fiction who has has[sic] produced numerous programs for the Italian-Swiss Radio, Radio Della Svizzera Italiana, and Slovenia’s Radio Capodistria. The author of ten published works focusing on cultural giants from Vincent Van Gogh to Edgar Allan Poe, Cafiero lives in Italy, in the Tuscan countryside.
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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.
I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.