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This item is taken from PN Review 262, Volume 48 Number 2, November - December 2021.

Donne is not alone when he writes, in ‘The Autumnal’,

I hate extremes, yet I had rather stay
With tombs than cradles, to wear out a day.

Writers generally feel comfortable in a necropolis. At least they did when I was younger. There is a sense of permanency if not of presence among the tombs and the eroding words they speak. Death has undone so many, Dante remarks. In Pêre Lachaise, the Isola de San Michele, Hampstead or Bunhill Fields, there is no lack of visitors (historians, critics, Methodists, modernists, tourists, Marxists), hungry for inscriptions, for that intense sense of presence that absence sometimes brings. They deposit a daisy or a rose in Bunyan’s or Baudelaire’s vicinity, picking simples. Keats’s cancelled line, ‘the feel of not to feel it’, comes to mind. If you ‘Go forward beyond the tombs’ – one of Flaubert’s favourite tags from Goethe – you end up in the modern town or city that hems the cemetery in on all sides, or in the lagoon.

Flaubert has a horror of endings. In 1866 he wrote to George Sand, ‘Each one of us carries within himself his necropolis.’ Also to Sand, ‘I am gorged with coffins like an old graveyard!’ But to go beyond the tombs entails going through the graveyard in the first place, not skirting round it. To come to terms with the worn paths, the dead flowers, the chipped inscriptions. We might read Salambô, gorgeous, tedious, exhaustively researched, as a necropolis, or the hilarious graveyard of illusions that is Bouvard et Pécuchet… these necessary preparations, exercises in self-effacement, for the tremendous impersonal labour that went into inventing the present tenses of Madame Bovary and L’Éducation sentimental.

The coffins Flaubert is gorged with contain played-out formal and thematic commonplaces, familiar clichés which he has incorporated into his practice, which first enable and then restrain him. Like habits he has to break. ‘Go forward beyond the tombs.’ Irony is a walking stick.

In the second chapter of Bouvard et Pécuchet, the two eccentric friends in their attempt to connect learning and life conduct their collaborative ‘Experiments in Agriculture’. They design their garden. ‘Pécuchet made several diagrams, while using his mathematical case. Bouvard gave him advice. They arrived at no satisfactory result.’ Having failed to be original, they resort to the pattern books. By fortune, good or bad, they find in their inexhaustible library Boitard’s L’Architecte des Jardins. ‘The author divides [gardens] into a great number of styles,’ including ‘the melancholy and romantic style, which is distinguished by immortelles, ruins, tombs’; the terrible style with cliffs, blasted trees, ruins; the ‘exotic style’, with Peruvian torch-thistles, ‘to arouse memories in a colonist or a traveller’; the grave style with a temple dedicated to philosophy; the ‘majestic style’ with obelisks, triumphal arches; the ‘mysterious style’, mossy and be-grottoed; the ‘dreamy style’ with a lake and other unexpected features. ‘Before this horizon of marvels, Bouvard and Pécuchet experienced a kind of bedazzlement.’ We note how each of the styles pertains to a fashion of cemetery furniture, from the classical to the gothic.

They invest in a faux-Etruscan tomb, sacrificing the asparagus patch to situate it at the heart of things. ‘Four little pine trees at the corners flanked the monument, which was to be surmounted by an urn and enriched by an inscription.’ Alas, ‘In the twilight it looked dreadful. The rockery, like a mountain, covered the entire grass plot; the tomb formed a cube in the midst of spinaches, the Venetian bridge a circumflex over the kidney-beans, and the summer-house beyond a big black spot, for they had burned its straw roof to make it more poetic.’ Bouvard and Pécuchet are enchanted to witness ‘their guests’ astonishment’. Errors of judgement are likened to misplaced punctuation marks, failures of style.

Flaubert knew what he was doing. To George Sand he said: ‘one should not… put one’s personality into the picture. I think that great art is scientific and impersonal. One should, by an effort of mind, put oneself into one’s characters and not create them after oneself. That is the method at least…’ Then he exclaims, ‘How vain are all the poetic theories and criticisms! – and the nerve of the gentlemen who compose them sickens me.’

Writers nowadays – the kind who distrust tombs and cradles -- espouse theories of another kind, that precede the kind of dedicated reading that led to ‘The Autumnal’, Les fleurs du mal or Personae and may even strive to invalidate them on the grounds of contemporary issues strictly irrelevant to their existence (one daren’t say to their composition, because if one returns the finished work to its process one reintroduces what the writer spent great efforts to expel, and excuses the theorist to read the life rather than the work).

Words have intentions and then ‘second intentions’. Some writers compose with the intention and second intention in mind at the same time, producing an explicit and an inferred text. In great works of poetry, fewer of prose, the second intention is just about sufficient: in passages of Christopher Smart, or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore or Wallace Stevens; even, perhaps, of Eliot, in the Sweeney poems and ‘Prufrock’, maybe in ‘The Waste Land’. We might say second intention is elevated above first: how the poem says not what the poem says; or how the poem says is what the poem says. This is not the case with the poetry of some of our voluble necropolis-averse contemporaries who nourish their art on an imagined future rich in relevance and leave the realised past (‘a circumflex over the kidney beans’) well buried. They don’t leave it behind; they have not gone that way.

This item is taken from PN Review 262, Volume 48 Number 2, November - December 2021.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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