Dec 122017
 

Today is the birthday (1821) of Gustave Flaubert a highly influential French novelist who has been considered the leading exponent of literary realism in France. His name was a source of amusement in my household years ago because of a tale told by my late wife. When my wife (DB) was about 3 years old she had this exchange with her mother (EB) who was a French teacher at the time. They were tidying the living room:

EB: Deb, can you hand me Flaubert?

DB: Flo Bear ?????? (Eyes glistening, and voice ecstatic).

Since she told me that tale, I cannot think of Flaubert without imagining a teddy bear in a chequered gingham dress. I am sure he would not be amused – though, maybe he would, given the French/English play on words.

Flaubert was born in Rouen, the second son of Anne Justine Caroline (née Fleuriot; 1793–1872) and Achille-Cléophas Flaubert (1784–1846), director and senior surgeon of the major hospital in Rouen. He began writing at an early age, as early as 8 according to some sources. He was educated at the Lycée Pierre Corneille in Rouen, and did not leave until 1840, when he went to Paris to study law. In Paris, he was an indifferent student and found the city distasteful. He made a few acquaintances, including Victor Hugo. Toward the end of 1840, he traveled in the Pyrenees and Corsica. In 1846, after an attack of epilepsy, he left Paris and abandoned the study of law.

From 1846 to 1854, Flaubert had a relationship with the poet Louise Colet, and his letters to her have survived. It is frequently claimed that this was his only real love affair, and afterwards his relationships with women were either Platonic, or for sex only (usually with prostitutes, that he made no secret of). After leaving Paris, he returned to Croisset, near the Seine, close to Rouen, and lived there for the rest of his life. He did however make occasional visits to Paris and England, where he apparently had a mistress. With his lifelong friend Maxime Du Camp, he traveled in Brittany in 1846. In 1849–50 he went on a long journey to the Middle East, visiting Greece and Egypt. In Beirut he contracted syphilis. He spent five weeks in Istanbul in 1850. He visited Carthage in 1858 to conduct research for his novel Salammbô. Flaubert never married and never had children. His reason for not having children is revealed in a letter he sent to Coulet, dated December 11, 1852. In it he revealed that he was opposed to childbirth, saying he would “transmit to no one the aggravations and the disgrace of existence.”

Flaubert was a tireless worker and often complained in his letters to friends about the strenuous nature of his work. He was close to his niece, Caroline Commanville, and had a close friendship and correspondence with George Sand. He occasionally visited Parisian acquaintances, including Émile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Ivan Turgenev, and Edmond and Jules de Goncourt.

Prussian soldiers occupied Flaubert’s house during the War of 1870, and his mother died in 1872. After her death, he fell into financial difficulty. His health declined, and he died at Croisset of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1880 at the age of 58. He was buried in the family vault in the cemetery of Rouen.

Flaubert famously avoided the inexact, the abstract, the vaguely inapt expression, and scrupulously eschewed the cliché. In a letter to George Sand he said that he spends his time “trying to write harmonious sentences, avoiding assonances.” Flaubert believed in, and pursued, the principle of finding “le mot juste” (“the right word”), which he considered as the key means to achieve quality in literary art. He worked in sullen solitude—sometimes occupying a week in the completion of one page—never satisfied with what he had written

In Flaubert’s correspondence he intimates this, explaining correct prose did not flow out of him and that his style was achieved through hard work and constant revision. Flaubert’s output over a lifetime was minuscule in comparison with his contemporaries, such as Balzac or Zola. Walter Pater famously called Flaubert the “martyr of style.”

Here’s some pithy quotes:

Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.

Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.

Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.

At the bottom of her heart, however, she [Madame Bovary] was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.”

Are the days of winter sunshine just as sad for you, too? When it is misty, in the evenings, and I am out walking by myself, it seems to me that the rain is falling through my heart and causing it to crumble into ruins.

One can be the master of what one does, but never of what one feels.

Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers.

Doubt … is an illness that comes from knowledge and leads to madness.

I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.

It’s hard to communicate anything exactly and that’s why perfect relationships between people are difficult to find.

The last quote leads directly to my recipe du jour. Flaubert was very good friends with George Sand who held frequent dinner parties in the 1860s and 70s with guests like Balzac, Dumas, Delacroix and Chopin. But Flaubert was her favorite dinner guest for a number or reasons, and they wrote quite often to one another about food. Sand had a number of digestive problems as did Flaubert, which they corresponded about . She wrote, “In giving up trying to eat REAL MEAT, I have found again a strong stomach . . . I drink cider with enthusiasm, no more champagne! … I live on sour wine and galette.” Guy de Maupassant observed of Flaubert, “Almost never did he eat meat; only eggs, vegetables, a piece of cheese, fruit and a cup of cold chocolate, finding that too much nourishment made him heavy and unfit for work.” Sand wrote to Flaubert often about her meals, and they frequently planned meals together. Once she wrote, “I lunch on two eggs made into an omelet or shirred, and a cup of coffee.”  Flaubert wrote, “I don’t like to eat alone. I have to associate the idea of someone with the things that please me. But this someone is rare. What is certain is that I experience a particular sentiment for you and I cannot define it.”

Christiane Sand, descendant of George Sand, collaborated with Pascal Pringarbe and Muriel Lacroix to produce À la table de George Sand, which they believe reflect recipes for dishes she prepared for family and guests even though we have no direct knowledge of her actual recipes, and not much to go on concerning what she actually cooked. She does say that she loved galettes, and this is the recipe (in translation and slightly emended) from the book. Fromage blanc is a creamy soft cheese made with whole or skimmed milk and cream. It is similar to some kinds of quark. It has the consistency of cream cheese, but contains much less fat. Pure fromage blanc is virtually fat free. Boiling the potatoes for only 10 minutes, hoping they will be soft enough to mash is ridiculous. Allow 20 minutes, and test after that time.

Potato Galette

Ingredients

2 cups flour
1 egg (plus extra for egg wash)
4 oz butter, cut into small cubes
1½ lb potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
½ cup fromage blanc
½ cup grated gruyère
salt and pepper
1 tbsp fresh thyme or sage, chopped

Instructions

  1. On a clean surface, make the flour into a mound with a well in the center. Crack 1 egg into the well, along with a pinch of salt and 1 cup of cold water. Knead the dough until smooth, and let sit for 2 hours.
  2. Put a large covered pot of water on medium-high heat. When the water is boiling, add the potatoes and cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Mash with a potato masher, then run through a fine sieve or potato ricer. Put in a large bowl with fromage blanc and gruyère, mixing well to combine. Season generously with thyme, salt and pepper.
  3. While the potatoes cook, roll the dough to ¼-inch thick. Cover half the dough with ¼ of the butter cubes, then fold in half and roll out to the same thickness. Repeat with the remaining butter, then chill in the freezer 30 minutes. [I presume “repeat” means that you do this a total of 4 times].
  4. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut the dough into two 10-inch circles. Spread the potato mixture on one circle, leaving a ½-inch border, then cover with the second circle, crimping the edges closed.
  5. Lightly beat the remaining egg in a small bowl and brush over the top of the galette. Bake 30 minutes, until the pastry is golden and the potato is cooked.
Aug 052015
 

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Today is the birthday (1850) of Henri-René-Albert-Guy de Maupassant. He was born at the Château de Miromesnil near Dieppe in the Seine-Inférieure (now Seine-Maritime) department in France. He was the first son of Laure Le Poittevin and Gustave de Maupassant, both from prosperous bourgeois families. When Maupassant was 11 and his brother Hervé was five, his mother risked social disgrace to obtain a legal separation from her husband.

After the separation, Laure Le Poittevin kept custody of her two sons. With his father’s absence, Maupassant’s mother became the most influential figure in his life. She was an exceptionally well-read woman and was very fond of classical literature, particularly Shakespeare. Until the age of thirteen, Guy happily lived with his mother, at Étretat, in the Villa des Verguies, where he grew very fond of fishing and outdoor activities. At age thirteen, his mother placed Maupassant and his brother as day boarders in a private school, the Institution Leroy-Petit, in Rouen. From this early formal education he retained a marked hostility to religion, and to judge from verses composed around this time he deplored the ecclesiastical atmosphere, its ritual and discipline. Finding the place to be unbearable, he finally got himself expelled in his next-to-last year. [Note to self: one day write a post on all brilliant people who thought it a smart move to get expelled from school.]

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In 1867 Maupassant met Gustave Flaubert through his mother. Next year, in autumn, he was sent to the Lycée Pierre-Corneille in Rouen where he proved to be a good scholar, writing poetry and taking a prominent part in theatricals. In October 1868, at the age of 18, he saved the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne from drowning off the coast of Étretat

The Franco-Prussian War broke out soon after his graduation from college in 1870; he enlisted as a volunteer. Many of his short stories take place in the context of that war. In 1871, he left Normandy and moved to Paris where he spent ten years as a clerk in the Navy Department. During this time his only recreation and relaxation was boating on the Seine on Sundays and holidays.

Flaubert took him under his protection and acted as a kind of literary guardian to him, guiding his debut in journalism and literature. At Flaubert’s home he met Émile Zola and the Russian novelist and playwright Ivan Turgenev, as well as many of the proponents of the realist and naturalist schools. He wrote and played himself in a comedy in 1875 (with the benediction of Flaubert), “À la feuille de rose, maison turque.” In 1878, he was transferred to the Ministry of Public Instruction and became a contributing editor to several leading newspapers such as Le Figaro, Gil Blas, Le Gaulois and l’Écho de Paris. He devoted his spare time to writing novels and short stories.

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In 1880 he published what is considered his first masterpiece, “Boule de Suif”, which met with instant and tremendous success. Flaubert characterized it as “a masterpiece that will endure.” This was Maupassant’s first piece of short fiction set during the Franco-Prussian War, and was followed by short stories such as “Deux Amis”, “Mother Savage”, and “Mademoiselle Fifi”. The decade from 1880 to 1891 was the most fertile period of Maupassant’s life. Made famous by his first short story, he worked methodically and produced two or sometimes four volumes annually. His talent and practical business sense made him rich.

In 1881 he published his first volume of short stories under the title of La Maison Tellier; it reached its 12th edition within two years. In 1883 he finished his first novel, Une Vie (translated into English as A Woman’s Life), 25,000 copies of which were sold in less than a year. His second novel Bel Ami, which came out in 1885, had 37 printings in four months. His editor, Havard, commissioned him to write more stories, and Maupassant continued to produce them efficiently and frequently. At this time he wrote what many consider to be his greatest novel, Pierre et Jean.

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With a natural aversion to society, he loved retirement, solitude, and meditation. He traveled extensively in Algeria, Italy, England, Brittany, Sicily, Auvergne, and from each voyage brought back a new volume. He cruised on his private yacht Bel-Ami, named after his novel. This life did not prevent him from making friends among the literary celebrities of his day: Alexandre Dumas, fils had a paternal affection for him; at Aix-les-Bains he met Hippolyte Taine and became devoted to the philosopher-historian.

Maupassant was one of a number of 19th-century Parisians, including Charles Gounod, Alexandre Dumas, fils, and Charles Garnier, who did not care for the Eiffel Tower. He often ate lunch in the restaurant at its base, not out of preference for the food but because it was only there that he could avoid seeing its otherwise unavoidable profile. He and 46 other Parisian literary and artistic notables attached their names to an elaborately irate letter of protest against the tower’s construction, written to the Minister of Public Works.

In his later years he developed a constant desire for solitude, an obsession for self-preservation, and a fear of death and paranoia of persecution perhaps attributable to the syphilis he had contracted in his youth. On January 2, 1892, Maupassant tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat, and was committed to the private asylum of Esprit Blanche at Passy, in Paris, where he died on July 6, 1893. His epitaph was of his own writing: “I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing.” He is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

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Maupassant is considered one of the founders of the modern short story. He delighted in clever plotting, and served as a model for Somerset Maugham and O. Henry in this respect. One of his famous short stories, “The Necklace”, was imitated with a twist by both Maugham (“Mr Know-All”, “A String of Beads”) and Henry James (“Paste”).

Taking his cue from Balzac, Maupassant wrote comfortably in both the high-Realist and fantasy modes; stories and novels such as “L’Héritage” and Bel-Ami aim to recreate Third Republic France in a realistic way, whereas many of the short stories (notably “Le Horla” and “Qui sait?”) describe apparently supernatural phenomena. The supernatural in Maupassant, however, is often implicitly a symptom of the protagonists’ troubled minds; Maupassant was fascinated by the growing discipline of psychiatry, and attended the public lectures of Jean-Martin Charcot between 1885 and 1886.

Some poignant quotes:

It is better to be unhappy in love than unhappy in marriage, but some people manage to be both.

Life is a slope. As long as you’re going up you’re always looking towards the top and you feel happy, but when you reach it, suddenly you can see the road going downhill and death at the end of it all. It’s slow going up and quick going down.

She realized for the first time that two people can never reach each others deepest feelings and instincts, that they spend their lives side by side, linked it may be, but not mingled, and that each one’s inmost being must go through life eternally alone.

Patriotism is a kind of religion; it is the egg from which wars are hatched.

Great minds that are healthy are never considered geniuses, while this sublime qualification is lavished on brains that are often inferior but are slightly touched by madness.

The secret is not to betray your ignorance. Just maneuver, avoid the quicksands and obstacles, and the rest can be found in a dictionary.

The complete short stories (in English)  can be found here:

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3090/3090-h/3090-h.htm

A quick search revealed to me that chicken gets mentioned a great deal in Maupassant’s short stories, but nowhere more prominently than in “Boule de Suif” where the title character shares her picnic basket containing, among other goodies, a cold chicken coated with aspic. This is easy enough to make.

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Cold Chicken in Aspic

Place a whole chicken (1½ to 2 Kg) in a stock pot that holds it snugly. Cover with chicken stock. Bring slowly to a simmer. Skim the scum as it rises.

Add in a whole unpeeled onion quartered, a large carrot, scrubbed, topped and tailed, a large leek, cleaned and cut in 2-3 pieces, salt and pepper to taste, and a handful of finely chopped fresh parsley.

Partly cover and simmer for an hour.

Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature, then chill overnight in the refrigerator.

In the morning remove the congealed chicken fat from the surface and reserve for other uses.

The stock will have solidified to a light flavorful aspic. Take the chicken out of the aspic leaving some to cling to the chicken. Reserve the remaining aspic as stock.

The chicken can easily be jointed and the breast meat sliced for sandwiches, a meat platter, or what you will.