Bonin on Glatigny, ed. (2017)


Glatigny, Sandra, editor. Flaubert dans la ville: images et textes. PU de Rouen et du Havre, 2017, pp. 192, ISBN 979-10-240-0743-4

Kate M. Bonin, Arcadia University 

In its original form, Flaubert dans la ville was a series of art installations, expositions, guided tours, studies, and talks given by authors and scholars whose objective was to re-contextualize Flaubert and his works within the city of his birth as part of a joint venture between the city of Rouen and the Université de Rouen Normandie spanning five months of the year 2015: to “valoriser les richesses scientifiques et patrimoniales locales par la médiatisation artistique et numérique” (15). Interdisciplinarity and rapprochement are clear themes of this project. Its creators aimed to bring together nineteenth-century texts and modern visual art. Aiming to appeal to both connoisseurs and neophytes—to “towns and gowns” (the contributor Tony Gheeraert uses this expression in English, 11)—the event invited Rouennais, attendees, and participants to think about the city and the author in new ways, while also reflecting more generally about the place of art in contemporary society. 

The first half of the book documents the installations created by seven artists (or art collectives) to interact creatively with Flaubert and his works. Their pieces were dotted throughout the city: some in commemorative sites (such as the entrance to the Musée Flaubert, or a window of the house at Croisset) and some seemingly placed at random. The book includes both finished photos and “making-of” shots; there is clearly an effort to document the passage of time and process, perhaps in an effort to recreate for the reader how it might have felt for inhabitants of Rouen to see their city transform day-by-day. The art installations vary in media, objective, and quality. Among the most beautiful is a reverse-graffiti painting (“pochoir en couleurs”) by the collective NiceArt representing Flaubert with a gorgeously colored parrot, Loulou (52). Among the wittiest is a discreet plaque installed in the Esplanade Marcel Duchamp by Damien Dauge (63), which reads: “Ici Emma Bovary n’a jamais pris de leçon de piano” (altogether true in a “ceci-n’est-pas-une-pipe” kind of way). Passers-by might walk under a tree hung with linen-rag “Masques protecteurs d’humeurs” (Jennifer Mackay, 44), or contemplate Jason Karaïndros’s questioning of Flaubert’s famous phrase “de la forme naît l’idée,” painted in larger-than-life all-caps format, at the foot of the Pont Gustave-Flaubert (57). A QR code next to the installations allowed viewers with smartphones to access further information about each piece. The same code is included on page seventeen of the book, allowing the project to extend beyond its end-date, while also recalling the original aim: to get Flaubert “off the page.” 

Also prolonging Flaubert dans la ville beyond the limits of the five-month exhibit/event are descriptions of some of the artists’ rejected proposals. For example, certain graffiti projects were prohibited, for fear of encouraging “rogue tags” to spring up, while the city of Rouen’s refusal to allow Karaïndros to place the definition of “érection” (Dictionnaire des idées reçues) next to the Pont Gustave-Flaubert suggests that the too-carefully-curated image that the city wished to project of its most famous author is not altogether true to the sometimes scabrous original. Moreover, the “dialogue intersémiotique” (80) between artists and author tended to privilege certain of Flaubert’s texts or aspects of his life over others. Of the seven artists, six worked with Flaubert’s biography (including portraits of Flaubert, his friend Louis Bouilhet, etc.) or his correspondence; five with Madame Bovary; four with Bouvard et Pécuchet; there were three Loulou installations, but only one citation each of Salammbô and L’Éducation sentimentale. Though the goal of Flaubert dans la ville was to make city-dwellers think about Flaubert in new ways, the texts chosen to bring about this re-thinking were (not surprisingly) among the most familiar. 

The second half of Flaubert dans la ville transcribes eight papers delivered at the conference which inaugurated the city-wide event in April 2015. The subject of the colloquium was “Flaubert dans les œuvres des écrivains modernes et contemporains.” The essays run the gamut from formal academic presentations to disorganized musings, while the content ranges equally widely. There are essays on the Italian lyric poet Antonia Pozzi; on Chinese interpretations of Madame Bovary over three centuries; there are papers devoted to Julian Barnes and Olivier Frébourg, among others. Nineteenth-century literary historians will not find much of direct use to their own research here (although Véronique Samson’s hypothesized intertextuality between Beckett and Flaubert does include some interesting ways to think about narrative constructions of time versus Félicité’s lived experience in “Un cœur simple”). 

Although interdisciplinarity and accessibility (“des dialogues fructueux” promises the book jacket) were the aims of the original Flaubert dans la villproject, one is left wondering who will get most use out of this hodgepodge book. The two halves of the print version seem uneasily stitched together. A number of American libraries opt to classify the book under the Library of Congress’s heading “Fine Arts” (LOC subclassification number N8215), which arguably anticipates the book’s appeal to one readership over others. Yet the book also directs readers to the Université de Rouen’s online Centre Flaubert, directed by Yvan Leclerc. This website allows free access to digitized copies of Flaubert’s correspondence, as well as rough-draft and manuscript versions of Bouvard et Pécuchet and Madame Bovary. It is this digital resource which may prove more useful to Flaubert scholars than other parts of Flaubert dans la ville, however curious and fun the 2015 events must have been. Moreover, for those of us who missed the original happening, Yvan Leclerc promises that there are even bigger plans in store for the upcoming celebration of the bicentenary of Flaubert’s birth. In short, Flaubert dans la ville points forward to 2021 as well as back to 2015; the limitations of its pages direct the reader outward: to the web, to the city. In short, it is a book whose success lies in constantly inviting readers to look past itself.