Chapter 8 Summary

The Train-Spotters Guide to Flaubert

The Flaubert family move to Croisset, presumably because it was a more therapeutic location for Gustave after the initial onset of his epilepsy. Their former house at Déville was doomed anyway; it would be soon be demolished for the railway. Gustave's was the first "railroad" generation, but he never liked trains. He called them a misdeed of modern civilization and claimed that train rides made him want to howl with boredom. It was the railway that facilitated his long affair with Louise Colet.

Flaubert had once excised a passage from one of Colet's poems which featured the image of a train's smoke, lined out horizontally on the landscape. He said he didn't like it. Later, however, he included the image of a train's smoke trailing in a horizontal line, resembling a "gigantic ostrich feather" blown back on the wind.

Colet lived in Paris; Flaubert, in Rouen. Mantes was midway. She would plead and cajole, and he would capitulate, and they would meet in Mantes. Her letters came through Du Camp to prevent his mother from finding out about the affair. His mother, nevertheless, was there to meet Flaubert on the Rouen station platform on his return from one of their Mantes rendezvous. She didn't say anything, but Flaubert believed she knew—her face was full of reproach. Colet's reproaches created scenes on the Mantes platform requiring intervention by railway personnel. Braithwaite takes the train to Mantes, observing the signs in different languages—one in French requesting that guests refrain from throwing energy out the windows. Their hotel, the Grand Cerf, is no longer standing. It had been demolished the previous year. Braithwaite finds only two stone gateposts indicating the place where Flaubert and Colet conducted their lovemaking. Waiting for the return train, the disappointed Braithwaite discovers a café called Le Perroquet—the parrot.

Back at Croisset, Braithwaite tours the paper mill that stands where Flaubert's house had stood. The mill makes paper for books, but it is an unsentimental, machine driven place. Flaubert claimed that Pascal had once visited the house, and local legend had it that Abbé Prévost had written Manon Lescaut there before the Flauberts came to occupy it. Braithwaite sullenly remarks that there is no one left to repeat or believe "such fictions." In the distance, Braithwaite sees a train moving toward him, the tracks running two hundred feet from the site of Flaubert's hermitage. He hurries to his car and drives away before the train can pass.