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Tommaso Landolfi wrote that Flaubert, speaking about Pushkin, told to Ivan Turgenev: "Il est plat, votre poète." What are the sources?

(plat, per Dictionnaire Le Robert, figuratively refers to something "sans caractère saillant ni qualité frappante," i.e., something that lacks meaningful character or striking qualities.)

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  • Given how dull Pushkin is, it has inherent plausibility :) Commented Apr 29 at 20:52

4 Answers 4

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Thanks to CDR's answer I was able to find the original source. It is the article Воспоминанія объ И. С. Тургеневѣ (Recollections of I.S. Turgenev) by Nikolaj Vasil'evič Berg, in issue 14 of the periodical Istoričeskij vestnik, pp. 366–377, written 29 September 1883 and published in October 1883. The relevant passage is on page 376 and is nearly identical to the passage in Květy quoted by CDR. It makes no reference to Flaubert, only to "one of [Turgenev's] friends, an intelligent and sharp-witted Frenchman". It is introduced as follows:

Бывши въ Парижѣ на выставкѣ 1878 года, пишущій эти строки, встрѣтился съ Тургеневымъ, какъ старый его знакомый, и спросилъ у него между прочимъ: «доволенъ-ли он Парижемъ? Все-ли онъ тамъ находитъ, что нужно русскому образованому человѣку? Не скучно ли временами по Россіи?» Иванъ Сергѣевичъ отвѣчалъ: […]

Having gone to Paris for the Exposition of 1878, the writer of these lines encountered Turgenev, as an old acquaintance of his, and asked him among other things, whether he is satisfied with Paris? Whether he finds there everything that an educated Russian person needs? If he does not at times miss Russia? Ivan Sergeevič [Turgenev] answered: […]

If I understand this correctly, then Berg is recounting the anecdote as a personal recollection of something he heard from Turgenev himself. This somewhat contradicts the description in P. Durdík's article in Květy, which seems to imply that Berg heard the story second hand from a mutual acquaintance. I agree it is plausible that the Frenchman could have been Flaubert, as he is known to have been a close friend of Turgenev (discussed also by Durdík).

Aside: As for why N.V. Berg is cited as "Prof. M. Berg" in Květy, this might be intentional if the author chose to abbreviate Mikuláš, the Czech form of Nikolaj. At the time such translations of names were common in Czech writing.

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  • 3
    Great first answer, and welcome to Literature.SE. I hope you stick around!
    – CDR
    Commented Apr 27 at 13:58
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    I upvoted all the answers because they were all useful and relevant but I accept this one since it seems to give the original source. A very small detail: instead of "pp. 366–376" it should be "pp. 366–377".
    – Bruno
    Commented Apr 27 at 14:21
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    Thanks, I've corrected the page number.
    – David
    Commented Apr 27 at 15:27
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Early sources such as this 1896 biography cite "Istorič. Věstník 1883 p. 376" by one Prof. M. Berg. as their source for this anecdote, but they don't specify that Flaubert made the remark, and I haven't been able to track Berg's book down.

The earliest source I could find, Květy (1891), says the following, translated from pages 617/18:

Prof. M. Berg (Istorič. Věstník 1883 p. 376) says that in 1878 a good acquaintance of his asked Turgenev in Paris if one could find in France all that an educated Russian needed, if he did not wish to be in Russia for some time.

Turgenev answered something like this: [...] "Russia and Russians are something quite special, for no one understands us properly, least of all the French. I live here in the circles of a higher intelligence, which cannot see beyond its nose. The French do not understand what is beautiful and brilliant about other peoples. There are almost no English, German, or Wallachian spirits for the French. I'm not even talking about us [Russians specifically] anymore ... Only what's French is perfect for them. I once went to explain to one of my friends—he was a very sensible and sharp-eyed Frenchman—about the beauty of one of Pushkin's poems, which in my opinion is a wonderful pearl of poetry and perfect in every respect. The Frenchman heard me and said: 'c'est plat, mon cher!' (That's crude, my dear.)"

Another early source is Two Russian Reformers: Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy (1911), which appears to be translating from the same sources:

So far as his own work was concerned Turgenev had no belief in the expressions of French admiration. Nor did he believe that they appreciated the national genius of his country. "The French," he wrote once, "recognise no originality whatever in other peoples. The genius of England, of Germany, of Italy, is a dead letter or almost a dead letter to them; as for my own country, do not let us speak of it! Apart from their own affairs, they are interested in nothing, they know nothing." [...] And he quotes, as though once and for ever to sum up the French standpoint towards Russian literature, the comment of a very distinguished Frenchman upon one of the masterpieces of Pushkin: "C'est plat, mon cher!"

Thus here, too, all we learn for certain is that the comment was made by a "distinguished Frenchman."

Turgenev was certainly on close terms with the French, and seemingly most of all with Flaubert; one early source notes that he was "intimate with French literary circles—with Mérimée, Flaubert, and the young naturalists." Per volume 116 of The Fortnightly, Flaubert and Turgenev were very close. Apart from Turgenev, Flaubert said, "I do not know a human being with whom I can talk over things which I have really at heart"; Turgenev, for his part, went to Paris to meet "Flaubert, whom I love much." It's not unimaginable that Flaubert was the dismissive Frenchman.

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  • Thank you very much! Is there not a mistake in the link for "this 1896 biography"? The current link is the same one as for "Květy" (1891).
    – Bruno
    Commented Apr 26 at 22:00
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    @Bruno - I've fixed it now! Thanks for pointing it out.
    – CDR
    Commented Apr 26 at 22:05
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The earliest occurrence of this phrase that I was able to find attributed to Flaubert is in the foreword to Emile Haumant’s study of Pushkin:

Nous savons de Pouchkine, par Mickiéwicz, qu’il tourne «autour du soleil-Byron»; par Mérimée, qu’il est le dernier des Grecs; par Georges Brandès, que sa poésie sent le nègre; par Melchior de Vogüé, qu’il appartient à l’humanité tout entière. Cependant les Russes le réclament pour leur pays. Cette esquisse montrera ce qu’il n’est pas: ce qu’il est n’en ressortira peut-être pas aussi nettement. Il est difficile, en effet, de bien rendre le charme de ses vers. «Il est plat, votre poète!» disait Flaubert à Tourguénief qui le lui traduisait. Pourquoi ce mot ne m’a-t-il pas empêché d’écrire ce livre? C’est sans doute qu’on ne peut supporter, quand on aime Pouchkine, de le voir laissé dans l’ombre, derrière d’autres Russes moins faits pour notre admiration. Et puis, il est permis d’espérer en des lecteurs plus patients que Flaubert.

Of Pushkin we know, from Mickiewicz, that he revolves “around the Byron-sun”; from Mérimée, that he is the last of the Greeks; from Georges Brandès, that his poetry smells of the negro; from Melchior de Vogüé, that he belongs to the whole of humanity. However, the Russians claim him for their own country. This sketch will show what he isn’t: what he is will perhaps not emerge so neatly. It is difficult, you see, to properly convey the charm of his verse. “He is flat, your poet!” said Flaubert to Turgenev who translated Pushkin for him. Why didn’t that word prevent me from writing this book? It’s doubtless because one cannot bear, when one loves Pushkin, to see him left in the shadows, behind the other Russians less deserving of our admiration. And after all, one can hope for more patient readers than Flaubert.

Emile Haumant (1911). Pouchkine, p. 9. Paris: Bloud.

Haumant does not give a citation. I looked at Flaubert’s published correspondance and at Barbara Beaumont’s 1985 English translation of Flaubert’s 1863–1880 correspondance with Turgenev, and could not find the remark. I also looked at many subsequent works which quoted Flaubert’s comment, but none gives a reference (not even one to Haumant).

The introduction by John Bayley to the 1998 Penguin Classics edition of Tales of Belkin says that it was Mérimée who translated Pushkin for Flaubert, not Turgenev (p. vii), but again without reference. I checked Mérimée’s study of Pushkin but there is no mention of Flaubert.

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This is something that has been repeated at least since Émile Haumant wrote the following in the preface of his Poushkine (1911):

« Il est plat, votre poète ! » disait Flaubert à Tourguénief qui le lui traduisait.

D. S. Mirsky quotes the phrase in the bibliography section of Pushkin (1926), probably taking it from Haumant, whose book is referenced on the same page:

Turgenev did much propaganda for Pushkin among his French literary friends. He did not succeed in converting the hardened romanticist Flaubert, who found Pushkin flat (“Il est plat, votre poète”).

Mirsky’s book has in turn been cited by many over the years as a source for the quote.

It is unclear, however, whether Flaubert actually said, or wrote, anything resembling this. More authoritative sources than those above don't seem to exist. The quote is sometimes reported as being contained in one of Flaubert's letters to Turgenev, but as far as I can tell, it does not appear in either French- or English-language editions of the correspondence between the two.

A reasonable conclusion, therefore, is that the quote is an apocryphal one.

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    Alternatively, the quote could be folklore based on a real incident. We know that Turgenev and Flaubert met in Paris. See for example, Edmond Goncourt, Journal, vol. 5, p. 30 which describes a dinner-party at which both writers were present and Pushkin was discussed. Commented Apr 27 at 7:27

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