Monday, March 27, 2006

Alphonse Kerr

Alphonse Kerr was a minor, now forgotten, French writer of the 19th century.

Julian Barnes salutes him on two counts. Firstly as the gentleman who gave us the phrase ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’ and secondly for his obscure link to two of the century’s most famous novels on adultery ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Anna Karenina’. By the way, the female ‘a’ at the end of Karenin-a is added or omitted depending on which version of the novel you read and whether the editors approve of the Russian habit of adding ‘a’ to female surnames. Personally I go with it, after all who has ever heard of Kournikov or Navratilov?

Back to Alphonse and the Russian novel Karenin(a). M. Kerr features some eight to ten pages from the end of the book. Prince Sherbatsky quotes him by name:

‘Alphonse Kerr put it very well’ he exclaimed, ‘before the war with Prussia when he wrote: You say the war is absolutely necessary? Very Well! He who advocates war – off with him in a special advance legion to lead the first onslaught, the first attack!’

As for the link to Bovary, he was embroiled in Flaubert’s personal life. Louise Colet (Flaubert’s mistress) stabbed Kerr in the back, though not fatally. Colet had stabbed Kerr because he had insinuated in a newspaper article Colet’s pension and her unborn child (she was 8 months pregnant at the time) were both the responsibility of Victor Cousin, a high government official.

The insinuation was accurate and Kerr did not appear to be unduly upset by the attack. Despite his own injury, he sent the distressed Collet home in a taxicab and he eventually framed the kitchen knife used in the attack with the label “Given to me by Mme Colet….in the back”.

Kerr eventually retired to become a keen flower grower and even if his works are forgotten, he keeps his place in botanical history with a species of bamboo named for him in the name of Bambosa Glaucescens Alphonse Kerr (pictured above).

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