Flaubert's Parrot Julian Barnes


PART II Trace the mellowing of Flaubert's attitude towards critics and criticism as represented by the following quotations



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PART II

Trace the mellowing of Flaubert's attitude towards critics and criticism as represented by the following quotations:


a) 'These are the truly stupid things: 1) literary criticism, whatever it may be, good or bad; 2) the Temperance Society…'

—Intimate Notebook


b) 'There is something so essentially grotesque about gendarmes that I cannot help laughing at them; these upholders of the law always produce the same comic effect on me as do attorneys, magistrates and professors of literature.'

—Over Strand and Field


c) 'You can calculate the worth of a man by the number of his enemies, and the importance of a work of art by the amount that it is attacked. Critics are like fleas: they love clean linen and adore any form of lace.'

—Letter to Louise Colet, June 14th, 1853


d) 'Criticism occupies the lowest rung in the hierarchy of literature: as regards form, almost always, and as regards moral worth, incontestably. It's lower even than rhyming games and acrostics, which at least demand a modicum of invention.'

—Letter to Louise Colet, June 28th, 1853


e) 'Critics! Eternal mediocrity living off genius by denigrating and exploiting it! Race of cockchafers slashing the finest pages of art to shreds! I'm so fed up with typography and the misuse people make of it that if the Emperor were to abolish all printing tomorrow, I should walk all the way to Paris on my knees and kiss his arse in gratitude.'

—Letter to Louise Colet, July 2nd, 1853


f) 'How rare a sense of literature is! You'd think that a knowledge of languages, archaeology, history, and so on, would help. But not a bit of it! Supposedly educated people are becoming more and more inept when dealing with art. Even what art is escapes them. They find the annotations more interesting than the text. They set more store by the crutches than the legs.'

—Letter to George Sand, January 1st, 1869


g) 'How rare it is to see a critic who knows what he's talking about.'

—Letter to Eugène Fromentin, July 19th, 1876


h) 'Disgusted with the old style of criticism, they sought acquaintance with the new, and sent for theatre reviews from the newspapers. What assurance! What obstinacy! What lack of integrity! Masterpieces insulted and platitudes revered! The blunders of the supposed scholars and the stupidity of the supposed wits!'

—Bouvard et Pécuchet


SECTION B

Economics

Flaubert and Bouilhet went to the same school; they shared the same ideas and the same whores; they had the same aesthetic principles, and similar literary ambitions; each tried the theatre as his second genre. Flaubert called Bouilhet 'my left testicle'. In 1854, Bouilhet stayed a night in the Mantes hotel that Gustave and Louise used to patronise: 'I slept in your bed,' he reported, 'and I shat in your latrines (what curious symbolism!).' The poet always had to work for a living; the novelist never had to. Consider the probable effect on their writings and reputations if their finances had been reversed.
Geography

'No more soporific atmosphere than that of this region. I suspect that it contributed greatly to the slowness and difficulty with which Flaubert worked. When he thought he was struggling against words, he was struggling against the sky; and perhaps in another climate, the dryness of the air exalting his spirits, he might have been less exigent, or have obtained his results without such efforts' (Gide, writing at Cuverville, Seine-Maritime, January 26th, 1931). Discuss.


Logic (with Medicine)

a) Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, jousting with his younger son, asked him to explain what literature was for. Gustave, turning the question back on his surgeon father, asked him to explain what the spleen was for: 'You know nothing about it, and neither do I, except that it is as indispensable to our bodily organism as poetry is to our mental organism.' Dr Flaubert was defeated.


b) The spleen consists of units of lymphoid tissue (or white pulp) plus the vascular network (or red pulp). It is important in removing from the blood old or injured red cells. It is active in producing antibodies: splenectomised individuals produce less antibody. There is evidence that a tetrapeptide called tuftsin is derived from protein produced in the spleen. Though its removal, especially in childhood, increases the chances of meningitis and septicaemia, the spleen is no longer regarded as an essential organ: it can be removed without significant loss of active behaviour in the individual.
What do you conclude from this?
Biography (with Ethics)

Maxime du Camp composed the following epitaph for Louise Colet: 'She who lies here compromised Victor Cousin, ridiculed Alfred de Musset, reviled Gustave Flaubert, and tried to assassinate Alphonse Karr. Requiescat in pace.' Du Camp published this epitaph in his Souvenirs litteraires. Who comes out of it better: Louise Colet or Maxime du Camp?


Psychology

E1 was born in 1855.

E2 was partly born in 1855.

E1 had an unclouded childhood but emerged into adulthood inclined to nervous crisis.

E2 had an unclouded childhood but emerged into adulthood inclined to nervous crisis.

E 1 led a life of sexual irregularity in the eyes of right-thinking people.

E2 led a life of sexual irregularity in the eyes of right-thinking people.

E1 imagined herself to be in financial difficulties.

E2 knew herself to be in financial difficulties.

E1 committed suicide by swallowing prussic acid.

E2 committed suicide by swallowing arsenic.

E1 was Eleanor Marx.

E2 was Emma Bovary.

The first English translation of Madame Bovary to be published was by Eleanor Marx.


Discuss.
Psychoanalysis

Speculate on the significance of this dream, noted down by Flaubert at Lamalgue in 1845: 'I dreamed that I was out walking with my mother in a great forest filled with monkeys. The further we walked, the more of them there were. They were laughing and leaping about in the branches of the trees. There were more and more of them; they got bigger and bigger; they were getting in our way. They kept looking at me, and I became frightened. They surrounded us in a big circle: one of them wanted to stroke me, and took my hand. I shot him in the shoulder with my rifle, and made him bleed; he started howling horribly. Then my mother said to me: "Why did you injure him, he's your friend. What's he done to you? Can't you see that he loves you? And that he looks just like you!" The monkey was looking at me. I felt my soul being torn apart and I woke up…feeling as if I was at one with the animals, and fraternising with them in a tender, pantheistic communion.'


Philately

Gustave Flaubert appeared on a French stamp (denomination 8F + 2F) in 1952. It is an indifferent portrait 'after E. Giraud' in which the novelist—slightly Chinese in physiognomy—has been uncharacteristically awarded a modern shirt-collar and tie. The stamp is the lowest denomination in a series issued in aid of the National Relief Fund: the higher denominations celebrate (in ascending order) Manet, Saint-Saens, Poincaré, Haussmann and Thiers.


Ronsard was the first French writer to appear on a stamp. Victor Hugo figured on three separate stamps between 1933 and 1936, once in a series issued in aid of the Unemployed Intellectuals' Relief Fund. Anatole France's portrait helped this charity in 1937; Balzac's in 1939. Daudet's mill got on a stamp in 1936. Pétainist France celebrated Frédéric Mistral (1941) and Stendhal (1942). Saint-Exupéry, Lamartine and Châteaubriand appeared in 1948; Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud in the decadent rush of 1951. The latter year also brought stamp-collectors Alfred de Musset, who had succeeded Flaubert in Louise Colet's bed,but now preceded him by one year onto the public envelope.
a) Should we feel slighted on Flaubert's behalf? And if so, should we feel more, or less, slighted on behalf of Michelet (1953), Nerval (1955), George Sand (19S7), Vigny (1963), Proust (1966), Zola (1967), Sainte-Beuve (1969), Merimee and Dumas père (1970), or Gautier (1972)?
b) Estimate the chances of either Louis Bouilhet or Maxime du Camp or Louise Colet appearing on a French stamp.
Phonetics

a) The co-proprietor of the Hôtel du Nil, Cairo, where Flaubert stayed in 185o, was called Bouvaret. The protagonist of his first novel is called Bovary; the co-protagonist of his last novel is called Bouvard. In his play Le Candidat there is a Comte de Bouvigny; in his play Le Château des coeurs there is a Bouvignard. Is this all deliberate?


b) Flaubert's name was first misprinted by the Revue de Paris as Faubert. There was a grocer in the rue Richelieu called Faubet. When La Presse reported the trial of Madame Bovary, they called its author Foubert. Martine, George Sand's femme de confiance, called him Flambart. Camille Rogier, the painter who lived in Beirut, called him Folbert: 'Do you get the subtlety of the joke?' Gustave wrote to his mother. (What is the joke? Presumably a dual-language rendering of the novelist's self-image: Rogier was calling him Crazy Bear.) Bouilhet also started calling him Folbert. In Mantes, where he used to meet Louise, there was a Cafe Flambert. Is this all coincidence?
c) According to Du Camp, the name Bovary should be pronounced with a short o (as in bother). Should we follow his instruction; and if so, why?
Theatrical History

Assess the technical difficulties involved in implementing the following stage direction (Le Château des coeurs, Act VI, scene viii):


The Stock-Pot, the handles of which have been transformed into wings, rises into the air and turns itself over, and while it increases in size so that it appears to hover over the whole town, the vegetables—carrots, turnips and leeks—that come out of it remain suspended in the air and turn into luminous constellations.
History (with Astrology)

Consider the following predictions of Gustave Flaubert:


a) (185o) 'It seems to me almost impossible that before very long England won't take control of Egypt. Aden is already full of her troops. It couldn't be easier: just across Suez, and one fine morning Cairo will be full of redcoats. The news will reach France a couple of weeks later and we'll all be very surprised! Remember my prediction.'
b) (1852) 'As humanity perfects itself, man becomes degraded. When everything is reduced to the mere counter-balancing of economic interests, what room will there be for virtue? When Nature has been so subjugated that she has lost all her original forms, where will that leave the plastic arts? And so on. In the mean time, things are going to get very murky.'
c) (1870, on the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war) 'It will mean the return of racial conflicts. Before a century has passed we'll see millions of men killed in a single go. The East against the West, the old world against the new. Why not?'
d) (1850) 'From time to time, I open a newspaper. Things seem to be proceeding at a dizzy rate. We are dancing not on the edge of a volcano, but on the wooden seat ofa latrine, and it seems to me more than a touch rotten. Soon society will go plummeting down and drown in nineteen centuries of shit. There'll be quite a lot of shouting.'
e) (1871) 'The Internationals are the Jesuits of the future.'
15: And the Parrot…

And the parrot? Well, it took me almost two years to solve the Case of the Stuffed Parrot. The letters I had written after first returning from Rouen produced nothing useful; some of them weren't even answered. Anyone would have thought I was a crank, a senile amateur scholar hooked-on trivia and pathetically trying to make a name for himself. Whereas in fact the young are much crankier than the old—far more egotistical, self-destructive and even plain bloody odd. It's just that they get a more indulgent press. When someone of eighty, or seventy, or fifty-four commits suicide, it's called softening of the brain, post-menopausal depression, or a final swipe of mean vanity designed to make others feel guilty. When someone of twenty commits suicide, it's called a high-minded refusal to accept the paltry terms on which life is offered, an act not just of courage but of moral and social revolt. Living? The old can do that for us. Pure crankery, of course. I speak as a doctor.


And while we're on the subject, I should say that the notion of Flaubert killing himself is pure crankery as well. The crankery of a single man: a Rouennais called Edmond Ledoux. This fantasist crops up twice in Flaubert's biography; each time all he does is spread gossip. His first unwelcome utterance is the assertion that Flaubert actually became engaged to Juliet Herbert. Ledoux claimed to have seen a copy of La Tentation de saint Antoine inscribed by Gustave to Juliet with the words 'A ma fiancée'. Odd that he saw it in Rouen, rather than in London, where Juliet lived. Odd that nobody else ever saw this copy. Odd that it hasn't survived. Odd that Flaubert never mentioned such an engagement. Odd that the act would run diametrically counter to what he believed in.
Odd, too, that Ledoux's other slanderous assertion—of suicide—also runs counter to the writer's deepest beliefs. Listen to him. 'Let us have the modesty of wounded animals, who withdraw into a corner and remain silent. The world is full of people who bellow against Providence. One must, if only on the score of good manners, avoid behaving like them.' And again, that quotation which roosts in my head: 'People like us must have the religion of despair. By dint of saying "That is so! That is so!" and of gazing down into the black pit at one's feet, one remains calm.'
Those are not the words of a suicide. They are the words of a man whose stoicism runs as deep as his pessimism. Wounded animals don't kill themselves. And if you understand that gazing down into the black pit engenders calm, then you don't jump into it. Perhaps this was Ellen's weakness: an inability to gaze into the black pit. She could only squint at it, repeatedly. One glance would make her despair, and despair would make her seek distraction. Some outgaze the black pit; others ignore it; those who keep glancing at it become obsessed. She chose the exact dosage: the only occasion when being a doctor's wife seemed to help her.
Ledoux's account of the suicide goes like this: Flaubert hanged himself in his bath. I suppose it's more plausible than saying that he electrocuted himself with sleeping pills; but really…What happened was this. Flaubert got up, took a hot bath, had an apoplectic fit, and stumbled to a sofa in his study; there he was found expiring by the doctor who later issued the death certificate. That's what happened. End of story. Flaubert's earliest biographer talked to the doctor concerned and that's that. Ledoux's version requires the following chain of events: Flaubert got into his hot bath, hanged himself in some as yet unexplained fashion, then climbed out, hid the rope, staggered to his study, collapsed on the sofa and, when the doctor arrived, managed to die while feigning the symptoms of an apoplectic fit. Really, it's too ridiculous.
No smoke without fire, they say. I'm afraid there can be. Edmond Ledoux is a prime example of spontaneous smoke. Who was he, anyway, this Ledoux? Nobody seems to know. He wasn't an authority on anything. He's a complete nonentity. He only exists as the teller of two lies. Perhaps someone in the Flaubert family once did him harm (did Achille fail to cure his bunion?) and this is his effective revenge. Because it means that few books on Flaubert can end without a discussion—always followed by a dismissal—of the suicide claim. As you see, it's happened all over again here. Another long digression whose tone of moral indignation is probably counter-productive. And I intended writing about the parrots. At least Ledoux didn't have a theory about them.
But I have. Not just a theory, either. As I say, it took me a good two years. No, that's boastful: what I really mean is that two years elapsed between the question arising and dissolving. One of the snobbier academics to whom I wrote even suggested that the matter wasn't really of any interest at all. Well, I suppose he has to guard his territory. Someone, however, gave me the name of M. Lucien Andrieu.
I decided not to write to him; after all, my letters so far hadn't proved very successful. Instead, I made a summer trip to Rouen, in August 1982. I stayed at the Grand Hôtel du Nord, abutting the Gros Horloge. In the corner of my room, running from ceiling to floor, was a soil-pipe, inefficiently boxed-in, which roared at me every five minutes or so, and appeared to carry the waste of the entire hotel. After dinner I lay on my bed listening to the sporadic bursts of Gallic evacuation. Then the Gros Horloge struck the hour with a loud and tinny closeness, as if it were inside my wardrobe. I wondered what the chances of sleep might be.
My apprehension was misconceived. After ten o'clock, the soil-pipe went quiet; and so did the Gros Horloge. It may be a tourist attraction in the daytime, but Rouen thoughtfully disconnects its chimes when visitors are trying to sleep. I lay in bed on my back with the lights out and thought about Flaubert's parrot: to Félicité, it was a grotesque but logical version of the Holy Ghost; to me, a fluttering, elusive emblem of the writer's voice. When Félicité lay in bed dying, the parrot came back to her, in magnified form, and welcomed her into Heaven. As I teetered off towards sleep, I wondered what my dreams might be.
They weren't about parrots. I had my railway dream instead. Changing trains at Birmingham, some time during the war. The distant guard's van at the end of the platform, pulling out. My suitcase rubbing at my calf. The blacked-out train; the station dimly lit. A timetable I couldn't read, a blur of figures. No hope anywhere; no more trains; desolation, darkness.
You'd think such a dream would realise when it had made its point? But dreams have no sense of how they're going down with the dreamer, any more than they have a sense of delicacy. The station dream—which I get every three months or so—simply repeats itself, a loop of film endlessly rerunning, until I wake up heavychested and depressed. I awoke that morning to the twin sounds of time and shit: the Gros Horloge and my corner soil-pipe. Time and shit: was Gustave laughing?
At the Hôtel-Dieu the same gaunt, white-coated gardien showed me round again. In the medical section of the museum, I noticed something I had missed before: a do-it-yourself enema pump. As hated by Gustave Flaubert: 'Railways, poisons, enema pumps, cream tarts…' It consisted of a narrow wooden stool, a hollow spike and a vertical handle. You sat astride the stool, worked your way on to the spike, and then pumped yourself full of water. Well, at least it would give you privacy. The gardien and I had a conspiratorial laugh; I told him I was a doctor. He smiled and went to fetch something sure to interest me.
He returned with a large cardboard shoebox containing two preserved human heads. The skin was still intact, though age had turned it brown: as brown as an old jar of redcurrant jam, perhaps. Most of the teeth were in place, but the eyes and hair had not survived. One of the heads had been re-equipped with a coarse black wig and a pair of glass eyes (what colour were they? I can't remember; but less complicated, I'm sure, than the eyes of Emma Bovary). This attempt to make the head more realistic had the opposite effect: it looked like a child's horror mask, a trick-or-treat face from a joke-shop window.
The gardien explained that the heads were the work of Jean-Baptiste Laumonier, predecessor of Achille-Cléophas Flaubert at the hospital. Laumonier was looking for new methods of preserving corpses; and the city had allowed him to experiment with the heads of executed criminals. An incident from Gustave's childhood came back to me. Once, out on a walk with his Oncle Parain at the age of six, he had passed a guillotine which had just been used: the cobbles were bright with blood. I mentioned this hopefully; but the gardien shook his head. It would have been a nice coincidence, but the dates were incompatible. Laumonier had died in 1818; besides, the two specimens in the shoebox had not in fact been guillotined. I was shown the deep creases just below the jaw where the hangman's noose had once tightened. When Maupassant saw Flaubert's body at Croisset, the neck was dark and swollen. This happens with apoplexy. It's not a sign that someone had hanged himself in the bath.
We continued through the museum until we reached the room containing the parrot. I took out my Polaroid camera, and was allowed to photograph it. As I held the developing print under my armpit, the gardien pointed out the Xeroxed letter I had noticed on my first visit. Flaubert to Mme Brainne, July 28th, 1876: 'Do you know what I've had on my table in front of me for the last three weeks? A stuffed parrot. It sits there on sentry duty. The sight of it is beginning to irritate me. But I keep it there so that I can fill my head with the idea of parrothood. Because at the moment I'm writing about the love between an old girl and a parrot.'
'That's the real one,' said the gardien, tapping the glass dome in front of us. 'That's the real one.'
'And the other?'
'The other is an impostor.'
'How can you be sure?'
'It's simple. This one comes from the Museum of Rouen.' He pointed to a round stamp on the end of the perch, then drew my attention to a photocopied entry from the Museum register. It recorded a batch of loans to Flaubert. Most of the entries were in some museum shorthand which I couldn't decipher, but the loan of the Amazonian parrot was clearly comprehensible. A series of ticks in the final column of the register showed that Flaubert had returned every item lent to him. Including the parrot.
I felt vaguely disappointed. I had always sentimentally assumed—without proper reason—that the parrot had been found among the writer's effects after his death (this explained, no doubt, why I had secretly been favouring the Croisset bird). Of course the photocopy didn't prove anything, except that Flaubert had borrowed a parrot from the Museum, and that he'd returned it. The Museum stamp was a bit trickier, but not conclusive…
'Ours is the real one,' the gardien repeated unnecessarily as he showed me out. It seemed as if our roles had been reversed: he needed the reassurance, not me.
'I'm sure you're right.'
But I wasn't. I drove to Croisset and photographed the other parrot. It too sported a Museum stamp. I agreed with the gardienne that her parrot was clearly authentic, and that the Hôtel-Dieu bird was definitely an impostor.
After lunch I went to the Cimetière Monumental. 'Hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of all virtue,' wrote Flaubert; yet he is buried amongst the grandest families of Rouen. During one of his trips to London he visited Highgate Cemetery and found it far too neat: 'These people seem to have died with white gloves on.' At the Cimetière Monumental they wear tails and full decorations, and have been buried with their horses, dogs and English governesses.
Gustave's grave is small and unpretentious; in these surroundings, however, the effect is not to make him look an artist, an anti-bourgeois, but rather to make him look an unsuccessful bourgeois. I leaned against the railings which fence off the family plot—even in death you can own a freehold—and took out my copy of Un coeur simple. The description Flaubert gives of Félicité's parrot at the start of chapter four is very brief: 'He was called Loulou. His body was green, the ends of his wings pink, his forehead blue, and his throat golden.' I compared my two photographs. Both parrots had green bodies; both had pink wing-tips (there was more pink in the Hôtel-Dieu version). But the blue forehead and the golden throat: there was no doubting that they belonged to the parrot at the Hôtel-Dieu. The Croisset parrot had it completely back to front: a golden forehead and bluish-green throat.
That seemed to be it, really. All the same, I rang M. Lucien Andrieu and explained my interests in a general way. He invited me to call the next day. As he gave me the address—rue de Lourdines—I imagined the house he was speaking from, the solid, bourgeois house of a Flaubert scholar. The. mansard roof pierced with an oeil-de-boeuf; the pinkish brick, the Second Empire trimmings; inside, cool seriousness, glass-fronted bookcases, waxed boards and parchment lampshades; I breathed a male, clubby smell.
My briefly-constructed house was an impostor, a dream, a fiction. The real house of the Flaubert scholar was across the river in south Rouen, a run-down area where small industries squat among rows of red-brick terrace houses. Lorries look too big for the streets; there are few shops, and almost as many bars; one was offering tête de veau as its plat du jour. Just before you get to the rue de Lourdines there is a signpost to the Rouen abattoir.
Monsieur Andrieu was waiting for me on his doorstep. He was a small, elderly man wearing a tweed jacket, tweed carpet slippers and a tweed trilby. There were three ranks of coloured silk in his lapel. He took off his hat to shake hands, then replaced it; his head, he explained, was rather fragile in the summer. He was to keep his tweed hat on all the time we were in the house. Some people might have thought this a little cranky, but I didn't. I speak as a doctor.
He was seventy-seven, he informed me, the secretary and oldest surviving member of the Société des Amis de Flaubert. We sat on either side of a table in a front room whose walls were crowded with bric-à-brac: commemorative plates, Flaubert medallions, a painting of the Gros Horloge which M. Andrieu had done himself. It was small and crowded, curious and personal: like a neater version of Félicité's room, or of Flaubert's pavilion. He pointed out a cartoon portrait of himself, drawn by a friend; it showed him as a gunslinger with a large bottle of calvados protruding from his hip pocket. I should have asked the reason for such a ferocious characterisation of my mild and genial host; but I didn't. Instead, I took out my copy of Enid Starkie's Flaubert: The Making of a Master and showed him the frontispiece.
'C'est Flaubert, &ccdeil;a?' I asked, just for a final confirmation.
He chuckled.
'C'est Louis Bouilhet. Oui, oui, c'est Bouilhet.' It was clearly not the first time he had been asked. I checked one or two more details with him, and then mentioned the parrots.
'Ah, the parrots. There are two of them.'
'Yes. Do you know which is the true one and which is the impostor?'
He chuckled again.
'They setup the museum at Croisset in 1905,' he replied. 'The year of my birth. Naturally, I was not there. They gathered together what material they could find—well, you've seen it for yourself.' I nodded. 'There wasn't much. Many things had been dispersed. But the curator decided that there was one thing they could have, and that was Flaubert's parrot. Loulou. So they went to the Museum of Natural History and said, Can we please have Flaubert's parrot back. We want it for the pavilion. And the Museum said, Of course, come with us.'
Monsieur Andrieu had told this story before; he knew its pauses.
'So, they took the curator to where they kept the reserve collection. You want a parrot? they said. Then we go to the section of the birds. They opened the door, and they saw in front of them…fifty parrots. Une cinquantaine de perroquets!
'What did they do? They did the logical thing, the intelligent thing. They came back with a copy of Un coeur simple, and they read to themselves Flaubert's description of Loulou.' Just as I had done the day before. 'And then they chose the parrot which looked most like his description.
'Forty years later, after the last war, they started making the collection at the Hôtel-Dieu. They in their turn went back to the Museum and said, Please can we have Flaubert's parrot. Of course, said the Museum, take your pick, but make sure you get the right one. So they too consulted Un coeur simple, and chose the parrot which most resembled Flaubert's description. And that's how there are two parrots.'
'So the pavilion at Croisset, which had the first choice, must have the true parrot?'
M. Andrieu looked non-committal. He pushed his tweed trilby slightly further back on his head. I took out my photographs. 'But if so, what about this?' I quoted the familiar description of the parrot, and pointed to the non-conforming forehead and breast of the Croisset version. Why should the parrot chosen second look more like the one in the book than the parrot chosen first?
'Well. You have to remember two things. One, Flaubert was an artist. He was a writer of the imagination. And he would alter a fact for the sake of a cadence; he was like that. Just because he borrowed a parrot, why should he describe it as it was? Why shouldn't he change the colours round if it sounded better?
'Secondly, Flaubert returned his parrot to the Museum after he'd finished writing the story. That was in 1876. The pavilion was not set up until thirty years later. Stuffed animals get the moth, you know. They fall apart. Félicité's did, after all, didn't it? The stuffing came out of it.'
'Yes.'
'And perhaps they change colour with time. Of course, I am not an expert in the stuffing of animals.'
'So you mean either of them could be the real one? Or, quite possibly, neither?'
He spread his hands slowly on the table, in a conjuror's calming gesture. I had a final question.
'Are there still all those parrots left at the Museum? All fifty of them?'
'I don't know. I don't think so. You have to know that in the Twenties and Thirties, when I was young, there was a great fashion for stuffed animals and birds. People had them in their sitting-rooms. They thought they were pretty. So, a lot of museums sold off parts of their collections which they didn't need. Why should they hold on to fifty Amazonian parrots? They would only decay. I don't know how many they have now. I should think the Museum got rid of most of them.'
We shook hands. On the doorstep M. Andrieu raised his hat to me, briefly uncovering his fragile head to the August sun. I felt pleased and disappointed at the same time. It was an answer and not an answer; it was an ending and not an ending. As with Félicité's final heartbeats, the story was dying away 'like a fountain running dry, like an echo disappearing'. Well, perhaps that's as it should be.
It was time to pay farewell. Like a conscientious doctor, I made the rounds of Flaubert's three statues. What shape was he in? At Trouville his moustache still needs repair; though the patching on his thigh now looks less conspicuous. At Barentin, his left leg is beginning to split, there is a hole in the corner of his jacket, and a mossy discoloration spots his upper body; I stared at the greenish marks on his chest, half-closed my eyes, and tried to turn him into a Carthaginian interpreter. At Rouen, in the place des Carmes, he is structurally sound, confident in his alloy of 93 per cent copper and 7 per cent tin; but he still continues to streak. Each year he seems to cry a couple more cupreous tears, which brightly vein his neck. This isn't inappropriate: Flaubert was always a great weeper. The tears continue on down his body, giving him a fancy waistcoat and putting thin side-stripes on his legs, as if he were wearing dress-trousers. This too isn't inappropriate: it's a reminder that he enjoyed salon life as well as his Croisset retreat.
A few hundred yards north, at the Museum of Natural History, they took me upstairs. This was a surprise: I'd assumed that reserve collections were always held in cellars. Nowadays they probably have leisure centres down there instead: cafeterias and wall-charts and video-games and everything to make learning easy. Why are they so keen to turn learning into a game? They love to make it childish, even for adults. Especially for adults.
It was a small room, perhaps eight feet by ten, with windows on the right and shelves running away to the left. Despite a few ceiling lights, it remained quite dark, this burial vault on the top floor. Though it wasn't, I suppose, altogether a tomb: some of these creatures would be taken out again into the daylight, and allowed to replace moth-eaten or unfashionable colleagues. So it was an ambivalent room, half-morgue and half-purgatory. It had an uncertain smell, too: somewhere between a surgery and a hardware shop.
Everywhere I looked there were birds. Shelf after shelf of birds, each one covered in a sprinkling of white pesticide. I was directed to the third aisle. I pushed carefully between the shelves and then looked up at a slight angle. There, standing in a line, were the Amazonian parrots. Of the original fifty only three remained. Any gaudiness in their colouring had been dimmed by the dusting of pesticide which lay over them. They gazed at me like three quizzical, sharp-eyed, dandruff-ridden, dishonourable old men. They did look—I had to admit it—a little cranky. I stared at them for a minute or so, and then dodged away.
Perhaps it was one of them.

Julian Barnes was born in Leicester, England, in 1946, was educated at Oxford University, and now lives in London. He is the author of two previous novels, Metroland (winner of the 1981 Somerset Maugham Award) and Before She Met Me. Mr. Barnes's television criticism appears regularly in The Observer.



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