Flaubert's Parrot Julian Barnes



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The spirit of Homais: progress, rationalism, science, fraud. 'We must march with the century' are almost his first words; and he marches all the way to the Légion d'honneur. When Emma Bovary dies, her body is watched over by two people: the priest, and Homais the pharmacien. Representing the old orthodoxy and the new. It's like some piece of nineteenth-century allegorical sculpture: Religion and Science Watching Together over the Body of Sin. From a painting by G. F. Watts. Except that both the cleric and the man of science manage to fall asleep over the body. United at first only by philosophic error, they quickly establish the deeper unity of joint snorers.
Flaubert didn't believe in progress: especially not in moral progress, which is all that matters. The age he lived in was stupid; the new age, brought in by the Franco-Prussian war, would be even stupider. Of course some things would change: the spirit of Homais was winning. Soon everybody with a club foot would be entitled to a misconceived operation which would lead to an amputated leg; but what did that signify? 'The whole dream of democracy,' he wrote, 'is to raise the proletariat to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeoisie.'
That line often makes people edgy. Isn't it perfectly fair? Over the last hundred years the proletariat has schooled itself in the pretensions of the bourgeoisie; while the bourgeoisie, less confident of its ascendancy, has become more sly and deceitful. Is this progress? Study a packed cross-Channel ferry if you want to see a modern ship of fools. There they all are: working out the profit on their duty-free; having more drinks at the bar than they want; playing the fruit machines; aimlessly circling the deck; making up their minds how honest to be at customs; waiting for the next order from the ship's crew as if the crossing of the Red Sea depended on it. I do not criticise, I merely observe; and I'm not sure what I would think if everyone lined the rail to admire the play of light on the water and started discussing Boudin. I am no different, by the way: I stock up on duty-free and await orders like the rest of them. My point is merely this: Flaubert was right.
The fat lorry-driver on the banquette is snoring like a pasha. I've fetched myself another whisky; I hope you don't mind. Just getting braced to tell you about…what? about whom? Three stories contend within me. One about Flaubert, one about Ellen, one about myself. My own is the simplest of the three—it hardly amounts to more than a convincing proof of my existence—and yet I find it the hardest to begin. My wife's is more complicated, and more urgent; yet I resist that too. Keeping the best for last, as I was saying earlier? I don't think so; rather the opposite, if anything. But by the time I tell you her story I want you to be prepared: that's to say, I want you to have had enough of books, and parrots, and lost letters, and bears, and the opinions of Dr Enid Starkie, and even the opinions of Dr Geoffrey Braithwaite. Books are not life, however much we might prefer it if they were. Ellen's is a true story; perhaps it is even the reason why I am telling you Flaubert's story instead.
You expect something from me too, don't you? It's like that nowadays. People assume they own part of you, on no matter how small an acquaintance; while if you are reckless enough to write a book, this puts your bank account, your medical records, and the state of your marriage irrevocably into the public domain. Flaubert disapproved. 'The artist must manage to make posterity believe that he never existed.' For the religious, death destroys the body and liberates the spirit; for the artist, death destroys the personality and liberates the work. That's the theory, anyway. Of course, it frequently goes wrong. Look what happened to Flaubert: a century after his death Sartre, like some brawny, desperate lifeguard, spent ten years beating on his chest and blowing into his mouth; ten years trying to yank him back to consciousness, just so that he could sit him up on the sands and tell him exactly what he thought of him.
And what do people think of him now? How do they think of him? As a bald man with a drooping moustache; as the hermit of Croisset, the man who said 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi'; as the incorrigible aesthete, the bourgeois bourgeoisophobe? Confident scraps of wisdom, hand-me-down summaries for those in a hurry. Flaubert would hardly have been surprised at the lazy rush to understand. It was an impulse out of which he made a whole book (or at least a whole appendix): the Dictionnaire des idées reçues.
At the simplest level, his Dictionary is a catalogue of clichés (DOG: Especially created to save its master's life. A dog is man's best friend) and cod definitions (CRAYFISH: Female of the lobster). Beyond this it's a handbook of fake advice, both social (LIGHT: Always say Fiat lux! when lighting a candle) and aesthetic (RAILWAY STATIONS: Always go into ecstasies about them; cite them as models of architecture). At some times the manner is sly and teasing, at others so challengingly straight-faced that you find yourself half-believing it (MACARONI: When prepared in the Italian style, is served with the fingers). It reads like a confirmation present specially written by a malicious, rakehell uncle for a serious-minded adolescent with ambitions to get on in society. Study it carefully and you would never say anything wrong, while never getting anything right (HALBERD: When you see a heavy cloud, never fail to say: 'It's going to rain halberds.' In Switzerland, all the men carry halberds. ABSINTHE: Extremely violent poison: a single glass and you're dead. Always drunk by journalists while writing their articles. Has killed more soldiers than the Bedouin).
Flaubert's dictionary offers a course in irony: from entry to entry, you can see him applying it in various thicknesses, like a cross-Channel painter darkening the sky with another wash. It tempts me to write a Dictionary of Accepted Ideas about Gustave himself. Just a short one: a booby-trapped pocket guide; something straight-faced yet misleading. The received wisdom in pellet form, with some of the pellets poisoned. This is the attraction, and also the danger, of irony: the way it permits a writer to be seemingly absent from his work, yet in fact hintingly present. You can have your cake and eat it; the only trouble is, you get fat.
What might we say of Flaubert in this new Dictionary? We might set him down, perhaps, as a 'bourgeois individualist'; yes, that sounds smug enough, dishonest enough. It's a characterisation which always remains unshaken by the fact that Flaubert loathed the bourgeoisie. And how about 'individualist', or its equivalent? 'In the ideal I have of Art, I think that one must not show one's own, and that the artist must no more appear in his work than God does in nature. Man is nothing, the work of art everything…It would be very pleasant for me to say what I think and relieve Monsieur Gustave Flaubert's feelings by means of such utterances; but what is the importance of the said gentleman?'
This demand for authorial absence ran deeper still. Some writers ostensibly agree with the principle, yet sneak in at the back door and cosh the reader with a highly personal style. The murder is perfectly executed, except that the baseball bat left at the scene of the crime is sticky with fingerprints. Flaubert is different. He believed in style; more than anyone. He worked doggedly for beauty, sonority, exactness; perfection—but never the monogrammed perfection of a writer like Wilde. Style is a function of theme. Style is not imposed on subject-matter, but arises from it. Style is truth to thought. The correct word, the true phrase, the perfect sentence are always 'out there' somewhere; the writer's task is to locate them by whatever means he can. For some this means no more than a trip to the supermarket and a loading-up of the metal basket; for others it means being lost on a plain in Greece, in the dark, in snow, in the rain, and finding what you seek only by some rare trick such as barking like a dog.

In our pragmatic and knowing century we probably find such ambition a little provincial (well, Turgenev did call Flaubert naïve). We no longer believe that language and reality 'match up' so congruently—indeed, we probably think that words give birth to things as much as things give birth to words. But if we find Flaubert naïve or—more likely—unsuccessful, we shouldn't patronise his seriousness or his bold loneliness. This was, after all, the century of Balzac and of Hugo, with orchidaceous Romanticism at one end of it and gnomic Symbolism at the other. Flaubert's planned invisibility in a century of babbling personalities and shrieking styles might be characterised in one oftwo ways: as classical, or modem. Looking back to the seventeenth century, or forward to the late twentieth century. Contemporary critics who pompously reclassify all novels and plays and poems as texts—the author to the guillotine!—shouldn't skip lightly over Flaubert. A century before them he was preparing texts and denying the significance of his own personality.


'The author in his book must be like God in his universe, everywhere present and nowhere visible.' Of course, this has been keenly misread in our century. Look at Sartre and Camus. God is dead, they told us, and therefore so is the God-like novelist. Omniscience is impossible, man's knowledge is partial, therefore the novel itself must be partial. That sounds not just splendid, but logical as well. But is it either? The novel, after all, didn't arise when belief in God arose; nor, for that matter, is there much correlation between those novelists who believed most strongly in the omniscient narrator and those who believed most strongly in the omniscient creator. I cite George Eliot alongside Flaubert.
More to the point, the assumed divinity of the nineteenth-century novelist was only ever a technical device; and the partiality of the modem novelist is just as much a ploy. When a contemporary narrator hesitates, claims uncertainty, misunderstands, plays games and falls into error, does the reader in fact conclude that reality is being more authentically rendered? When the writer provides two different endings to his novel (why two? why not a hundred?), does the reader seriously imagine he is being 'offered a choice' and that the work is reflecting life's variable outcomes? Such a 'choice' is never real, because the reader is obliged to consume both endings. In life, we make a decision—or a decision makes us—and we go one way; had we made a different decision (as I once told my wife; though I don't think she was in a condition to appreciate my wisdom), we would have been elsewhere. The novel with two endings doesn't reproduce this reality: it merely takes us down two diverging paths. It's a form of cubism, I suppose. And that's all right; but let's not deceive ourselves about the artifice involved.
After all, if novelists truly wanted to simulate the delta of life's possibilities, this is what they'd do. At the back of the book would be a set of sealed envelopes in various colours. Each would be clearly marked on the outside: Traditional Happy Ending; Traditional Unhappy Ending; Traditional Half-and-Half Ending; Deus ex Machina; Modernist Arbitrary Ending; End of the World Ending; Cliffhanger Ending; Dream Ending; Opaque Ending; Surrealist Ending; and so on. You would be allowed only one, and would have to destroy the envelopes you didn't select. That's what I call offering the reader a choice of endings; but you may find me quite unreasonably literal-minded.
As for the hesitating narrator—look, I'm afraid you've run into one right now. It might be because I'm English. You'd guessed that, at least—that I'm English? I…I…Look at that seagull up there. I hadn't spotted him before. Slipstreaming away, waiting for the bits of gristle from the sandwiches. Listen, I hope you won't think this rude, but I really must take a turn on deck; it's becoming quite stuffy in the bar here. Why don't we meet on the boat back instead? The two o'clock ferry, Thursday? I'm sure I'll feel more like it then. All right? What? No, you can't come on deck with me. For God's sake. Besides, I'm going to the lavatory first. I can't have you following me in there, peering round from the next stall.
I apologise; I didn't mean that. Two o'clock, in the bar, as the ferry sails? Oh, and one last word. The cheese shop in the Grande Rue: don't miss it. I think the name's Leroux. I suggest you get a Brillat-Savarin. You won't get a good one in England unless you bring it back yourself. They're kept too cold, or they have chemicals injected into them to delay the ripening, or something. That is, if you like cheese…

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How do we seize the past? How do we seize the foreign past? We read, we learn, we ask, we remember, we are humble; and then a casual detail shifts everything. Flaubert was a giant; they all said so. He towered over everybody like a strapping Gallic chieftain. And yet he was only six feet tall: we have this on his own authority. Tall, but not gigantic; shorter than I am, in fact, and when I am in France I never find myself towering over people like a Gallic chieftain.
So Gustave was a six-foot giant, and the world shrinks just a little with that knowledge. The giants were not so tall (were the dwarfs therefore shorter too?). The fat men: were they less fat because they were smaller, and so you needed less stomach to appear fat; or were they more fat, because they developed the same stomachs, but had even less frame to support them? How can we know such trivial, crucial details? We can study files for decades, but every so often we are tempted to throw up our hands and declare that history is merely another literary genre: the past is autobiographical fiction pretending to be a parliamentary report.
I have a small watercolour of Rouen on my wall by Arthur Frederick Payne (born Newarke, Leicester, 1831, working 1849-84). It shows the city from Bonsecours churchyard: the bridges, the spires, the river bending away past Croisset. It was painted on May 4th, 1856. Flaubert finished Madame Bovary on April 30th, 1856: there at Croisset, there where I can jab my finger, between two spreading and unknowing sploshes of watercolour. So near and yet so far. Is this history, then—a swift, confident amateur's watercolour?
I'm not sure what I believe about the past. I just want to know if fat people were fatter then. And were mad people madder? There was a lunatic called Mirabeau in the Rouen asylum who was popular with doctors and medical students at the Hôtel-Dieu because of a particular talent: in exchange for a cup of coffee he would copulate on the dissecting table with a female corpse. (Does the cup of coffee make him more, or less, mad?) One day, however, Mirabeau was to prove a coward: Flaubert reports that he funked his task when faced with a woman who had been guillotined. No doubt they offered him two cups of coffee, extra sugar, a slug of cognac? (And does this prove him saner, or madder, this need for a face, however dead?)
Nowadays we aren't allowed to use the word mad. What lunacy. The few psychiatrists I respect always talk about people being mad. Use the short, simple, true words. Dead, I say, and dying, and mad, and adultery. I don't say passed on, or slipping away, or terminal (oh, he's terminal? Which one? Euston, St Pancras, the Gare St Lazare?), or personality disorder, or fooling around, bit on the side, well she's away a lot visiting her sister. I say mad and adultery, that's what I say. Mad has the right sound to it. It's an ordinary word, a word which tells us how lunacy might come and call like a delivery van. Terrible things are also ordinary. Do you know what Nabokov said about adultery in his lecture on Madame Bovary? He said it was 'a most conventional way to rise above the conventional'.
Any history of adultery would doubtless quote Emma's seduction in that careering cab: it's probably the most famous act of infidelity in the whole of nineteenth-century fiction. Easy enough for the reader to imagine such a precisely described scene, and to get it right, you'd think. Yes indeed. But still easy enough to get it just a tiny bit wrong. I cite G. M. Musgrave, sketcher, traveller, memoirist, and vicar of Borden, Kent: author of The Parson, Pen and Pencil, or, Reminiscences and Illustrations of an Excursion to Paris, Tours, and Rouen, in the Summer of 1847; with a few Memoranda on French Farming (Richard Bentley, London, 1848) and of A Ramble Through Normandy, or, Scenes, Characters and Incidents in a Sketching Excursion Through Calvados (David Bogue, London, 185S). On page 522 of the latter work the Reverend Musgrave is visiting Rouen—'the Manchester of France', he calls it—at a time when Flaubert is still flailing away at his Bovary. His account of the city includes the following aside:
I was mentioning, just now, the cab-stand. The carriages stationed there are the most dumpy vehicles, I conceive, of their kind, in Europe. I could with ease place my arm on the roof as I stood by one of them in the road. They are well-built, neat, and cleanly little chariots, with two good lamps; and 'cut' about the streets like Tom Thumb's coach.
So our view suddenly lurches: the famous seduction would have been even more cramped, and even less romantic, than we might previously have assumed. This piece of information is, as far as I am aware, hitherto unrecorded in the extensive annotations which have been inflicted on the novel; and I herewith offer it in a spirit of humility for use by professional scholars.
The tall, the fat, the mad. And then there are the colours. When he was researching for Madame Bovary, Flaubert spent a whole afternoon examining the countryside through pieces of coloured glass. Would he have seen what we now see? Presumably. But what about this: in 1853, at Trouville, he watched the sun go down over the sea, and declared that it resembled a large disc of redcurrant jam. Vivid enough. But was redcurrant jam the same colour in Normandy in 1853 as it is now? (Would any pots of it have survived, so that we could check? And how would we know the colour had remained the same in the intervening years?) It's the sort of thing you fret about. I decided to write to the Grocers' Company about the matter. Unlike some of my other correspondents, they replied promptly. They were also reassuring: redcurrant jam is one of the purest jams, they said, and though an 1853 Rouennais pot might not have been quite so clear as a modern one because of the use of unrefined sugar, the colour would have been almost exactly the same. So at least that's all right: now we can go ahead and confidently imagine the sunset. But you see what I mean? (As for my other questions: a pot of the jam could indeed have survived until now, but would almost certainly have turned brown, unless kept completely sealed in a dry, airy, pitch-dark room.)
The Reverend George M. Musgrave was a digressive but observant fellow. He was more than a little inclined to pomposity ('I am bound to speak in terms of high eulogium on the subject of Rouen's literary reputation'), but his fussiness over detail makes him a useful informant. He notes the French love of leeks and the French abhorrence of rain. He interrogates everyone: a Rouen merchant who amazes him by not having heard of mint sauce, and a canon of Evreux who informs him that in France the men read too much, while the women read next to nothing (O rarer still Emma Bovary!). While in Rouen he visits the Cimetière Monumental the year after Gustave's father and sister were buried there, and approves its innovative policy of allowing families to buy freehold plots. Elsewhere, he investigates a fertiliser factory, the Bayeux tapestry, and the lunatic asylum at Caen where Beau Brummell died in 1840 (was Brummell mad? The attendants remembered him well: un bon enfant, they said, drank only barley water mixed with a very little wine).
Musgrave also went to the fair at Guibray, and there among the freak shows was The Largest Fat Boy in France: Aimable Jouvin, born at Herblay in 1840, now aged fourteen, admission a penny farthing. How fat was the fat boy? Our rambling sketcher didn't, alas, go in himself and record the young phenomenon with his pencil; but he waited while a French cavalryman paid his penny farthing, entered the caravan, and emerged mouthing 'some very choice Norman phraseology'. Though Musgrave did not bring himself to ask the soldier what he had seen, his impression was 'that Aimable had not been fattened up to the mark of the visitor's large expectations'.
At Caen Musgrave went to a regatta, where seven thousand spectators lined the dockside. Most of them were men, and most of these were peasants wearing their best blue blouses. The mass effect was of a light but most brilliant ultramarine. It was a particular, exact colour; Musgrave had seen it only once before, in a special department of the Bank of England where they incinerated notes which had been taken out of circulation. Banknote paper was then prepared with a colouring agent made from cobalt, silex, salt and potash: if you set light to a bundle of money, the cinder would take on the extraordinary tint that Musgrave saw on the Caen dockside. The colour of France.
As he travelled on, this colour and its cruder associates became more apparent. The men's blouses and hose were blue; three-quarters of the women's gowns were blue. The horses' housings and collar-decorations were blue; so were the carts, the name-boards of the villages, the agricultural implements, wheelbarrows and waterbutts. In many of the towns the houses displayed the cerulean hue, both inside and out. Musgrave found himself compelled to remark to a Frenchman he met that 'there was more blue in his country than in any region of the world with which I was acquainted.'
We look at the sun through smoked glass; we must look at the past through coloured glass.

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Thank you. Santé. You got your cheese, I hope? You won't mind a word of advice? Eat it. Don't put it in a plastic bag in the fridge and save it for visitors; before you know where you are it'll have swollen to three times its size and smell like a chemical factory. You'll open the bag and be putting your face into a bad marriage.
'Giving the public details about oneself is a bourgeois temptation that I have always resisted' (1879). But here goes. You know my name of course: Geoffrey Braithwaite. Don't miss out the l or you'll start turning me into a Parisian grocer. No; just my joke. Look. You know those personal advertisements in magazines like the New Statesman? I thought I might do it like that.
60+ widowed doctor, children grown up, active, cheerful if inclined to melancholy, kindly, non-smoker, amateur Flaubert scholar, likes reading, food, travel to familiar places, old films, has friends, but seeks…
You see the problem. But seeks… Do I? What do I seek? A tender fortyish div or wid for companionship stroke marriage? No. Mature lady for country walks, occasional dining? No. Bisexual couple for gleesome threesomes? Certainly not. I always read those pining paragraphs in the back of magazines, though I never feel like replying; and I've just realised why. Because I don't believe any of them. They aren't lying—indeed, they're all trying to be utterly sincere—but they aren't telling the truth. The column distorts the way the advertisers describe themselves. No one would think of himself as an active non-smoker inclined to melancholy if that wasn't encouraged, even demanded, by the form. Two conclusions: first, that you can't define yourself directly, just by looking face-on into the mirror; and second, that Flaubert was, as always, right. Style does arise from subject-matter. Try as they might, those advertisers are always beaten down by the form; they are forced—even at the one time they need to be candidly personal—into an unwished impersonality.
You can see, at least, the colour of my eyes. Not as complicated as Emma Bovary's, are they? But do they help you? They might mislead. I'm not being coy; I'm trying to be useful. Do you know the colour of Flaubert's eyes? No, you don't: for the simple reason that I suppressed it a few pages ago. I didn't want you to be tempted by cheap conclusions. See how carefully I look after you. You don't like it? I know you don't like it. All right. Well, according to Du Camp, Gustave the Gallic chieftain, the six-foot giant with a voice like a trumpet, had 'large eyes as grey as the sea'.


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