Flaubert's Parrot Julian Barnes



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6. That he was unpatriotic.
Permit me a short laugh. Ah. That's better. I thought patriotism was a bad thing nowadays. I thought we would all rather betray our country than our friends. Is that not so? Have things turned upside down yet again? What am I expected to say? On September 22nd, 1870, Flaubert bought himself a revolver; at Croisset, he drilled his ragged collection of men in expectation of a Prussian advance; he took them out on night patrols; he told them to shoot him if he tried to run away. By the time the Prussians came, there was not much he could sensibly do except look after his aged mother. He could perhaps have submitted himself to some army medical board, but whether they would have enthused over the application of a 48-year-old epileptic syphilitic with no military experience except that acquired while shooting wild-life in the desert—
7. That he shot wild-life in the desert.
Oh, for Christ's sake. We plead noli contendere. And besides I haven't finished with the question of patriotism. May I instruct you briefly on the nature of the novelist? What is the easiest, the most comfortable thing for a writer to do? To congratulate the society in which he lives: to admire its biceps, applaud its progress, tease it endearingly about its follies. 'I am as much a Chinaman as a Frenchman,' Flaubert declared. Not, that is, more of a Chinaman: had he been born in Peking, no doubt he would have disappointed patriots there too. The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously. The writer must be universal in sympathy and an outcast by nature: only then can he see clearly. Flaubert always sides with minorities, with 'the Bedouin, the Heretic, the philosopher, the hermit, the Poet'. In 1867 forty-three gypsies pitched camp in the Cours La Reine and aroused much hatred among the Rouennais. Flaubert delighted in their presence and gave them money. No doubt you wish to pat him on the head for this. If he'd known he was gaining the approval of the future, he'd probably have kept the money to himself.
8. That he didn't involve himself in life.
'You can depict wine, love, women and glory on the condition that you're not a drunkard, a lover, a husband or a private in the ranks. If you participate in life, you don't see it clearly: you suffer from it too much or enjoy it too much.' This isn't a reply of guilty, it's a complaint that the charge is wrongly phrased. What do you mean by life? Politics? We've dealt with that. The emotional life? Through his family, friends and mistresses, Gustave knew all the stations of the cross. Marriage, you mean perhaps? A curious complaint, though not a new one. Does marriage produce better novels than bachelorhood? Are the philoprogenitive better writers than the childless? I should like to see your statistics.
The best life for a writer is the life which helps him write the best books he can. Are we confident that our judgment in the matter is better than his? Flaubert was more 'involved', to use your term, than many: Henry James by comparison was a nun. Flaubert may have tried to live in an ivory tower—
8. That he tried to live in an ivory tower.
but he failed. 'I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.'
Three points need to be made. One is that the writer chooses—as far as he can—the extent of what you call his involvement in life: despite his reputation, Flaubert occupied a half-and-half position. 'It isn't the drunkard who writes the drinking song': he knew that. On the other hand, it isn't the teetotaller either. He put it best, perhaps, when he said that the writer must wade into life as into the sea, but only up to the navel.
Secondly, when readers complain about the lives of writers—why didn't he do this; why didn't he protest to the newspapers about that; why wasn't he more involved in life?—aren't they really asking a simpler, and vainer, question: why isn't he more like us? But if a writer were more like a reader, he'd be a reader, not a writer: it's as uncomplicated as that.
Thirdly, what is the thrust of the complaint as far as the books are concerned? Presumably the regret that Flaubert wasn't more involved in life isn't just a philanthropic wish for him: if only old Gustave had had a wife and kiddies, he wouldn't have been so glum about the whole shooting-match? If only he'd got caught up in politics, or good works, or become a governor of his old school, he'd have been taken out of himself more? Presumably you think there are faults in the books which could have been remedied by a change in the writer's life. If so, I think it is up to you to state them. For myself, I cannot think that, for instance, the portrait of provincial manners in Madame Bovary is lacking in some particular aspect which would have been remedied had its author clinked tankards of cider every evening with some gouty Norman bergère.
9. That he was a pessimist.
Ah. I begin to see what you mean. You wish his books were a bit more cheerful, a bit more…how would you put it, life-enhancing? What a curious idea of literature you do have. Is your PhD from Bucharest? I didn't know one had to defend authors for being pessimists. This is a new one. I decline to do so. Flaubert said: 'You don't make art out of good intentions.' He also said: 'The public wants works which flatter its illusions.'
10. That he teaches no positive virtues.
Now you are coming out into the open. So this is how we are to judge our writers—on their 'positive virtues'? Well, I suppose I must play your game briefly: it's what you have to do in the courts. Take all the obscenity trials from Madame Bovary to Lady Chatterley's Lover: there's always some element of games-playing, of compliance, in the defence. Others might call it tactical hypocrisy. (Is this book sexy? No, M'Lud, we hold that it would have an emetic, not a mimetic, effect on any reader. Does this book encourage adultery? No, M'Lud, look how the miserable sinner who gives herself time and time again to riotous pleasure is punished in the end. Does this book attack marriage? No, M'Lud, it portrays a vile and hopeless marriage so that others may learn that only by following Christian instructions will their own marriages be happy. Is this book blasphemous? No, M'Lud, the novelist's thought is chaste.) As a forensic argument, of course, it has been successful; but I sometimes feel a residual bitterness that one of these defence counsel, when speaking for a true work of literature, did not build his act on simple defiance. (Is this book sexy? M'Lud, we bloody well hope so. Does it encourage adultery and attack marriage? Spot on, M'Lud, that's exactly what my client is trying to do. Is this book blasphemous? For Christ's sake, M'Lud, the matter's as clear as the loincloth on the Crucifixion. Put it this way, M'Lud: my client thinks that most of the values of the society in which he lives stink, and he hopes with this book to promote fornication, masturbation, adultery, the stoning of priests and, since we've temporarily got your attention, M'Lud, the suspension of corrupt judges by their earlobes. The defence rests its case.)
So, briefly: Flaubert teaches you to gaze upon the truth and not blink from its consequences; he teaches you, with Montaigne, to sleep on the pillow of doubt; he teaches you to dissect out the constituent parts of reality, and to observe that Nature is always a mixture of genres; he teaches you the most exact use of language; he teaches you not to approach a book in search of moral or social pills—literature is not a pharmacopoeia; he teaches the pre-eminence of Truth, Beauty, Feeling and Style. And if you study his pr to life, he teaches courage, stoicism, friendship; the importance of intelligence, scepticism and wit; the folly of cheap patriotism; the virtue of being able to remain by yourself in your own room; the hatred of hypocrisy; distrust of the doctrinaire; the need for plain speaking. Is that the way you like writers to be described (I do not care for it much myself)? Is it enough? It's all I'm giving you for the moment: I seem to be embarrassing my client.
11. That he was a sadist.
Rubbish. My client was a soft touch. Cite me a single sadistic, or even unkind, thing he did in his whole life. I'll tell you the unkindest thing I know about him: he was caught being beastly to a woman at a party for no obvious reason. When asked why, he replied, 'Because she might want to come into my study.' That's the worst thing I know about my client. Unless you count the occasion in Egypt when he tried to go to bed with a prostitute while suffering from the pox. That was a little deceitful, I admit. But he didn't succeed: the girl, following the normal precautions of her profession, asked to examine him and, when he refused, sent him packing.
He read Sade, of course. What educated French writer doesn't? I gather he is currently popular among Parisian intellectuals. My client told the Goncourt brothers that Sade was 'entertaining nonsense'. He kept a few gruesome mementoes around him, it is true; he enjoyed recounting horrors; there are lurid passages in his early work. But you say he had a 'Sadeian imagination'? I am puzzled. You specify: Salammbô contains scenes of shocking violence. I reply: do you think they didn't happen? Do you think the Ancient World was all rose petals, lute music, and plump vats of honey sealed with bear fat?
11a. That there are a lot of animals slaughtered in his books.
He isn't Walt Disney, no. He was interested in cruelty, I agree. He was interested in everything. As well as Sade, there was Nero. But listen to what he says about them: 'These monsters explain history for me.' He is, I must add, all of seventeen at the time. And let me give you another quote: 'I love the vanquished, but I also love the victors.' He strives, as I've said, to be as much a Chinaman as a Frenchman. There is an earthquake in Leghorn: Flaubert doesn't cry out in sympathy. He feels as much sympathy for these victims as he does for slaves who died centuries earlier turning some tyrant's grindstone. You are shocked? It's called having a historical imagination. It's called being a citizen, not just of the world, but of all time. It's what Flaubert described as being 'brother in God to everything that lives, from the giraffe and the crocodile to man'. It's called being a writer.
12. That he was beastly to women.
Women loved him. He enjoyed their company; they enjoyed his; he was gallant, flirtatious; he went to bed with them. He just didn't want to marry them. Is that a sin? Perhaps some of his sexual attitudes were pungently those of his time and his class; but who then in the nineteenth century shall escape whipping? He stood, at least, for honesty in sexual dealings: hence his preference for the prostitute over the grisette. Such honesty brought him more trouble than hypocrisy would have done—with Louise Colet, for instance. When he told her the truth it sounded like cruelty. But she was a pest, wasn't she? (Let me answer my own question. I think she was a pest; she sounds like a pest; though admittedly we hear only Gustave's side of the story. Perhaps someone should write her account: yes, why not reconstruct Louise Colet's Version? I might do that. Yes, I will.)
If I may say so, a lot of your charges could probably be reclassified under a single heading: That he wouldn't have liked us if he'd known us. To which he might be inclined to plead guilty; if only to see the expression on our face.
13 That he believed in Beauty.
I think I've got something lodged in my ear. Probably a bit of wax. Just give me a moment to grip my nose and blow out through my eardrums.
14. That he was obsessed with style.
You are babbling. Do you still think the novel divides, like Gaul, into three parts—the Idea, the Form and the Style? If so, you are taking your own first tremulous steps into fiction. You want some maxims for writing? Very well. Form isn't an overcoat flung over the flesh of thought (that old comparison, old in Flaubert's day); it's the flesh of thought itself. You can no more imagine an Idea without a Form than a Form without an Idea. Everything in art depends on execution: the story of a louse can be as beautiful as the story of Alexander. You must write according to your feelings, be sure those feelings are true, and let everything else go hang. When a line is good, it ceases to belong to any school. A line of prose must be as immutable as a line of poetry. If you happen to write well, you are accused of lacking ideas.
All these maxims are by Flaubert, except for the one by Bouilhet.
15. That he didn't believe Art had a social purpose.
No, he didn't. This is wearying. 'You provide desolation,' wrote George Sand, 'and I provide consolation.' To which Flaubert replied, 'I cannot change my eyes.' The work of art is a pyramid which stands in the desert, uselessly: jackals piss at the base of it, and bourgeois clamber to the top of it; continue this comparison. Do you want art to be a healer? Send for the AMBULANCE GEORGE SAND. Do you want art to tell the truth? Send for the AMBULANCE FLAUBERT: though don't be surprised, when it arrives, if it runs over your leg. Listen to Auden: 'Poetry makes nothing happen.' Do not imagine that Art is something which is designed to give gentle uplift and self-confidence. Art is not a brassière. At least, not in the English sense. But do not forget that brassière is the French for life jacket.
11: Louise Colet's Version

Now hear my story. I insist. Look, take my arm, like that, and let's just walk. I have tales to tell; you will like them. We'll follow the quai, and cross that bridge—no, the second one—and perhaps we could take a cognac somewhere, and wait until the gas-lamps dim, and then walk back. Come, you're surely not frightened of me? So why that look? You think I am a dangerous woman? Well, that's a form of flattery—I accept the compliment. Or perhaps…perhaps it's what I might have to say that you're frightened of? Aha…well, it's too late now. You have taken my arm; you cannot drop it. After all, I am older than you. It is your job to protect me.


I have no interest in slander. Slip your fingers down my forearm, if you want to; yes, there, now feel the pulse. I am not vengeful tonight. Some friends say, Louise, you must answer fire with fire, lie with lie. But I do not wish to. Of course I have lied in my time; I have—what is that word your sex favours?—I have schemed. But women scheme when they are weak, they lie out of fear. Men scheme when they are strong, they lie out of arrogance. You don't agree? I only speak from observation; yours may be different, I grant. But you see how calm I am? I am calm because I feel strong. And—what's that? Perhaps, if I am strong, then I am scheming like a man? Come, let's not be complicated.
I did not need Gustave to come into my life. Look at the facts. I was thirty-five, I was beautiful, I was…renowned. I had conquered first Aix, then Paris. I had won the Academia's poetry prize twice. I had translated Shakespeare. Victor Hugo called me sister, Béranger called me Muse. As for my private life: my husband was respect in his profession; my…protector was the most brilliant philosopher of his age. You haven't read Victor Cousin? Then you should. A fascinating mind. The only man who truly understood Plato. A friend of your philosopher Mr Mill. And then, there was—or there was soon to be—Musset, Vigny, Champfleury. I do not boast of my conquests; I do not need to. But you see my point. I was the candle; he was the moth. The mistress of Socrates deigned to cast her smile on this unknown poet. I was his catch; he wasn't mine.
We met at Pradier's. I could see the banality of that; though of course he couldn't. The sculptor's studio, the free talk, the unclothed model, the mixture of demi-monde and three-quarter-monde. To me it was all familiar (why, only a few years before I'd danced there with a stiff-backed medical student by the name of Achille Flaubert). And, of course, I wasn't present as a spectator; I was there to sit for Pradier. Whereas Gustave? I do not want to be harsh, but when I first set eyes on him I knew the type at once: the big, gangling provincial, so eager and relieved to find himself at last in artistic circles. I know how they talk, out in the provinces, with that mixture of fake self-confidence and real fear: 'Go to Pradier's, my boy, you'll always find some little actress there to be your mistress, and grateful she'll be too.' And the boy in Toulouse or Poitiers or Bordeaux or Rouen, still secretly anxious about the long journey to the capital, feels his head filling up with snobbery and lust. I understood, you see, because I had been a provincial myself. I had made the journey from Aix a dozen years earlier. I had come a long way; and I could recognise the signs of travel in others.
Gustave was twenty-four. To my mind, age does not matter; love is what matters. I did not need to have Gustave in my life. If I had been looking for a lover—I admit my husband's fortunes were not at their brightest, and my friendship with the Philosopher was a little turbulent at that time—then I should not have chosen Gustave. But I have no stomach for fat bankers. And besides, you do not look, you do not choose, do you? You are chosen; you are elected into love by a secret ballot against which there is no appeal.
I do not blush at the difference between our ages? Why should I? You men are so conformist in love, so provincial in imagination; that is why we have to flatter you, to prop you up with little lies. So: I was thirty-five, Gustave was twenty-four. I state it and pass on. Perhaps you do not want to pass on; in which case I shall answer your unspoken question. If you wish to examine the mental condition of the couple entering into such a liaison, then you do not need to look at mine. Examine Gustave's. Why? I will give you a pair of dates. I was born in 1810, in September, the 15th day of the month. You remember Gustave's Madame Schlesinger, the woman who first cicatrised his adolescent heart, the woman with whom everything was doomed and hopeless, the woman of whom he used to boast furtively, the woman for whose sake he had bricked up his heart (and you accuse our sex of vain romance?). Well, this Mme Schlesinger, I happen to know, was also born in 1810, and also in September. Eight days after me, to be precise, on the 23rd. You see?
You look at me in a way that is familiar. I surmise that you want me to tell you how Gustave was as a lover. Men, I know, talk of such things with eagerness, with a little contempt; it is as if they were describing the last meal they had, course by course. So much detachment. Women are not like that; or at least the details, the weaknesses they dwell on in narration, are only rarely the physical ones that men delight in. We look for signs that speak to us of character—good or bad. Men look only for signs which flatter them. They are so vain in bed, much more vain than women. Outside, the sexes are more evenly matched, I admit.
I will reply a little more freely, because you are who you are; and because it is Gustave of whom I speak. He always used to lecture people, tell them about the honesty of the artist, the necessity .not to speak like a bourgeois. Well, if I lift the sheets a little, he has only himself to blame.
He was eager, my Gustave. It was—God knows—never easy to persuade him to meet me; but once he was there…Whatever the battles that occurred between us, none of them was fought in the province of the night. There, we embraced by lightning; there, violent wonder lay entwined with soft playfulness. He cried a bottle of water from the River Mississippi with which, he said, he planned to baptise my breast as a sign of love. He was a strong young man, and I delighted in that strength: he once signed a letter to me 'Your wild boy of Aveyron'.
He had, of course, the eternal delusion of strong young men, that women gauge passion by counting the number of times that the assault is renewed in the course of a single night. Well, to some extent we do: who would deny that? It is flattering, is it not? But it is not what counts finally. And after a while, there seems something almost military about it. Gustave had a way of talking about the women he had enjoyed. He would recall some prostitute he had frequented in the rue de la Cigogne: 'I fired five shots into her,' he would boast to me. It was his habitual turn of phrase. I found it coarse, but I did not mind: we were artists together, you see. However, I noted the metaphor. The more shots you fire into somebody, the more likely they are to be dead at the end of it. Is that what men want? Do they need a corpse as proof of their virility? I suspect they do, and women, with the logic of flattery, remember to exclaim at the transporting moment, 'Oh, I die! I die!' or some such phrase. After a bout of love, I often find that my brain is at its sharpest; I see things clearly; I feel poetry coming to me. But I know better than to interrupt the hero with my babblings; instead I ape the satisfied cadaver.
In the province of the night there was harmony between us. Gustave was not shy. Nor was he narrow in his tastes. I was—why should I be modest—undoubtedly the most beautiful, the most renowned, the most desirable woman with whom he ever slept (if I had any rival, it was only a strange beast I shall tell you of later). He was, naturally, sometimes nervous in the face of my beauty; and at other times needlessly pleased with himself. I understood. Before me there had been prostitutes, of course, grisettes, and friends. Ernest, Alfred, Louis, Max: the band of students, that was how I thought of them. Sodality confirmed by sodomy. No, perhaps that's unfair; I do not know precisely who, precisely when, precisely what; though I do know that Gustave was never tired of doubles ententes about la pipe. I also know he was never tired of gazing at me as I lay on my front.
I was different, you see. Prostitutes were uncomplicated; grisettes could be paid off too; men were different—friendship, however deep, had its known limits. But love? And losing yourself? And some partnership, some equality? He didn't dare risk it. I was the only woman to whom he was sufficiently drawn; and he chose, out of fear, to humiliate me. I think we should feel sorry for Gustave.
He used to send me flowers. Special flowers; the convention of an unconventional lover. He sent me a rose once. He gathered it one Sunday morning at Croisset, from a hedge in his garden. 'I kiss it,' he wrote. 'Put it quickly to your mouth, and then—you know where…Adieu! A thousand kisses. I am yours from night to day, from day to night.' Who could resist such sentiments? I kissed the rose, and that night, in bed, I placed it where he desired me to. In the morning, when I awoke, the rose had by the motions of the night been reduced to its fragrant parts. The sheets smelt of Croisset—that place which I did not yet know would be forbidden to me; there was a petal between two of my toes, and a thin scratch down the inside of my right thigh. Gustave, eager and clumsy as he was, had forgotten to smooth the stem of the rose.
The next flower was not such a happy one. Gustave went off on his tour of Brittany. Was I wrong to make a fuss? Three months! We had known one another less than a year, all Paris knew of our passion, and he chose three months in the company of Du Camp! We could have been like George Sand and Chopin; greater than them! And Gustave insists on disappearing for three months with that ambitious catamite of his. Was I wrong to make a fuss? Was it not a direct insult, an attempt to humiliate me? And yet he said, when I expressed my feelings to him in public (I am not ashamed of love—why should I be? I would declare myself in the waiting-room of a railway station if it were necessary), he said that I was humiliating him. Imagine! He cast me off. Ultima, I wrote on the last letter he sent me before his departure.
It wasn't, of course, his last letter. No sooner was he striding across that tedious countryside, pretending to be interested in disused châteaux and drab churches (three months!), than hean to miss me. The letters started to arrive, the apologies, the confessions, the pleas that I should reply to him. He was always like that. When he was at Croisset, he dreamed of the hot sand and the shimmering Nile; when he was on the Nile, he dreamed of damp fogs and shimmering Croisset. He didn't really like travel, of course. He liked the idea of travel, and the memory of travel, but not travel itself. For once I agree with Du Camp, who used to say that Gustave's preferred form of travel was to lie on a divan and have the scenery carried past him. As for that famous oriental trip of theirs, Du Camp (yes, the odious Du Camp, the unreliable Du Camp) maintained that Gustave spent most of the journey in a state of torpor.


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