Flaubert's Parrot Julian Barnes



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I was reading Mauriac the other day: the Mémoires intérieurs, written at the very end of his life. It's the time when the final pellets of vanity accumulate into a cyst, when the self starts up its last pathetic murmur of 'Remember me, remember me…'; it's the time when the autobiographies get written, the last boasts are made, and the memories which no one else's brain still holds are written down with a false idea of value.
But that's just what Mauriac declines to do. He writes his 'Mémoires', but they aren't his memoirs. We are spared the counting-games and spelling-bees of childhood, that first servant-girl in the humid attic, the canny uncle with metal teeth and a headful of stories—or whatever. Instead, Mauriac tells us about the books he's read, the painters he's liked, the plays he's seen. He finds himself by looking in the works of others. He defines his own faith by a passionate anger against Gide the Luciferian. Reading his 'memoirs' is like meeting a man on a train who says, 'Don't look at me, that's misleading. If you want to know what I'm like, wait until we're in a tunnel, and then study my reflection in the window.' You wait, and look, and catch a face against a shifting background of sooty walls, cables and sudden brickwork. The transparent shape flickers and jumps, always a few feet away. You become accustomed to its existence, you move with its movements; and though you know its presence is conditional, you feel it to be permanent. Then there is a wail from ahead, a roar and a burst of light; the face is gone for ever.
Well, you know I've got brown eyes; make of that what you will. Six foot one; grey hair; good health. But what matters about me? Only what I know, what I believe, what I can tell you. Nothing much about my character matters. No, that's not true. I'm honest, I'd better tell you that. I'm aiming to tell the truth; though mistakes are, I suppose, inevitable. And if I make them, at least I'm in good company. The Times, in its obituary column, May 10th, 1880, claims that Flaubert wrote a book called Bouvard et Peluchet, and that he 'at first adopted his father's profession—that of surgeon'. My Encyclopaedia Britannica, eleventh edition (the best, they say), suggests that Charles Bovary is a portrait of the novelist's father. The author of this article, a certain 'E.G.', turns out to have been Edmund Gosse. I snorted a bit when I read that. I have a little less time for 'Mr' Gosse since my encounter with Ed Winterton.
I'm honest, I'm reliable. When I was a doctor I never killed a single patient, which is more of a boast than you might imagine. People trusted me; they kept coming back, at any rate. And I was good with the dying. I never got drunk—that is, I never got too drunk; I never wrote prescriptions for imaginary patients; I never made advances to women in my surgery. I sound like a plaster saint. I'm not.
No, I didn't kill my wife. I might have known you'd think that. First you find out that she's dead; then, a while later, I say that I never killed a single patient. Aha, who did you kill, then? The question no doubt appears logical. How easy it is to set off speculation. There was a man called Ledoux who maliciously claimed that Flaubert had committed suicide; he wasted a lot of people's time. I'll tell you about him later. But it all goes to prove my point: what knowledge is useful, what knowledge is true? Either I have to give you so much information about myself that you are forced to admit that I could no more have killed my wife than Flaubert could have committed suicide; or else I merely say, That's all, that's enough. No more. J'y suis, j'y reste.
I could play the Mauriac game, perhaps. Tell you how I brought myself up on Wells, Huxley and Shaw; how I prefer George Eliot and even Thackeray to Dickens; how I like Orwell, Hardy and Housman, and dislike the Auden-Spender-Isherwood crew (preaching socialism as a sideshoot of homosexual law reform); how I'm saving Virginia Woolf for when I'm dead. The younger fellows? Today's fellows? Well, they each seem to do one thing well enough, but fail to realise that literature depends on doing several things well at the same time. I could go on at great length on all these topics; it would be very pleasant for me to say what I think and relieve Monsieur Geoffrey Braithwaite's feelings by means of such utterances. But what is the importance of the said gentleman?
I'd rather play a different version. Some Italian once wrote that the critic secretly wants to kill the writer. Is that true? Up to a point. We all hate golden eggs. Bloody golden eggs again, you can hear the critics mutter as a good novelist produces yet another good novel; haven't we had enough omelettes this year?
But if not that, then many critics would like to be dictators of literature, to regulate the past, and to set out with quiet authority the future direction of the art. This month, everyone must write about this; next month, nobody is allowed to write about that. So-and-so will not be reprinted until we say so. All copies of this seductively bad novel must be destroyed at once. (You think I am joking? In March 1983, the newspaper Libération urged that the French Minister for Women's Rights should put on her Index for 'public provocation to sexist hatred' the following works: Pantagruel, Jude the Obscure, Baudelaire's poems, all Kafka, The Snows of Kilimanjaro—and Madame Bovary.) Still, let's play. I'll go first.
1. There shall be no more novels in which a group of people, isolated by circumstances, revert to the 'natural condition' of man, become essential, poor, bare, forked creatures. All that may be written is one short story, the final one of the genre, the cork in the bottle. I'll write it for you. A group of travellers are shipwrecked, or airwrecked, somewhere, no doubt on an island. One of them, a large, powerful, dislikeable man, has a gun. He forces all the others to live in a sandpit of their own digging. Every so often, he takes one of his prisoners out, shoots him or her, and eats the carcass. The food tastes good, and he grows fat. When he has shot and eaten his final prisoner, he begins to worry what he will do for food; but fortunately a seaplane arrives at this point and rescues him. He tells the world that he was the sole survivor of the original wreck, and that he has sustained himself by eating berries, leaves and roots. The world marvels at his fine physical condition, and a poster bearing his photograph is displayed in the windows of vegetarian food shops. He is never found out.
You see how easy it is to write, how much fun it is? That's why I'd ban the genre.
2. There shall be no more novels about incest. No, not even ones in very bad taste.
3. No novels set in abattoirs. This is, I admit, a rather small genre at the moment; but I have recently noticed increasing use of the abattoir in short stories. It must be nipped in the bud.
4. There is to be a twenty-year ban on novels set in Oxford or Cambridge, and a ten-year ban on other university fiction. No ban on fiction set in polytechnics (though no subsidy to encourage it). No ban on novels set in primary schools; a ten-year ban on secondary-school fiction. A partial ban on growing-up novels (one per author allowed). A partial ban on novels written in the historic present (again, one per author). A total ban on novels in which the main character is a journalist or a television presenter.
5. A quota system is to be introduced on fiction set in South America. The intention is to curb the spread of package-tour baroque and heavy irony. Ah, the propinquity of cheap life and expensive principles, of religion and banditry, of surprising honour and random cruelty. Ah, the daiquiri bird which incubates its eggs on the wing; ah, the fredonna tree whose roots grow at the tips of its branches, and whose fibres assist the hunchback to impregnate by telepathy the haughty wife of the hacienda owner; ah, the opera house now overgrown by jungle. Permit me to rap on the table and murmur 'Pass!' Novels set in the Arctic and the Antarctic will receive a development grant.
6a. No scenes in which carnal connection takes place between a human being and an animal. The woman and the porpoise, for instance, whose tender coupling symbolises a wider mending of those gossamer threads which formerly bound the world together in peaceable companionship. No, none of that.
6b. No scenes in which carnal connection takes place between man and woman (porpoise-like, you might say) in the shower. My reasons are primarily aesthetic, but also medical.
7. No novels about small, hitherto forgotten wars in distant parts of the British Empire, in the painstaking course of which we learn, first, that the British are averagely wicked and, second, that war is very nasty indeed.
8. No novels in which the narrator, or any of the characters, is identified simply by an initial letter. Still they go on doing it!
9. There shall be no more novels which are really about other novels. No 'modern versions', reworkings, sequels or prequels. No imaginative completions of works left unfinished on their author's death. Instead, every writer is to be issued with a sampler in coloured wools to hang over the fireplace. It reads: Knit Your Own Stuff.
10. There shall be a twenty-year ban on God; or rather, on the allegorical, metaphorical, allusive, offstage, imprecise and ambiguous uses of God. The bearded head gardener who is always tending the apple tree; the wise old sea-captain who never rushes to judgment; the character you're not quite introduced to, but who is giving you a creepy feeling by Chapter Four…pack them off into storage, all of them. God is permitted only as a verifiable divinity who gets extremely cross at man's transgressions.
So how do we seize the past? As it recedes, does it come into focus? Some think so. We know more, we discover extra documents, we use infra-red light to pierce erasures in the correspondence, and we are free of contemporary prejudice; so we understand better. Is that it? I wonder. Take Gustave's sex-life. For years it was assumed that the bear of Croisset broke out of his bearishness solely with Louise Colet—'The only sentimental episode of any importance in the life of Flaubert,' Emile Faguet declared. But then Elisa Schlesinger is discovered—the bricked-up royal chamber in Gustave's heart, the slow-burning fire, the adolescent passion never consummated. Next, more letters come into view, and the Egyptian journals. The life begins to reek of actresses; the bedding of Bouilhet is announced; Flaubert himself admits a taste for Cairo bath-house boys. At last we see the whole shape of his carnality; he is ambi-sexual, omni-experienced.
But not so fast. Sartre decrees that Gustave was never homosexual; merely passive and feminine in his psychology. The byplay with Bouilhet was just teasing, the outer edge of vivid male friendship: Gustave never committed a single homosexual act in all his life. He says he did, but that was boastful invention: Bouilhet asked for salacities from Cairo, and Flaubert provided them. (Are we convinced by this? Sartre accuses Flaubert of wishful thinking. Might we not accuse Sartre of the same? Wouldn't he prefer Flaubert the trembling bourgeois, joking on the edge of a sin he fears to commit, rather than Flaubert the daredevil, the subversive indulger?) And in the meantime, we are also being encouraged to shift our view of Mme Schlesinger. Current belief among Flaubertistes is that the relationship was consummated after all: either in 1848 or, more probably, in the early months of 1843
The past is a distant, receding coastline, and we are all in the same boat. Along the stern rail there is a line of telescopes; each brings the shore into focus at a given distance. If the boat is becalmed, one of the telescopes will be in continual use; it will seem to tell the whole, the unchanging truth. But this is an illusion; and as the boat sets off again, we return to our normal activity: scurrying from one tele scope to another, seeing the sharpness fade in one, waiting for the blur to clear in another. And when the blur does clear, we imagine that we have made it do so all by ourselves.
Isn't the sea calmer than the other day? And heading north—the light that Boudin saw. What does this journey seem like to those who aren't British—as they head towards the land of embarrassment and breakfast? Do they make nervous jokes about fog and porridge? Flaubert found London scaring; it was an unhealthy city, he declared, where it was impossible to find a pot-au-feu. On the other hand, Britain was the home of Shakespeare, clear thinking and political liberty, the land where Voltaire had been welcomed and to which Zola would flee.
Now what is it? First slum of Europe, one of our poets called it not long ago. First hypermarket of Europe might be more like it. Voltaire praised our attitude to commerce, and the lack of snobbery which allowed the younger sons of the gentry to become businessmen. Now the day-trippers arrive from Holland and Belgium, Germany and France, excited about the weakness of the pound and eager to get into Marks & Spencer. Commerce, Voltaire declared, was the base on which the greatness of our nation was built; now it's all that keeps us from going bankrupt.
When I drive off the boat, I always have a desire to go through the Red Channel. I never have more than the permitted amount of duty-free goods; I've never imported plants, or dogs, or drugs, or uncooked meat, or firearms; and yet I constantly find myself wanting to turn the wheel and head for the Red Channel. It always feels like an admission of failure to come back from the Continent and have nothing to show for it. Would you read this, please, sir? Yes. Have you understood it, sir? Yes. Have you anything to declare? Yes, I'd like to declare a small case of French flu, a dangerous fondness for Flaubert, a childish delight in French road-signs, and a love of the light as you look north. Is there any duty to pay on any of these? There ought to be.
Oh, and I've got this cheese, too. A Brillat-Savarin. That fellow behind me has got one too. I told him you always had to declare your cheese at customs. Say cheese.
I hope you don't think I'm being enigmatic, by the way. If I'm irritating, it's probably because I'm embarrassed; I told you I don't like the full face. But I really am trying to make things easier for you. Mystification is simple; clarity is the hardest thing of all. Not writing a tune is easier than writing one. Not rhyming is easier than rhyming. I don't mean art should be as clear as the instructions on a packet of seeds; I'm saying that you trust the mystifier more if you know he's deliberately choosing not to be lucid. You trust Picasso all the way because he could draw like Ingres.
But what helps? What do we need to know? Not everything. Everything confuses. Directness also confuses. The full-face portrait staring back at you hypnotises. Flaubert is usually looking away in his portraits and photographs. He's looking away so that you can't catch his eye; he's also looking away because what he can see over your shoulder is more interesting than your shoulder.
Directness confuses. I told you my name: Geoffrey Braithwaite. Has that helped? A little; at least it's better than 'B' or 'G' or 'the man' or 'the amateur of cheeses'. And if you hadn't seen me, what would you have deduced from the name? Middle-class professional man; solicitor perhaps; denizen of pine-and-heather country; pepper-and-salt tweeds; a moustache hinting—perhaps fraudulently—at a military past; a sensible wife; perhaps a little boating at weekends; more of a gin than a whisky man; and so on?
I am—was—a doctor, first-generation professional class; as you see, there's no moustache, though I have the military past which men of my age couldn't avoid; I live in Essex, most characterless and therefore most acceptable of the Home Counties; whisky, not gin; no tweed at all; and no boating. Near enough, and yet not near enough, you see. As for my wife, she was not sensible. That was one of the last words anyone would apply to her. They inject soft cheeses, as I said, to stop them ripening too quickly. But they always do ripen; it's in their nature. Soft cheeses collapse; firm cheeses indurate. Both go mouldy.
I was going to put my photograph in the front of the book. Not vanity; just trying to be helpful. But I'm afraid it was rather an old photograph, taken about ten years ago. I haven't got a more recent one. That's something you find: after a certain age, people stop photographing you. Or rather, they photograph you only on formal occasions: birthdays, weddings, Christmas. A flushed and jolly character raises his glass among friends and family—how real, how reliable is that evidence? What would the photos of my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary have revealed? Certainly not the truth; so perhaps it's as well they were never taken.
Flaubert's niece Caroline says that towards the end of his life he regretted not having had a wife and family. Her account is, however, rather spare. The two of them were walking by the Seine after a visit to some friends. '"They got it right," he said to me, alluding to that household with its charming and honest children. "Yes," he repeated to himself gravely, "they got it right." I did not trouble his thoughts, but remained silent at his side. This walk was one of our last.'
I rather wish she had troubled his thoughts. Did he really mean it? Should we take the remark as more than the reflex perversity of a man who dreamed of Egypt while in Normandy, and of Normandy while in Egypt? Was he doing more than praise the particular talents of the family they had just visited? After all, had he wanted to praise the institution of marriage itself, he could have turned to his niece and regretted his solitary life by admitting, 'You got it right.' But he didn't, of course; because she got it wrong. She married a weakling who turned into a bankrupt, and in helping save her husband she bankrupted her uncle. The case of Caroline is instructive—gloomily so to Flaubert.
Her own father had been as much of a weakling as her husband subsequently became; Gustave supplanted him. In her Souvenirs intimes Caroline recalls her uncle's return from Egypt when she was a small girl: he arrives home unexpectedly one evening, wakes her, picks her up out of bed, bursts out laughing because her nightdress extends far below her feet, and plants great kisses on her cheeks. He has just come from outdoors: his moustache is cold, and damp with dew. She is frightened, and much relieved when he puts her down. What is this but a textbook account of the absent father's alarming return to the household—the return from the war, from business, from abroad, from philandering, from danger?
He adored her. In London he carried her round the Great Exhibition; this time she was happy to be in his arms, safe from the frightening crowds. He taught her history: the story of Pelopidas and Epaminondas; he taught her geography, taking a shovel and pail of water into the garden, where he would build for her instructive peninsulas, islands, gulfs and promontories. She loved her childhood with him, and the memory of it survived the misfortunes of her adult life. In 1930, when she was eighty-four, Caroline met Willa Cather in Aix-les-Bains, and recalled the hours spent eighty years earlier on a rug in the corner of Gustave's study: he working, she reading, in strict but proudly observed silence. 'She liked to think, as she lay in her corner, that she was shut in a cage with some powerful wild animal, a tiger or a lion or a bear, who had devoured his keeper and would spring upon anyone else who opened his door but with whom she was "quite safe and conceited", as she said with a chuckle.'
But then the necessities of adulthood arrived. He advised her badly, and she married a weakling. She became a snob; she thought only of smart society; and finally she tried to turn her uncle out of the very house in which the most useful things she knew had been inserted into her brain.
Epaminondas was a Theban general, held to be living proof of all the virtues; he led a career of principled carnage, and founded the city of Megalopolis. As he lay dying, one of those present lamented his lack of issue. He replied, 'I leave two children, Leuctra and Mantinea'—the sites of his two most famous victories. Flaubert might have made a similar avowal—'I leave two children, Bouvard and Pécuchet'—because his only child, the niece who became a daughter, had departed into disapproving adulthood. To her, and to her husband, he had become 'the consumer'.
Gustave taught Caroline about literature. I quote her: 'He considered no book dangerous that was well written.' Move forward seventy years or so to a different household in another part of France. This time there is a bookish boy, a mother, and a friend of the mother's called Mme Picard. The boy later wrote his memoirs; again, I quote: 'Mme Picard's opinion was that a child should be allowed to read everything. "No book can be dangerous if it is well written."' The boy, aware of Mme Picard's frequently expressed view, deliberately exploits her presence and asks his mother's permission to read a particular and notorious novel. 'But if my little darling reads books like that at his age,' says the mother, 'what will he do when he grows up?' 'I shall live them out!' he replies. It was one of the cleverest retorts of his childhood; it went down in family history, and it won him—or so we are left to assume—readership of the novel. The boy was Jean-Paul Sartre. The book was Madame Bovary.
Does the world progress? Or does it merely shuttle back and forth like a ferry? An hour from the English coast and the clear sky disappears. Cloud and rain escort you back to where you belong. As the weather changes, the boat begins to roll a little, and the tables in the bar resume their metallic conversation. Rattarattarattaratta, fattafattafattafatta. Call and response, call and response. Now it sounds to me like the final stages of a marriage: two separated parties, screwed to their own particular pieces of floor; uttering routine chatter while the rain begins to fall. My wife…Not now, not now.
Pécuchet, during his geological investigations, speculates on what would happen if there were an earthquake beneath the English Channel. The water, he concludes, would rush out into the Atlantic; the coasts of England and France would totter, shift and reunite; the Channel would cease to exist. On hearing his friend's predictions, Bouvard runs away in terror. For myself, I do not think we need to be quite so pessimistic.
You won't forget about the cheese, will you? Don't grow a chemical plant in your fridge. I didn't ask if you were married. My compliments, or not, as the case may be.
I think I shall go through the Red Channel this time. I feel the need for some company. The Reverend Musgrave's opinion was that French douaniers behaved like gentlemen, while English customs officers were ruffians. But I find them all quite sympathetic, if you treat them properly.
8: The Train-spotter's Guide to Flaubert

1. The house at Croisset—a long, white, eighteenth-century property on the banks of the Seine—was perfect for Flaubert. It was isolated, yet close to Rouen and thence to Paris. It was large enough for him to have a grand study with five windows; yet small enough for him to discourage visitors without obvious discourtesy. It gave him, too, if he wanted it, an unthreatened view of passing life: from the terrace he could train his opera glasses on the pleasure-steamers taking Sunday lunchers to La Bouille. For their part, the lunchers grew accustomed to cet original de Monsieur Flaubert, and were disappointed if they didn't spot him, in Nubian shirt and silk skullcap, gazing back at them, taking the novelist's view.


Caroline has described the quiet evenings of her childhood at Croisset. It was a curious menage: the girl, the uncle, the grandmother—a solitary representative of each generation, like one of those squeezed houses you sometimes see with a single room on each storey. (The French call such a house un bâton de perroquet, a parrot's perch.) The three of them, she recalled, would often sit at the balcony of the little pavilion and watch the confident arrival of the night. On the far bank they might just discern the silhouette of a straining horse on the tow-path; from nearby they might just hear a discreet splosh as the eel-fishermen cast off and slipped out into the stream.


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