Flaubert's Parrot Julian Barnes



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Why did Dr Flaubert sell his property at Déville to buy this house? Traditionally, as a refuge for his invalid son, who had just suffered his first attack of epilepsy. But the property at Déville would have been sold anyway. The Paris-to-Rouen railway was being extended to Le Havre, and the line cut straight through Dr Flaubert's land; part of it was to be compulsorily purchased. You could say that Gustave was shepherded into creative retreat at Croisset by epilepsy. You could also say he was driven there by the railway.

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2. Gustave belonged to the first railway generation in France; and he hated the invention. For a start, it was an odious means of transport. 'I get so fed up on a train that after five minutes I'm howling with boredom. Passengers think it's a neglected dog; not at all, it's M. Flaubert, sighing.' Secondly, it produced a new figure at the dinner table: the railway bore. Conversation on the topic gave Flaubert a colique des wagons; in June 1843 he pronounced the railways to be the third most boring subject imaginable after Mme Lafarge (an arsenic poisoner) and the death of the Duc d'Orléans (killed in his carriage the previous year). Louise Colet, striving for modernity in her poem 'La Paysanne', allowed Jean, her soldier returning from the wars in search of his Jeanneton, to notice the running smoke of a train. Flaubert cut the line. 'Jean doesn't give a damn about that sort thing,' he growled, 'and nor do I.'
But he didn't just hate the railway as such; he hated the way it flattered people with the illusion of progress. What was the point of scientific advance without moral advance? The railway would merely permit more people to move about, meet and be stupid together. In one of his earliest letters, written when he was fifteen, he lists the misdeeds of modern civilisation: 'Railways, poisons, enema pumps, cream tarts, royalty and the guillotine.' Two years later, in his essay on Rabelais, the list of enemies has altered—all except the first item: 'Railways, factories, chemists and mathematicians.' He never changed.

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3. 'Superior to everything is—Art. A book of poetry is preferable to a railway.'
Intimate Notebook, 1840

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4. The function of the railway in Flaubert's affair with Louise Colet has, to my mind, been rather underestimated. Consider the mechanics of their relationship. She lived in Paris, he at Croisset; he wouldn't come to the capital, she wasn't allowed to visit him in the country. So they would meet approximately half-way, at Mantes. where the Hôtel du Grand Cerf would allow them a night or two of lurid rapture and false promises. Afterwards, the following cycle would take place: Louise would assume an early rendezvous; Gustave would put her off; Louise would plead, grow angry, threaten; Gustave would reluctantly give in and agree to another meeting. It would last just long enough to sate his desires and rekindle her expectations. And so this grumbling three-legged race was run. Did Gustave ever reflect on the fate of an earlier visitor to the town? It was at the capture of Mantes that William the Conqueror fell from his horse and received the injury from which he later died in Rouen.
The Paris-to-Rouen railway—built by the English—opened on May 9th, 1843, barely three years before Gustave and Louise met. The journey to Mantes, for each of them, was cut from a day to a couple of hours. Imagine what it would have been like without the railway. They would have travelled by diligence or river-steamer; they would have been tired and perhaps irritable on seeing one another again. Fatigue affects desire. But in view of the difficulties, more would have been expected of the occasion: more in time—an extra day perhaps—and more in emotional commitment. This is just my theory, of course. But if the telephone in our century has made adultery both simpler and harder (assignations are easier, but so is checking up), the railway in the last century had a similar effect. (Has anyone made a comparative study of the spread of railways and the spread of adultery? I can imagine village priests delivering sermons on the Devil's invention and being mocked for it; but if they did, they were right.) The railway made it worth while for Gustave: he could get to Mantes and back without too much trouble; and Louise's complaints perhaps seemed a reasonable price to pay for such accessible pleasure. The railway made it worthwhile for Louise: Gustave was never really far away, however severe he sounded in his letters; the next one would surely say that they could meet again, that only two hours separated them. And the railway made it worthwhile for us, who can now read the letters which resulted from that prolonged erotic oscillation.

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5a. September 1846: the first meeting at Mantes. The only problem was Gustave's mother. She had not as yet been officially informed of Louise's existence. Indeed, Mme Colet was obliged to send all her love letters to Gustave via Maxime du Camp, who then readdressed them in fresh envelopes. How would Mme Flaubert react to Gustave's sudden nocturnal absence? What could he tell her? A lie, of course: 'une petite histoire que ma mère a crue,' he boasted, like a proud six-year-old, and set off for Mantes.
But Mme Flaubert didn't believe his petite histoire. She slept less that night than Gustave and Louise did. Something had made her uneasy; perhaps the recent cascade of letters from Maxime du Camp. So the next morning she went to Rouen station, and when her son, still wearing a fresh crust of pride and sex, got off the train, she was waiting for him on the platform. 'She didn't utter any reproach, but her face was the greatest reproach anyone could make.'
They talk about the sadness of departure; what about the guilt of arrival?

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5b. Louise, of course, could play the platform scene as well. Her habit of jealously bursting in on Gustave when he was dining with friends was notorious. She always expected to find a rival; but there was no rival, unless you count Emma Bovary. On one occasion, Du Camp records, 'Flaubert was leaving Paris for Rouen when she entered the waiting-room of the station and went through such tragic scenes that the railway officials were obliged to interfere. Flaubert was distressed and begged for mercy, but she gave him no quarter.'

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6. It is a little-known fact that Flaubert travelled on the London Underground. I quote items from his skeleton travel diary of 1867:
Monday 26 June. (on the train from Newhaven). A few insignificant stations with posters, just as at stations on the outskirts of Paris. Arrival at Victoria.
Monday 3 July. Bought a railway timetable.
Friday 7 July. Underground railway—Hornsey. Mrs Farmer… To Charing Cross station for information.
He does not deign to compare the British and the French railways. This is perhaps a pity. Our friend the Reverend G. M. Musgrave, disembarking at Boulogne a dozen years earlier, was much impressed by the French system: 'The contrivances for receiving, weighing, marking and paying for luggage were simple and excellent. Regularity, precision, and punctuality did the work well in every department. Much civility, much comfort (comfort in France!) made every arrangement pleasurable; and all this without more vociferation or commotion than prevails at Paddington; to say nothing of the second-class carriage being nearly equal to our first. Shame to England that it should be thus!'

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7. 'RAILWAYS: If Napoleon had had them at his disposition, he would have been invincible. Always go into ecstasies about their invention, and say: "I, Monsieur, I who am even now speaking to you, was only this morning at X…; I left by the X-o'clock train; I did the business I had to do there; and by X-o'clock I was back."'
Dictionnaire de idées reçues

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8. I took the train from Rouen (Rive Droite). There were blue plastic seats and a warning in four languages not to lean out of the window; English, I noticed, requires more words than French, German or Italian to convey this advice. I sat beneath a metal-framed photograph (black and white) of fishing-boats at the Île d'Oléron. Next to me an elderly couple were reading a story in Paris-Normandie about a charcutier, fou d'amour, who had killed a family of seven. On the window was a small sticker I hadn't seen before: 'Ne jetez pas l'énergie par les fenêtres en les ouvrant en période de chauffage.' Do not throw energy out of the windows—How un-English the phrasing was; logical yet fanciful at the same time.
I was being observant, you see. A single ticket costs 35 francs. The journey takes a minute or so under the hour: half what it took in Flaubert's day. Oissel is the first stop; then Le Vaudreuil—ville nouvelle; Gaillon (Aubevoye), with its Grand Marnier warehouse. Musgrave suggested the scenery along this stretch of the Seine reminded him of Norfolk: 'More like English scenery than any district I had seen in Europe.' The ticket-collector raps on the door jamb with his punch: metal on metal, an order you obey. Vernon; then, on your left, the broad Seine conducts you into Mantes.
Six, place de la République was a building site. A square block of flats was almost finished; already it exhibited the confident innocence of the usurper. The Grand Cerf? Yes, indeed, they told me at the tabac, the old building had stood until a year or so ago. I went back and stared again. All that now remained of the hotel was a couple of tall stone gateposts some thirty feet apart. I gazed at them hopelessly. On the train, I had been unable to imagine Flaubert (howling like an impatient dog? grumbling? ardent?) making the same journey; now at this point of pilgrimage, the gateposts were no help in thinking my way back to the hot reunions of Gustave and Louise. Why should they be? We are too impertinent with the past, counting on it in this way for a reliablefrisson. Why should it lay our game?
Grumpily I circled the church (Michelin one star), bought a newspaper, drank a cup of coffee, read about the charcutier, fou d'amour, and decided to take the next train back. The road leading to the station is called avenue Franklin Roosevelt, though the reality is a little less grand than the name. Fifty yards from the end, on the left, I came across a cafe-restaurant. It was called Le Perroquet. Outside, on the pavement, a fretworked wooden parrot with garish green plumage was holding the lunch menu in its beak. The building had one of those brightly timbered exteriors which assert more age than they probably possess. I don't know if it would have been there in Flaubert's day. But I know this. Sometimes the past may be a greased pig; sometimes a bear in its den; and sometimes merely the flash of a parrot, two mocking eyes that spark at you from the forest.

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9. Trains play little part in Flaubert's fiction. This shows accuracy, however, not prejudice: most of his work is set before the English navvies and engineers descended on Normandy. Bouvard et Pécuchet pokes over into the railway age, but neither of his opinionated copyists, perhaps surprisingly, has a published view on the new mode of transport.
Trains occur only in L'Education sentimentale. They are first mentioned as a not very arresting topic of conversation at a soirée given by the Dambreuses. The first real train, and the first real journey, occur in Part Two, Chapter Three, when Frédéric goes to Creil in the hope of seducing Mme Arnoux. Given the benign impatience of his traveller, Flaubert informs the excursion with an approving lyricism: green plains, stations slipping by like little stage sets, fleecy smoke from the engine dancing briefly on the grass before dispersing. There are several more railway journeys in the novel, and the passengers seem happy enough; at least, none of them howls with boredom like a neglected dog. And though Flaubert aggressively excised from 'La Paysanne' Mme Colet's line about the running smoke on the horizon, this doesn't debar from his own countryside (Part Three, Chapter Four) 'the smoke of a railway engine stretching out in a horizontal line, like a gigantic ostrich feather whose tip kept blowing away.'
We may detect his private opinion only at one point. Pellerin, the artist among Frédéric's companions, a man who specialises in complete theories and incomplete sketches, produces one of his rare finished paintings. Flaubert allows himself a private smile: 'It represented the Republic, or Progress, or Civilisation, in the figure of Jesus Christ, driving a locomotive through a virgin forest.'

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10. The penultimate sentence of Gustave's life, uttered as he stood feeling dizzy but not at all alarmed: 'I think I'm going to have a kind of fainting fit. It's lucky it should happen today; it would have been a great nuisance tomorrow, in the train.'

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11. At the buffers. Croisset today. The vast paper factory was churning away on the site of Flaubert's house. I wandered inside; they were happy to show me round. I gazed at the pistons, the steam, the vats and the slopping trays: so much wetness to produce something as dry as paper. I asked my guide if they made the sort of paper that was used for books; she said they made every sort of paper. The tour, I realised, would not prove sentimental. Above our heads a huge drum of paper, some twenty feet wide, was slowly tracking along on a conveyor. It seemed out of proportion to its surroundings, like a piece of pop sculpture on a deliberately provoking scale. I remarked that it resembled a gigantic roll of lavatory paper; my guide confirmed that this was exactly what it was.
Outside the thumping factory things were scarcely quieter. Lorries bullied past on the road that had once been a tow-path; pile-drivers banged on both sides of the river; no boat could pass without hooting. Flaubert used to claim that Pascal had once visited the house at Croisset; and a tenacious local legend maintained that Abbé Prévost wrote Manon Lescaut there. Nowadays there is no one left to repeat such fictions; and no one to believe them either.
A sullen Normandy rain was falling. I thought of the horse's silhouette on the far bank, and the quiet splosh as the eel-fishermen cast off. Could even eels live in this cheerless commercial conduit? If they did, they would probably taste of diesel and detergent. My eye moved upriver, and suddenly I noticed it, squat and shuddering. A train. I'd seen the rails before, a set laid between the road and the water; the rain was now making them glisten and smirk—I'd assumed without thinking that they were for the straddling dock cranes to run on. But no: he hasn't even been spared this. The swaddled goods train was drawn up about two hundred yards away, ready to make its run past Flaubert's pavilion. It would doubtless hoot derisively as it drew level; perhaps it was carrying poisons, enema pumps and cream tarts, or supplies for chemists and mathematicians. I didn't want to see the event (irony can be heavy-handed as well as ruthless). I climbed into my car and drove off.
The Flaubert Apocrypha

It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.

It is not the houses. It is the spaces between the houses.

It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.


But it's also what they didn't build. It's the houses they dreamed and sketched. It's the brusque boulevards of the imagination; it's that untaken, sauntering path between toupeed cottages; it's the trompe l'oeil cul-de-sac which bluffs you into the belief that you're entering some smart avenue.
Do the books that writers don't write matter? It's easy to forget them, to assume that the apocryphal bibliography must contain nothing but bad ideas, justly abandoned projects, embarrassing first thoughts. It needn't be so: first thoughts are often best, cheeringly rehabilitated by third thoughts after they've been loured at by seconds. Besides, an idea isn't always abandoned because it fails some quality-control test. The imagination doesn't crop annually like a reliable fruit tree. The writer has to gather whatever's there: sometimes too much, sometimes too little, sometimes nothing at all. And in the years of glut there is always a slatted wooden tray in some cool, dark attic, which the writer nervously visits from time to time; and yes, oh dear, while he's been hard at work downstairs, up in the attic there are puckering skins, warning spots, a sudden brown collapse and the sprouting of snowflakes. What can he do about it?
With Flaubert, the apocrypha cast a second shadow. If the sweetest moment in life is a visit to the brothel which doesn't come off, perhaps the sweetest moment in writing is the arrival of that idea for a book which never has to be written, which is never sullied with a definite shape, which never needs be exposed to a less loving gaze than that of its author.
Of course, the published works themselves aren't immutable: they might now look different had Flaubert been awarded time and money to put his literary estate in order. Bouvard et Pécuchet would have been finished; Madame Bovary might have been suppressed (how seriously do we take Gustave's petulance against the overbearing fame of the book? a little seriously); and L'Education sentimentale might have had a different ending. Du Camp records his friend's dismay at the book's historical misfortune: a year after publication came the Franco-Prussian war, and it seemed to Gustave that the invasion and the debacle at Sedan would have provided a grand, public and irrebuttable conclusion to a novel which set out to trace the moral failure of a generation.
'Imagine', Du Camp reports him as saying, 'the capital one might have made out of certain incidents. Here, for instance, is one which would have been excellent in calibre. The capitulation has been signed, the army is under arrest, the Emperor, sunk back in a corner of his large carriage, is gloomy and dull-eyed; he smokes a cigarette to keep himself in countenance and, though a tempest is raging within him, tries to appear impassive. Beside him are his aides-de-camp and a Prussian General. All are silent, each glance is lowered; there is pain in every heart.
'Where the two roads cross the procession is stopped by a column of prisoners guarded by some Uhlans, who wear the chapska perched on their ear, and ride with couched lances. The carriage has to be stopped before the human flood, which advances amid a cloud of dust, reddened by the rays of the sun. The men walk dragging their feet and with slouched shoulders. The Emperor's languid eye contemplates this crowd. What a strange way to review his troops. He thinks of previous reviews, of the drums beating, of the waving standards, of his generals covered with gold lace and saluting him with their swords, and of his guard shouting, "Vive l'Empereur!"
'A prisoner recognises him and salutes him, then another and another.
'Suddenly a Zouave leaves the ranks, shakes his fist and cries, "Ah! There you are, you villain; we have been ruined by you!"
'Then ten thousand men yell insults, wave their arms threateningly, spit upon the carriage, and pass like a whirlwind of curses. The Emperor still remains immovable without making a sign or uttering a word, but, he thinks, "Those are the men they used to call my Praetorian Guards!"
'Well, what do you think of that for a situation? It is pretty powerful, is it not? That would have made rather a stirring final scene for my Education! I cannot console myself for having missed it.'
Should we mourn such a lost ending? And how do we assess it? Du Camp probably coarsened it in the retelling, and there would have been many Flaubertian redraftings before publication. Its appeal is clear: the fortissimo climax, the public conclusion to a nation's private failing. But does the book need such an ending? Having had 1848, do we need 1870 as well? Better to let the novel die away in disenchantment; better the downbeat reminiscing of two friends than a swirling salon-picture.
For the Apocrypha proper, let us be systematic.
1. Autobiography. 'One day, if I write my memoirs—the only thing I shall write well, if ever I put myself to the task of doing it—you will find a place in them, and what a place! For you have blown a large breach in the walls of my existence.' Gustave writes this in one of his earliest letters to Louise Colet; and over a seven-year period (1846-53) he makes occasional references to the planned autobiography. Then he announces its official abandonment. But was it ever more than just a project for a project? 'I'll put you in my memoirs' is one of the handier clichés of literary wooing. File it alongside 'I'll put you in motion pictures', 'I could immortalise you in paint', 'I can just see your neck in marble', etc, etc.
2. Translations. Lost works, rather than strict apocrypha; but we might note here: a) Juliet Herbert's translation of Madame Bovary, which the novelist oversaw, and which he proclaimed 'a masterpiece'; b) the translation referred to in a letter of 1844: 'I have read Candide twenty times. I have translated it into English…' This does not sound like a school exercise: more like a piece of self-imposed apprenticeship. Judging from Gustave's erratic use of English in his letters, the translation probably added a layer of unintentional comedy to the intentions of the original. He couldn't even copy English place-names accurately: in 1866, making notes on the 'coloured Minton tiles' at the South Kensington Museum, he turns Stoke-upon-Trent into 'Stroke-upon-Trend'.
3. Fiction. This section of the Apocrypha contains a large amount of juvenilia, useful mainly to the psychobiographer. But the books a writer fails to write in his adolescence are of a different nature from the books he fails to write once he has announced his profession. These are the not-books for which he must take responsibility.
In 1850, while in Egypt, Flaubert spends two days pondering the story of Mycerinus, a pious king of the fourth dynasty who is credited with reopening temples closed by his predecessors. In a letter to Bouilhet, however, the novelist characterises his subject more crudely as 'the king who fucks his daughter'. Perhaps Flaubert's interest was encouraged by the discovery (or indeed the memory) that in 1837 the king's sarcophagus had been excavated by the British and shipped back to London. Gustave would have been able to inspect it when he visited the British Museum in 1851.
I tried to inspect it myself the other day. The sarcophagus, they told me, is not one of the Museum's more interesting possessions, and hasn't been on display since 1904. Though believed to be fourth dynasty when it was shipped, it later turned out to be twenty-sixth dynasty: the portions of mummified body inside might, or equally might not, be those of Mycerinus. I felt disappointed, but also relieved: what if Flaubert had continued with his project, and inserted a meticulously researched description of the king's tomb? Dr Enid Starkie would have been given the chance to swat another Mistake in Literature.
(Perhaps I should award Dr Starkie an entry in my pocket guide to Flaubert; or would that be unnecessarily vindictive? S for Sade, or S for Starkie? It's coming along well, by the way, Braithwaite's Dictionary of Accepted Ideas. All you need to know about Flaubert to know as much as the next person! Only a few more entries and I'll be finished. The letter X is going to be a problem, I can see. There's nothing under X in Flaubert's own Dictionary.)


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