Flaubert's Parrot Julian Barnes



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In 1850, from Constantinople, Flaubert announces three projects: 'Une nuit de Don Juan' (which reaches the planning stage); 'Anubis', the story of 'the woman who wants to be fucked by a god'; and 'My Flemish novel about the young girl who dies a virgin and a mystic…in a little provincial town, at the bottom of a garden planted with cabbages and bulrushes…' Gustave complains in this letter to Bouilhet about the dangers of planning a project too thoroughly: 'It seems to me, alas, that if you can so thoroughly dissect your children who are still to be born, you don't get horny enough actually to father them.' In the present cases, Gustave didn't get horny enough; though some see in his third project a vague forerunner of either Madame Bovary or Un coeur simple.
In 1852-3 Gustave makes serious plans for 'La Spirale', a:grand, metaphysical, fantastical and bawling novel', whose hero lives a typically Flaubertian double life, being happy in his dreams and unhappy in his real life. Its conclusion, of course: that happiness exists only in the imagination.
In 1853, 'one of my old dreams' is resuscitated: a novel about chivalry. Despite Ariosto such a project is still feasible, Gustave declares: the additional elements he will bring to the subject are 'terror and a broader poetry'.
In 1861: 'I've long been meditating a novel on insanity, or rather on how one becomes insane.' From about this time, or a little later, he was also meditating, according to Du Camp, a novel about the theatre; he would sit in the green room jotting down the confidences of over-candid actresses. 'Only Le Sage in Gil Blas has touched upon the truth. I will reveal it in all its nakedness, for it is impossible to imagine how comic it is.'
From this point on, Flaubert must have known that any full-length novel would probably take him five to seven years; and therefore that most of his back-burner projects would inevitably boil themselves dry in the pot. From the last dozen years of his life we find four main ideas, plus an intriguing fifth, a sort of roman trouvé.
a) 'Harel-Bey', an Eastern story. 'If I were younger and had the money, I'd go back to the Orient—to study the modern Orient, the Orient of the Isthmus of Suez. A big book about that is one of my old dreams. I'd like to show a civilised man who turns barbarian, and a barbarian who becomes a civilised man—to develop that contrast between two worlds that end up merging…But it's too late.'
b) A book about the Battle of Thermopylae, which he planned to write after finishing Bouvard et Pécuchet.
c) A novel featuring several generations of a Rouen family.
d) If you cut a flatworm in half, the head will grow a new tail; more surprisingly, the tail will grow a new head. This is what happened with the regretted ending to L'Education sentimentale: it generated an entire novel of its own, called first 'Under Napoleon III', and later 'A Parisian Household'. 'I will write a novel about the Empire [Du Camp reports him saying] and bring in the evening receptions at Compiegne, with all the ambassadors, marshals and senators ratding their decorations as they bend to the ground to kiss the hand of the Prince Imperial. Yes indeed! The period will furnish material for some capital books.'
e) The roman trouvé was found by Charles Lapierre, editor of Le Nouvelliste de Rouen. Dining at Croisset one evening, Lapierre told Flaubert the scandalous history of Mademoiselle de P—. She had been born into the Normandy nobility, had connections at Court, and was appointed reader to the Empress Eugene. Her beauty, they said, was enough to damn a saint. It was certainly enough to damn her: an open liaison with an officer of the Imperial Guard caused her dismissal. Subsequently she became one of the queens of the Parisian demi-monde, ruling in the late 1860s over a loucher version of the Court from which she had been excluded. During the Franco-Prussian War, she disappeared from sight (along with the rest of her profession), and afterwards her star waned. She descended, by all accounts, to the lowest levels of harlotry. And yet, encouragingly (for fiction as well as for herself), she proved able to rise again: she became the established mistress of a cavalry officer, and by the time she died was the legal wife of an admiral.
Flaubert was delighted with the story: 'Do you know, Lapierre, you've just given me the subject of a novel, the counterpart of my Bovary, a Bovary of high society. What an attractive figure!' He copied down the story at once, and began to make notes on it. But the novel was never written, and the notes have never been found.
All these unwritten books tantalise. Yet they can, to an extent, be filled out, ordered, reimagined. They can be studied in academies. A pier is a disappointed bridge; yet stare at it for long enough and you can dream it to the other side of the Channel. The same is true with these stubs of books.
But what of the unled lives? These, perhaps, are more truly tantalising; these are the real apocrypha. Thermopylae instead of Bouvard et Pécuchet? Well, it's still a book. But if Gustave himself had changed course? It's easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren't writers, and very little harm comes to them. A phrenologist—that careers master of the nineteenth century—once examined Flaubert and told him he was cut out to be a tamer of wild beasts. Not so inaccurate either. That quote again: 'I attract mad people and animals.'
It is not just the life that we know. It is not just the life that has been successfully hidden. It is not just the lies about the life, some of which cannot now be disbelieved. It is also the life that was not led.
'Am I to be a king, or just a pig?' Gustave writes in his Intimate Notebook. At nineteen, it always looks as simple as this. There is the life, and then there is the not-life; the life of ambition served, or the life of porcine failure. Others try and tell you about your future, but you never really believe them. 'Many things', Gustave writes at this time, 'have been predicted to me: 1) that I'll learn to dance; 2) that I'll marry. We'll see—I don't believe it.'
He never married, and he never learned to dance. He was so resistant to dancing that most of the principal male characters in his novels take sympathetic action and refuse to dance as well.
What did he learn instead? Instead he learned that life is not a choice between murdering your way to the throne or slopping back in a sty; that there are swinish kings and regal hogs; that the king may envy the pig; and that the possibilities of the not-life will always change tormentingly to fit the particular embarrassments of the lived life.
At seventeen, he announces that he wants to spend his whole life in a ruined castle by the sea.
At eighteen, he decides that some freakish wind must have mistakenly transplanted him to France: he was born, he declares, to be Emperor of Cochin-China, to smoke 36-fathom pipes, to have 6,000 wives and 1,400 catamites; but instead, displaced by this meteorological hazard, he is left with immense, insatiable desires, fierce boredom, and an attack of the yawns.
At nineteen, he thinks that after he's finished his legal studies he'll go off and become a Turk in Turkey, or a muleteer in Spain, or a cameleer in Egypt.
At twenty, he still wants to become a muleteer, though by now the Spanish location has been narrowed to that of Andalusia. Other career possibilities include the life of a lazzarone in Naples; though he'd settle for being the driver of the coach which plies between Nimes and Marseilles. Yet is any of this rare enough? The ease with which even the bourgeois travel nowadays comes as an agony to one who has 'the Bosphorus in the soul'.
At twenty-four, with his father and sister newly dead, he plans what to do with his life should his mother die as well: he would sell up everything and live in Rome, Syracuse or Naples.
Still twenty-four, and presenting himself to Louise Colet as a fellow of infinite whim, he claims that he has thought long and very seriously about the idea of becoming a bandit in Smyrna. But at the very least 'someday I shall go and live far away from here and never be heard of again'. Perhaps Louise is little amused by Ottoman banditry; for now a more domestic fantasy appears. If only he were free, he would leave Croisset and come to live with her in Paris. He imagines their life together, their marriage, a sweet existence of mutual love and mutual companionship. He imagines their having a child together; he imagines Louise's death and his own subsequent tenderness in caring for the motherless infant (we do not, alas, have Louise's response to this particular flight). The exotic appeal of the domestic does not, however, last. Within a month the tense of the verb curdles: 'It seems to me that if I had been your husband, we would have been happy together. After we'd been happy, then we would have hated one another. This is normal.' Louise is expected to be grateful that Gustave's far-sightedness has spared her such an unsatisfactory life.
So instead, and still twenty-four, Gustave sits over a map with Du Camp and plans a monster journey to Asia. It would last six years and would cost, at their own rough estimate, three million six hundred thousand and a few odd francs.
At twenty-five he wants to be a Brahmin: the mystic dance, the long hair, the face dripping with holy butter. He officially renounces wanting to be a Camaldolese, a brigand or a Turk. 'Now it's a Brahmin, or nothing at all—which would be simpler.' Go on, be nothing at all, life urges. Being a pig is simple.
At twenty-nine, inspired by Humboldt, he wants to go off and live in South America, among the savannahs, and never be heard of again.
At thirty he muses—as he did throughout his life—on his own previous incarnations, on his apocryphal or metempsychotic lives in the more interesting times of Louis XIV, Nero and Pericles. Of one preincarnation he is certain: he was, at some point during the Roman Empire, the director of a troupe of travelling comedians, the sort of plausible rogue who bought women in Sicily and turned them into actresses, a rowdy mixture of teacher, pimp and artist. (Reading Plautus has reminded Gustave of this previous life: it gives him le frisson historique.) Here we should also note Gustave's apocryphal ancestry: he liked to claim that he had Red Indian blood in his veins. This seems to have been not quite the case; though one of his ancestors did emigrate to Canada in the seventeenth century and become a beaver-trapper.
Still thirty, he projects a seemingly more probable life, but one which proves equally to be a not-life. He and Bouilhet play at imagining themselves old men, patients in some hospice for incurables: ancients who sweep the streets and babble to one another of that. happy time when they were both thirty and walked all the way to La Roche-Guyon. The mocked senility was never attained: Bouilhet died at forty-eight, Flaubert at fifty-eight.
At thirty-one, he remarks to Louise—a parenthesis to a hypothesis—that if he had ever had a son, he would have taken great pleasure in procuring women for him.
Also at thirty-one, he reports a brief, untypical lapse to Louise: the desire to chuck in literature. He will come and live with her, inside her, his head between her breasts; he is fed up, he says, with masturbating that head of his to make the phrases spurt. But this fantasy is also a chilling tease: it's recounted in the past tense, as something which Gustave, in a moment of weakness, fleetingly imagined himself doing. He would always rather have his head between his own hands than between Louise's breasts.
At thirty-two, he confesses to Louise the manner in which he has spent many hours of his life: imagining what he would do if he had an income of a million francs a year. In such dreams servants would ease him into shoes studded with diamonds; he would cock an ear to the whinny of his coach-horses, whose splendour would make England die of jealousy; he would give oyster banquets, and have his dining-room surrounded by espaliers of flowering jasmine, out of which bright finches would swoop. But this, at a million a year, was a cheap dream. Du Camp reports Gustave's plan for 'A Winter in Paris'—an extravaganza incorporating the luxury of the Roman Empire, the refinement of the Renaissance, and the faerie of the Thousand and One Nights. The Winter had been seriously costed, and it came out at twelve thousand million francs 'at the most'. Du Camp also adds, more generally, that 'when these dreams took possession of him, he became almost rigid, and reminded one of an opium-eater in a state of trance. He seemed to have his head in the clouds, to be living in a dream of gold. This habit was one reason why he found steady work difficult.'
At thirty-five, he reveals 'my private dream': to buy a little palazzo on the Grand Canal. A few months later, a kiosk on the Bosphorus is added to the real estate in his head. A few months more, and he is ready to leave for the East, to stay there, to die there. The painter Camille Rogier, who lives in Beirut, has invited him. He could go; just like that. He could; he doesn't.
At thirty-five, however, the apocryphal life, the not-life, begins to die away. The reason is clear: the real life has really begun. Gustave was thirty-five when Madame Bovary came out in book form. The fantasies are no longer needed; or rather, different, particular, practical fantasies are now required. For the world, he will play the Hermit of Croisset; for his friends in Paris, he will play the Idiot of the Salons; for George Sand he will play the Reverend Father Cruchard, a fashionable Jesuit who enjoys hearing the confessions of society women; for his intimate circle he will play Saint Polycarpe, that obscure Bishop of Smyrna, martyred in the nick of time at the age of ninety-five, who pre-echoed Flaubert by stopping up his ears and crying out, 'Oh Lord! Into what an age you have caused me to be born!' But these identities are no longer lurid alibis towards which he might credibly escape; they are playthings, alternative lives issued under licence by the celebrated author. He does not run off to become a bandit in Smyrna; instead, he summons the useful Bishop of Smyrna to live within his skin. He has proved not a tamer of wild beasts, but a tamer of wild lives. Pacification of the apocryphal is complete: writing can begin.
10: The Case Against

What makes us want to know the worst? Is it that we tire of preferring to know the best? Does curiosity always hurdle self-interest? Or is it, more simply, that wanting to know the worst is love's favourite perversion?


For some, this curiosity operates as baleful fantasy. I had a patient once, a respectable nine-to-fiver otherwise untouched by imagination, who confessed that while making love to his wife he liked to picture her spread blissfully beneath mountainous hidalgos, sleek lascars, rummaging dwarfs. Shock me, the fantasy urges, appal me. For others, the search is real. I have known couples to take pride in one another's tawdry behaviour: each pursuing the other's folly, the other's vanity, the other's weakness. What were they really after? Something, evidently, which lay beyond what they appeared to seek. Perhaps some final confirmation that mankind itself was ineradicably corrupt, that life was indeed just a gaudy nightmare in the head of an imbecile?
I loved Ellen, and I wanted to know the worst. I never provoked her; I was cautious and defensive, as is my habit; I didn't even ask questions; but I wanted to know the worst. Ellen never returned this caress. She was fond of me—she would automatically agree, as if the matter weren't worth discussing, that she loved me—but she unquestioningly believed the best about me. That's the difference. She didn't ever search for that sliding panel which opens the secret chamber of the heart, the chamber where memory and corpses are kept. Sometimes you find the panel, but it doesn't open; sometimes it opens, and your gaze meets nothing but a mouse skeleton. But at least you've looked. That's the real distinction between people: not between those who have secrets and those who don't, but between those who want to know everything and those who don't. This search is a sign of love, I maintain.
It's similar with books. Not quite the same, of course (it never is); but similar. If you quite enjoy a writer's work, if you turn the page approvingly yet don't mind being interrupted, then you tend to like that author unthinkingly. Good chap, you assume. Sound fellow. They say he strangled an entire pack of Wolf Cubs and fed their bodies to a school of carp? Oh no, I'm sure he didn't: sound fellow, good chap. But if you love a writer, if you depend upon the drip-feed of his intelligence, if you want to pursue him and find him—despite edicts to the contrary—then it's impossible to know too much. You seek the vice as well. A pack of Wolf Cubs, eh? Was that twenty-seven or twenty-eight? And did he have their little scarves sewn up into a patchwork quilt? And is it true that as he ascended the scaffold he quoted from the Book of Jonah?And that he bequeathed his carp pond to the local Boy Scouts?
But here's the difference. With a lover, a wife, when you find the worst—be it infidelity or lack of love, madness or the suicidal spark—you are almost relieved. Life is as I thought it was; shall we now celebrate this disappointment? With a writer you love, the instinct is to defend. This is what I meant earlier: perhaps love for a writer is the purest, the steadiest form of love. And so your defence comes the more easily. The fact of the matter is, carp are an endangered species, and everyone knows that the only diet they will accept if the winter has been especially harsh and the spring turns wet before St Oursin's Day is that of young minced Wolf Cub. Of course he knew he would hang for the offence, but he also knew that humanity is not an endangered species, and reckoned therefore that twenty-seven (did you say twenty-eight?) Wolf Cubs plus one middle-ranking author (he was always ridiculously modest about his talents) were a trivial price to pay for the survival of an entire breed of fish. Take the long view: did we need so many Wolf Cubs? They would only have grown up and become Boy Scouts. And if you're still mired in sentimentality, look at it this way: the admission fees so far received from visitors to the carp pond have already enabled the Boy Scouts to build and maintain several church halls in the area.
So go on. Read the charge-sheet. I had expected it at some point. But don't forget this: Gustave has been in the dock before. How many offences are there this time?
1. That he hated humanity.
Yes, yes, of course. You always say that. I'll give you two sorts of answer. First, let's start with basics. He loved his mother: doesn't that warm your silly, sentimental, twentieth-century heart? He loved his father. He loved his sister. He loved his niece. He loved his friends. He admired certain individuals. But his affections were always specific; they were not given away to all comers. This seems enough to me. You want him to do more? You want him to 'love humanity', to goose the human race? But that means nothing. Loving humanity means as much and as little as loving raindrops, or loving the Milky Way. You say that you love humanity? Are you sure you aren't treating yourself to easy self-congratulation, seeking approval, making certain you're on the right side?
Secondly, even if he did hate humanity—or was profoundly unimpressed by it, as I would prefer to say—was he wrong? You, clearly, are quite impressed by humanity: it's all clever irrigation schemes, missionary work and micro-electronics to you. Forgive him for seeing it differently. It's clear we're going to have to discuss this at some length. But let me first, briefly, quote to you one of your wise men of the twentieth century: Freud. Not, you will agree, someone with an axe to grind? You want his summing-up on the human race, ten years before his death? 'In the depths of my heart I can't help being convinced that my dear fellow-men, with a few exceptions, are worthless.' This from the man that most people, for most of this century, believed most thoroughly understood the human heart. It is a little embarrassing, is it not?
But come, it's time for you to be rather more specific.
2. That he hated democracy.
La démocrasserie, as he called it in a letter to Taine. Which do you prefer—democrappery or democrassness? Democrappiness, perhaps? He was, it is true, very unimpressed by it. From which you should not conclude that he favoured tyranny, or absolute monarchy, or bourgeois monarchy, or bureaucratised totalitarianism, or anarchy, or whatever. His preferred model of government was a Chinese one—that of the Mandarinate; though he readily admitted that its chances of introduction into France were extremely small. The Mandarinate seems a step back to you? But you forgive Voltaire his enthusiasm for enlightened monarchy: why not forgive Flaubert, a century later, his enthusiasm for enlightened oligarchy? He did not, at least, entertain the childish fantasy of some literati: that writers are better fitted to run the world than anybody else.
The main point is this: Flaubert thought democracy merely a stage in the history of government, and he thought it a typical vanity on our part to assume that it represented the finest, proudest way for men to rule one another. He believed in—or rather, he did not fail to notice—the perpetual evolution of humanity, and therefore the evolution of its social forms: 'Democracy isn't mankind's last word, any more than slavery was, or feudalism was, or monarchy was.' The best form of government, he maintained, is one that is dying, because this means it's giving way to something else.
3. That he didn't believe in progress.
I cite the twentieth century in his defence.
4. That he wasn't interested enough in politics.
Interested 'enough'? You admit, at least, that he was interested. You are suggesting, tactfully, that he didn't like what he saw (correct), and that if he had seen more, he would perhaps have come round to your way of thinking in these matters (incorrect). I should like to make two points, the first of which I shall put into italics, since this seems to be your favourite mode of utterance. Literature includes politics, and not vice versa. This isn't a fashionable view, neither with writers nor politicians, but you will forgive me. Novelists who think their writing an instrument of politics seem to me to degrade writing and foolishly exalt politics. No, I'm not saying they should be forbidden from having political opinions or from making political statements. It's just that they should call that part of their work journalism. The writer who imagines that the novel is the most effective way of taking part in politics is usually a bad novelist, a bad journalist, and a bad politician.
Du Camp followed politics carefully, Flaubert sporadically. Which do you prefer? The former. And which of them was the greater writer? The latter. And what were their politics? Du Camp became a lethargic meliorist; Flaubert remained 'an enraged liberal'. Does that surprise you? But even if Flaubert had described himself as a lethargic meliorist, I should make the same point: what a curious vanity it is of the present to expect the past to suck up to it. The present looks back at some great figure of an earlier century and wonders, Was he on our side? Was he a goodie? What a lack of self-confidence this implies: the present wants both to patronise the past by adjudicating on its political acceptability, and also to be flattered by it, to be patted on the back and told to keep up the good work. If this is what you understand by Monsieur Flaubert not being 'interested enough' in politics, then I'm afraid my client must plead guilty.
5. That he was against the Commune.
Well, what I've said above is part of the answer. But there is also this consideration, this incredible weakness of character on my client's part: he was on the whole against people killing one another. Call it squeamishness, but he did disapprove. He never killed anyone himself, I have to admit; in fact, he never even tried. He promises to do better in future.


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