Flaubert's Parrot Julian Barnes

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But anyway: while he was tramping through that dull and backward province with his malign companion, Gustave sent me another flower, plucked from beside the tomb of Châteaubriand. He wrote of the calm sea at St Malo, the pink sky, the sweet air. It makes a fine scene, does it not? The romantic grave on that rocky promontory; the great man lying there, his head pointing out to sea, listening for all eternity to the comings and goings of the tide; the young writer, with stirrings of genius inside him, kneels by the tomb, watches the pink drain slowly from the evening sky, reflects—in the way young men are wont to do—on eternity, the fugitive nature of life and the consolations of greatness, then gathers a flower which has rooted itself in Châteaubriand's dust, and sends it to his beautiful mistress in Paris…Could I be unmoved by such a gesture? Of course not. But I could not help observing that a flower plucked from a grave brings with it certain reverberations when sent to one who has written Ultima on a letter received not long before. And I also could not help observing that Gustave's letter was posted from Pontorson, which is forty kilometres from St Malo. Did Gustave pick the flower for himself and then, after forty kilometres, grow weary of it? Or perhaps—such a suggestion arises in me only because I have lain next to the contagious soul of Gustave himself—did he gather it elsewhere? Did he think of the gesture a little too late? Who can resist l'esprit de l'escalier, even in love?
My flower—the one that I remember best out of many—was gathered where I said it had been. In Windsor Park. It was after my tragic visit to Croisset and the humiliation of not being received, after the brutality, the pain and the horror of it all. You have heard different versions, no doubt? The truth is simple.
I had to see him. We had to talk. You do not dismiss love in the way you dismiss your hairdresser. He would not come to me in Paris; so I went to him. I took the train (beyond Mantes, this time) to Rouen. I was rowed downstream to Croisset; in my soul, hope struggled with fear, while the ancient oarsman struggled with the current. We came in sight of a charming, low white house in the English style; a laughing house, as it seemed to me. I disembarked; I pushed the iron grille; I was allowed no further. Gustave refused me entrance. Some barnyard crone turned me away. He would not see me there; he condescended to see me at my hotel. My Charon rowed me back. Gustave travelled separately by steamer. He overtook us on the river and arrived ahead of me. It was farce, it was tragedy. We went to my hotel. I talked, but he could not hear. I spoke of possible happiness. The secret of happiness, he told me, is to be happy already. He did not understand my anguish. He embraced me with a self-restraint that was humiliating. He told me to marry Victor Cousin.
I fled to England. I could not bear to be in France a moment longer: my friends confirmed my impulse. I went to London. I was received there with kindness. I was introduced to many distinguished spirits. I met Mazzini; I met the Countess Guiccioli. My meeting with the Countess was an uplifting occasion—we became firm friends at once—but also, privately, a saddening one. George Sand and Chopin, the Countess Guiccioli and Byron…would they ever say Louise Colet and Flaubert? It gave me, I confess to you frankly, many hours of quiet grief, which I tried to bear with philosophy. What would become ofus? What would become of me? Is it wrong, I kept asking myself, to be ambitious in love? Is that wrong? Answer me.
I went to Windsor. I remember a fine round tower covered in ivy. I wandered in the park and picked a convolvulus for Gustave. I must tell you that he was always vulgarly ignorant about flowers. Not their botanical aspect—he probably learned all about that at some stage, as he learned about most other things (except the heart of woman)—but their symbolic aspect. It is such an elegant tongue, the language of flowers: supple, courtly and precise. When the beauty of the flower resounds with the beauty of the sentiment which it is hired to communicate…well, there is a happiness which the gift of rubies can rarely surpass. The happiness is made the more poignant by the fact that the flower fades. But perhaps, by the time the flower fades, he will have sent another one…
Gustave understood nothing of this. He was the sort of person who might, after much hard study, have finally learnt two phrases from the language of flowers: the gladiolus, which when placed at the centre of a bouquet indicates by the number of its blooms the hour for which the rendezvous is set; and the petunia, which announces that a letter has been intercepted. He would understand such rough and practical uses. Here, take this rose (no matter what colour, though there are five different meanings for five different roses in the language of flowers): put it first to your lips, and then place it between your thighs. Such was the fierce gallantry of which Gustave was capable. He would not, I am sure, have understood the significance of the convolvulus; or, if he had made any effort, he would still have got it wrong. There are three messages which can be sent by means of the convolvulus. A white one signifies Why are you fleeing me? A pink one signifies I shall bind myself to you. A blue one signifies I shall wait for better days. You must guess the colour of the flower I chose in Windsor Park.
Did he understand women at all? I often doubted it. We quarrelled, I remember, over that Nilotic whore of his, Kuchuk Hanem. Gustave kept notes during his travels. I asked if I could read them. He refused; I asked again; and so on. Finally, he let me. They are not…pleasant, those pages. What Gustave found enchanting about the East I found degrading. A courtesan, an expensive courtesan, who drenches herself in sandalwood oil to cover the nauseating stench of the bedbugs with which she is infested. Is that uplifting, I ask, is it beautiful? Is it rare, is it splendid? Or is it sordid and disgustingly ordinary?
But the matter is not really one of aesthetics; not here. When I expressed my distaste, Gustave interpreted it as mere jealousy. (I was a little jealous—who would not be, when reading the private journal of a man you love and finding in it no mention of yourself, but instead only lush apostrophes to verminous whores?) Perhaps it was understandable that Gustave thought I was only jealous. But listen now to his argument, listen now to his understanding of the female heart. Do not be jealous of Kuchuk Hanem, he told me. She is an Oriental woman; the Oriental woman is a machine; one man is the same as the next to her. She felt nothing for me; she has already forgotten me; she lives in a drowsy round of smoking, going to the baths, painting her eyelids and drinking coffee. As for her physical pleasure, it must be very slight, because at an early age that famous button, the seat of all enjoyment, has been excised.
Such comfort! Such consolation! I need not be jealous because she did not feel anything! And this man claimed to understand the human heart! She was a mutilated machine, and besides she has already forgotten him: I am meant to be comforted by that? Such belligerent consolation made me think more, not less, about that strange woman he had coupled with on the Nile. Could we have been more different from one another? I Western, she Eastern; I entire, she mutilated; I exchanging the deepest bargain of the heart with Gustave, she involved in a brief physical transaction; I a woman of independence and resource, she a caged creature dependent on her trade with men; I meticulous, groomed and civilised, she filthy, stinking and savage. It may sound strange, but I became interested in her. No doubt the coin is always fascinated by its obverse. Years later, when I travelled to Egypt, I tried to seek her out. I went to Esneh. I found the squalid hovel where she lived, but she herself was not there. Perhaps she had fled at the news of my coming. Perhaps it was better that we did not meet; the coin shouldn't be allowed to see its other side.
Gustave used to humiliate me, of course, even from the beginning. I wasn't allowed to write to him directly; I had to send my letters via Du Camp. I wasn't allowed to visit him at Croisset. I wasn't allowed to meet his mother, even though I had in fact once been introduced to her on a street corner in Paris. I happen to know that Mme Flaubert thought her son treated me abominably.
He humiliated me in other ways too. He lied to me. He spoke ill of me to his friends. He ridiculed, in the sacred name of truth, most of what I wrote. He affected not to know that I was terribly poor. He boasted of the fact that in Egypt he had caught a disease of love from some five-sou courtesan. He took vulgar public revenge on me by mocking in the pages of Madame Bovary a seal I had once given him as a token of love. He who claimed that art should be impersonal!
Let me tell you how Gustave would humiliate me. When our love was young, we would exchange presents—small tokens, often meaningless in themselves, but which seemed to enclose the very essence of their donor. He feasted for months, for years, on a small pair of my slippers that I gave him; I expect he has burnt them by now. Once he sent me a paperweight, the very paperweight which had sat on his desk. I was greatly touched; it seemed the perfect gift from one writer to another: what had formerly held down his prose would now hold down my verses. Perhaps I commented on this once too often; perhaps I expressed my gratitude too sincerely. This is what Gustave told me: that it was no sadness for him to get rid of the paperweight, because he had another which did the work just as efficiently. Did I want to know what it was? If you wish, I replied. His new paperweight, he informed me, was a section of mizzenmast—he made a gesture of extravagant size—which his father had extracted with delivery forceps from the posterior of an old seaman. The seaman—Gustave continued as if this were the best story he had heard for many years—apparently claimed that he had no notion of how the section of mast had reached the position in which it was found. Gustave threw back his head and laughed. What intrigued him most was how, in that case, they knew from which mast the piece of wood had come.
Why did he humiliate me so? It was not, I believe, as is frequently the case in love, that those qualities which initially charmed him—my vivacity, my freedom, my sense of equality with men—eventually came to irritate him. It was not so, because he behaved in this strange and bearish fashion from the very beginning, even when he was most in love with me. In his second letter he wrote, 'I have never seen a cradle without thinking of a grave; the sight of a naked woman makes me imagine her skeleton.' These were not the sentiments of a conventional lover.
Posterity, perhaps, will take the easy answer: that he contemned me because I was contemptible, and that since he was a great genius his judgment must have been correct. It was not so; it never is so. He feared me: that is why he was cruel to me. He feared me in both familiar and unfamiliar ways. In the first case, he feared me as many men fear women: because their mistresses (or their wives) understand them. They are scarcely adult, some men: they wish women to understand them, and to that end they tell them all their secrets; and then, when they are properly understood, they hate their women for understanding them.
In the second case—the more important one—he feared me because he feared himself. He feared that he might love me completely. It was not simply terror that I might invade his study and his solitude; it was terror that I might invade his heart. He was cruel because he wanted to drive me away; but he wanted to drive me away because he feared that he might love me completely. I will tell you my secret belief: that for Gustave, in a way he only half-apprehended, I represented life, and that his rejection of me was the more violent because it provoked in him the deepest shame. And is any of this my fault? I loved him; what more natural than that I should want to give him the chance to love me back? I was fighting not just for my own sake, but for his too: I did not see why he should not permit himself to love. He said that there were three preconditions for happiness—stupidity, selfishness and good health—and that he was only sure of possessing the second of these. I argued, I fought, but he wanted to believe that happiness was impossible; it gave him some strange consolation.
He was a difficult man to love, that is certain. The heart was distant and withdrawn; he was ashamed of it, wary of it. True love can survive absence, death and infidelity, he once told me; true lovers can go ten years without meeting. (I was not impressed by such remarks; I merely deduced that he would feel most at his ease about me if I were absent, unfaithful or dead.) He liked to flatter himself that he was in love with me; but I never knew a less impatient love. 'Life is like riding,' he wrote to me once. 'I used to like the gallop; now I like the walk.' He wasn't yet thirty when he wrote that; he had already decided to be old before his time. Whereas for me…the gallop! the gallop! the wind in the hair, the laughter forced from the lungs!
It flattered his vanity to think himself in love with me; it also gave him, I believe, some unadmitted pleasure constantly to long for my flesh and yet always to forbid himself the attaining of it: to deny himself was just as exciting as to indulge himself. He used to tell me I was less of a woman than most women; that I was a woman in flesh but a man in spirit; that I was an hermaphrodite nouveau, a third sex. He told me this foolish theory many times, but really he was just telling it to himself: the less of a woman he made me out to be, the less of a lover he would need to be.
What he wanted most of me, I finally came to believe, was an intellectual partnership, an affair of the mind. In those years he was working hard on his Bovary (though not, perhaps, as hard as he liked to maintain) and at the end of the day, since a physical release was too complicated for him and would contain too many things he couldn't entirely command, he sought an intellectual release. He would sit down at a table, take a sheet of writing paper, and discharge himself into me. You do not find the image flattering? I did not intend it to be. The days of loyally believing false things about Gustave are over. Incidentally, he never did baptise my breast with Mississippi water; the only time a bottle passed between us was when I sent him some Taburel water to stop his hair falling out.
But this affair of the mind was no easier, I can tell you, than our affair of the heart. He was rough, awkward, bullying and haughty; then he was tender, sentimental, enthusiastic and devoted. He didn't know the rules. He declined to acknowledge my ideas sufficiently, just as he declined to acknowledge my feelings sufficiently. He did, of course, know everything. He informed me that mentally he was aged sixty and I was a mere twenty. He informed me that if I drank water all the time, and never wine, I should get cancer of the stomach. He informed me that I should marry Victor Cousin. (Victor Cousin, for that matter, was of the opinion that I should marry Gustave Flaubert.)
He sent me his work. He sent me 'Novembre'. It was weak and mediocre; I did not comment, except to myself. He sent me the first Education sentimentale; I was not greatly impressed, but how could I not praise it? He rebuked me for liking it. He sent me his Tentation de saint Antoine; I genuinely admired it, and told him so. He rebuked me again. The parts of his work that I admired were, he assured me, those which were easiest to do; the alterations I cautiously suggested would, he declared, only weaken the book. He was 'astonished' by the 'excessive enthusiasm' I had shown for the Education! So that is how an unknown, unpublished provincial chooses to thank a celebrated Parisian poet (with whom he claims to be in love) for her words of praise. My comments on his work were valuable only as an irritating pretext which permitted him to lecture me on Art.
Of course I knew he was a genius. I always considered him a magnificent writer of prose. He undervalued my talents, but that is no reason why I should undervalue his. I am not like the odious Du Camp, who would proudly claim many years of friendship with Gustave, but would always deny him genius. I have been at those dinners where the merits of our contemporaries are discussed, and where Du Camp, as each new name was suggested, would with infinite urbanity correct the general view. 'Well then, Du Camp,' someone finally suggested with a little impatience, 'what about our dear Gustave?' Du Camp smiled approvingly and patted five little fingertips against five others in a prissily judicial manner. 'Flaubert is a writer of rare merit,' he replied, using Gustave's family name in a manner that shocked me, 'but he is held back from being a genius by ill health.' You would have thought he was practising for his memoirs.
As for my own work! Naturally, I used to send it to Gustave. He told me that my style was soft, slack and banal. He complained that my titles were vague and pretentious, and smelt of the blue-stocking. He lectured me like a schoolmaster on the difference between saisir and s'en saisir. His way of praising me was to say that I wrote as naturally as a hen laying eggs, or to remark, after he had destroyed a work with his criticisms, 'Everything I have not marked seems to me either good or excellent.' He told me to write with the head, and not with the heart. He told me that hair only shone after much combing, and that the same could be said of style. He told me not to put myself into my work, and not to poeticise things (I am a poet!). He told me I had the love of Art, but not the religion of Art.
What he wanted, of course, was for me to write as much like he did as I possibly could. This is a vanity I have often noted in writers; the more eminent the writer, the more pronounced this vanity is likely to be. They believe that everyone should write as they do: not as well as they do, of course, but in the same fashion. In such a way do mountains long for foothills.
Du Camp used to say that Gustave did not have an ounce of feeling for poetry in him. It gives me little pleasure to agree with him, but I do so. Gustave lectured us all on poetry—though they were usually Bouilhet's lectures rather than his own—but he did not understand it. He wrote no poetry himself. He used to say that he wanted to give prose the strength and stature of poetry; but part of this project seemed to include first cutting poetry down to size. He wanted his prose to be objective, scientific, devoid of personal presence, devoid of opinions; so he decided that poetry ought to be written according to the same principles. Tell me how you write love poetry which is objective, scientific, and devoid of any personal presence. Tell me that. Gustave mistrusted feelings; he feared love; and he elevated this neurosis into an artistic creed.
Gustave's vanity was more than just literary. He believed not merely that others should write as he did, but that others should live as he did. He loved to quote Epictetus to me: Abstain, and Hide your Life. To me! A woman, a poet, and a poet of love! He wanted all writers to live obscurely in the provinces, ignore the natural affections of the heart, disdain reputation, and spend solitary, backbreaking hours reading obscure texts by the light of a tiring candle. Well, that may be the proper way to nurse genius; but it is also the way to suffocate talent. Gustave didn't understand this, couldn't see that my talent depended on the swift moment, the sudden feeling, the unexpected meeting: on life, that's what I'm saying.
Gustave would have made me into a hermit had he been able: the hermit of Paris. Always he would advise me not to see people; not to answer so-and-so's letter; not to take this admirer too seriously; not to take Count X—as a lover. He claimed he was defending my work, and that every hour spent in society was an hour subtracted from my desk. But that is not how I worked. You cannot yoke the dragonfly and make it drive the corn-mill.
Of course, Gustave denied there was any vanity in him. Du Camp in one of his books—I forget which, there were always so many—made a reference to the malign effect on man of too much solitude: he called it a false counsellor who nurses at her breasts the twin infants of Egotism and Vanity. Gustave naturally took this as a personal attack. 'Egotism?' he wrote to me. 'So be it. But Vanity? No. Pride is one thing: a wild beast which lives in caves and roams the desert; Vanity, on the other hand, is a parrot which hops from branch to branch and chatters away in full view.' Gustave imagined he was a wild beast - he loved to think of himself as a polar bear, distant, savage and solitary. I went along with this, I even called him a wild buffalo of the American prairie; but perhaps he was really just a parrot.
You think me too harsh? I loved him; that is why I am allowed to be harsh. Listen. Gustave despised Du Camp for wanting the Légion d'honneur. A few years later he accepted it himself. Gustave despised salon society. Until he was taken up by the Princesse Mathilde. Did you hear about Gustave's glove bill in the days when he was prancing by candlelight? He owed two thousand francs to his tailor, and five hundred francs for gloves. Five hundred francs! He received only eight hundred for the rights of his Bovary. His mother had to sell land to bail him out. Five hundred francs for gloves! The white bear in white gloves? No, no: the parrot, the parrot in gloves.
I know what they say about me; what his friends have said. They say I had the vanity to suppose that I might marry him. But Gustave used to write me letters describing what it would have been like if we had been married. Was I therefore wrong to hope? They say I had the vanity to go down to Croisset and make an embarrassing scene on his doorstep. But when I first knew him Gustave used to write frequently about my forthcoming visits to his house. Was I therefore wrong to hope? They say I had the vanity to suppose that he and I might one day share the authorship of some literary work. But he told me that one of my stories was a masterpiece, and that one of my poems would move a stone. Was I therefore wrong to hope?
I know too what will become of us when we are both dead. Posterity will jump to conclusions: that is its nature. People will take Gustave's side. They will understand me too quickly; they will turn my own generosity against me and despise me for the lovers I took; and they will cast me as the woman who briefly threatened to interfere with the writing of the books which they have enjoyed reading. Someone—perhaps even Gustave himself—will burn my letters; his own (which I have carefully preserved, so much against my own best interests) will survive to confirm the prejudices of those too lazy to understand. I am a woman, and also a writer who has used up her allotment of renown during her own lifetime; and on those two grounds I do not expect much pity, or much understanding, from posterity. Do I mind? Naturally I mind. But I am not vengeful tonight; I am resigned. I promise you. Slip your fingers down my wrist once more. There; I told you so.
13: Braithwaite's Dictionary of Accepted Ideas


Gustave's elder brother. Mournful-looking man with long beard. Inherited his job and Christian name from his father. Achille's shouldering of family expectations freed Gustave to become an artist. Died from softening of the brain.


Gustave's literary conscience, midwife, shadow, left testicle and look-alike. Middle name Hyacinthe. The less successful Doppelgänger that every great man needs. Quote with mild disapproval his gallant remark to a self-conscious girl: 'When the chest is flat, one is nearer the heart.'


a) Tedious, importunate, promiscuous woman, lacking talent of her own or understanding of the genius of others, who tried to trap Gustave into marriage. Imagine the squawking children! Imagine Gustave miserable! Imagine Gustave happy!

b) Brave, passionate, deeply misunderstood woman crucified by her love for the heartless, impossible, provincial Flaubert. She rightly complained: 'Gustave never writes to me of anything except Art—or himself.' Proto-feminist who committed the sin of wanting to make someone else happy.


Photographer, traveller, careerist, historian of Paris, Academician. Wrote with steel nibs whereas Gustave always used a quill pen. Censored Madame Bovary for the Revue de Paris. If Bouilhet is Gustave's literary alter ego, Du Camp is his social one. Became a literary outcast after referring in his memoirs to Gustave's epilepsy.


Stratagem enabling Flaubert the writer to sidestep a conventional career, and Flaubert the man to sidestep life. The question is merely at what psychological level the tactic was evolved. Were his symptoms intense psychosomatic phenomena? It would be too banal if he merely had epilepsy.


The hermit of Croisset. The first modern novelist. The father of Realism. The butcher of Romanticism. The pontoon bridge linking Balzac to Joyce. The precursor of Proust. The bear in his lair. The bourgeois bourgeoisophobe. In Egypt, 'the father of the Moustache'. Saint Polycarpe; Cruchard; Quarafon; le Vicaire-Général; the Major; the old Seigneur; the Idiot of the Salons. All these titles were acquired by a man indifferent to ennobling forms of address: 'Honours dishonour, titles degrade, employment stupefies.'


Remember the Goncourts on Flaubert: 'Though perfectly frank by nature, he is never wholly sincere in what he says he feels or suffers or loves.' Then remember everyone else on the Goncourts: the envious, unreliable brothers. Remember further the unreliability of Du Camp, of Louise Colet, of Flaubert's niece, of Flaubert himself. Demand violently: how can we know anybody?


'Miss Juliet'. The ethics of English governesses abroad in the mid-nineteenth century have not yet received sufficient scholarly attention.


The modern mode: either the devil's mark or the snorkel of sanity. Flaubert's fiction poses the question: Does irony preclude sympathy? There is no entry for ironie in his Dictionary. This is perhaps intended to be ironic.


Spent ten years writing L'Idiot de la famille when he could have been writing Maoist tracts. A highbrow Louise Colet, constantly pestering Gustave, who wanted only to be left alone. Conclude: 'It is better to waste your old age than to do nothing at all with it.'


A litmus test. Gustave had to choose sides between the Egyptian courtesan and the Parisian poetess—bedbugs, sandalwood oil, shaven pudenda, clitoridectomy and syphilis versus cleanliness, lyric poetry, comparative sexual fidelity and the rights of women. He found the issue fmely balanced.


Follow Gide, and call the Letters Flaubert's masterpiece. Follow Sartre, and call them a perfect example of free-association from a pre-Freudian couch. Then follow your nose.


Gustave's gaoler, confidante, nurse, patient, banker and critic. She said: 'Your mania for sentences has dried up your heart.' He found the remark 'sublime'. Cf. George Sand.


Always wet. Inhabited by a sly, proud, taciturn people. Put your head on one side and remark, 'Of course, we must never forget that Flaubert came from Normandy.'


The crucible in which Madame Bovary was fired. Flaubert left Europe a Romantic, and returned from the Orient a Realist. Cf. Kuchuk Hanem.


Vandals in white gloves, clock-thieves who know Sanskrit. More horrifying than cannibals or Communards. When the Prussians withdrew from Croisset, the house had to be fumigated.


Was Gustave an Old Romantic? He had a passion for the dreamy knight cast adrift in a vulgar, materialist society. 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi' is an allusion to Cervantes' reply when asked on his deathbed for the source of his famous hero. Cf. Transvestism.


Was Gustave a New Realist? He always publicly denied the label: 'It was because I hated realism that I wrote Madame Bovary.' Galileo publicly denied that the earth went round the sun.


Optimist, socialist, humanitarian. Despised until met, loved thereafter. Gustave's second mother. After staying at Croisset she sent her complete works (in the 77-volume edition).


Gustave in young manhood: 'There are days when one longs to be a woman.' Gustave in maturity: 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi.' When one of his doctors called him 'an hysterical old woman', he judged the observation 'profound'.


Flaubert's references to the Land of Liberty are sparing. Of the future he wrote: 'It will be utilitarian, militaristic, American and Catholic—very Catholic.' He probably preferred the Capitol to the Vatican.


What did the great nineteenth-century sceptic think of the great eighteenth-century sceptic? Was Flaubert the Voltaire of his age? Was Voltaire the Flaubert of his age? 'Histoire de l'esprit humain, histoire de la sottise humaine.' Which of them said that?


Necessary in the nineteenth century for the contraction of syphilis, without which no one could claim genius. Wearers of the red badge of courage include Flaubert, Daudet, Maupassant, Jules de Goncourt, Baudelaire, etc. Were there any writers unafflicted by it? If so, they were probably homosexual.


There is no record of Flaubert ever having heard the xylophone. Saint-Saens used the instrument in his Danse Macabre of 1874 to suggest rattling bones; this might have amused Gustave. Perhaps he heard the glockenspiel in Switzerland.


'See Yvetot and die.' If asked the source of this little-known epigram, smile mysteriously and remain silent.


Is the great writer responsible for his disciples? Who chooses whom? If they call you Master, can you afford to despise their work? On the other hand, are they sincere in their praise? Who needs whom more: the disciple the master, or the master the disciple? Discuss without concluding.

13: Pure Story

This is a pure story, whatever you may think.

When she dies, you are not at first surprised. Part of love is preparing for death. You feel confirmed in your love when she dies. You got it right. This is part of it all.
Afterwards comes the madness. And then the loneliness: not the spectacular solitude you had anticipated, not the interesting martyrdom of widowhood, but just loneliness. You expect something almost geological—vertigo in a shelving canyon—but it's not like that; it's just misery as regular as a job. What do we doctors say? I'm deeply sorry, Mrs Blank; there will of course be a period of mourning but rest assured you will come out of it; two of these each evening, I would suggest; perhaps a new interest, Mrs Blank; car maintenance, formation dancing?; don't worry, six months will see you back on the roundabout; come and see me again any time; oh nurse, when she calls, just give her this repeat will you, no I don't need to see her, well it's not her that's dead is it, look on the bright side. What did she say her name was?
And then it happens to you. There's no glory in it. Mourning is full of time; nothing but time. Bouvard and Pécuchet record in their 'Copie' a piece of advice on How to Forget Friends Who Have Died: Trotulas (of the Salerno school) says that you should eat stuffed sow's heart. I might yet have to fall back on this remedy. I've tried drink, but what does that do? Drink makes you drunk, that's all it's ever been able to do. Work, they say, cures everything. It doesn't; often, it doesn't even induce tiredness: the nearest you get to it is a neurotic lethargy. And there is always time. Have some more time. Take your time. Extra time. Time on your hands.
Other people think you want to talk. 'Do you want to talk about Ellen?' they ask, hinting that they won't be embarrassed if you break down. Sometimes you talk, sometimes you don't; it makes little difference. The words aren't the right ones; or rather, the right words don't exist. 'Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.' You talk, and you find the language of bereavement foolishly inadequate. You seem to be talking about other people's griefs. I loved her; we were happy; I miss her. She didn't love me; we were unhappy; I miss her. There is a limited choice of prayers on offer: gabble the syllables.
'It may seem bad, Geoffrey, but you'll come out of it. I'm not taking your grief lightly; it's just that I've seen enough of life to know that you'll come out of it.' The words you've said yourself while scribbling a prescription (No, Mrs Blank, you could take them all and they wouldn't kill you). And you do come out of it, that's true. After a year, after five. But you don't come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the Downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil-slick. You are tarred and feathered for life.
And still you think about her every day. Sometimes, weary of loving her dead, you imagine her back to life again, for conversation, for approval. After his mother's death, Flaubert used to get his housekeeper to dress up in her old check dress and surprise him with an apocryphal reality. It worked, and it didn't work: seven years after the funeral he would still burst into tears at the sight of that old dress moving about the house. Is this success or failure? Remembrance or self-indulgence? And will we know when we start hugging our grief and vainly enjoying it? 'Sadness is a vice' (1878).
Or else you try to sidestep her image. Nowadays, when I remember Ellen, I try to think of a hailstorm that berated Rouen in 1853. 'A first-rate hailstorm,' Gustave commented to Louise. At Croisset the espaliers were destroyed, the flowers cut to pieces, the kitchen garden turned upside down. Elsewhere, harvests were wrecked, and windows smashed. Only the glaziers were happy; the glaziers, and Gustave. The shambles delighted him: in five minutes Nature had reimposed the true order of things upon that brief, factitious order which man conceitedly imagines himself to be introducing. Is there anything stupider than a melon cloche, Gustave asks. He applauds the hailstones that shattered the glass. 'People believe a little too easily that the function of the sun is to help the cabbages along.'
This letter always calms me. The function of the sun is not to help the cabbages along, and I am telling you a pure story. She was born in 1920, married in 1940, gave birth in 1942 and 1946, died in 1975
I'll start again. Small people are meant to be neat, aren't they; but Ellen wasn't. She was just over five feet tall, yet moved awkwardly; she ran at things and tripped. She bruised easily, but didn't notice it. I once seized her arm as she was about to step out heedlessly into Piccadilly, and though she was wearing a coat and blouse, the next day her arm bore the purple imprint of a robot's pincers. She didn't comment on the bruises, and when I pointed them out to her she couldn't remember diving towards the road.
I'll start again. She was a much-loved only child. She was a much-loved only wife. She was loved, if that's the word, by what I suppose I must agree to call her lovers, though I'm sure the word over-dignifies some of them. I loved her; we were happy; I miss her. She didn't love me; we were unhappy; I miss her. Perhaps she was sick of being loved. At twenty-four Flaubert said he was 'ripe—ripe before my time, that's true. But it's because I've been reared in a hothouse.' Was she loved too much? Most people can't be loved too much, but perhaps Ellen could. Or perhaps her concept of love was simply different: why do we always assume it's the same for everyone else? Perhaps for Ellen love was only a Mulberry harbour, a landing place in a heaving sea. You can't possibly live there: scramble ashore; push on. And old love? Old love is a rusty tank standing guard over a slabby monument: here, once, something was liberated. Old love is a row of beach huts in November.
In a village pub, far from home, I once overheard two men talking about Betty Corrinder. Perhaps the spelling isn't right; but that was the name. Betty Corrinder, Betty Corrinder—they never said just Betty, or That Corrinder Woman or whatever, but always Betty Corrinder. She was, it seems, a bit fast; though speed, of course, is always exaggerated by those standing still. Fast, this Betty Corrinder was, and pubmen sniggered enviously. 'You know what they say about Betty Corrinder.' It was a statement, not a question, though a question now followed it. 'What's the difference between Betty Corrinder and the Eiffel Tower? Go on, what's the difference between Betty Corrinder and the Eiffel Tower?' A pause for the last few moments of private knowledge. 'Not everyone's been up the Eiffel Tower.'
I blushed for my wife two hundred miles away. Were there places she prowled where envious men told jokes about her? I didn't know. Besides, I exaggerate. Perhaps I didn't blush. Perhaps I didn't mind. My wife was not like Betty Corrinder, whatever Betty Corrinder was like.
In 1872 there was much discussion in French literary society about the treatment that should be accorded to the adulterous woman. Should a husband punish her, or forgive her? Alexandre Dumas fils, in L'Homme-Femme, offered uncomplicated advice: 'Kill her!' His book was reprinted thirty-seven times in the course of the year.
At first I was hurt; at first I minded, I thought less of myself. My wife went to bed with other men: should I worry about that? I didn't go to bed with other women: should I worry about that? Ellen was always nice to me: should I worry about that? Not nice out of adulterous guilt, but just nice. I worked hard; she was a good wife to me. You aren't allowed to say that nowadays, but she was a good wife to me. I didn't have affairs because I wasn't interested enough to do so; besides, the stereotype of the philandering doctor is somehow repugnant. Ellen did have affairs, because, I suppose, she was interested enough. We were happy; we were unhappy; I miss her. 'Is it splendid, or stupid, to take life seriously?' (1855).
What it's hard to convey is how untouched by it all she was. She wasn't corrupted; her spirit didn't coarsen; she never ran up bills. Sometimes she stayed away a little longer than seemed right; the length of her shopping trips often yielded suspiciously few purchases (she wasn't that discriminating); those few days in town to catch up on the theatres occurred more often than I would have liked. But she was honourable: she only ever lied to me about her secret life. About that she lied impulsively, recklessly, almost embarrassingly; but about everything else she told me the truth. A phrase used by the prosecutor of Madame Bovary to describe Flaubert's art comes back to me: he said it was 'realistic but not discreet'.
Did the wife, made lustrous by adultery, seem even more desirable to the husband? No: not more, not less. That's part of what I mean by saying that she was not corrupted. Did she display the cowardly docility which Flaubert describes as characteristic of the adulterous woman? No. Did she, like Emma Bovary, 'rediscover in adultery all the platitudes of marriage'? We didn't talk about it. (Textual note. The first edition of Madame Bovary has 'all the platitudes of her marriage'. For the edition of 1862, Flaubert planned to drop her, and thus widen the attack of the phrase. Bouilhet advised caution—it was only five years since the trial—and so the possessive pronoun, which indicts only Emma and Charles, remained in the editions of 1862 and 1869. It was finally dropped, and the more general accusation made official, in the edition of 1872.) Did she find, in Nabokov's phrase, that adultery is a most conventional way to rise above the conventional? I wouldn't have imagined so: Ellen didn't think in such terms. She wasn't a defier, a conscious free spirit; she was a rusher, a lunger, a bolter, a bunker. Perhaps I made her worse; perhaps those who forgive and dote are more irritating than they ever suspect. 'Next to not living with those one loves, the worst torture is living with those one doesn't love' (1847).
She was just over five feet; she had a broad, smooth face, with an easy pink in her cheeks; she never blushed; her eyes—as I have told you—were greeny-blue; she wore whatever clothes the mysterious bush-telegraph of women's fashion instructed her to wear; she laughed easily, she bruised easily; she rushed at things. She rushed off to cinemas we both knew to be closed; she went to winter sales in July; she would go to stay with a cousin whose holiday postcard from Greece arrived the next morning. There was a suddenness in these actions which argued more than desire. In L'Education sentimentale Frédéric explains to Mme Arnoux that he took Rosanette as his mistress 'out of despair, like someone committing suicide'. It's crafty pleading, of course; but plausible.
Her secret life stopped when the children came, and returned when they went to school. Sometimes, a temporary friend might take me on one side. Why do they think you want to know? Or rather, why do they think you don't know already—why don't they understand about love's relentless curiosity? And why do these temporary friends never want to tip you off about the more important thing: the fact that you're no longer loved? I became adept at turning the conversation, at saying how much more gregarious than me Ellen was, at hinting that the medical profession always attracts calumniators, at saying, Did you read about those terrible floods in Venezuela? On such occasions I always felt, perhaps wrongly, that I was being disloyal to Ellen.
We were happy enough; that's what people say, isn't it? How happy is happy enough? It sounds like a grammatical mistake—happy enough, like rather unique—but it answers the need for a phrase. And as I say, she didn't run up bills. Both Madame Bovarys (people forget that Charles marries twice) are brought down by money; my wife was never like that. Nor, as far as I know, did she accept gifts.
We were happy; we were unhappy; we were happy enough. Is despair wrong? Isn't it the natural condition of life after a certain age? I have it now; she had it earlier. After a number of events, what is there left but repetition and diminishment? Who wants to go on living? The eccentric, the religious, the artistic (sometimes); those with a false sense of their own worth. Soft cheeses collapse; firm cheeses indurate. Both go mouldy.
I have to hypothesise a little. I have to fictionalise (though that's not what I meant when I called this a pure story). We never talked about her secret life. So I have to invent my way to the truth. Ellen was about fifty when the mood began to come upon her. (No, not that: she was always healthy; her menopause was quick, almost careless.) She had had a husband, children, lovers, a job. The children had left home; the husband was always the same. She had friends, and what are called interests; though unlike me she didn't have some rash devotion to a dead foreigner to sustain her. She had travelled enough. She didn't have unfulfilled ambitions (though 'ambition', it seems to me, is mostly too strong a word for the impulse that makes people do things). She wasn't religious. Why go on?
'People like us must have the religion of despair. One must be equal to one's destiny, that's to say impassive like it. By dint of saying "That is so! That is so!" and of gazing down into the black pit at one's feet, one remains calm.' Ellen did not even have this religion. Why should she? For my sake? The despairing are always being urged to abstain from selfishness, to think of others first. This seems unfair. Why load them with responsibility for the welfare of others, when their own already weighs them down?
Perhaps there was something else as well. Some people, as they grow older, seem to become more convinced of their own significance. Others become less convinced. Is there any point to me? Isn't my ordinary life summed up, enclosed, made pointless by someone else's slightly less ordinary life? I'm not saying it's our duty to negate ourselves in the face of those we judge more interesting. But life, in this respect, is a bit like reading. And as I said before: if all your responses to a book have already been duplicated and expanded upon by a professional critic, then what point is there to your reading? Only that it's yours. Similarly, why live your life? Because it's yours. But what if such an answer gradually becomes less and less convincing?
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Ellen's secret life led her into despair. For God's sake, her life is not a moral tale. No one's is. All I'm saying is that both her secret life and her despair lay in the same inner chamber of her heart, inaccessible to me. I could touch the one no more than the other. Did I try? Of course I tried. But I was not surprised when the mood came upon her. 'To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness—though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless.' My wife had only good health to offer.
Does life improve? On television the other night I watched the Poet Laureate asked that question. 'The only thing I think is very good today is dentistry,' he replied; nothing else came to mind. Mere antiquarian prejudice? I don't think so. When you are young, you think that the old lament the deterioration of life because this makes it easier for them to die without regret. When you are old, you become impatient with the way in which the young applaud the most insignificant improvements—the invention of some new valve or sprocket—while remaining heedless of the world's barbarism. I don't say things have got worse; I merely say the young wouldn't notice if they had. The old times were good because then we were young, and ignorant of how ignorant the young can be.
Does life improve? I'll give you my answer, my equivalent of dentistry. The one thing that is very good in life today is death. There's still room for improvement, it's true. But I think of all those nineteenth-century deaths. The deaths of writers aren't special deaths; they just happen to be described deaths. I think of Flaubert lying on his sofa, struck down—who can tell at this distance? - by epilepsy, apoplexy or syphilis, or perhaps some malign axis of the three. Yet Zola called it une belle mort—to be crushed like an insect beneath a giant finger. I think of Bouilhet in his final delirium, feverishly composing a new play in his head and declaring that it must be read to Gustave. I think of the slow decline of Jules de Goncourt: first stumbling over his consonants, the c's turning to t's in his mouth; then being unable to remember the titles of his own books; then the haggard mask of imbecility (his brother's phrase) slipping over his face; then the deathbed visions and panics, and all night long the rasping breaths that sounded (his brother's words again) like a saw cutting through wet wood. I think of Maupassant slowly disintegrating from the same disease, transported in a strait jacket to the Passy sanatorium of Dr Blanche, who kept the Paris salons entertained with news of his celebrated client; Baudelaire dying just as inexorably, deprived of speech, arguing with Nadar about the existence of God by pointing mutely at the sunset; Rimbaud, his right leg amputated, slowly losing all feeling in the limbs that remained, and repudiating, amputating his own genius—'Merde pour la poésie'; Daudet 'vaulting from forty-five to sixty-five', his joints collapsing, able to become bright and witty for an evening by giving himself five morphine injections in a row, tempted by suicide—'But one doesn't have the right.'
'Is it splendid or stupid to take life seriously?' (1855). Ellen lay with a tube in her throat and a tube in her padded forearm. The ventilator in its white oblong box provided regular spurts of life, and the monitor confirmed them. Of course the act was impulsive; she bolted, she bunked from it all. 'But one doesn't have the right'? She did. She didn't even discuss it. The religion of despair held no interest for her. The ECG trace unrolled on the monitor; it was familiar handwriting. Her condition was stable, but hopeless. Nowadays we don't put NTBR—Not To Be Resuscitated—on a patient's notes; some people find it heartless. Instead we put 'No 333'. A final euphemism.
I looked down at Ellen. She wasn't corrupted. Hers is a pure story. I switched her off. They asked if I wanted them to do it; but I think she would have preferred me to. Naturally, we hadn't discussed that either. It's not complicated. You press a switch on the ventilator, and read off the final phrase of the ECG trace: the farewell signature that ends with a straight line. You unplug the tubes, then rearrange the hands and arms. You do it swiftly, as if trying not to be too much trouble to the patient.
The patient. Ellen. So you could say, in answer to that earlier question, that I killed her. You could just. I switched her off. I stopped her living. Yes.
Ellen. My wife: someone I feel I understand less well than a foreign writer dead for a hundred years. Is this an aberration, or is it normal? Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't. I'm not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people's lives, never your own.
Perhaps I am too accepting. My own condition is stable, yet hopeless. Perhaps it's just a question of temperament. Remember the botched brothel-visit in L'Education sentimentale and remember its lesson. Do not participate: happiness lies in the imagination, not the act. Pleasure is found first in anticipation, later in memory. Such is the Flaubertian temperament. Compare the case, and the temperament, of Daudet. His schoolboy visit to a brothel was so uncomplicatedly successful that he stayed there for two or three days. The girls kept him concealed most of the time for fear of a police raid; they fed him on lentils and pampered him thoroughly. He emerged from this giddying ordeal, he later admitted, with a lifelong passion for the feel of a woman's skin, and with a lifelong horror of lentils.
Some abstain and observe, fearing both disappointment and fulfilment. Others rush in, enjoy, and take the risks: at worst, they might contract some terrible disease; at best, they might escape with no more than a lasting aversion to pulses. I know in which camp I belong; and I know where I'd look for Ellen.
Maxims for life. Les unions complètes sont rares. You cannot change humanity, you can only know it. Happiness is a scarlet cloak whose lining is in tatters. Lovers are like Siamese twins, two bodies with a single soul; but if one dies before the other, the survivor has a corpse to lug around. Pride makes us long for a solution to things—a solution, a purpose, a final cause; but the better telescopes become, the more stars appear. You cannot change humanity, you can only know it. Les unions complètes sont rares.
A maxim upon maxims. Truths about writing can be framed before you've published a word; truths about life can be framed only when it's too late to make any difference.
According to Salammbô, the equipment of a Carthaginian elephant driver used to include a mallet and a chisel. If, in the midst of battle, the animal threatened to run out of control, the driver was under orders to split its skull. The chances of this happening must have been fairly high: to make them more ferocious, the elephants were first intoxicated with a mixture of wine, incense and pepper, then goaded with spears.
Few of us have the courage to use the mallet and the chisel. Ellen did. I sometimes feel embarrassed by people's sympathy. 'It's worse for her,' I want to say; but I don't. And then, after they've been kind, and promised me outings as if I were a child, and brusquely tried to make me talk for my own good (why do they think I don't know where my own good lies?), I am allowed to sit down and dream about her a little. I think of a hailstorm in 1853, of the broken windows, the battered harvests, the wrecked espaliers, the shattered melon cloches. Is there anything stupider than a melon cloche? Applaud the stones that break the glass. People understand a little too quickly the function of the sun. The function of the sun is not to help the cabbages along.
14: Examination Paper

Candidates must answer four questions: both Parts of Section A, and two questions from Section B. All marks will be awarded for the correctness of the answers; none for presentation or handwriting. Marks will be deducted for facetious or conceitedly brief answers. Time: three hours.



It has become clear to the examiners in recent years that candidates are finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between Art and Life. Everyone claims to understand the difference, but perceptions vary greatly. For some, Life is rich and creamy, made according to an old peasant recipe from nothing but natural products, while Art is a pallid commercial confection, consisting mainly of artificial colourings and flavourings. For others, Art is the truer thing, full, bustling and emotionally satisfying, while Life is worse than the poorest novel: devoid of narrative, peopled by bores and rogues, short on wit, long on unpleasant incidents, and leading to a painfully predictable denouement. Adherents of the latter view tend to cite Logan Pearsall Smith: 'People say that life is the thing; but I prefer reading.' Candidates are advised not to use this quotation in their answers.
Consider the relationship between Art and Life suggested by any two of the following statements or situations.
a) 'The day before yesterday, in the woods near Touques, at a charming spot near a spring, I came across some cigar butts and some bits of pât&eactue;. There'd been a picnic there! I'd described exactly that in Novembre eleven years ago! Then it was purely imagined, and the other day it was experienced. Everything you invent is true: you can be sure of that. Poetry is a subject as precise as geometry…My poor Bovary is without a doubt suffering and weeping even now in twenty villages of France.'

—Letter to Louise Colet, August 14th, 1853

b) In Paris, Flaubert used a closed cab to avoid detection, and presumably seduction, by Louise Colet. In Rouen, Léon uses a closed cab for the seduction of Emma Bovary. In Hamburg, within a year of the publication of Madame Bovary, cabs could be hired for sexual purposes; they were known as Bovarys.
c) (As his sister Caroline lay dying) 'My own eyes are as dry as marble. It's strange how sorrows in fiction make me open up and overflow with feeling, whereas real sorrows remain hard and bitter in my heart, turning to crystal as soon as they arise.'

—Letter to Maxime du Camp, March 15th, 1846

d) 'You tell me that I seriously loved that woman [Mme Schlesinger]. I didn't; it isn't true. Only when I was writing to her, with that capacity I possess for producing feelings within myself by means of the pen, did I take my subject seriously: but only when I was writing. Many things which leave me cold when I see or hear about them none the less move me to enthusiasm or irritation or pain if I talk about them myself or—particularly—if I write about them. This is one of the effects of my mountebank nature.'

—Letter to Louise Colet, October 8th, 1846

e) Giuseppe Marco Fieschi (1790-1836) attained notoriety for his part in a plot on the life of Louis Philippe. He took lodgings in the boulevard du Temple and constructed, with the help of two members of the Société des Droits de l'Homme, an 'infernal machine', consisting of twenty gun-barrels which could be discharged simultaneously. On July 28th, 1835, as Louis Philippe was riding past with his three sons and numerous staff, Fieschi fired his broadside against established society.
Some years later, Flaubert moved into a house built on the same site in the boulevard du Temple.
f) 'Yes, indeed! The period [of Napoleon III's reign] will furnish material for some capital books. Perhaps after all, in the universal harmony of things, the coup d'état and all its results were only intended to provide a few able penmen with some attractive scenes.'

—Flaubert reported in Du Camp, Souvenirs litteraires

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