After reading Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending’ sometime back, I decided to read another Julian Barnes book. As ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ seemed to be the most celebrated book of his, I thought I will read that. Though it was a thin book at around 190 pages, I read it slowly across a week. Here is what I think.
‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ is described as a novel. It also has a narrator called Geoffrey Braithwaite who tells the story in the first person. But the book is not really a novel. It is a love letter to Gustave Flaubert – the man who wrote such diverse books as ‘Madame Bovary’, ‘Sentimental Education’ and ‘Salammbô’. Some regard Gustave Flaubert as an innovator who broke away from the romantic school of writing and introduced a realistic school of writing in French literature. He himself, disputes it. He also gave a lot of importance to style – to finding the perfect sentence, the perfect word to describe exactly what he wanted. Well, how do I know all this? Am I an expert in Flaubert? No. Have I read his biography? No. Or have I read essays on him by his contemporaries? No. Then how? Well, I got all this from this book J For such a slim book, it packs in a lot of information. Information which we can use as a base to learn more about Flaubert. The title is based on the parrot which is a character in Flaubert’s short story ‘A Simple Heart’. The underlying story in the book is about how the narrator, who is a sixty-five year old retired doctor who has lost his wife, explores the real life origins of this parrot. Through the narrator’s words, Barnes explores different aspects of ‘things Flaubert’ – a chronology of Flaubert’s life from three different, interesting perspectives, what would happen if a secret collection of Flaubert’s love letters to his fiancée (who is not suspected to have existed) are found, about the animals that Flaubert wanted to be, about critics’ opinions on Flaubert and how even if they are telling the truth they are missing the point, Flaubert’s opinions on trains and the important train moments in his life, the books Flaubert wanted to write but couldn’t, Flaubert’s life as told by his mistress and lover Louise Colet, how the narrator’s own life is connected to Flaubert and ‘Madame Bovary’, how Flaubert’s works and thoughts will make an interesting examination paper. The chapter on chronology was quite interesting because it provided a chronology of Flaubert’s life from three different perspectives – the first was a regular chronology made up of the important events in Flaubert’s life, the second was made up of all the tragic and sad events in Flaubert’s life and the third was a collection of his diary entries across his life. The three versions read so differently that one felt that it is impossible to sum up a life with a chronology.
The blurb said that the book was a ‘compelling weave of fiction and imaginatively ordered fact’. So, I was expecting some fact and a lot of fiction. When I did some research and read a few essays on Flaubert and some of his letters from a different book, I discovered that there was more fact than fiction in ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’. For example, I discovered that Louise Colet is a real person. I also discovered, much to my surprise, that Enid Starkie, who is the critic whom the narrator Braithwaite has a problem with, is an actual Flaubert expert. This knowledge made me like the book more. Clearly Barnes is a lover of things Flaubert and has done his homework.
‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ is not a book for everyone. If one is looking for a plot with a beginning, a middle and a surprising end, this is not that one. If one is looking for long, beautiful passages and philosophical commentaries on the modern world, like ‘The Sense of an Ending’ so beautifully provides, one won’t find them here. But as a love letter to one of the great writers of the 19th century, this book is unparalleled. It is beautiful, passionate, intelligent, literary and an absolute pleasure to read. I loved reading every page and every sentence in it. It was like reading a memoir, a biography, a collection of essays, literary criticism, all in one book. It is no surprise that it didn’t win the Booker though it was shortlisted (I don’t know a Booker prize winner which is similar to ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’), but it is also no surprise that it won the Prix Médicis (French readers would have loved it because of the theme of the book). If you like a book which is a love letter to a writer – a bibliophilic book and a literature lover’s dream – you will love this book.
I have fallen in love with Flaubert after reading ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’. Now I want to read his short story ‘A Simple Heart’. And after that ‘Madame Bovary’ and after that ‘Sentimental Education’ and after that ‘Salammbô’.
After reading ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’, I read a few essays on Flaubert by his contemporaries – Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant and Henry James. I liked Zola’s essay very much. In a short space of around nine pages, Zola talks about his first experience of meeting Flaubert, about the differences between Flaubert the writer and Flaubert the person, about Flaubert’s views on modernity and progress, on how Flaubert worked on his prose, searching for the perfect sentence and the perfect word and how he would wait for days and weeks for it to arrive. It is a perfect essay and an education in essay writing.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book and from Zola’s essay.
From ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’
Is it ever the right time to die? It wasn’t for Flaubert; or for George Sand, who didn’t live to read Un cœur simple. ‘I had begun it solely on account of her, only to please her. She died while I was in the midst of the work. So it is with all our dreams.’ Is it better not to have the dreams, the work, and then the desolation of uncompleted work? Perhaps, like Frédéric and Deslauriers, we should prefer the consolation of non-fulfilment : the planned visit to the brothel, the pleasure of anticipation, and then, years later, not the memory of deeds but the memory of past anticipations? Wouldn’t that keep it all cleaner and less painful?
You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on our point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did : he called it a collection of holes tied together with string.
When you’re young you prefer the vulgar months, the fullness of the seasons. As you grow older you learn to like the in-between times, the months that can’t make up their minds. Perhaps it’s a way of admitting that things can’t ever bear the same certainty again.
Nowadays we aren’t allowed to use the word mad. What lunacy. The few psychiatrists I respect always talk about people being mad. Use the short, simple, true words. Dead, I say, and dying, and mad, and adultery. I don’t say passed on, or slipping away, or terminal (oh, he’s terminal? Which one? Euston, St Pancras, the Gare St Lazare?), or personality disorder, or fooling around, bit on the side, well she’s away a lot visiting her sister. I say mad and adultery, that’s what I say. Mad has the right sound to it. It’s an ordinary word, a word which tells us how lunacy might come and call like a delivery van. Terrible things are also ordinary. Do you know what Nabokov said about adultery in his lecture on Madame Bovary? He said it was ‘a most conventional way to rise above the conventional.’
…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.
…when readers complain about the lives of writers – why didn’t he do this; why didn’t he protest to the newspapers about that; why wasn’t he more involved in life? – aren’t they really asking a simpler, and vainer, question : why isn’t he more like us? But if a writer were more like a reader, he’d be a reader, not a writer : it’s as uncomplicated as that.
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.
‘The whole dream of democracy’, he wrote, ‘is to raise the proletariat to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeoisie.’ That line often makes people edgy. Isn’t it perfectly fair? Over the last hundred years the proletariat has schooled itself in the pretensions of the bourgeoisie; while the bourgeoisie, less confident of its ascendancy, has become more sly and deceitful. Is this progress? Study a packed cross-Channel ferry if you want to see a modern ship of fools. There they all are : working out the profit on their duty-free; having more drinks at the bar than they want; playing the fruit machines; aimlessly circling the deck; making up their minds how honest to be at customs; waiting for the next order from the ship’s crew as if the crossing of the Red Sea depended on it. I do that criticise, I merely observe; and I’m not sure what I would think if everyone lined the rail to admire the play of light on the water and started discussing Boudin. I am not different, by the way : I stock up on duty-free and await orders like the rest of them. My point is merely this : Flaubert was right.
‘In the ideal I have of Art, I think that one must not show one’s own, and that the artist must no more appear in his work than God does in nature. Man is nothing, the work of art everything…It would be very pleasant for me to say what I think and relieve Monsieur Gustave Flaubert’s feelings by means of such utterances; but what is the importance of the said gentleman?’
This demand for authorial absence ran deeper still. Some writers ostensibly agree with the principle, yet sneak in at the back door and cosh the reader with a highly personal style. The murder is perfectly executed, except that the baseball bat left at the scene of the crime is sticky with fingerprints. Flaubert is different. He believed in style; more than anyone. He worked doggedly for beauty, sonority, exactness; perfection – but never the monogrammed perfection of a writer like Wilde. Style is a function of theme. Style is not imposed on subject-matter, but arises from it. Style is truth to thought. The correct word, the true phrase, the perfect sentence are always ‘out there’ somewhere; the writer’s task is to locate them b whatever means he can. For some this means no more than a trip to the supermarket and a loading-up of the metal basket; for others, it means being lost on a plain in Greece, in the dark, in snow, in the rain, and finding what you seek only by some rare trick such as barking like a dog.
From Emile Zola’s essay
My first visits to Flaubert were a great disillusionment, almost an ordeal. I arrived with a complete image of Flaubert already in my head, an image based on his work of a Flaubert who was the pioneer of the century, the portrayer and philosopher of our modern world. I saw him as clearing a new path, founding an orderly state in the province conquered by romanticism, marching into the future with strength and confidence. In short, I went expecting to find the man of his books, and I encountered a shameless joker, a paradoxical thinker, an impertinent romantic who made my head spin for hours with a deluge of astonishing theories.
When he set himself to write, he began by rather rapidly writing a passage, a whole episode, five or six pages at the most. Sometimes, when a word would not come, he would leave the space blank. Then he would attack the passage again; and there would follow two or three weeks, sometimes more, of intense work on those five on six pages. He wanted them perfect, and I assure you that his perfection did not come easily. He weighed every word, examining not only the sense, but the structure. Avoiding repetitions, rhymes, roughness – that was just the coarse part of the job. He reached the point where he did not want the same syllables to occur in a sentence; often one letter exasperated him, he tried to find words in which it did not appear; or else he needed a certain number of r’s to make the period roll. He did not write for the eye, for the reader who reads silently to himself by the fireside; he wrote for the reader who declaims, who pronounces the sentences in a loud voice; indeed, this is the key to his whole working method. To test his sentences he would “bellow” them, alone, at his desk, and he was not satisfied with them until they had come out of his mouth with the sound he wanted them to have.
Have you read Julian Barnes’ ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’? What do you think about it?