when flaubert took wing: the writer as a butcher, a healer, a sensitive brute, a sophisticated parrot.

“Flaubert’s Parrot” by Julian Barnes is a book I have had queuing up to read for some time.

“Flaubert’s Parrot” is also … an upside-down sort of novel. I know, if I was to glance up, I’d be confronted with your expression poised between boredom… and more apoplectic boredom. Well, baby, snap out of your boredom, cause I’m going to introduce you to a text stunningly beautiful.

But let’s start with a little background story: did you know that if it were for Penguin, this book would have never seen the light of day? Yeah! Barnes’ hardback publishers submitted the typescript to two paperback houses: Picador and Penguin. Picador was the serious, starry, international list; whereas Penguin was the home of books that sold. Barnes imagined himself reluctantly but realistically accepting the Penguin shilling over the literary cachet of Picador. Then the news came in from Penguin: they liked the novel, but had decided not to offer for it as in their judgment they wouldn’t be able to sell “a single copy”. Happily, Picador thought otherwise, and has been selling the book now for 20 years.

The fact is I don’t know why I have never got round to reading it. Perhaps it’s because of the overtly “literary” tag that was attached to it when it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. My avoidance of Flaubert’s Parrot was never conscious, but was probably a result of suspecting this novel might interest just a few Flaubertians… and perhaps a smaller number of psittacophiles. Sure, I love Flaubert and French litterature, but when I got this book I wasn’t in mood for Flaubert. Secondly, my avoidance was probably a result of thinking that I knew what to expect – word play, experimentation with form, biography, dissection of the writer’s role, relationship between art and life, in fact all the mundane things that your average novelist has for breakfast. The less than average ones, by the way, always have corn flakes. It is their convention. Having just finished the book, I can declare that I found all I expected and much, much, much more.

In short, this is the plot: a retired English doctor, and Flaubert scholar, Geoffrey Braithwaite, narrates this semi-biographical novel about the French writer’s life and work, whilst giving little away about himself. Yet, as the story unfolds and Braithwaite comes to sense the futility of language and the frustrations of accurately documenting the life of his beloved Flaubert, he begins to reveal something of his troubled past. Secondly, Braithwaite, in his relentless pursuit of the relics and mementos of the nineteenth-century writer Gustave Flaubert poses the question: ‘How do we seize the past? Can we ever do so?’

Indeed, “Flaubert’s Parrot” raises the issue of the difficulties of both biographical and historical interpretations. The enigmatic and mysterious Gustave Flaubert proves to be as decipherable as the stuffed parrot that Braithwaite equates with Flaubert’s artistic voice. The novel sets forth to cleverly show that Gustave Flaubert can never really be known, for there is no absolute and unified truth of the past, but only a multiplicity of overlapping perspectives, gaps and absences that hinder a reliable account, because ‘what happened to the truth is not recorded’. The fact is that the chronologies explicate the concept of how ‘the past is autobiographical fiction pretending to be a parliamentary report’, which includes chosen events and omits others. (Barnes, p. 101)

And there’s more: for ex., the third chapter delves deeper into the problem of interpretation. According to Barnes, you can define a net in two ways, depending on your 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. … You can do the same with a biography. The trawling net fills, then the biographer hauls it in, sorts, throws back, stores, fillets and sells. Yet consider what he doesn’t catch: there is always far more of that. The biography stands, fat and worthy-burgherish on the shelf, boastful and sedate: a shilling life will give you the facts, a ten pound one all the hypotheses as well. But think of everything that got away, that fled with the last deathbed exhalation of the biographee. What chance would the craftiest biographer stand against the subject who saw him coming and decided to amuse himself?

The historian sets out to reconstruct a tenable whole out of the fragments left behind, but what Barnes explicates in his inventive narrative is that such a construction is hopeless from the beginning: ‘It isn’t so different, the way we wander through the past. Lost, disordered, fearful, we follow what signs there remain; we read the street names, but cannot be confident where we are. All around is wreckage. These people never stopped fighting. Then we see a house; a writer’s house, perhaps. There is plaque on the front wall. “Gustave Flaubert, French Writer, 1821 – 1880, lived here while –” but then the letters shrink impossibly, as if on some optician’s chart. We walk closer. We look in at window. Yes, it’s true; despite the carnage some delicate things have survived. A clock still ticks. Prints on the wall remind us that art was once appreciated here. A parrot’s perch catches the eye. We look for the parrot. We still hear its voice; but all we can see is a bare wooden perch. The bird has flown” (Barnes, p. 62-63)

The fact is the bird didn’t take wing at all. The sophisticated bird is just a fake reason to debate Flaubert’s multiple facets: Flaubert is ‘the writer as healer’, the writer as butcher, the writer as sensitive brute’, the writer as a ‘sophisticated parrot’, the writer who ‘also saw the underlying inadequacy of the Word’, and can be either ‘as a pertinacious and finished stylist; or as one who considered language tragically insufficient’.

Barnes shiftes the inner narrative of the parrot encounters: the first makes the reader-pursuer feel warmly close to the writer-hero, while the second acts as a rebuking reply – Ha, don’t be so sentimental, don’t think you can get in touch with the artist as easily as that. Barnes began writing what he intended as a freestanding short story, but then he felt increasingly that he was on to something with this mix of fact and fiction, something which might be elastic and capacious. So: not a story but the beginning of a novel, one in which an at times attenuated fictional infrastructure would support a factual superstructure. Or (as I would have more likely put it to myself): Barnes’ narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite is about to tell you a load of stuff about Flaubert because he is unable to tell you the real story he is loaded down by. It’s a novel about emotional blockage, about grief.

“Flaubert’s Parrot” does not purport to offer solutions but foregrounds the difficulties of acknowledging and confronting the past and highlights the fact that life does not offer explanations; we do not find the emblematic parrot in life that solves the riddles to its mysteries, but rather one must embrace 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’. (Barnes, p. 197-198)

And the parrot? Probably a fake. Or perhaps just faked. Or then again….

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