Flaubert’s Parrot

A very sneaky pseudo-biography of Flaubert, which I mean in the best way possible. You’re slipped bits of information without fully realizing that you’ve got a Flaubert biography in your hands, cleverly disguised within the story of Geoffrey Braithwaite’s amateur literary sleuthing for undiscovered nuggets about the writer (he goes into near ecstasy when his friend mentions a packet of previously unknown letters to the English nanny, Juliet Herbert, envisioning the academic paper he’ll present). Parrots pepper the pages, apparently Flaubert borrowed one from a Rouen museum in order to write the part of Loulou in Un coeur simple. A cottage-industry of Flaubert tourism has sprung up in Rouen, and there are two competing institutions claiming to have THE Flaubert parrot. Barnes takes us on an entertaining joyride through GF’s life, clambering up the pyramids to discover the business card pinned atop, debunking the scholarly attack by Dr. Enid Starkie on “mistakes” in Madame Bovary about the color of Emma’s eyes, showcasing the wittiest and most piercing phrases from GF’s letters. Along the way, we fall in love with Braithwaite’s crankiness (and discover his wife’s suicide). Sadly, there’s an undertone of hostility to women throughout, but that’s to be expected with late 20th century white British males. Despite that, it’s worth sucking it up and reading this, letting yourself be aware of the misogyny but not letting it stop you from delighting in phrases like, “The moral of it all, I suppose, is: Never take fright at a footnote.” The only exception to the misogyny is the chapter that gives voice to Louise Colet’s version of their affair, but still this has ringing overtones of disgust, “‘I fired five shots into her,’ he would boast to me.” Perhaps the source of the negative perspective is that Braithwaite’s wife cheated on him consistently over the years, and then suicided?
After deriding the dinner party where he discovered that the seven other people present had all just finished reading A Dance to the Music of Time, he diatribes about coincidences:

And as for coincidences in books–there’s something cheap and sentimental about the device; it can’t help always seeming aesthetically gimcrack. That troubadour who passes by just in time to rescue the girl from a hedgerow scuffle; the sudden but convenient Dickensian benefactors; the neat shipwreck on a foreign shore which reunites siblings and lovers… I’d ban coincidences if I were a dictator of fiction… I don’t know what Flaubert thought about coincidence… his love of irony is plain; it’s one of the most modern things about him. In Egypt he was delighted to discover that almeh, the word for “bluestocking”, had gradually lost this original meaning and come to signify “whore”.

Another roundabout story dealing with coincidences– one of GF’s early attachments was to Gertrude Collier, and they kept in touch across the decades. She ended up marrying and her daughter Dorothy married explorer Henry Morton Stanley. This leads GB into a digression about one of Stanley’s trips to Africa where he had to divest himself of things in order to survive.

Books were obviously supernumerary, and he began jettisoning them until he got down to those two which every guest on ‘Desert Island Discs’ is furnished with as a bare, civilised minimum: the Bible and Shakespeare. Stanley’s third book, the one he threw out before reducing himself to this final minimum, was Salammbo.

Railing against the critics:

I must confess that in all the times I read Madame Bovary, I never noticed the heroine’s rainbow eyes. Should I have? Would you? Was I perhaps too busy noticing things that Dr Starkie was missing…? Put it another way: is there a perfect reader somewhere, a total reader?… My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it’s not pointless in terms of pleasure. I can’t prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell you one advantage we have over them. We can forget. Dr Starkie and her kind are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps this is why some critics develop a faintly patronising tone toward their subjects. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn’t said anything new for years… Whereas the common but passionate reader is allowed to forget; he can go away, be unfaithful with other writers, come back and be entranced again. Domesticity need never intrude on the relationship; it may be sporadic, but when there it is always intense. There’s none of the daily rancour which develops when people live bovinely together. I never find myself, fatigue in the voice, reminding Flaubert to hang up the bathmat or use the lavatory brush.

On the joy of being older:

I like these out-of-season crossings. 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. Or perhaps it’s just a way of admitting a preference for empty ferries.

Defending Flaubert against the charge that he hated humanity:

First, let’s start with the 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… Secondly, even if he did hate humanity – or was profoundly unimpressed by it, as I would prefer to say – was he wrong? ‘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.

In a faux examination paper section, Barnes does bring to light interesting coincidences in the Psychology section:

E1 was born in 1855.
E2 was partly born in 1855.
E1 had an unclouded childhood but emerged into adulthood inclined to nervous crisis.
E2 had an unclouded childhood but emerged into adulthood inclined to nervous crisis.
E1 led a life of sexual irregularity in the eyes of right-thinking people.
E2 led a life of sexual irregularity in the eyes of right-thinking people.
E1 imagined herself to be in financial difficulties.
E2 knew herself to be in financial difficulties.
E1 committed suicide by swallowing prussic acid.
E2 committed suicide by swallowing arsenic.
E1 was Eleanor Marx.
E2 was Emma Bovary.
The first English translation of Madame Bovary to be published was by Eleanor Marx.

The importance and annoyance of railways springs an entire chapter on Flaubert’s relationship and feeling about trains (The Trainspotters Guide to Flaubert):

Gustave belonged to the first railway generation in France; and he hated the invention… Conversation on the topic gave Flaubert a colique des wagons; in June 1843 he pronounced the railways to be the third most boring subject imaginable after Mme Lafarge (an arsenic poisoner) and the death of the Duc d’Orleans (killed in his carriage the previous year)… he didn’t just hate the railway as such; he hated the way it flattered people with the illusion of progress. What was the point of scientific advance without moral advance? The railway would merely permit more people to move about, meet and be stupid together. In one of his earliest letters, written when he was fifteen, he lists the misdeeds of modern civilisation: ‘Railways, poisons, enema pumps, cream tarts, royalty and the guillotine.’ Two years later, in his essay on Rabelais, the list of enemies has altered–all except the first item: ‘Railways, factories, chemists and mathematicians.’ He never changed.