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Flaubert’s Parrot de Julian Barnes : « Un symbole du logos ? »

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Aïssatou Sy-Wonyu
, 
Philippe Romanski
, 
Antoine Capet

Mixing It Up at You Go Along

History Then and Now

Peter Michael Wetherill

Texte intégral

1Conference papers change as a conference proceeds. This paper certainly did, either because I actually refocused, shifted or added bits of my argument, or because what I was going to say was in a way reconfigured, supported or undermined by what other people said before me. This needs to be borne in mind in what I’m about to say.

2The main thing I want to put across is that Flaubert’s Parrot is a very anti-university novel. In it, it seems to me, Barnes does three things in a very idiosyncratic way:

  1. He demolishes “History” and produces another kind of history in its place.

  2. He has a go at literary criticism and gives us something very personal and emotive instead.

    • 1 Like any piece of writing it certainly loses a great deal in translation—see below.

    He takes a very English tack on things—so much that I’m not sure at all that Flaubert’s Parrot means very much outside an English context.1

3What I am going to say is an attempt to respond to the line Barnes takes; and, in a clumsy sort of way, this as a kind of experiment includes the style (organisation and language) I’m trying to give this paper. In a sense, perhaps vainly, I think it’s worth trying to fit my paper into the mould Flaubert’s Parrot sets up, whilst what most academics do, of course, is ram books into the framework they think it should go in. So don’t expect anything with-it, formal, tight, logical, sequential, focused, triumphant and definitive from me.

4All the more because I’m not at all sure you can do an ordinary academic paper on Flaubert’s Parrot. I’m even tempted to make the naughty suggestion that you can’t really organise a conference on the book.

  • 2 In the event he could have been, but was not.

5And there’s another problem too—which really does stop us doing what we want, and that’s got to do with the man who might be at the back of the hall.2 Generally academics are lucky: they can say what they like—there’s not much likelihood that the author will come charging down the aisle to have it out with them—although I must say that at one or two conferences I’ve been to, I really have expected a purple-faced spectre looking like Flaubert to come lumbering from the back of the hall waving its arms about and wailing about the outrageous things people were coming out with in his name.

  • 3 Note the link with maggots and the fact that most authors are safely underground.

6And he wouldn’t have been wrong because academics and critics in general really do say some very silly things now and then. More often than not, they’re the maggots on the flesh of literature, and they don’t care very much where they nibble. This is because there’s not much risk in it: most of their authors are safely underground.3

7A lot of critics are too arrogant to see things that way, of course. They don’t know their place—and even, a few years ago writers like Ricardou tried to con us into thinking that there wasn’t much difference between their anaesthetised prose and creative writing. How full of yourself can you get? Critics should take a back seat more often. But they don’t—and all too often, whether they’re writing in “learned” journals or newspapers, what they’re doing takes on a life of its own—and the devil take the text!

8In any case things have changed for us because Barnes is in the offing, he could appear at any moment! So when I was invited to speak, I knew that I’d have to watch what I said. I’m not sure that I have done so far; but I hope Julian Barnes doesn’t find what I say too objectionable.

9My starting point is the hatchet job Barnes does on history and criticism. History and criticism as we know them will never be the same again. Barnes shows us that there are better ways of saying serious things about Flaubert—for example, via a very original piece of fiction.

10Barnes has a problem with Flaubert: he tackles him by what at first looks like a loose roaming approach, with sharp switches in pitch and level: sometimes he gets close, sometimes he stands back. This kind of mix is what most of the university set or the TLS crew try to avoid. And it’s quite a problem. I suppose that one way out for us could be to do for Barnes what he does for Flaubert: something bitty and fictional, with all sorts of personal details, not all of them true. We might even think up of making things up about Barnes himself: we could tell him things about his private life that he didn’t know himself. I’ll get back to this at the end. We being more emotional too, we could actually get personally involved, and say what we felt for once, and that’s something people try not to do nowadays, but they did once—and it was very healthy. Perhaps this is what Barnes was after, for one of the things Flaubert’s Parrot seems to do is to turn writing about art and life into snooping, pastiche, remake and self-confession.

11So that’s why, here at least, instead of saying what Flaubert’s Parrot is, I find I’m saying what Flaubert’s Parrot is for me—and what Barnes is too.

12I suppose this turns the tables on Barnes a bit... If that’s what we want to do.

13Perhaps it would be a good idea at this point if I had a closer look at the changes Barnes brings in.

14To start with, he rejigs history:

  • 4 I might mention that Flaubert doesn’t do this at all: in Salammbô and L’Éducation sentimentale and (...)

15He sets up a kind of culture clash: sometimes it fits, sometimes it’s a bit out of date. It’s a bit like Shakespeare writing the Roman plays or Flaubert himself writing about Carthage. But the tone is different and so is the lighting, because, apart from anything else, Barnes tells us how history can make a mess of things. It doesn’t always work (and it’s not meant to): it fuses remembering and forgetting and making things up and it makes a bad job of all three.4

16So Barnes stirs up past and present and in the process he shows how the past, (like Flaubert’s this time) hangs back, distorts, blurs, fades, disappears and splinters into a thousand parrots.

17This is why he shows how difficult it is to bring back Flaubert’s love pad with Louise in Mantes: all we get is separate isolated bits with each person—except in separate bits: Gustave and Louise have different ideas about it—and the reader as well. Of course, Barnes is not far from the truth as we see it now: after the usual, high-level US carpet bombing in 1944, there are only odd bits of nineteenth-century Mantes left now... But that too, so to speak, is a bit hit-and-miss too.

18So Barnes/Braithwaite realises that it’s not all that easy to get at the past—even your own. You can’t even trust evidence about the present either: people will hold their cards close to their chests, or muddy the water or just lie. And to underline the point, Barnes mixes things up a bit more himself in another way, so that you can’t really sort out fact from fiction, and you can’t tell what’s inevitable and what’s just coincidence.

  • 5 But perhaps Braithwaite is someone Barnes actually knew?

19That’s why a very real Lucien Andrieu is thrust into what looks like a mock autobiography5 which includes the Normandy campaign, a medical degree and a suicided wife...

20As you can see, this wandering confession which trails scattered bits of the nineteenth century behind it is pretty different from what academics get up to—though I must admit that I’ve heard some very strange self-indulgent wanderings at the MLA in my time...

21But they weren’t to the point, and Barnes is.

22In general, historians want to isolate the past. They want to be archival and hard-headed and lay down the law in nice little formulas. They can’t do without demography and statistics, facts, documents and figures, coherent values (even if they don’t add up) broad panoramas and chronological sequences, snappy narrative or eternal states, history fast or slow...

  • 6 Which are not hard to read as anti-religious propaganda.

23Whereas Barnes is messing about with history, in the nicest possible way of course. He’s not reorganising it and turning it into propaganda as Shakespeare did in the Histories or the Roman plays, or as Flaubert was probably up to in Madame Bovary or Trois Contes...6

24Barnes is not even looking at the past several times removed and believing in it. He doesn’t get taken in. He isn’t even fooling himself like Flaubert and Maxime du Camp when they read Plutarch at Thermopylae on the way back from their trip to the East—because they were taken in because Plutarch wrote 500 years after the event...

25And of course even if Barnes has it in for Ledoux for trying to turn Flaubert into a suicide (treading on Emma’s flower bed I suppose), he makes up the past as well—but he doesn’t go about it in the same way.

26What he seems to be doing is rewriting the whole Flaubert thing—life and work, love and money and making up another kind of story into the bargain—and the bits he produces are a lot more modern than Flaubert’s go at the past by the way. I didn’t say better, just more modern.

27At the same time, Flaubert’s Parrot, is a kind of comment on what Flaubert himself was up to: Trois Contes and L’Education sentimentale show that Flaubert was not bad at rewriting history either. The only difference, as I’ve said, is that his history doesn’t have anything more than flimsy links with the present. Whilst for Barnes, as I’ve said too, history seems to be the past strapped onto the present. So it can’t really stand by itself: it’s kneaded and mixed in with it in layers and blotches like a marble cake. It’s a much more personal thing: none of that straight-face impersonal Flaubertian nonsense here! In fact, it’s just like our own lives, with each of us doing his/her own special brand of mixing.

28The only thing is that rightly or wrongly we don’t go along with all this mixing up art and life on university premises. In the real world outside, we do, though: we all have our very special private way of living and reliving the past and twisting it about.

29There’s another layer to all thiscake even: in 2001, we could say that Flaubert’s Parrot is a bit historical too. As a book, it’s changed a lot since it came out in 1984 and you can’t read it in the same way—because its readers have changed. It can’t mean what it meant then because what it says is no longer part of the present in the same way. This is for many different kinds of reason, some of which are futile (or important because they’re futile), some more weighty:

30For instance:

  1. I’d be hard put to buy a new hardback copy of Flaubert’s Parrot nowadays for £8.50;

  2. M&S is no longer a national monument—or an object of international admiration (think of those demonstrations Boulevard Haussmann most days of the week).

    • 7 As someone at the conference thought he might have done.

    Travel has changed a lot too: the Newhaven-Dieppe crossing (which Flaubert used too) is under threat; Dr Braithwaite would now travel by Eurostar—and the whole space of the novel would be different. He might even stop off in Paris and look at Flaubert’s manuscripts.7

  3. And the £ is a strong currency—or it was when I wrote this...

  4. Perhaps we know quite a bit more about parrots and Juliet Herbert now (not to mention Flaubert!) than we did then. The bibliography has changed...

31But to come back to Barnes/Braithwaite.

  • 8 Barnes contributes to the TLS—but to my knowledge, he writes chronicles not reviews.

32As I said at the beginning, they don’t just have it in for historians, they take a swipe at criticism too. which they clearly hate, singly or in pairs. Barnes/Braithwaite really go for professors and journalists who drone along. He/they suggest ways of going about things which haven’t got much to do with what happens in universities or in the TLS.8

33These institutions have to do with belonging to a nice cosy little ideological club, with its nice cosy little ideological language.

34In a way, I was wrong when I said that that critics could do what they wanted. More than anything, critics want to say things and do things (like coming to conferences...) which show they belong, either because they spotted the Booker Prize too or because they are: structuralists, feminists, Leavisites, Lacanians, Derridaites or new historicists...with OK expressions to match.

35If you’re not one of these, you’re out. This is because critics don’t like people who step out of line and rock the boat. It makes them feel alone and vulnerable.

36And of course, the trouble is that Barnes’s book is all about being alone. It’s all about a persona who is very alone and vulnerable. And that’s one of the reasons why what he says about literature is unique and original.

37Amongst other things, Flaubert’s Parrot is about the way a real or a pseudo twentieth-confessional (auto-)biography interacts with Flaubert’s supposedly impersonal nineteenth century-tale—with bits of Flaubert’s own life thrown in...

38Both Flaubert and Barnes tell the story of a doctor with an adulterous wife who commits suicide, for reasons which in both cases aren’t all that clear. Added to this there are Flaubert’s medical connections: his father, his brother, l’Hôtel-Dieu, for good measure.

39Each one of these different biographies sets the others off. The whole effect is to show how much closer Braithwaite is to Flaubert than we are—with the kind of emotional manipulation which we fight shy of in our little ivory offices.

40All this adds up to yet another way Flaubert’s Parrot throws academics off balance—and I suspect it leaves the journalists thrashing about for something to say, and feeling a bit uncomfortable—as usual.

41This layer-cake effect is just one part of the relentless mixture of levels Flaubert’s Parrot goes in for, with its apparent conflicts of interest.

42Into the bargain, this isn’t even like what a lot of other modern authors do: I’m thinking of the kind of more or less homogenised style recent historical novels like Michael Frayn’s Breathless or Rose Tremaine’s Music and Silence go in for.

43Flaubert himself is a bit homogenised too—although he brings in quite a few ironic undercurrents.

44Flaubert’s Parrot is not like this at all: and you get the impression that even Barnes wants to make it difficult for us to get the parrot’s/parrots’story right—and of course the moral is that the story isn’t “right”, more than anything because Flaubert’s Parrot is an unusual and stimulating mixture of fact, solid scholarship, fiction, pastiche, biography and, perhaps, whimsy. Like everything else, the history I’ve been talking about often sounds like whimsy. It’s history about an author who didn’t write like Julian Barnes at all. And who changed tack from one novel to the next—not inside the same novel. Perhaps this explains the deliberately hit and miss side to Flaubert’s Parrot: because the impression is that not all of what Braithwaite says is quite to the point—or it’s to the point in a different way. Things are mixed together which don’t really go together, like oil and vinegar—and in this vinaigrette, fictional characters (Braithwaite) meet real people, and the writing shifts back and forth all over the place. It tells a story and makes critical points at one and the same time: they’re seriously critical and offhandedly chatty, facile and journalistic, all in the same breath.—as when he (Barnes/Braithwaite) talks about critics “sending the ferrets in” [17], or uses puns and jokey one-liners like: “How submerged does a reference have to be before it drowns?” [17], and “it’s called being a writer.”[135]

45With other untranslatable clichés like “the whole shooting match”, “coming out into the open” “soft touch”, and so on.

46Let’s not get carried away though, in a way, clichés like these can be a lot better than the kind of pseudo-intellectual jargon too many critics use as a replacement for real hard thinking. Perhaps that’s what we should remember when we see that Flaubert’s Parrot often seems to be a disjointed compendium of subjects and styles, with situations and stories picked up and dropped, and bits of pastiche here and there like Louise Colet’s meanderings and Barnes’ updated Dictionnaire des idées reçues.

47There are all sorts of different focuses, too, with the reader targeted or ignored, and, just for good measure, to set the cat among the pigeons, there’s the chap on the Dieppe ferry who switches the focus of the whole situation...

48All this is critically naughty. But it shows a healthy contempt for standard critical language and thinking.

49And it doesn’t stop there, for, as many papers at this conference have shown, Barnes sets up a real conflict of converging and diverging views on art and life.

50The overall effect of all this dislocation is that it’s not at all easy to come to any kind of real “intellectual” conclusion. And that’s just the point, I suppose, because Barnes isn’t really writing criticism, he’s writing a new kind of novel, with situations and feeling, not ideas and that’s how we should read him.

  • 9 We might note that Proust is another example of the way fiction masquerades as criticism or autobio (...)

51So, ultimately the book is a piece of fiction and it’s about human beings.9 Barnes, like Proust incidentally, is attacking the lunatic academic idea that you can’t say anything useful or interesting about an author’s life and personality.

52Incidentally, that’s what poor old Enid Starkie was doing too—and Barnes is a bit harsh on her, because at the time she was writing, she sparked off a lot of healthy interest and enthusiasm for French literature.

53In any case, this mention of Enid Starkie brings me to another point: and that is that, for me at least, Barnes is doing something emphatically English—with lots of puns and nudges: not at all what the Scots and the Americans and the French and the Germans and the Irish get up to.

54And perhaps this Times-crossword Englishness explains why Juliet Herbert looms so large, and why there’s a spoof take-off of a typically English examination paper, and why there are references to peculiarly English kinds of lunacy like train spotting and “desert island discs.” I’ll come back to this too.

55Admittedly, if we do lapse in to literary criticism for a minute, there are one or two things we might be uncomfortable about: There’s Barnes/Braithwaite’s blind trust in Maxime Du Camp, for example, or his theory that the cover of Starkie’s book shows Bouilhet.

56And then there’s the whole question of translation, which is a bit of an obsession with me, which is why I’m a bit uncomfortable about “chaudron” being translated as “kettle”—although I suppose “cracked kettle” sounds a bit better than “cracked cooking pot”—but it does turn language into literature.

57And “fire five shots” [p. 140] sounds a lot more inventive than the French cliché it translates.

  • 10 Barnes’s language is very original: words are combined in unexpected ways, and words are also used (...)
  • 11 Even with parrots the associations are quite different: just think of “garçon, un perroquet!”.

58But translation does set the cat among the pigeons in more way than one: as usual, it makes Flaubert’s Parrot both an original text and something a commercial translator produces, perhaps in a bit a of a hurry—with quite a few things I don’t like at all10 And this really does upset things, because we’re talking about two noticeably different texts—and no self-respecting academic could talk about the one as if it were the other could she/he?11

59In any case, this multiplication just echoes and compounds the kind of sabotage Barnes get up to himself. And this too reduces us to making a lot of subjective statements.

60Translation is a kind of proliferation anyway—so it fits into the book’s general pattern (which is all about multiplication and spawning), and thus it shows that however we wriggle we can’t really get outside the framework the book sets up.

61This is perhaps why all sorts of other doubles—or even trebles—come to my mind, sparked off by the pullulation of parrots. And I don’t just mean the usual ones in Flaubert everybody knows about: (Frédéric and Deslauriers—Bouvard et Pécuchet, Mathô and Spendius, Flaubert and Le Poittevin and Du Camp and Bouilhet and Laporte)—but doubles only I know about, which are personal to me.

62For example I once had an uncle called Braithwaite: Squire Braithwaite, if you please. He wasn’t a doctor (I don’t belong to that kind of society)—he was a stylish fish and fruit merchant in Shipley. Perhaps, Barnes’s Braithwaite is some sort of other version of my uncle—not from the posh South this time, but the outskirts of Bradford—and this fits in better with his North-country name.

63I also think that Julian Barnes himself comes in more than one version.

64Because I’m a cricket fan, Barnes crops up in my mind as SF Barnes, who was a famous fast leg-break and googly bowler who lived at the beginning of the last century and made mincemeat of the Australians once on a sticky wicket. Who can deny that Flaubert’s Parrot is a bit of a sticky wicket and that Barnes bowls us a lot of fast googlies?

65And perhaps Julian Barnes also turns up as the spitting image of a friend of mine who teaches at Adelaide University.

66And all these doubles don’t have to stop there—there are other things too:

67For example, there’s the cultural problem of talking about Flaubert and “Desert island discs” in the same breath... with all the English links (in addition to the ones Barnes makes up himself) it sets up—and this increases the English flavour of the book:

68For example, it makes me want to link up all Barnes’parrots with the great archetypal twentieth-century parrot no self-respecting woman or man from my side of the Channel can ignore—and Barnes must know about himself: I mean the dead one in “Monty Python” (“I should like to make a complaint”) which has gone to its maker in twenty different phrases (more pullulation).

69Barnes has missed that one—although I’m told it was already around in 1984. I haven’t checked—but it was in (and on) the air so to speak.

70So were all sorts of other things—and I’m reminded of:

  • Goon Show.

  • Tommy Handley and Mrs. Mop—who swept away a lot of cobwebs at the time if the Normandy landings.

  • “Fawlty Towers”: “don’t mention the war.”

  • “Carry on up the Khyber,” just to bring everything up to date.

71And because this reading is self-centred, I’m also tempted to speculate (but I won’t) on a novel about Barnes from the parrots’point of view.

Notes

1 Like any piece of writing it certainly loses a great deal in translation—see below.

2 In the event he could have been, but was not.

3 Note the link with maggots and the fact that most authors are safely underground.

4 I might mention that Flaubert doesn’t do this at all: in Salammbô and L’Éducation sentimentale and Trois contes, he produces another kind of history which hangs together and rivals official history, whether it’s nice and neat or a lot of disjointed bits.

5 But perhaps Braithwaite is someone Barnes actually knew?

6 Which are not hard to read as anti-religious propaganda.

7 As someone at the conference thought he might have done.

8 Barnes contributes to the TLS—but to my knowledge, he writes chronicles not reviews.

9 We might note that Proust is another example of the way fiction masquerades as criticism or autobiography.

10 Barnes’s language is very original: words are combined in unexpected ways, and words are also used to designate things unexpectedly. Even the first page of the translation show how these effects are flattened and clichéfied.

11 Even with parrots the associations are quite different: just think of “garçon, un perroquet!”.

© Presses universitaires de Rouen et du Havre, 2002

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