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

Aïssatou Sy-Wonyu
Philippe Romanski
Antoine Capet

Your Favourite Mode of Utterance: Italics in Flaubert’s Parrot

Catriona Seth

Texte intégral

1It is a little daunting to have to speak before you all today and I must admit I feel a bit of a fraud. For a start I am a member not of the English, but of the French department of this university and have never before given a paper in English. Secondly, I am not, as you might have expected (or indeed hoped) a specialist of twentieth-century European novels or even of Flaubert. I usually deal with the relatively safe field of very dead eighteenth-century French poets, not with very alive British authors. I therefore ask your indulgence for my foray into an area about which I know little or nothing.

  • 1 All references are to the second Picador paperback edition.

2Italics, as you are all aware, are a typographical convention, the equivalent of underlining in a handwritten text. One of their advantages is that they stand out on the page and can easily be identified. Their function is at once to allow the inclusion of an element which may be borrowed, from a foreign language or another speaker, and to indicate that it does not quite fit in with the main discourse, a sort of integration without assimilation. They refer to a text without the boundaries of the one we are given to read. Italics, a signe du logos as one might ironically wish to term them, thus add a level of meaning by a purely visual effect. To give an example, even were I not to have read or heard of Gil Blas, by the eighteenth-century author Le Sage, I could guess by reading the sentence on page 139:1 “Le Sage in Gil Blas has touched upon the truth” that Gil Blas was a novel (or a play, opera, painting or another work of art). Italics are particularly useful when dealing with works presenting an eponymous hero or heroine. Thus on page 19 “The writing, publication, trial and triumphant acquittal of Madame Bovary” refers without a doubt to the book and not to an individual, whether character or real person. Conversely, when referring to “Emma Bovary’s eyes,” the author is quite obviously dealing with the character and the same would have been true had he referred to “Madame Bovary’s eyes.” Lolita, as referred to on page 79, is the novel and not its eponymous heroine. In this case the mere use—or not—of a typographical feature allows me to understand precisely what is being indicated by the author.

  • 2 “I should like to make two points, the first of which I shall put into italics, since this seems t (...)
  • 3 I am grateful to Yvan Leclerc for having afforded me a copy of Claude Duchet’s article “Signifianc (...)

3It is hardly surprising that italics play so large a part in Flaubert’s Parrot; after all it is novel which includes so many different levels of direct and indirect discourse, crossing linguistic barriers and letting several voices be heard. Indeed, the italic is elevated to a particular status by one of the characters who challenges another’s fondness for it in a phrase which has given me the title for this paper: “your favourite mode of utterance.”2 Italics are also a seminal feature in Flaubert’s own work and in particular in Madame Bovary.3 I would like, in the short period allotted to me, to examine the different uses of italics in Julian Barnes’ novel, possible substitutions of other typographical conventions for italics and cases in which the presence or absence of italics raises questions. I will conclude by attempting to discuss whether or not one can make sense out of the italics present in the text by considering them as a whole.

  • 4 One encounters both Le Figaro and the Figaro.

4I have already referred to typographical usage which puts titles in italics. We have many occurrences of this phenomenon both referring to Flaubert’s own works (L’Éducation sentimentale or La Tentation de saint Antoine for instance) and to journals to which he contributed or which refer to his works (Le Figaro, the TLS).4 I should like to comment briefly, on the way past, on one periodical which, we read on page 18, was the first to publish Flaubert’s writings: Le Colibri. It seems to me to be at once the first in a set of titles and a new creature of which little is made in the Flaubert bestiary: a colibri is a bird, a humming bird I think. Nothing is made here of the fact and yet it is perhaps the first ancestor of Flaubert’s parrot and certainly deserves a place in the bestiary.

  • 5 “If the headword is a word (or phrase) which, although used in English, is still regarded as essen (...)

5Le Colibri is in italics, I believe, because it is the title of a periodical. There could be another reason for isolating it from the rest of the text typographically. According to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993 edition), one of the uses of italic characters is “to distinguish a word or phrase, esp. a foreign one.” Such words, the dictionary adds, may still “usually be pronounced in a foreign way.”5 There are obvious cases here like the Latin species name [52] of yet another animal: thalassarctos maritimus or indeed of the Psittacus himself [7]. Other more frequent occurrences concern French words some of which have entered common English parlance like baccalauréat [18] or petit four [20]. Italics are also used to indicate the crossover from English into French in an example like the following which offers a translation of a play on words: “Gustave didn’t dance; Flaubear was nobody’s bear. (How would you fiddle that into French? Gourstave, perhaps.)” [49]. Other forms of expression can be marked out by italics like slang, in itself another language. In this case the ordinary distinction between French and English can be ignored as slang becomes a form of meta-language for instance in the expressions which mimic an entry in a dictionary: Avoir ses ours; the redcoats have landed; un ours mal léché. [53] Italics also distinguish definitions for languages which are primarily non-verbal. This is the case for instance when Louise Colet refers to the meaning of different flowers: “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.” [171] They even offer a means of expressing pure sound when referring to the noise heard during the channel crossing: “Rattarattarattaratta; fattafattafattafatta…”; is this not a sort of different language which functions for us in the same way as verbal language proper for the parrot, the set of sounds being given no importance other than that of a pure phoneme?

6Italics are to be found within direct and indirect discourses and at times function as the sole indicator of the presence of discours indirect libre. This is particularly true when Flaubert himself is made to speak for instance when “writing to his mother about the sublime surprise of the discovery” [75]. Here we have a specific voice and indeed a clear source. At times, the italic characters are attributed to a less precisely defined enunciator; often they indicate a group reaction as in the reference to Brummell’s possible madness [104]: “Was Brummell mad? The attendants remembered him well: un bon enfant, they said, drank only barley water mixed with a very little wine.” The italics indicate the very expression used by the attendants; they suggest that the rest of the text is authentic and reproduces the attendants’ their words in the form of indirect speech. The quotation which serves as our title, “Un symbole du Logos” [10] is definitely mocking of the language of French academics who are, by extension, pretentious and indeed whose very choice of words appears to be void of sense. The parrot gives us pure sound; “clever vocalisation without much brain power” in Julian Barnes’own words. Here we have the impression that the words have no real meaning and have been chosen for their effect. In another instance, Flaubert’s mores are observed and ironically his originality is pointed out by the general reaction expressed in italic characters: “For their part, the lunchers grew accustomed to cet original de Monsieur Flaubert.” [122]

  • 6 Note that the French word “charcutier” is not in italics only “fou d’amour” is.

7I described this observation of originality through italics as ironic as, to use a French word, which I will not put in italics, italics sometimes point out clichés. They are thus particularly precious for indicating popular sayings which, almost by definition, have no specific author or even enunciator viz the instance on page 49: Once you catch your bear, says the Macedonian proverb, it will dance for you. Ironically, italics may give meaning whilst often removing it, showing the lack of originality of our pronouncements. It must therefore come as no surprise that the part of the book in which most of the italics are to be found is the spoof exam paper in which, we are reminded, “Marks will be deducted for facetious or conceitedly brief answers.” Italic characters are also appropriate to show up the purple prose of journalists whose speech is not that of the man on the Clapham omnibus or indeed in the Rouen hackney carriage. Newspaper articles offer us various such instances [83]: “ce terrible et sanglant steeplechase” or, for the more modern versions, the reference to a story in Paris-Normandie about a “charcutier, fou d’amour, who had killed a family of seven.”6

  • 7 Letter dated “Mercredi soir” [15? novembre 1872] to Ernest Feydeau: “Quand on écrit la biographie (...)
  • 8 “Seulement quand je lui écrivais avec la faculté que j’ai de m’émouvoir par la plume, je prenais m (...)

8The first italics in the book are Flaubert’s, within the quote which serves as an epigraph: revenge. As though Flaubert’s voice were the original one, the roman type, for the italics are his.7 There is another clear instance of exact quotation on pages 205-206 from a letter he wrote to Louise Colet on October8 1846 in which he recalls the love letters he used to send to Eulalie Foucaud de Langlade: “Only when I was writing to her, with that capacity I possess for producing feeling [206] within myself by means of the pen, did I take my subject seriously: but only when I was writing. Within the text, used to stress speech, italics allow us to hear Louise Colet’s indignant tones when she gives her version of the story (perhaps that should be her version of the story): “He said that I was humiliating him. Imagine! He cast me off” [168]. The spurned mistress’s text poses new problems when she refers to something she inscribed on Flaubert’s missive of April 30th, 1847: “Ultima, I wrote on the last letter he sent me before his departure. Are the italic characters there because Louise Colet is quoting herself? Do they indicate that the word is Latin? Or is the author reminding us that they were underlined by Louise herself? We have three reasons for italics to be present. Which is the right one? I started by stressing that italics add a level of meaning through a purely typographical feature. Here they seem to be muddying the waters rather than clearing them. Similarly, when on the train, the narrator notices a sticker upon which he remarks: “Ne jetez pas l’énergie par les fenêtres en les ouvrant en période de chauffage. Do not throw energy out of the windows.” The French text both in a foreign language and quoted from a designated source is quite correctly both in quotation marks and italics but which is for which?

9Another purpose of italics can be to mark the intrusion of the author or of one of his voices, in the text, entertaining a sort of oblique conversation directly with the reader, often at his character’s expense. Thus when we are given the Latin phrase urging us to speak well of the dead, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, the italics indicating the presence of a foreign tongue shift seamlessly into italics which indicate the character’s disagreement with the affirmation: Ha [81]. Another instance uses brackets to separate the narrator’s intervention and italics mark the object of his disbelief. This regards the Rev. Musgrave’s account of his visit to Rouen in the nineteenth century [127]: “Much civility, much comfort (comfort in France!) made every arrangement pleasurable.”

10The conventional use of italics, to indicate the title of a book or a periodical, the name of a commercial enterprise, the inclusion of a term borrowed from a foreign language as a mere typographical marker, like underlining or using bold type, is not without influence on or relation to the other uses of italics. It brings together in burlesque fashion Libération, Pantagruel, Jude the Obscure, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Madame Bovary on a single page [110] or, to look further afield, pétanque and pot-au-feu, coitus and Homais’ Légion d’honneur, douaniers and Logic, lymphoid tissue and Philately, adultery, The Dog drowned and the Dog fantastical to name but a few examples, making them into the oddest of bedfellows. One might refer to a subversive function of italics.

  • 9 There are also numerous occurrences in which Flaubert’s own words are integrated in Geoffrey Brait (...)

11At times, italics are not where we would expect them. After all, French is used in references to a “Téléscope panoramique (Très puissant 15/60 Longue Durée)” [15]; other contradictions include references, in Roman, to the Museum of Rouen and to the Collège de Rouen or the Imprimerie Flaubert.9 Quotation marks or capitals like those for the “AMBULANCE GEORGE SAND” [160] sometimes usurp a role which italics could play. This apparent incoherence in the use of italics would suggest that one should look for a further meaning to them. Might one not say that they could serve as a metaphor for the book as a whole which is made up of wry comments on another’s words—or indeed on one’s own: italics being sometimes introduced at the expense of the speaker himself as if to deny him the originality of his affirmations or indeed to turn him into a quoter of his own text, to make him into a parrot.

12At times we can wonder whether italics serve as a beacon to suggest we ought to look out for a further quote which will make things clearer. On page 129 we read the following sentence: “We are too impertinent with the past, counting on it in this way for a reliable frisson.” The italics could be here because “frisson” is a French word. They also invite us to pay particular attention to a quotation which casts new light on the reflection concerning the past, Flaubert’s own words recalled on page 144: “Reading Plautus has reminded Gustave of this previous life: it gives him le frisson historique.

  • 10 Thibaudet, Albert, Gustave Flaubert (Paris: Gallimard, 1935), 204.I am once again grateful to Yvan (...)
  • 11 À Marie-Sophie Leroyer de Chantepie: “Mon rêve (à moi) est d’acheter un petit palais sur le grand (...)
  • 12 Pronunciation, in English, of the letters “G” and “J” is an endless source of confusion to French (...)

13There are thus many italics in the text. It is not always possible to decide why certain words are in italics and others not. The question which needs to be posed is the following: could it be postulated that italics function together as a whole independently from the rest of the text? Albert Thibaudet has suggested that the italics in Madame Bovary are in some ways a draft version of Bouvard and Pécuchet’s Dictionnaire des idées reçues: “On peut même considérer comme une esquisse du Dictionnaire ou un supplément au Dictionnaire les passages en italiques de Madame Bovary [...] Àla limite de Madame Bovary, il y a un livre où il n’y aurait plus besoin de rien mettre en italiques, parce que tout devrait y être. C’est Bouvard et Pécuchet.10 Conversely, one might say that Flaubert’s Parrot is, in a sense, writ in the margins of Flaubert’s own books and that before it there could be a book without italics. At times the italics are dictated by the English translation not by the original text. On page 145, we have a reference to one of Flaubert’s letters: “At thirty-five, he reveals ’my private dream’: to buy a little palazzo on the Grand Canal.”11 The italics of palazzo indicate the foreign nature of the word: there is no underlining in the original French text. One might have expected every extract from Flaubert’s writings to be in italics as a quotation from another language, turned into English, according to the Note which precedes the text, by one Geoffrey Braithwaite whose Britishness is in his initials GB,12 Geoffrey Braithwaite who is thus the chief repeater of Flaubert’s words, burlesque alter ego in translation at least of the author of the novel whose translations he claims as his own, parrot both of Gustave Flaubert and of Julian Barnes. The text could possibly be read inside out as though the only items in italics were in fact the sole ones which should be in roman. Italics on italics, cancelling themselves out like two negatives multiplied.

  • 13 Loulou is an oft used term of endearment by which, as Julian Barnes writes, Flaubert at times call (...)

14Any hope that Flaubert could be rewritten thanks to documents, to another’s text is negated in the novel by the destruction of the Juliet letters. Braithwaite’s hope of writing a definitive book is shattered though his aspiration was to turn Flaubert into his own italics and thereby gain access to the hallowed columns of the TLS. The multiplication of Flaubert’s parrots at the end of the book whilst it can be read at a factual level, also shows that we are all, consciously or not, repeating discourses which are not our own. In this respect, I believe that the first and last italics of the text proper are not without importance. The first italics are de facto italics, the result of typographical conventions, to be found in the title: Flaubert’s Parrot. It could be noted that unlike Salammbô who sees her given name elevated to a title or indeed even Madame Bovary who is designated by the bourgeois label she acquires after marrying leaves her maiden name disused, rather than Emma Rouault, her Christian name and birth identity, Flaubert’s Parrot has no name in the book. Arguably, Flaubert’s parrot is in fact Félicité’s who has a name, Loulou.13 The title tends to suggest that nothing here belongs to anyone but to Flaubert himself since the parrot is his, they share a name, and thus that the contents are purely repetitions and possibly distortions with some deviations and hesitations, of that which is his. Though he may never have said the celebrated “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” he would appear to be saying “Loulou, c’est moi,” or at least that we are all parrots. The initial italics thus seem to indicate that there will always be a referential aspect to the text, that like italics, it will always be at once a part of the whole and a borrowed element no longer really in place. Even the phrase put into italics after the comment which gives me my title, “your favourite form of utterance,” has a ring of Flaubertspeak about it as though innocently or otherwise the character could but parrot; finders keepers as Braithwaite would say.

  • 14 As “J’ai du bon tabac” is a famous nursery rhyme attributed to the eighteenth-century French poet (...)
  • 15 Novembre (1842), Écrits de jeunesse (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 2001), 776.

15To conclude, since conclude I must, italics indicate that the author is including something which is not his, repeating a word from a foreign language, an expression used by others and which is not part of his usual mode of expression, a phrase which he feels duty bound to attribute to a specific individual or to an unknown source (sometimes received wisdom). Since repetition, and repetition out of context, is the chief characteristic of discourse marked by italics, might one not deem the perfect example of the italics user, the one whose language can never be other, to be the parrot? The parrot’s comments, be they the traditional pirates’ cry “pieces of eight,” the affirmation of its own qualities, “pretty Polly” or, as in a celebrated fable by La Motte, “je n’en pense pas moins,” are, just as much as the instances offered within Flaubert’s Parrot by a Venetian bird: “Fà eh, capo die”; “As-tu déjeuné]ako?”, “Cocu, mon petit coco; J’ai du bon tabac”,14 the very image of a statement detached from its surroundings and thus rendered meaningless or, possibly worse still, susceptible, by a sort of mirage, to induce false meanings. And yet, in the gap between pure inanity and false meanings lies appropriation of discourse put to such skilful use in this impossible biography, the detection of that which, more importantly than the statue in the place des Carmes, remains of Flaubert. A wry reminder that words are all we have, that they are not enough and yet that they can be made to say so much. Copying, consciously or otherwise, is an occupational hazard of he who writes; Barnes graciously and wittily acknowledges his debt to the nineteenth-century French author and offers us the position which was to be Flaubert’s in later life once he had abandoned the romantic illusions of his youth when originality seemed to be the only aim: “Quand je retrouvais chez d’autres les pensées et jusqu’aux phrases mêmes que j’avais conçues, je tombais, sans transition, dans un découragement sans fond; je m’étais cru leur égal et je n’étais plus que leur copiste!”15


1 All references are to the second Picador paperback edition.

2 “I should like to make two points, the first of which I shall put into italics, since this seems to be your favourite mode of utterance. Literature includes politics, and not vice versa.” [151]

3 I am grateful to Yvan Leclerc for having afforded me a copy of Claude Duchet’s article “Signifiance et in-signifiance: le discours italique dans Madame Bovary, La Production du sens chez Flaubert (Paris: Bourgois, 1975), 358-378.

4 One encounters both Le Figaro and the Figaro.

5 “If the headword is a word (or phrase) which, although used in English, is still regarded as essentially foreign, it is printed in bold italics. In their normal contexts such items are often written or printed in light italics or within quotation marks, and many may still usually be pronounced in a foreign way.”

6 Note that the French word “charcutier” is not in italics only “fou d’amour” is.

7 Letter dated “Mercredi soir” [15? novembre 1872] to Ernest Feydeau: “Quand on écrit la biographie d’un ami, on doit la faire au point de vue de sa vengeance.” My thanks to Olivier Leroy for tracking down the original.

8 “Seulement quand je lui écrivais avec la faculté que j’ai de m’émouvoir par la plume, je prenais mon sujet au sérieux mais seulement pendant que j’écrivais.” I am indebted to Y. Leclerc for tracking down this and other extracts from Flaubert’s writing.

9 There are also numerous occurrences in which Flaubert’s own words are integrated in Geoffrey Braithwaite’s own prose with no indication of them not being the latter’s. The implication here must be that Braithwaite “lives” Flaubert to the extent that he does not realise when he is quoting.

10 Thibaudet, Albert, Gustave Flaubert (Paris: Gallimard, 1935), 204.I am once again grateful to Yvan Leclerc for indicating the source.

11 À Marie-Sophie Leroyer de Chantepie: “Mon rêve (à moi) est d’acheter un petit palais sur le grand canal.” (18 March 1857).

12 Pronunciation, in English, of the letters “G” and “J” is an endless source of confusion to French speakers who often lose the distinction between GB and JB; “GB” could thus designate both the author (JB) and his character (GB).

13 Loulou is an oft used term of endearment by which, as Julian Barnes writes, Flaubert at times called his niece Caroline (he also addressed her as “Bibi” on occasion). In 1876 he signed himself “père Loulou” in at least two letters to Léonie Brainne (26 Jan. 1876 and 19 June 1876—the first prior to any mention of Un Coeur simple, the second when the tale was practically finished). Loulou is also an abbreviation of Louis(e) and may, with its parroted effect of two identical monosyllables strung together be an allusion (conscious or otherwise) to a famous parrot in French literary history, Gresset’s Ver-Vert. My thanks to Mathieu Desportes, Yvan Leclerc and Olivier Leroy for the Flaubertian references.

14 As “J’ai du bon tabac” is a famous nursery rhyme attributed to the eighteenth-century French poet Lattaignant, it is fair to suppose that the parrot whistles the tune. The words would thus be replaced by sounds.

15 Novembre (1842), Écrits de jeunesse (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 2001), 776.

© Presses universitaires de Rouen et du Havre, 2002

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