Version classiqueVersion mobile

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

Aïssatou Sy-Wonyu
Philippe Romanski
Antoine Capet

A Train-Spotter’s Guide to Julian Barnes

Tony Williams

Texte intégral

1One of the distinctive features of Julian Barnes’s fiction is the close attention paid to different forms of transport. The experience of travelling by train or boat is often carefully recorded and the journey frequently functions as a structuring device, linking the different sections of A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters or setting the parameters for some of the stories in Cross-Channel. Barnes is drawn to both humdrum and exceptional journeys, ranging from the daily trip into London on the underground to the extreme situation of the survivors on Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” which provides such a striking image of man’s existential plight. It would be possible to range widely, exploring the rich variety of travelling experiences depicted by Barnes, but this paper will be primarily concerned with travel by train and will take a its starting point two of Barnes’s most striking celebrations of travel by train, the first very early, the second recent.

2In Barnes’s first published novel, Metroland (1980), the main character Christopher Lloyd, a sixth-former with a passion for French culture, likes to think of himself as being “sans racines,” but also proclaims with a degree of pride: “J’habite Metroland.” The Metropolitan line, which provides link with the past, is described in loving detail:

In the early 1960s, the Metropolitan Line [...] still retained some of its original separateness. The rolling-stock, painted a distinctive mid-brown, had remained unchanged for sixty years; some of the bogeys, my Ian Allan spotter’s book informed me, had been running since the early 1890s. The carriages were high and square with broad wooden running-boards; the compartments were luxuriously wide by modern standards, and the breadth of the seats made one marvel at Edwardian femural development. [Metroland 4]

3The narrator is taken with all aspects of the past-soaked carriages, from the sepia photographs of the line’s beauty spots to the various fittings such as the loosely strung luggage racks and the broad leather window straps.

4The limited knowledge of the sixth-former is supplemented by the unqualified admiration expressed by a more seasoned passenger, described by the narrator as “an elegiac old fugger,” who is a fount of information:

This was a grand line, you know. The Extension Line they used to call it [...] There used to be a Pullman car [...] right up until Hitler’s war started. [...] The first Pullman cars in Europe to be hauled by electricity. [Metroland 36]

5He rattles off the various stops and cannot contain his admiration:

Fifty miles from Vemey Junction to Baker Street; what a line. Can you imagine—they were planning to join up with Northampton and Birmingham. Have a great link through from Yorkshire and Lancashire, through Quainton Road, through London, joining up with the old South Eastern, then through a Channel Tunnel to the Continent. What a line. [Metroland 37]

6The elegiac old fugger is in sympathy with the drive and enterprise of an earlier age:

It wasn’t just ambition, you see. There was confidence as well. Confidence in ambition [...] Don’t sneer at the Victorians, my lad. [Metroland 37]

7The elderly enthusiast’s concept of the railway embraces those that built it and those that travelled on it, all caught up in a venture of epic scale:

You see, it wasn’t just the people who built the railway and ran it. It was everyone else as well. You probably aren’t interested (...) but when the first through train from Baker Street to Farringdon Street arrrived, the passengers cleaned out the restaurant buffet at Farringdon Street in ten minutes flat. (...) Like a plague of locusts [Metroland 38]

8Christopher, for all his cynicism, readily acquiesces in this view of the railway as heroic enterprise and comes to appreciate his daily journeys to school:

Those daily journeys were, I now realise, the only times when I was safely alone. Never found them tiring or boring, despite sitting for years with the same chalk-striped men and watching out of the same window the same scenery and then the same tunnel walls, their sides corrugated with dusty black cables. [Metroland 59]

9When his friend, Toni, asks whether he ever gets bored, his reply is revealing:

“Nah. Too much going on.”
“Tunnels, bridges, telegraph poles?”
“That sort of thing. No, actually, things like Kilburn. It’s Doré; it really is.” [Metroland 60]

10To prove his point, he invites Toni to try out the line and the constantly changing view from the high viaduct system at Kilburn is then descibed:

Below, as far as you can see, lay cross-hatched streets of tall, run-down Victorian terraces. [...] The value of Kilburn depended on not knowing particularities, because it changed to the eye and the brain according to yourself, your mood and the day. On a late afternoon in winter, with the egg-white lamps faintly beginning to show, it was melancholy and frightening, the haunt of acid-bath murderers. On a clear, bright morning in summer, with almost no smog and lots of people visible, it was like a brave little slum in the Blitz: you half expected to see George VI poking around the few remaining bomb-sites with his umbrella. Kilburn could suggest to you the pullulating mass of the working class, who any moment might swarm like termites up the viaduct and take the pinstripes apart; equally, it could be a comforting proof that so many people could live together at close quarters. [Metroland 60]

11Having won Toni over, Christopher is now totally convinced of the value of his journey:

From then on, I was not only interested in my journey, but proud of it. [The different sights] were all, in some way, relevant, fulfilling, sensibility-sharpening.
And what was life about if not that? [Metroland 61]

12The railway stands out, along with a select number of French writers, as one of the few things that survives the dismissive gaze of the blasé sixth-former.

  • 1 The way the development of the railway system led to a similar process in the nineteenth century w (...)

13One of the stories in Cross-Channel, published in 1996, provides another opportunity to explore the delights of travelling by train. “Tunnel” is set in 2015 and records what is likely to be the future pattern of journeys to France. The protagonist, an elderly Englishman has travelled to France on many occasions and is able to take stock of the way the world has shrunk:1

As the train eased grandly out of St Pancras he reflected, as he did every time, on the surprising banality that within his lifetime Paris had become closer than Glasgow, Brussels than Edinburgh. He could leave his house in north London and barely three hours later be heading down the mild decline of the boulevard de Magenta without even the flap of his passport. [Cross Channel 191]

14The narrator recalls with a certain fondness the many different ways in which over the past fifty-six years he has travelled to France. Just as Christopher Lloyd valorises his daily journeys to school on the Metropolitan line, the protagonist of “Tunnel” celebrates his repeated crossings of the Channel. The journey by Eurostar provides the framework for the story and is recorded in detail. Although the speed of modem travel is a matter for regret and the conditions for meeting people less propitious, the new journey by Eurostar is viewed positively.

  • 2 See “A grand projet should inspire, should stun us into reassessing our place and purpose in the w (...)
  • 3 Letters from London 316.

15A final, whole-hearted, endorsement of the convenience2 of modern travel can be found in an essay in Letters from London, entitled “Froggy! Froggy! Froggy!,” which records the opening of Channel Tunnel in 1994. Barnes notes the French enthusiasm for “grands projets,” declares TGV Nord a huge success, and quotes John Prescott’s declaration that “the Channel tunnel was joining a twenty-first-century rail network to a nineteenth-century one.” This is more than a little ironic given that 150 years ago it was the British engineers and British navvies who laid out the first elements of the French rail network.3 Barnes goes on to express an unqualified approval of the Channel tunnel:

The Channel Tunnel contains the world’s largest subaqueous stretch (24 miles) and is an astounding piece of engineering. The rail link will spare us the harassments and mayhem of the airport and offer an attractively seamless transfer from London to the centre of Paris or Brussels. [Letters from London 1990-1995 323]

16In an age when it is fashionable to lament the inadequacies of the modern transport system and the drudgery of travelling “abroad," Barnes displays a clear preference for travel by train. There are many things that he finds attractive about France but the railway system is certainly one of the most important.

  • 4 Par les champs et par les grèves, in Œuvres complètes II, 474.
  • 5 ‘Tout ce que nous avons donc remarqué de Paris à Blois, c’est que la route, quelque peu qu’elle ai (...)
  • 6 “Je vois [...] trop de gens qui parlent du chemin de fer. On en est tanné. Il y a de quoi avoir un (...)
  • 7 Voyage en Orient, in Œuvres complètes I, 555.
  • 8 “Vers Fontainebleau, quelques flammèches de la locomotive s’étant envolées, une d’elles est entrée (...)
  • 9 “Autrefois, quand vous vous transportiez d’un lieu à un autre, soit en voiture, ou en bateau, vous (...)

17In stark contrast to Barnes, Flaubert reacted in a predominantly negative way to the new invention. As a fairly typical member of the first generation to witness the rapid development of the railway system, he is alarmed by what he sees, echoing Vigny’s famous description of the locomotive as a “taureau aveugle” with a similar expression: “la bête de fer a renâclé comme un cheval qui piaffe.”4 Flaubert’s travel writing and correspondence contain extensive evidence of his distinctly hostile attitude to the new form of transport. Travelling on the recently opened line from Paris to Blois in 1847, he is bleakly dismissive of what he calls “ce mode aride de locomotion.”5 All the enthusiastic talk about the Paris-Rouen line, which opened in May 1843, fills him with “une colique des wagons.”6 Travelling by train to Marseilles in 1849 he is irritated by the enthusiasm of the passenger who every time another locomotive passes says “Hein? Ce que c’est pourtant que l’industrie humaine!”7 He complains about the company he is forced to keep, the sparks from the locomotive which bum his clothes,8 and the way that the speed of train travel has led to an impoverishment of experience.9 Basically, Flaubert was opposed to any form of travel on philosophical grounds:

  • 10 Correspondance II, 424.

Rien ne prouve mieux le caractère borné de notre vie humaine que le déplacement. Plus on la secoue, plus elle sonne creux. Puisqu’après s’être remué, il faut se reposer, puisque notre activité n’est qu’une répétition continuelle, quelque diversifiée qu’elle ait l’air, jamais nous ne sommes mieux convaincus de l’étroitesse de notre âme que lorsque notre corps se répand.10

  • 11 Voyage en Orient, in Œuvres complètes II. 551.

18Although he travelled by train a fair amount, from Rouen to Mantes to be with Louise Colet, from Paris to Nogent-sur-Seine to leave his mother with relatives, from Paris to Blois before going to Brittany and from Paris to Fontainebleau on his way to Marseilles, he maintains at times a stubborn and deafening silence in his letters and his travel notes about the new mode of locomotion which was transforming travel. For instance after travelling to Nogent-sur-Seine in 1849 he writes: “De Paris à Nogent, rien.” And, on returning to Paris: “De Nogent à Paris, quel voyage!”11 It would be difficult to be more out of step with the mood of the times but being at odds with what people generally thought never put Flaubert off. Not joining in the chorus of excited approval was one way in which he could establish his credentials as a premature “vieillard du siècle.” Such negativity is bound, one might think, to pose something of a problem for a modern enthusiast like Barnes. On the other hand, it does create a literary gap or a space which can be filled without there being any danger of falling under Flaubert’s shadow.

19Flaubert’s dim view of railways is duly noted by Julian Barnes and extensively glossed in Geoffrey Braithwaite’s “The Train-spotter’s Guide to Flaubert.” This is in many ways a remarkable piece of writing, remarkable for the ground it covers, the insights it offers and, last but not least, its blend of different kinds of writing, biographical, critical and fictional. It begins with an ironic insistence on the way in which, however much Flaubert might have detested them, trains shaped the course of his life. The house at Croisset was purchased because the previous family home in Rouen had been sold to make way for railway development. Flaubert was driven to Croisset by the railway. Even more ironic is the way, long after his death, trains continue to haunt him. Geoffrey Braithwaite in the final section of the chapter visits Croisset one last time and notes the ubiquitous signs of creeping industrialisation. The literary shrine, where so many sheets of paper were covered by Flaubert in his search for stylistic perfection, has become a paper factory producing amongst other things gigantic rolls of lavatory paper. But there is also further evidence of the inexorable advance of material progress: a railway line. Looking up river, Braithwaite suddenly sees a train, which takes on an almost malevolent quality: described as “squat and shuddering," it is ready to make its run past Flaubert’s pavilion where “it would doubtless hoot derisively.” [Flaubert’s Parrot 114] Not wanting to witness this final humiliation, Braithwaite climbs into his car and drives off. The responsibility for desecrating the birthplace of the modern novel clearly does not lie with the narrator.

20“The Train-spotter’s Guide to Flaubert” documents the place of trains in Flaubert’s life and works with a slightly satirical scholarly throughness. Few stones are left unturned. Key references are located from the observation in the Journaux Intimes:

Superior to everything is—Art. A book of poetry is preferable to a railway

21to the entry under railways in the Dictionnaire des idées reçues:

If Napoleon had had them at his disposition, he would have been invincible. Always go into ecstasies about their invention, and say: “I, Monsieur, I who am now speaking to you, was only this morning at X...: I left by the X-o’clock train; I did the business I had to do there; and by X’o’clock I was back.” [Flaubert’s Parrot 111]

22Braithwaite also unearths some typically unenthusiastic notes Flaubert made in a travel diary of 1866 on the London Underground and comments:

He does not deign to compare the British and the French railways. This is perhaps a pity. [Flaubert’s Parrot 111]

23The tone is not exactly reproachful but there is a strong sense that Flaubert missed a trick and the comparison would have been worth making. The reader cannot but recall that Barnes himself had seized the opportunity to write about the Underground. There is something deliberately comical about the way both life and works are scoured for references to trains but what might be thought to be trifling is shown to have a significance and unsuspected ramifications

24Although the subject of trains may have bored Flaubert to distraction, the subject of his boredom itself links up with major concerns. Flaubert’s attitude is persuasively glossed:

But 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. [Flaubert’s Parrot 108]

25Braithwaite also notes that “Trains play little part in Flaubert’s fiction.” This is partly because the modern novels are set just a little too early. He notes that Bouvard et Pécuchet “pokes over into the railway age, but neither of his opinionated copyists, perhaps surprisingly, has a published view on the new mode of transport.” [Flaubert’s Parrot 113] Flaubert clearly missed an opportunity: a scene where the two ex-clerks savour the delights of travel by train and discuss the pros and cons of the new mode of transport would have been hilarious. It is only in L’Éducation sentimentale that trains are mentioned, and Braithwaite, squeezing all that he can out of what might appear a flat description, comments on Frédéric’s visit to Madame Arnoux in Creil:

Given the benign impatience of his traveller, Flaubert informs the excursion with an approving lyricism: green plains, stations slipping by like little stage sets, fleecy smoke from the engine dancing briefly on the grass before dispersing. [Flaubert’s Parrot 113]

  • 12 L’Éducation sentimentale 408.

26Braithwaite refers to other railway journeys in the novel, commenting that “the passengers seem happy enough; at least none of them howls with boredom like a neglected dog.” Here a purely negative finding is turned into something potentially positive. Interestingly, Braithwaite does not mention the famous journey by train from Fontainebleau to Paris in June 1848, which Flaubert was forced to suppress when he found that the service was not running at the time. Nor does he attach importance to the train journey Frédéric imagines Madame Arnoux taking at the end of the novel when she leaves him to go to America.12 There is a wry comment about the way that Flaubert, in spite of his advice to Louise Colet not to waste time describing the smoke of a train in “La Paysanne,” himself introduces an elaborate comparison likening “the smoke of a railway engine stretching out in a horizontal line” to “a gigantic ostrich feather whose tip kept blowing away.” [Flaubert’s Parrot 113] On the whole, then, Flaubert manages to keep his aversion under wraps. Only in the evocation of Pellerin’s painting of “the Republic, or Progress, or Civilisation, in the figure of Jesus Christ, driving a locomotive through a virgin forest” is it suggested by Braithwaite that “Flaubert allows himself a private smile”. [Flaubert’s Parrot 113] Only in this mildest of ways does Flaubert depart from his technique of impersonality.

27The Train-spotter’s Guide also offers insights into the function of the railways in Flaubert’s relationship with Louise Colet. The meetings would doubtless have been very different, it is suggested, if the journey had been more arduous. Braithwaite is keen to stress the benefits of the railway, both for Flaubert and Louise Colet, but also for us. “The railway made it worthwhile for Gustave: he could get to Mantes and back without too much trouble [...]. The railway made it worth while for Louise: Gustave was never far away [...]. And the railway made it worth while for us, who can now read the letters which resulted from that prolonged oscillation.” [Flaubert’s Parrot 109-10] Flaubert, himself, does not say a word about the benefits he derived from the new form of travel. It is left to Braithwaite to set the record straight.

28There is also some interesting speculation about the spread of the railways and the way they made adultery both simpler and harder:

I can imagine village priests delivering sermons on the Devil’s invention and being mocked for it; but if they did, they were right. [Flaubert’s Parrot 109]

29Braithwaite’s own situation as the husband of an unfaithful wife colours his view here. That situation itself is the result of a curious kind of contamination, with Emma’s adultery leaching into Flaubert’s Parrot in the shape of Ellen’s adultery. With the emphasis on new forms of emotional suffering associated with the railways, Braithwaite also reconstructs the scene when Flaubert returns from his first trip to Mantes and finds his mother at the station. This leads to the Flaubertian-sounding observation: “They talk about the sadness of departure; what about the guilt of arrival?” [Flaubert’s Parrot 110] Braithwaite insists that the new railway system, for all its benefits, cannot be easily dissociated from different forms of distress.

30The most original and productive feature of Braithwaite’s interest in trains in Flaubert consists in his repeating the journey Flaubert made from Rouen to Mantes. This occasions a flurry of observations—Braithwaite is an attentive traveller like most of Barnes’s fictional narrators. A sharp eye is no guarantee, however, that the past can be retrieved. Here as elsewhere what is recorded is the failure to secure contact with the past:

On the train, I had been unable to imagine Flaubert [...] making the same journey; now at this point of pilgrimage, the gateposts were no help in thinking my way back to the hot reunions of Gustave and Louise. Why should they be? We are too impertinent with the past, counting on it for a reliable frisson. Why should it play our game? [Flaubert’s Parrot 112]

31Braithwaite finds the kind of closeness he is seeking elusive, prompting the observation:

Sometimes the past may be a greased pig; sometimes a bear in its den; and sometimes merely the flash of a parrot, two mocking eyes that spark at you from the forest. [Flaubert’s Parrot 112]

32In thematic terms Braithwaite s retracing of Flaubert’s train journey is extremely productive, reinforcing the pattern of hope followed by deflation in his attempts to find Flaubert’s parrot. The dream that Braithwaite later records is, in this context, crucial:

Changing trains at Birmingham, some time during the war. The distant guard’s van at the end of the platform, pulling out. My suitcase rubbing at my calf. The blacked-out train; the station dimly lit. A timetable I couldn’t read, a blur of figures. No hope anywhere; no more trains; desolation, darkness. [Flaubert’s Parrot 183]

  • 13 Barnes quotes the last line of Larkin’s poem on the Humber Bridge (“Always it is by bridges that w (...)
  • 14 See “With ‘Flaubert’s Parrot/I caught myself arguing that while Flaubert disapproved of critics an (...)

33The disappearing train is a striking symbol of loss, establishing a link between Braithwaite’s dead wife and the dead foreigner he admires, neither of whom can be retrieved. The bleakness of the situation in which Braithwaite finds himself is expressed powerfully through the absence of trains, as if it is by trains that we live.13 The retracing of Flaubert’s journey also keeps what might otherwise appear to be a collage of biographical information and critical insights on a fictional track, since the focus shifts imperceptibly from past to present, from objective data on Flaubert to Braithwaite’s problematic quest for Flaubert. An essential feature of Flaubert’s Parrot is, precisely, that despite the biographical and critical thrust of much of the content, it is overall a work of fiction and able, consequently, to evade the objections one might wish to make against both straight biography or straight criticism.14

  • 15 Love, etc. 132.

34This difference of opinion with Flaubert about railways is perhaps all the more surprising if one bears in mind the remarkable similarity of the views expressed in Barnes’s work and those of Flaubert on a wide range of subjects: the subjective nature of truth, the relativity of our knowledge of the past, the inadequacy of language, the value of aspiration, the difficulty of achieving a complete union with another human being, the consolations of non-fulfilment. For a number of narrators and main characters in Barnes’s fiction Flaubert is the essential reference, the person whose views most strikingly prefigure their own. Flaubert also represents for Barnes, as he does for many other writers, the ideal figure of the devoted artist, prepared to “decline” life in the interest of art (“Only by distancing yourself from the world do you see it clearly”).15 And of course, his artistic achievement is enormous (“the greatest European novelist of the nineteenth century” [Flaubert’s Parrot 69]). Lastly, Flaubert as a man, is someone for whom Barnes, again like many others, has enormous affection:

Obviously, he’s the writer whose words I most carefully tend to weigh, who I think has spoken the most truth about writing. And it’s odd to have a foreign genius for whom you feel a direct love... He’s obviously a tricky bastard in some ways, but I find when I’m reading his letters I just want to go and make him a cup of hot chocolate, light his cigarette. [“The Follies of Writer Worship”]

35In the context of this deep-seated admiration, ironised in Braithwaite’s “rash devotion to a dead foreigner” [Flaubert’s Parrot 166], it is difficult for Barnes to part company with Flaubert. It is, therefore, arguably a good thing that they do differ on some sujects. Clearly, it is stimulating and productive for Barnes to take issue with Flaubert over trains. There is a sense in which all that he writes about trains is part of a dialogue with a shadowy figure, who is nowhere seen but everywhere felt. The enabling effect of this running debate is apparent in a number of aspects of Barnes’s use of trains.

  • 16 The decision to route the line along the valley of the Seine rather than follow the more direct ro (...)
  • 17 “Finally, The Fanal reported, without coming to its own judgement on the matter, that some authori (...)

36Flaubert does not express anywhere any interest in the whole process of construction of the railway system. Barnes, in contrast, devotes a whole story to the building of the Rouen-Le Havre line, displaying a remarkable degree of historical insight into the process and implicitly shaming the writer who remained oblivious to the scale and significance of what was happening in his immediate vicinity. “Junction” describes the surprisingly orderly life of the 5000 navvies who built the railway from Paris to Le Havre. Yorkey Tom is a giant of a man able to shift twenty tons of earth a day and proud to work for Mr Brassey, the main engineer. We learn that the local “Frenchies” regarded the excavations as a kind of free entertainment, and the English navvies would sometime respond by putting on a show of how hard they could work (“they were kings of their work, and they knew so”). The building of the Rouen-Le Havre stretch of the railway lines was undoubtedly a great feat of engineering, involving the construction of many bridges, tunnels and viaducts.16 We are reminded of the elegiac old fugger’s advice: “Don’t sneer at the Victorians, my lad.” The main point of the story is that whilst the Curé is fulminating against the evils of the railway, the middle classes are gawping at the navvies and, reports the Fanal de Rouen, others are straining for significance in extravagant comparisons of the construction of the railway line to the building of the cathedrals in the middle ages,17 the work itself is quietly proceeding. Even the collapse of the viaduct at Barentin, which could have been a huge setback and would doubtless have been turned into a kind of comic comeuppance if Flaubert had been writing the story, cannot hold up the progress of the line.

37The building of the Rouen-Le Havre line also allows Barnes to broach an issue which represents an area of potential disagreement with Flaubert. At one point one of the visitors, Dr Achille, discusses Flaubert’s attitude with his wife:

“I cannot think,” he said at last, “why my brother, who claims to be an artist, cannot see the immense beauty of railways. Why should he dislike them so intensely? He is too young to be so old-fashioned.”
“He maintains, I believe,” replied Mme Julie with some care, “that scientific advances make us blind to moral defects. They give us the illusion that we are making progress, which he always contends to be dangerous. At least, that is what he says,” she added, as if in qualification.
“That fits his character,” said her husband. “Too clever to see the simple truth. Look at that edifice before us. A surgeon may now travel more quickly to save a patient’s leg. Where is the illusion in that?” [Cross Channel 39]

38Dr Achille is, of course, not necessarily a reliable judge but the the fact that his trenchant objection to a negative view of the railways is articulated is perhaps significant.

39In Flaubert’s Parrot, the narrator observes: “Flaubert didn’t believe in progress: especially not in moral progress, which is all that matters.” There are moments when Braithwaite appears to endorse Flaubert’s view. In reponse to the question “Does life improve?”, Braithwaite recalls John Betjeman’s comment “The only thing I think is very good today is dentistry” and goes on to state that “The one thing that is very good in life today is death” by which he means the technology of dying.” [Flaubert’s Parrot 167] In the Chapter entitled “Cross Channel,” Braithwaite asks the question “Does the world progress? Or does it merely shuttle back and forth like a ferry?” [Flaubert’s Parrot 105]

  • 18 Kate Saunders, “From Flaubert’s Parrot to Noah’s Woodworm,” Sunday Times, 18 June 1989, 9.

40Perhaps most tellingly, in the chapter where he defends Flaubert against various charges, against the criticism that Flaubert did not believe in progress, Braithwaite simply states: “I cite the twentieth century in his defence”. Julian Barnes himself cannot be easily drawn on this question but in one interview he commented that life is “all hazard and chaos, with occasional small pieces of progress”18 If there is a distinction to be made, it is possibly that in Barnes’s view the development of the railways might qualify as a “small piece of progress” in the prevailing chaos, whilst for Flaubert the mere suggestion that his might be one way of looking at things is anathema.

41The whole question of progress is linked to the question of man’s control of nature. Flaubert is strongly opposed to the scientism of his age, to the idea that with the advances being made in human knowledge it was only a matter of time before complete control over the forces of nature was going to be achieved. Bouvard et Pécuchet represents his definitive and devastating demonstration that man’s knowledge of and control over nature are precarious. The locomotive, which was turned into a symbol of man’s mastery of the world, represents for Flaubert a kind of intellectual and technological hubris. Associated with the denial of the potential of science for control of nature is a deep-seated anti-teleological view which insists that the universe has not been designed for the benefit of man. Braithwaite refers admiringly to the letter in which Flaubert delights in the ravages of a hailstorm, commenting:

[I]n five minutes Nature had reimposed the true order of things upon that brief, factitious order which man conceitedly imagines himself to be introducing. [... ] [Flaubert] applauds the hailstones that shattered the glass. “People believe too easily that the function of the sun is to help the cabbages along.” [Flaubert’s Parrot 160]

42Such exultance is perhaps not so readily shared by Barnes. The difference in outlook is arguably apparent in the essay, “Froggy! Froggy! Froggy!” The essay opens with a jokey reference to the chapter in Bouvard et Pécuchet in which Pécuchet wonders what would happen if there were to be an earthquake under the channel:

The water, he maintains, would all rush into the Atlantic, the coastlines would begin to totter, and then slowly the two land masses would shuffle across and reunite. [Letters from London 312]

43This is catastrophe raised to a high comic art but one cannot help but notice that the typically Flaubertian vision of the world in a state of collapse is contradicted by Barnes’s celebration of the Channel Tunnel as a great feat of engineering. Barnes is clearly less wholeheartedly committed to a vision of the world on the brink of disaster.

44At one point in “Louise Colet’s Version,” Braithwaite characterises Flaubert’s attitude to travel:

He didn’t really like travel, of course. He liked the idea of travel, and the memory of travel, but not travel itself. For once I agree with Du Camp, who used to say that Gustave’s preferred form of travel was to be on a divan and have the scenery carried past him. [Flaubert’s Parrot 142].

45This gives us an insight into the deep-seated passivity of Flaubert’s sensibility, stressed by Sartre and bound up with an inability to believe in human praxis but representing a significant point of difference with Barnes, who clearly relishes the mobility enjoyed by the modern traveller.

46Another potential qualification of Flaubert’s view of the development of the railway system relates to the whole question of social interaction. Flaubert’s correspondence reveals a deep-seated aversion to the people he met on trains and this is perhaps what lies behind some of the discussion in “Tunnel”. The protagonist of this story notes that the speed of modern travel makes it less easy to meet people:

In the old days—even in the elderly days—they might have been talking by this stage. The best you got nowadays was a sort of wary camaraderie. [Cross Channel 196]

47He even thinks up a “wanly humorous thesis title”: The Death of the Comparment Train and Its Effect Upon the Social Interaction of Travel. However, in spite of his complaints, he does, in fact, make the acquaintance of a tallish, good-looking woman who he thinks might be an old Crazy Horse girl returning to Paris for a reunion but who turns out to be a Master of wine on her way to Rheims for a vertical tasting of champagne. There are, however, other travellers who are less appealing, in particular Lenny Fulton, the smarmy yet opinionated presenter of “Sportsworld UK” who has unwisely denounced football hooligans as “worse than pigs” and is waylaid by a group of football fans who get their own back by pouring beer over him and putting a big brass clip-on ring through his nose [Cross Channel 200]. Broadly speaking, however, the train is a site of sociability in Barnes’s work, allowing Flaubert’s deeply misanthropic vision to be qualified.

  • 19 See in particular Walter Benjamin, who notes that technology in the nineteenth century “subjected (...)
  • 20 See Dolf Sternberger, “The views from the windows of Europe have entirely lost the dimension of de (...)
  • 21 L’Éducation sentimentale, “les maisonnettes des stations glissaient comme des décors,” 192

48Many commentators have noted the way technological change in the nineteenth century had a major impact on people’s perceptions.19 One of the major effects of travel by train was to transform the external world into a kind of rolling panorama.20 Flaubert creates in his fiction complex effects of derealisation21 but is more interested in developing this emphasis on the world appearing to move when it is the observer who is moving in connection with the Ville-de-Montereau. Generally speaking, Flaubert pays scant attention to the transformation of vision brought about by travel by train. In contrast, Barnes is particularly attentive to the way the external world appears from the vantage point of the train window and some of best descriptive passages capture the changing view from the metropolitan line or Eurostar. As in Flaubert, there is an emphasis on the world appearing to slide by. In “Tunnel,” the narrator notes how “Xeroxed semis fled past his eye” [193], how “The Shuttle Terminal at Cheriton slipped by [199] and at the end of his journey thinks “He scarcely noticed the journey: countryside projected behind glass, twenty minutes of tunnel, then more projected countryside” [208]. But whilst they share the same sense of a world sliding by, Barnes sees fit to itemize all that can be seen from the Kilburn viaduct or “the sparse novelties” of the French landscape. There is no doubt that Barnes is bent on making more of changing phenomenology of vision brought about by the travelling experience Flaubert neglected.

49One of the characteristics of moden travel is its mixed nature. In L’Éducation Flaubert frequently evokes a mixture of different modes of transport. Journeys are often characterised by impatience and the difficulties of finding appropriate transport, as when Frédéric seeks to return to Paris to see his wounded friend, Dussardier, build up narrative tension. One can detect echoes of some of the classic Flaubertian journeys in some of Barnes’s writing. In “Gnossienne,” the narrator, a writer who hates conferences, is enticed into attending a conference in Marrant-sur-Cère, 30 or 40 kilometres short of Aurillac, on learning that the point of the conference consists in being met at the station since “attendance is performance”. Some of his mixed feelings are conveyed by the mixed journey to Marrant-sur-Cère and the complications of overshooting the stop at which he should have got off the train, followed by the need to hire a car to go back from Aurillac to Marrant-sur-Cère.

  • 22 “Plus d’un, en apercevant ces coquettes résidences, si tranquilles, envia d’en être le propriétair (...)

50In Flaubert particular importance is attached to travel by steamboat. The opening of L’Éducation sentimenatale is a tour de force, much commented upon by critics. There is a complex interaction between a sense of movement and stasis, and the journey on the Ville-de-Montereau is richly proleptic. Train journeys derive some of their significance from the contrast with this opening journey. In Barnes the boat, whilst often associated with disaster, is also the locus of a privileged vision or encounter, as it is in Flaubert. In “Experiment” Uncle Freddy sees Kate for the first time on the ferry back from Paris, although he may have had prior tactile contact with her without realizing it. In “Hermitage” the two English women first see the place they buy, the Château Dauprat-Bages, a perfect place to live, from the Pauillac steamer, recalling the envious gazes the travellers on the Ville-de-Montereau cast.22 More strikingly the solidity of specification and the spectacle of humanity at play on the channel-ferry in Flaubert’s Parrot has distinct echoes of the Ville-de-Montereau in L’Éducation sentimentale. In both writers, travel by train takes its place alongside other forms of travel; rapidity of movement, often associated with a certain poverty of experience and a sense of loss, contrasts with the potential plenitude of travel by boat.

  • 23 “Gustave Flaubert, 1902,” in The House of Fiction 210.

51In “The Follies of Writer Worship” Barnes records that Flaubert’s Parrot felt, amongst other things, occasionally, “like an act of betrayal” and goes on to ask the question: “Was this because the writers you love are as capable of inducing unspecific guilt as the people you love?” It is just possible that one aspect of that sense of betrayal he felt is connected with the way he has in “The Train-spotter’s Guide to Flaubert” identified a certain poverty of vision in “the greatest European novelist of the nineteenth century”: Travel by train is shown to be an area where Flaubert’s imagination simply did not “give”. This is nothing when set alongside the “meagre human consciousness,” which Henry James detects in Flaubert.23 However, what Barnes as a biographer and critic malgré lui possibly feels slightly uneasy about, proves a flashpoint to creative difference and has clearly proved immensely beneficial to him as a writer.



Barnes, Julian. Metroland. London: Picador, 1980.

—. Flaubert’s Parrot. London: Jonathan Cape, 1984.

—. “The Follies of Writer Worship,” New York Times, 17 February 1985.

—. Letters from London 1990-1995. London: Picador, 1995.

—. Cross Channel. London: Picador, 1996.

—. Love, etc. London: Jonathan Cape, 2000.

Benjamin, W. Charles Baudelaire. A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. London: NLB, 1973. Caron, F. Histoire des chemins defer en France. 1740-1883. Paris: Fayard, 1997.

Flaubert, Gustave. Par les champs et par les grèves, in Œuvres complètes. Tome II. Paris: Seuil, 1964.

—. Voyage en Orient, in Œuvres complètes. Tome II. Paris: Seuil, 1964.

—. Correspondance. Paris: Garnier (Pléiade), I-IV, 1973-98; I (1973); II (1980).

—. L’Éducation sentimentale. Paris: Garnier, 1984.

James, H. The House of Fiction. London: Heinemann, 1962.

Schivelbusch, W. The Railway Journey. Trains and Travel in the 19th Century. Oxford: Blackwell, 1977.


1 The way the development of the railway system led to a similar process in the nineteenth century was commented upon by Heine when the Paris-Orléans line was opened in 1843: “What changes must now occur, in our way of looking at things, in our notions! Even the elementary concepts of time and space have begun to vacillate, Space is killed by the railways and we are left with time alone. Now you can travel to Orléans in four and a half hours, and it takes no longer to get to Rouen [...] I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the German Linden trees; the North Sea’s breakers are rolling against my door.” Quoted in W. Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey. Trains and Travel in the 19th Century, 44.

2 See “A grand projet should inspire, should stun us into reassessing our place and purpose in the world. But perhaps the Channel Tunnel has come too late to do this. [...] What we have now, though, is the ultimate nineteenth-century project completed just before we enter the twenty-first century. So it is a convenience, something to be thankful for, as impressive as a fine new sweep of motorway.” [“Froggy! Froggy! Froggy!,” Letters from London 327].

3 Letters from London 316.

4 Par les champs et par les grèves, in Œuvres complètes II, 474.

5 ‘Tout ce que nous avons donc remarqué de Paris à Blois, c’est que la route, quelque peu qu’elle ait duré, dura trop encore, agacés que nous sommes toujours de ce mode aride de locomotion et fort ennuyés, d’ailleurs, par la société de deux marchands de grains, grands parleurs, grands rieurs, gens enrichis probablement et fort satisfaits d’eux-mêmes, Par les champs et par les grèves, in Œuvres complètes II, 474.

6 “Je vois [...] trop de gens qui parlent du chemin de fer. On en est tanné. Il y a de quoi avoir une colique des wagons,” Correspondance I, 131.

7 Voyage en Orient, in Œuvres complètes I, 555.

8 “Vers Fontainebleau, quelques flammèches de la locomotive s’étant envolées, une d’elles est entrée dans le coupé et brûlait tranquillement mon paletot,” Voyage en Orient, in Œuvres complètes II. 553.

9 “Autrefois, quand vous vous transportiez d’un lieu à un autre, soit en voiture, ou en bateau, vous aviez le temps de voir quelque chose et d’avoir des aventures; un voyage de Paris à Rouen pouvait fournir un livre,” Par les champs et par les grèves, in Œuvres complètes, II, 474.

10 Correspondance II, 424.

11 Voyage en Orient, in Œuvres complètes II. 551.

12 L’Éducation sentimentale 408.

13 Barnes quotes the last line of Larkin’s poem on the Humber Bridge (“Always it is by bridges that we live”) in Letters from London 327.

14 See “With ‘Flaubert’s Parrot/I caught myself arguing that while Flaubert disapproved of critics and seemed indifferent to biography, he never said it was forbidden to write a novel about him, did he?” [“The Follies of Writer Worship”].

15 Love, etc. 132.

16 The decision to route the line along the valley of the Seine rather than follow the more direct route through Gisors, which would have linked Strasbourg and Paris to Le Havre, meant that the line was much more difficult to construct [Caron, Histoire des chemins de fer en France 129].

17 “Finally, The Fanal reported, without coming to its own judgement on the matter, that some authorities likened the building of the European railways to the construction of the great medieval cathedrals. The English engineers and contractors, according to such writers, resembled those wandering bands of Italian craftsman under whose guidance local workmen had erected their glorious monuments to God” [Cross Channel 27].

18 Kate Saunders, “From Flaubert’s Parrot to Noah’s Woodworm,” Sunday Times, 18 June 1989, 9.

19 See in particular Walter Benjamin, who notes that technology in the nineteenth century “subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training” [Benjaminl32].

20 See Dolf Sternberger, “The views from the windows of Europe have entirely lost the dimension of depth and have become mere particles of one and the same panoramic world that stretches out all around and is, at each and every point, merely a painted surface”. Quoted in Wolfgang Shivelbusch, The Railway Journey 64.

21 L’Éducation sentimentale, “les maisonnettes des stations glissaient comme des décors,” 192

22 “Plus d’un, en apercevant ces coquettes résidences, si tranquilles, envia d’en être le propriétaire [...],” L’Éducation sentimentale 4.

23 “Gustave Flaubert, 1902,” in The House of Fiction 210.

© Presses universitaires de Rouen et du Havre, 2002

Conditions d’utilisation :

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search