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Excerpted from the introduction
Musing on the ‘object of poetry’, Pascal suggested in his Pensées that ‘As we speak of poetical beauty, so ought we to speak of mathematical beauty and medical beauty. But we do not do so; and the reason is that we know well what is the object of mathematics, and that it consists in proofs, and what is the object of medicine, and that it consists in healing. But we do not know in what grace consists, which is the object of poetry.’ If grace is the object of poetry, is truth the object of history – and if it is, do we know in what truth consists? Or should history seek something less grandiose, more human and more marvellous than the truth?
For more than thirty years, Julian Barnes has been asking these (and other) questions in beautiful novels that approach weighty matters with a light touch, novels that feature poetical grace, historical objects, resistance to proofs, searches for truth, a confirmed Francophilia, and even the occasional doctor. Barnes challenges received categorical distinctions and received ideas, while proving to us all that poetry, philosophy, biography, history and fiction need not – indeed, should not – be cleanly divided from each other. And he suggests that beauty can be found in the most unexpected places, if we have the wit to look for it. Mostly we don’t, but evidently he has not yet despaired of us.
It was clear from the start of Barnes’s career that here was a writer of talent – his first book, Metroland (1980), won the Somerset Maugham award for a first novel. But it was Barnes’s third novel, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), that established his reputation at home and abroad, and that for many readers remains his masterpiece. When he won the Man Booker prize in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending, Barnes was asked the inevitable question about his favourite of his books; he was quoted saying that he remains ‘very attached’ to Flaubert’s Parrot. It seems an apt metaphor for a book about fixations.
Early reviewers of Barnes were prone to comment on his disquieting tendency to write ‘essays’ as much as ‘novels’, his persistent habit of jumping out of the boxes into which they were busily trying to shove him. (His first job was as a lexicographer, working for the Oxford English Dictionary, so Barnes would presumably have been unimpressed by efforts to draw rigid, or even useful, distinctions between a word meaning ‘attempt’ and a word meaning ‘new’.) Their dogged efforts at categorizing a writer who was cheerfully demolishing their categories now seem rather touching: the word ‘postmodern’, in particular, was cited with fervent regularity, a totemic charm to ward off the gods of misrule. The truth, etymologically speaking, is that even the distinction between fact and fiction is nugatory: both terms originated in the Renaissance, when a fact meant a thing done or performed, and fiction meant the act of fashioning or imitating. Julian Barnes’s novels do both, with panache; Flaubert’s Parrot is a fusion of fact and fiction, a novel and an essay, an unconventional biography, a fictional autobiography, an autobiographical fiction, a fiction about biography and a biography of fictions. One of the things that Flaubert teaches us, it suggests, is ‘to dissect out the constituent parts of reality, and to observe that Nature is always a mixture of genres’. Flaubert’s Parrot is also a mixture of genres and it is sui generis, which is to say it is in a class by itself.
In my own literary history, I arrived at Flaubert’s Parrot working backwards, so to speak, from Barnes’s fifth novel, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, published in 1989 when I was studying literature as an undergraduate. Someone gave me a copy, to whom I should be eternally grateful if only I could remember who it was. I had never read anything like it; A History transformed my ideas of what literature could do, of what fiction could be. For starters, it appeared that it could be non-fiction. And art history, geopolitical history, religious history, a meditation on love, faith, death and other catastrophes, including art and cannibalism. It could be funny, and dispense with unity of character, setting, or plot; it could have a full-colour fold-out of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa stuck right in its middle; it could do anything it pleased. I was dazzled and delighted: the book coloured my mind, as Emily Brontë once said, like wine colouring water. It is a novel that insists on the priority of ideas, even as it recognizes the world as a place with little time for and less interest in them. It is a series of interlocked essays, which understand that just because a writer is thinking hard doesn’t mean he has permission to bore his reader to death; it uses fiction and imagination to explore ideas with drama and wit. I adored it. My voyage of discovery took me next to the inimitable, brilliant Flaubert’s Parrot, the book that taught me in no uncertain terms that critical writing could be creative and that creative writing could be critical, forever changing my approach to my own writing and thinking. Barnes is what they call a writer’s writer: his verbal finesse sometimes borders on legerdemain, it is so inventive, surprising, and playful. He opens up words, even as he opens our eyes and our minds.
Its American publisher called Flaubert’s Parrot ‘a novel in disguise’. One of its disguises is the detective story; it is also literary criticism in camouflage. Virginia Woolf famously once told a roomful of undergraduates at Cambridge, ‘Don’t begin by being a critic; begin by being a writer.’ Geoffrey Braithwaite, the narrator of Flaubert’s Parrot, may remark that he’s ‘saving Virginia Woolf for when I’m dead’ (he also announces, ‘Let me tell you why I hate critics’), but surely this is one statement of hers with which he would concur. Braithwaite objects to contemporary writers, each of whom, he says, ‘seem to do one thing well enough, but fail to realise that literature depends on doing several things well at the same time.’ This can be no less true for the critic of literature than for its author: they all need to realize that literature must do several things well at once. At one point, Braithwaite shares some of the laws he would pass if he were a ‘dictator of fiction’, including a total ban on novels about other novels, on plots depending on incest or coincidence, and a partial ban on novels set on university campuses. If I were a dictator of literary criticism, I would force all aspiring critics to begin as writers, and then to read Flaubert’s Parrot repeatedly until they begin to appreciate its artfulness and dexterity, its intricate machinery; until it reminds them that they are supposed to begin, and end, with a love of words and some kind of lingering faith in their meaning. They must then find a way to reconcile this faith with a cold-eyed admission of the foolish inadequacy of language. ‘Mystification is simple,’ Braithwaite rightly declares. ‘Clarity is the hardest thing of all.’
Flaubert’s Parrot tells the story of an eccentric and erratic quest for a peculiar poetic object, one that essays in the etymological sense of putting to the proof, the testing of excellence. Geoffrey Braithwaite, retired doctor, widower, and amateur Flaubert enthusiast, stumbles across a parrot that purports to be the original stuffed parrot that inspired – and irritated – Flaubert as he composed Un coeur simple. But then Braithwaite finds another stuffed parrot that also claims to be Flaubert’s inspiration. The discovery triggers a series of ruminations on the search for origins and inspirations, and on the relationship between writers and words, between the literal and the figurative, between literature and life, between reader and writer. ‘Who needs whom more?’ Braithwaite asks at the end of his ‘Dictionary of Accepted Ideas’, which offers an ironic version of Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idées reçues. ‘Discuss without concluding.’
Most great books resist summary (if their ideas can be articulated so briefly, then those ideas probably do not require a book to elaborate them), but Flaubert’s Parrot is especially intransigent; indeed Braithwaite forestalls any attempt at summary by pointing out the inadequacy of précis in cases such as personal advertisements, which ‘aren’t lying – indeed, they’re all trying to be utterly sincere – but they aren’t telling the truth’. Braithwaite is such a sprightly, amusing guide to the difficulty in accessing the truth that we may not realize for some time that the novel he inhabits has almost entirely dispensed with a plot. But if very little happens, in the traditional sense, that doesn’t mean that nothing is going on; instead of action, we get ideas (received and original), variations, versions, claims and counter-claims, quotations, aperçus and aphorisms. Barnes offers two chronologies of Flaubert’s life: both are true, and yet they seem mutually incompatible. Put crudely, one is the ‘happy’ version of Flaubert’s life, the other the ‘sad’ version; one focuses on success, the other on death and despair. We see Flaubert’s mistress, Louise Colet, long dismissed as little more than a pest, the whining distraction who kept intruding on the great man’s art (‘tedious, importunate, promiscuous woman’). And then in a virtuosic flourish, Barnes gives us Louise Colet’s perspective, the story as she might have seen it (‘brave, passionate, deeply misunderstood woman’), in which Flaubert becomes the parrot, rather than the wild beast he fancied himself. We get dictionary entries, quotations, taxonomies, chronologies, lists, catalogues, bestiaries: fragments to shore against the ruins of our certainty. ‘Demand violently: how can we know anybody?’
Looked at from one angle, Flaubert’s Parrot is a novel about devotion, a celebration of literary obsession and a display of mastery. It catches the gaps in biography, showing the impossibility of ever reconstructing a life, especially the life of a great writer resistant to being written about. A refusal of the biographical enterprise and a recherché celebration of it, Flaubert’s Parrot is a treasure hunt, a scavenger hunt, and a confrontation, amused and melancholic, with the detritus of history. In fact, the novel elegantly laces together Pascal’s three beauties: the poetic, the mathematical and the medical. The poetic is embodied by the great bear, Gustave Flaubert, the subject and object of most of the novel’s ruminations (it is also embodied, more comically, in the decaying, multiplying parrot); the mathematical is implied by the book’s proliferation of enumerations and lists, its interest in figures and symbols (‘poetry is a subject as precise as geometry,’ Flaubert declares at one point); and the medical is the profession of both Geoffrey Braithwaite and Flaubert’s father. One of the book’s motifs is the rebuke it offers to the notion that the purpose of literature is spiritual uplift, or ‘healing’: ‘Do you want art to be a healer?’ Braithwaite demands. ‘Send for the AMBULANCE GEORGE SAND. Do you want art to tell the truth? Send for the AMBULANCE FLAUBERT: though don’t be surprised, when it arrives, if it runs over your leg.’