Flaubert’s Parrot

Julian Barnes

Six North Africans were playing boules beneath Flaubert’s statue. Clean cracks sounded over the grumble of jammed traffic. With a final, ironic caress from the fingertips, a brown hand despatched a metal globe. It landed, hopped to reveal a small moon-crater, and curved slowly in a scatter of hard dust. The thrower remained a stylish, temporary statue: knees not quite unbent, and the right hand ecstatically spread. I noted a furled white shirt, a bare forearm, and a blob on the back of the wrist. Not a watch, as I first thought, not quite a tattoo, but a transfer: the face of a political sage well thought of in the desert.

Let me start with the statue: the one above, the permanent, unstylish one, the one crying cupreous tears, the floppy-tied, square-waistcoated, baggy-trousered, straggle-moustached, wary, aloof bequeathed image of the man. Flaubert doesn’t return the gaze. He stares south from the Place des Carmes towards the cathedral, out over the city he despised, and which in turn has largely ignored him. The head is defensively high: only the pigeons can see the full extent of the writer’s baldness.

This statue isn’t the original one. The Germans took the first Flaubert away in 1941, along with the railings and door-knockers. Perhaps he was processed into cap-badges. For a decade or so, the pedestal was empty. Then a Mayor of Rouen who was keen on statues discovered the original plaster cast – made by a Russian called Leopold Bernstamm – and the city council approved the making of a new image. Rouen bought itself a proper metal statue in 93 per cent copper and 7 per cent tin: the founders, Rudier of Châtillonsous-Bagneux, assert that such an alloy is guarantee against corrosion. Two other towns, Trouville and Barentin, contributed to the project and received stone statues. These have worn less well. At Trouville Flaubert’s upper thigh has had to be patched, and bits of his moustache have fallen off: structural wires poke out like twigs from a concrete stub on his upper lip.

Perhaps the foundry’s assurances can be believed; perhaps this second-impression statue will last. But I see no particular grounds for confidence. Nothing much else to do with Flaubert has ever lasted. He died little more than a hundred years ago, but all that remains of him is paper. Paper, ideas, phrases, metaphors, structured prose which turns into sound: this, as it happens, is precisely what he would have wanted; it’s only his admirers who sentimentally complain. The writer’s house at Croisset was knocked down immediately after his death and replaced by a factory for extracting alcohol from damaged wheat. It wouldn’t take much to get rid of his effigy either: if one statue-loving mayor can put it up, another – perhaps a bookish party-liner who has misread Sartre on Flaubert – might zealously take it down.

I begin with the statue, because that’s where I began the whole project. Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well alone? Why aren’t the books enough? Flaubert wanted them to be: few writers believed more in the objectivity of the written text, in the insignificance of the writer’s personality; yet still we disobediently pursue. The image, the face, the signature; the 93 per cent copper statue and the Nadar photograph; the scrap of clothing and the lock of hair. What makes us randy for relics? Don’t we believe the words enough? Do we think the leavings of a life contain some ancillary truth? When Robert Louis Stevenson died his business-minded Scottish nanny quietly began selling locks of the infant’s hair which she claimed to have cut forty years earlier. The believers, the seekers, the pursuers bought enough hair to stuff a sofa.

The house of Croisset ... what was left of it I decided to save until later. I had five days in Rouen, and childhood instinct still makes me keep the best until last. Does the same impulse sometimes operate with writers? Hold off, hold off, the best is yet to come? If so, then how tantalising are the unfinished books. A pair of them come at once to mind: Bouvard et Pécuchet, where Flaubert sought to enclose and subdue the whole world, the whole of human striving and human failing; and L’Idiot de la Famille, where Sartre sought to enclose the whole of Flaubert: enclose and subdue the master writer, the master bourgeois, the terror, the enemy, the sage. A stroke terminated the first project; blindness abbreviated the second.

I thought of writing books myself once: I had the ideas; I even made notes. But I was a doctor, married with children. You can only do one thing well: Flaubert knew that. Being a doctor was what I did well. My wife ... died. My children are scattered now; they write whenever guilt impels. They have their own lives, naturally. ‘Life! Life! To have erections!’ I was reading that Flaubertian exclamation the other day. It made me feel like a stone statue whose upper thigh has had to be patched.

The unwritten books? They aren’t a cause for resentment. There are too many books already. Besides, I remember the end of L’Education Sentimentale. Frédéric and Deslauriers are discussing the best times of their lives; and the best time of all – the book’s final memory – is of a visit to a brothel. The two schoolboys had arranged it all: they had had their hair specially curled, and had even stolen flowers for the girls. But on arrival, Frédéric lost his nerve, and they had run away. That was the best day of their lives. Isn’t the most reliable form of pleasure, as Flaubert implies, the pleasure of anticipation? Who needs to burst into fulfilment’s desolate attic?

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