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?

I spent my first day wandering about Rouen, trying to recognise parts of it from when I’d come through in 1944. Large areas were bombed, of course; after forty years they’re still working on the cathedral. I didn’t find much to colour in my monochrome memories. The next day I drove across to Caen and then up to a beach. Juno, we called it, a few miles east of Arromanches. Gold, Juno, Sword: the British landings. Not an imaginative choice of words; so much less memorable than Omaha and Utah. Unless, of course, it’s the actions that make the words memorable, and not the other way round. I walked along the damp beach, looked into a small museum, remembered where friends had died – the sudden, close friends those years produced – and felt unmoved. Memories emerged, but not emotions: not even the memories of emotions.

On the third day I walked to the Hôtel-Dieu, the hospital where Gustave’s father was head surgeon, and where the writer spent his childhood. Along the Avenue Gustave Flaubert, past the Imprimerie Flaubert and a snack-bar called Le Flaubert: you certainly sense you’re going in the right direction. I passed a large white Peugeot hatchback: it was painted with blue crosses, a telephone number and the words AMBULANCE FLAUBERT. The writer as healer? I remembered George Sand’s matronly rebuke to her younger colleague. ‘You produce desolation,’ she wrote, ‘and I produce consolation.’ The Peugeot should have read AMBULANCE GEORGE SAND.

At the Hôtel-Dieu I was admitted by a gaunt, fidgety gardien whose white coat puzzled me. He wasn’t a doctor, a chemist or a cricket umpire. White coats imply antisepsis and clean judgment. Why should a museum caretaker wear one – to protect Gustave’s childhood from germs? He first explained that a medical history museum was combined with the Flaubert museum, and then hurried me round with much neat but ostentatious locking of doors. I was shown the room where Gustave was born, his Eau de Cologne pot, tobacco jar and first magazine article. Various images of the writer confirmed the dire early shift he underwent from handsome youth to paunchy, balding burgher. Syphilis, some conclude. Normal 19th-century aging, others reply. Perhaps it was merely that his body had a sense of decorum: when the mind inside declared itself prematurely old, the flesh did its best to reflect this. I kept reminding myself that he had fair hair. It’s hard to remember: photographs make everyone seem dark.

The other rooms contained medical instruments of the 18th and 19th centuries: heavy metal relics coming to sharp points, and enema pumps of a calibre which surprised even me. Earlier medicine always seems such an exciting, desperate, violent business: nowadays it is all pills and bureaucracy. Or is it just that the past inevitably seems more colourful than the present? I studied the doctoral thesis of Gustave’s brother Achille: it was called ‘Some Considerations on the Moment of Operation on the Strangulated Hernia’. A fraternal parallel: Achille’s thesis later became Gustave’s metaphor. ‘I feel, against the stupidity of my time, floods of hatred which choke me. Shit rises to my mouth as in the case of a strangulated hernia. But I want to keep it, fix it, harden it; I want to concoct a paste with which I shall cover the 19th century, in the same way as they paint Indian pagodas with cow dung.’

The conjunction of these two museums seemed odd at first, but then perfectly harmonious. I remembered Lemot’s cartoon of Flaubert dissecting Emma Bovary: the novelist flourishes on the end of a carving fork the dripping heart he has triumphantly torn from his subject’s body. He brandishes it aloft, a prize surgical exhibit, while on the left of the drawing the feet of the recumbent, violated Emma are just visible. The writer as butcher, the writer as sensitive brute.

Then, in a small alcove, I saw the parrot. It was bright green and perky-eyed, with its head at an inquiring angle. ‘Psittacus,’ ran the inscription: ‘Parrot borrowed by G. Flaubert from the Museum of Rouen and placed on his work-table during the writing of Un Coeur Simple, where it is called Loulou, the parrot of Félicité, the principal character in the tale.’ Next to the glass case was a xeroxed letter from Flaubert dated 1876, in which he mentions that the parrot has now been on his desk for three weeks, and the sight of it is beginning to irritate him.

Loulou was in fine condition, the feathers as crisp and the eye as irritating as they must have been a hundred years earlier. As I gazed at the bird I felt ardently in touch with this writer who disdainfully forbade posterity to take any personal interest in him. His statue was a retread; his house had been knocked down; his books naturally had their own life – responses to them weren’t responses to him. But here, in this unexceptional green parrot, preserved in a casual yet mysterious way, was something which made me feel I had almost known the writer. I was both moved and cheered.

On the way back to my hotel I bought a student text of Un Coeur Simple. Perhaps you know the story. It’s about a poor, uneducated servant-woman called Félicité, who serves the same mistress for half a century, unresentfully sacrificing her life to those of others. She becomes attached, in turn, to a rough fiancé, to her mistress’s children, to her nephew, and to an old man. All of them are casually taken from her: they die, or depart, or simply forget her. It is an existence in which, not surprisingly, the consolations of religion come to make up for the desolations of life.

The final object in Félicité’s ever-diminishing chain of attachments is Loulou, the parrot. When, in due course, he too dies, Félicité has him stuffed. She keeps the adored relic beside her, and even takes to saying her prayers while kneeling before him. A doctrinal confusion develops in her mind: she wonders whether the Holy Ghost, conventionally represented as a dove, would not be better portrayed as a parrot. Logic is certainly on her side: parrots and Holy Ghosts can speak, whereas doves cannot. At the end of the story, Félicité herself dies. ‘There was a smile on her lips. The movements of her heart slowed down beat by beat, each time more distant, like a fountain running dry or an echo disappearing; and as she breathed her final breath she thought she saw, as the heavens opened for her, a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.’

The control of tone is vital. Imagine the technical difficulty of a story in which a badly-stuffed bird with a ridiculous name ends up standing in for one third of the Trinity, and in which the intention is neither satirical, sentimental nor blasphemous. Imagine further telling such a story from the point of view of an ignorant old woman without making it derogatory or coy. The aim of Un Coeur Simple is quite elsewhere: the parrot is a perfect and controlled example of the Flaubertian grotesque.

We can, if we wish (and if we disobey Flaubert), take the bird further. For instance, there are submerged parallels between the life of the prematurely aged novelist and the maturely aged Félicité. Critics have sent in the ferrets. Both of them were solitary; both of them had lives stained with loss, in which the emotional sources had gradually petered out; both of them, though full of grief, were persevering. Those keen to push things further suggest that the incident in which Félicité is struck down by a mail-coach on the road to Honfleur is a submerged reference to Gustave’s first epileptic fit, when he was struck down on the road outside Bourg-Achard. I don’t know. How submerged does a reference have to be before it drowns?

In one cardinal way, of course, Félicité is the complete opposite of Flaubert: she is deeply inarticulate. But you could argue that this is where Loulou comes in. The parrot, the articulate beast, the one creature apart from man which makes human sounds. Not for nothing does Félicité confuse Loulou with the Holy Ghost, with the giver of tongues.

Félicité + Loulou = Flaubert? Not exactly; but you could claim that he runs through both of them. Félicité encloses his character: Loulou encloses his voice. You could say that the parrot, representing clever vocalisation without much brain power, was Pure Word. If you were a French academic, you might say that he was un symbole de Logos. Being English, I hasten back to the corporeal: to that svelte, perky creature I had seen at the Hôtel-Dieu. I imagined Loulou sitting on the other side of Flaubert’s desk and staring back at him like a grotesque reflection in a funfair mirror. No wonder three weeks of its parodic presence caused irritation. Is the writer much more than a sophisticated parrot?

In 1851 Flaubert passed through Venice and heard a parrot in a gilt cage calling out over the Grand Canal like a gondolier. ‘Fà eh, capo die.’ Two years later he was in Trouville, lodging with a pharmacien; there was a parrot which screamed unceasingly ‘As-tu déjeuné, Jako?’ and ‘Cocu, mon petit coco!’ It also whistled ‘J’ai du bon tabac.’ Was either of these two birds the inspiration behind Loulou? I leave such matters to the professionals.

I sat on my bed; from a neighbouring room a telephone imitated the cry of other telephones. I thought about the parrot in its alcove barely half a mile away. A cheeky bird, inducing affection, even reverence. What had Flaubert done with it after finishing Un Coeur Simple? Did he stuff it in a cupboard and forget about its irritating existence until he was searching for an extra blanket? And what happened, four years later, when an apoplectic stroke left him dying on his sofa? Did he perhaps imagine, hovering above him, a gigantic parrot – this time not a welcome from the Holy Ghost but a farewell from the Word?

‘I am bothered by my tendency to metaphor, decidedly excessive. I am devoured by comparisons as one is by lice, and I spend my time doing nothing but squashing them.’ Words came easily to Flaubert; but he also saw the underlying inadequacy of the Word. Remember his sad definition from Madame Bovary: ‘Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.’ So you can take the novelist either way: as a pertinacious and finished stylist; or as one who considered language tragically insufficient. Sartreans prefer the second option: for them Loulou’s inability to do more than repeat at second hand the phrases he hears is a concealed confession of the novelist’s own failure. The parrot/writer feebly accepts language as something received, imitative and inert. Sartre himself rebuked Flaubert for passivity, for belief (or collusion in the belief) that on est parlé – one is spoken.

Did that burst of bubbles announce the gurgling death of another submerged reference? The point at which you decide that too much is being read into a story is when you feel most vulnerable, isolated, and perhaps stupid. Is a critic wrong to read Loulou as a symbol of the Word? Is a reader wrong – worse, is he being merely sentimental – to think of that parrot at the Hôtel-Dieu as an emblem of the writer’s voice? That’s what I did. Perhaps this makes me as simple-minded as Félicité.

But whether you call it a tale or a text, Un Coeur Simple echoes on in the brain. Others agree. Let me cite David Hockney in his autobiography: ‘The story really affected me, and I felt it was a subject I could get into and really use.’ In 1974 Mr Hockney produced a pair of etchings: a burlesque version of Félicité’s view of Abroad (a monkey stealing away with a woman over its shoulder), and a tranquil scene, of Félicité asleep with Loulou. Perhaps there will be others in due course.

On my last day in Rouen I drove out to Croisset. Normandy rain was falling, soft and dense. What used to be a remote village on the banks of the Seine, backdropped by green hills, has now become engulfed by thumping dockland. Pile-drivers echo; gantries hang over you; the river looks commercial; and passing lorries rattle the windows of the inevitable Bar le Flaubert.

Gustave noted and approved the Oriental habit of knocking down the houses of the dead; so perhaps he would have been less hurt than his readers, his pursuers, by the destruction of his own house. The factory for extracting alcohol from damaged wheat has been pulled down in its turn; and on the site there now stands, more appropriately, a large paper-mill. All that remains of Flaubert’s residence is a small one-storey pavilion a few hundred yards down the road: a summer house to which the writer would retire when needing even more solitude than usual. It now looks shabby and pointless, but at least it’s something. On the terrace outside a stump of fluted column, dug up at Carthage, has been erected to commemorate the author of Salammbô. I pushed the gate; an Alsatian began barking, and a white-haired gardienne approached. No white coat for her, but a well-cut blue uniform. As I cranked up my French I remembered the trademark of the Carthaginian interpreters in Salammbô: each, as a symbol of his profession, has a parrot tattooed on his chest. Nowadays the brown wrist of the African boules-player wears a Mao transfer.

The pavilion contains a single room, square with a tented ceiling. I was reminded of Félicité’s room: ‘It had the air at the same time of a chapel and of a bazaar.’ Here too were the ironic conjunctions – trivial knick-knack beside solemn relic – of the Flaubertian grotesque. The items on display were so poorly arranged that I frequently had to get down on my knees to squint into the cabinets: the posture of the devout, but also of the junk-shop treasure hunter.

Félicité found consolation in her assembly of stray objects, united only by their owner’s affection. Flaubert did the same, preserving trivia fragrant with memories. Years after his mother’s death he would still sometimes ask for her old shawl and hat, then sit down with them to dream a little. The visitor, the seeker still disobediently hunting the writer behind the writing, can almost do the same at the Croisset pavilion. It’s not a scrubbed or catalogued museum, and the exhibits, carelessly laid out, catch your heart at random. Portraits, photographs, a clay bust; pipes, a tobacco jar, a letter-opener; a toad-inkwell with a gaping mouth; the gold Buddha which stood on the writer’s desk and never irritated him; a lock of hair, blonder, naturally, than in the photographs.

Two exhibits in a side cabinet are easy to miss: a small tumbler from which Flaubert took his last drink of water a few moments before he died; and a crumpled pad of white handkerchief with which he mopped his brow in perhaps the last gesture of his life. Such ordinary props, which seemed to forbid wailing and melodrama, made me feel I had been present at the death of a friend. I was almost embarrassed: three days before I had walked across a beach where those I knew well had died. Perhaps this is the advantage of making friends with the dead: your feelings towards them never cool.

Then I saw it. Crouched on the highest cupboard was another parrot. Also bright green. Also, according to both the gardienne and the label on its perch, the very parrot which Flaubert had borrowed from the Museum of Rouen for the writing of Un Coeur Simple. I asked permission to take the second Loulou down, set him carefully on the corner of a display cabinet, and removed his glass dome.

How do you compare two parrots, one already idealised by memory and metaphor, the other a squawking intruder? My initial response was that the second seemed less authentic than the first, mainly because it had a more benign air. The head was set straighter on the body, and its expression was less irritating than that of the bird at the Hôtel-Dieu. Then I realised the fallacy in this: Flaubert, after all, hadn’t been given a choice of parrots; and even this second one, which looked the calmer company, might well get on your nerves after a couple of weeks.

I mentioned the question of authenticity to the gardienne. She was, understandably, on the side of her own parrot, and confidently discounted the claims of the Hôtel-Dieu. I wondered if somebody knew the answer. I wondered if it mattered to anyone except me, who had rashly invested significance in the first parrot. The writer’s voice – what makes you think it can be located that easily? Such was the rebuke offered by the second parrot. As I stood looking at the possibly inauthentic Loulou, the sun lit up that corner of the room and turned his plumage more sharply yellow. I replaced the bird and thought: I am now older than Flaubert ever was. It seemed a cheeky thing to be; sad and unmerited as well.

Is it ever the right time to die? It wasn’t for Flaubert; nor for George Sand, who didn’t live to read Un Coeur Simple. ‘I had begun it solely on account of her, only to please her. She died while I was in the midst of this work. So it is with all our dreams.’ Is it better not to have the dreams, the work, and then the desolation of uncompleted work? Perhaps, like Frédéric and Deslauriers, we should prefer the consolations of non-fulfilment: the planned visit to the brothel, the pleasures of anticipation, and then, years later, not the memory of deeds but the memory of past anticipations? Wouldn’t that keep it all cleaner and less painful?

After I got home the duplicate parrots continued to flutter in my mind: one of them amiable and straightforward, the other cocky and interrogatory. I wrote letters to various academics who might know whether one of the parrots had been properly authenticated. I wrote to the French Embassy and to the editor of the Michelin guide-books. I also wrote to Mr Hockney. I told him about my trip and asked if he’d ever been to Rouen; I wondered if he’d had one or other of the parrots in mind when etching his portrait of the sleeping Félicité. If not, then perhaps he in his turn had borrowed a parrot from a museum and used it as a model. I warned him of the dangerous tendency in this species to posthumous parthenogenesis.

I hope to get my replies quite soon.