Julian Barnes is an English writer still in his thirties. His first novel, Metroland, appeared in 1981, his second, Before She Met Me, in 1982. With his third, Flaubert’s Parrot, he is beginning to attract the kind of attention reserved for serious novelists. Yet he is still, I should say, better known in Britain as a television critic. Television criticism is on the face of it a peculiar and unpromising genre, and that it should have been brought to such a high degree of polish in the English Sunday papers may suggest that something important though obscure is going on in British culture. Reviews of books and exhibitions and plays are about what you might conceivably read or visit; television reviews are about shows you either have already seen or never will. More often than not they never needed discussing anyway. The TV critic has to contemplate a wholly forgettable recent past as material for a piece that will have to be loved for itself alone. Wit, charm, fantasy are his instruments (TV criticism is apparently a male preserve). The genre was invented by Clive James, who actually collects his reviews in volume form, so that you can savor all over again two years later the giggly charm of a lost Sunday morning you spent reading about nothing.
The hour brings forth the man, or the men, and the London Sunday papers have nourished a generation of writers capable of wit on many subjects, among them Barnes and the slightly younger, very much more hectic, Martin Amis. Sooner or later—rather later in the case of Barnes—these sharpened wits will be applied to larger enterprises, and most obviously to fiction. As a novelist Barnes is less “épatant,” to use a word he associates with adolescent cultural enthusiasms, than Amis; but they share a world. To belong fully to that world you need to have been born in England after 1945. Your parents belong to the generation of Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, writers regarded as funny, subtle, mildly chauvinistic, slightly disgusted with the state of England but suspicious of “Abroad.” You understand these attitudes but think them in need of refinement. You have a different past, which includes them and their obsolete sexual hang-ups, their fits of social conscience, and the imprint on them of that lost long-running TV spectacular, the War. Of course you sometimes feel the awfulness of things too, but it is mitigated by the undoubted coziness of literary London, and a witty sadness is the appropriate response.
In Flaubert’s Parrot Barnes’s narrator is a physician in his sixties, a veteran of the Normandy landings. A passion for Flaubert may seem a little out of character, but two strategically placed and only half submerged quotations from Philip Larkin in the first three pages reassure us. They come from “Church Going,” a poem that might be called the anthem of a literary generation that accepted Larkin as its laureate; to “place” a contemporary of Barnes by the same method one would plant a line or two by the poet Craig Raine. And indeed even the elderly doctor in Flaubert’s Parrot can’t help seeing the world through Raine’s “Martian” eyes: looking at the remains of Mulberry Harbor off the Normandy coast, he sees it as “curving morse,” a code sending out some sadly pointless message about the past.
The heroes of Barnes’s two previous novels were men of his own age. Metroland (1981) is a Bildungsroman without the solidity or the desperation the term may seem to imply. It records the private jokes and amusements of a bright London schoolboy with his bright friend, and it does so with such accuracy that other ex-clever school-kids who hated sports, built a secret repertory of jests and allusions, and baffled adults by their choice of reading matter, will have the pleasure of self-recognition. Forced to spend an afternoon with a comic old twister of an uncle, the hero brings along Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, but is as usual conned into digging the garden.
In 1968 we find him in Paris, supposed to be studying, and certainly keeping a journal about his first love affair. So preoccupied, he missed the événements of that spring: “Absolutely typical,” says his pal. “Only time you’ve been in the right place at the right time in your whole life, I’d say, and where are you? Holed up in an attic stuffing some chippy.” But he had gone to Paris not for the barricades and the chie-en-lit but, replete with a knowledge of the “classics of passion—Racine, Marivaux, Laclos,” to lose his virginity. He also loses the girl because when circumstances required him to say je t’aime, he couldn’t stop himself from adding bien. His dad would never have allowed himself to get into such a position; but he wouldn’t, either, have missed the événements.
Another index of current Englishness is the treatment of women. Barnes’s women resemble those of the previous generation of wits in that they are easily superior to men, more mature, more moral, more candid. The chief difference is that they are also less inhibited and usually unfaithful to their devious, dishonest, but faithful men. Some of the problems that arise from this state of affairs are treated in Barnes’s second novel, Before She Met Me, a remarkably original and subtle book not yet published in the US. The novel takes as its premise that sexual jealousy ought not to exist in the permissive present, but it isn’t dead, and can turn up, absurdly, in the past. Here is a man who leaves his awful wife for a woman in whom he finds a sober certainty of happiness. She is a candid woman who has in the past been a minor movie actress. He is not interested in movies, but is tricked by his ex-wife into seeing one, in which his present wife commits adultery. Soon he is devoting his time to tracking down every terrible film she appeared in, and every terrible film her screen lovers appeared in without her. He meets them in dreams, reconstructs affairs off-screen. Perfectly secure in her present love for him, he questions her about the past (he is by profession a historian). She answers patiently and honestly, except once. It is that one lapse from complete candor that turns sad farce into bloody tragedy.
What seems clear from this excellent novel is that Barnes is obsessed with obsession, and since he finds no obvious occasion for it at the moment it is always placed in some past that can be speculatively reconstructed only by minute attention to trivial and treacherous records. So the hero, a calm, amusing, peace-loving, unrandy historian, fanatically constructs, on the basis of the film archive, his own disease. Its cure of course must be in the present. He accepts the advice of a treacherous friend and treats himself with booze and masturbation. All this is horribly funny, and idiosyncratic without seriously departing from the tradition of the modern English farcical novel. If we want evidence that Barnes is an original artist we can find it in the inexplicit links and echoes that declare themselves only on a second reading, or in small acts of observation that turn out not to be marginal but of the real substance of the book.
At one such moment the wife is standing in line at the butcher’s. The butcher wears a blue-striped apron and a straw hat, as butchers will. Suddenly she sees him with a Martian eye; and now there seems to be a strange contrast between apron and hat.
The boater implied the idle splash of an oar in a listless, weed-choked river; the blood-stained apron announced a life of crime, of psychopathic killing. Why had she never noticed that before? Looking at this man was like looking at a schizophrenic: civility and brutishness hustled together into a pretence of normality. And people did think it was normal; they weren’t astonished that this man, just by standing there, could be announcing two incompatible things.
Later, waiting for her husband to come in, she imagines herself waiting for two interrogators, “the gentle one who only wanted to help you, and the anarchically brutal one who could freeze you by merely flicking your shoulder blade.” These two are the doubleness in her husband, which is also the doubleness of past and present.
Flaubert’s Parrot opens with a similar moment: six North Africans are playing boules beneath the statue of Flaubert in Rouen.
Clean cracks sounded over the grumble of jammed traffic. With a final, ironic caress from the fingertips, a brown hand dispatched a silver globe. It landed, hopped heavily, and curved in a slow scatter of hard dust. The thrower remained a stylish, temporary statue: knees not quite unbent, and the right hand ecstatically spread. I noticed a furled white shirt, a bare forearm and a blob on the back of the wrist. Not a watch, as I first thought, or a tattoo, but a coloured transfer: the face of a political sage much admired in the desert.
These modern French North Africans wear Mao on their wrists as Flaubert’s Carthaginian soldiers in Salammbô bore the sign of the parrot. The living statue ridicules the dead one. The Germans destroyed Flaubert’s statue in 1941, but the original cast survived and a new statue was made, mostly of copper, and now weeping cupreous tears. In the stone version of Trouville there is damage to the thigh, and part of the mustache has fallen off. Barnes’s physician hero is in search of the crumbled, junky past, of the truth about Gustave Flaubert, which, like the truth about his own life, is on some views both unimportant and inaccessible.
Among the decaying rubbish that testifies to the existence of Flaubert is the parrot he borrowed when writing Un coeur simple, in which Félicité comes to see a parrot as the Holy Ghost. However, there are two rival claimants, stuffed parrots that are both certified as authentic, though the evidence presented at the end of the doctor’s quest suggests that neither can be. Quietly obsessed, randy for relics, as he puts it, the doctor finds that Flaubert’s house at Croisset was pulled down to make way for a factory extracting alcohol from wheat, itself later replaced by a paper mill. He encounters an American scholar who has acquired Flaubert’s letters to the English governess Juliet Herbert. This man claims that the letters showed Miss Herbert to have been Flaubert’s mistress, but adds that, obedient to the author’s stated wishes, he has burned the correspondence. Our hero goes ahead all the same, quietly searching for every deliquescent and delusive trace.
The parrot is at the center. The dossier for Bouvard et Pécuchet tells of a man who thought he had turned into a parrot. In L’Education sentimentale there is an empty parrot perch, now an emblem of the author himself. Information of all sorts is assembled under various arbitrary headings, rather as in the Dictionnaire des idées reçues. Maxime du Camp places the business card of one “Humbert, Frotteur” on top of a pyramid for Flaubert to find. Flaubert acquires a freak sheep. On his first appearance in print he was named “Faubert.” (Did Joyce remember this when Bloom appeared in the list of Paddy Dignam’s mourners as “Boom”?) A book published by the Reverend G.M. Musgrave in 1855 describes the cabs of Rouen as “the most dumpy vehicles…of their kind, in Europe”—they ” ‘cut’ about the streets like Tom Thumb’s coach.” This throws new light on the lovemaking of Léon and Emma in a scene so famous that within a year of the publication of Madame Bovary cabs hired in Hamburg for sexual purposes were known as Bovarys.
The doctor sharply distinguishes his kind of search for truth from the academic kind. Academics may be too puritanical about truth, or they may be too careless. The most violent pages in the book consist of an assault on the late Enid Starkie, famous in her day for her flamboyant Oxford rooms and her intimate knowledge of Flaubert. Apart from speaking French badly, she dared to accuse Flaubert of getting into a muddle about the color of Emma’s eyes. The doctor is able to refute the charge with contempt.
Flaubert’s Parrot can be read as a very interesting Flaubert miscellany, interspersed with disquisitions on the modern novel and much else. It offers information about the books Flaubert thought he might one day write, including one about Thermopylae, another about a sarcophagus he might have seen in the British Museum in 1852. It is also instructive about his sexual habits and diseases. Louise Colet appears, first as the secondrate poet and nuisance that she has, on Flaubert’s evidence, been called, but then, in the most surprising moment of the book, as her own apologist—a candid, unillusioned woman who has forgiven Flaubert’s profound sexual vulgarity. “He feared me as many men fear women: because their mistresses (or their wives) understand them. They are scarcely adult, some men: they wish women to understand them, and to that end they tell them all their secrets; and then, when they are properly understood, they hate their women for understanding them.” Gustave thought of himself as a wild beast, a polar bear, a buffalo, excusing his egotism as a proper pride and distinguishing it from vanity, the chattering parrot; but “perhaps he was really just a parrot.”
The doctor obviously likes Louise; perhaps she resembles his dead wife, who was both candid and unfaithful. Remembering his happiness and unhappiness, he is never capable of keeping it separate from his Flaubertiana; his account of his marriage is lavishly illustrated by quotations from Flaubert. This is quite brilliantly written and deeply obsessive; the work of mourning is done by sifting through these surrogate and fading archives. His wife’s secret life was inaccessible, too; her one fault that she was unable to look steadily, as Gustave Flaubert did, at despair.
Our last view of the doctor is in a limbo of stuffed birds, sprinkled with pesticide; not two but three parrots gaze at him “like three quizzical, sharp-eyed, dandruff-ridden, dishonourable old men.” The lost past is the ground of nightmare and mourning, seen, as far as may be, with the calm and wit proper to the comfortable present. Flaubert’s Parrot is a very unusual novel; people who think they know exactly what a novel is tend to say this isn’t one, just an eccentric essay on Flaubert. That’s nonsense; the book does feel disorderly at times, but it is true to the laws of its own being. It lacks something of the fine tuning of Before She Met Me, but perhaps doesn’t need it for its purposes. And it has the voice, witty and sad, of the peculiar civility of modern London—liberated from the constraints of the past, yet obsessed with its pain and with its missing dates, the événements never to be experienced except in fantasy.
April 25, 1985