Flaubert’s Parrot

Flaubert’s Parrot

As Braithwaite goes on to points out, there was no first, suppressed edition of this novel and suggests to the author that he sort this anomaly out in time for the second edition. The book about which Braithwaite is talking is, of course, Metroland.

This quote by Matthew Pateman in Writers and Their Work: Julian Barnes typifies the way Barnes deals with the contemporary polemic of literature: how to deal with the dichotomy of striving to create seriously, while creating something self-reflective of its own creation. Few contemporary authors deal with this polemic as artfully as Barnes; many cultivate a flippant or distant tone from their subject matter, and end up dealing with it cruelly, others undermine the mysteries of creation altogether by tearing the bones of the narrative from the flesh and laying them bare before the story begins. Barnes does neither, but that does not mean he avoids the polemic; instead, he hints at the self-awareness of his texts so subtly that it can be overlooked by those who wish to overlook it. One who is reading for pure story, could easily read over the section about the above miss-quotation because it seamlessly fits into the storyline; but Barnes also includes another level for those who are ready to look for it, and those who are, are greatly rewarded.

Chapter 2 exemplifies his subtlety and mastery. Barnes knows exactly what he wants to say with this chapter – that the truth, even the basic truths of what happened when, are not constant, can be skewed, and never tell the whole story – but he doesn’t say that. He finds a wonderful way to make the reader see that for himself, and is praised for that chapter in almost every review because of that. When readers begin with the second, seemingly contradictory Biographical timeline, and realize both are true, the truth in the untruth, hits them twice as hard as it would if they just read this explication of it. That is the beauty of art, and Barnes says as much, through Braithwaite, “Not writing a tune is easier than writing one.” he says. “Rhyming is easier than not rhyming. You trust the mystifyer more than you know. He’s deliberately trying not to be lucid. You trust Picasso all the way because he could draw like Ingres.” That is art, says Barnes, covertly, within his narrative, and that is exactly what he is achieving with that narrative. He is skewing the lines, some would argue that it’s not even a narrative, but they are just working under a simple construction of narrative force. They still haven’t learned the lessons of Joyce, but Barnes has: “Style does arise from subject matter,” Braithwaite says. When the careful reader catches another self-reflexive moment in that comment, it becomes clear that there is a storyline hear, the psychological storyline of Geoffrey Braithwaite: this book is his book, the proportions of it reflect his proportions; like all truths, he can only be captured in this illusive way, even though he doesn’t want to believe that. He wants to believe there are definitive truths, he wants to believe he can find Flaubert’s parrot, he wants to write a definitive dictionary of Flaubert, but he can’t, and that is the central conflict of the book. He can pin nothing down, not even the simplest facts of history, as he says:

“When I was a medical student some pranksters at an end-of-term dance released into the hall a piglet which had been smeared with grease. It squirmed between legs, evaded capture, squealed a lot. People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process. The past often seems to behave like that Piglet.” As does art, as does this book, as do this narrator’s emotions. He grasps for the past as he grasps for his emotions, and both act like that piglet, like that parrot. And as he comes to understand just how illusive that parrot is, he comes to understand the greater truth of illusiveness, resolving his own emotions.

Early in the book, he says this of the parrot: “The writer’s voice, what makes you think it can be located that easily? Such was the rebuke offered by the second parrot.” To understand the central conflict of the book, it is crucial to understand how the narrator interprets the parrot: as the Holy Spirit, the author, the word, the truth. And so, for there to be more than one, does indeed indicate chaos.

But the further he pries into Flaubert’s life, the more contradictions he finds in his literary god. And his epiphany comes when he sees his futile belief in another, presented with the first parrot again and a man defending it as the true parrot, to whom he says, “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.” It is dangerous indeed not to alter ideas with changing generations, with changing times. Sometimes two overlapping truths are not mutually exclusive, as we saw chapter 2. After Braithwaite overcomes his parrot reverie, he finally understands the lessons he taught the reader in that early chapter, and applies this rule of mutual exclusivity to his own story, saying, “I loved her; we were happy; I miss her. She didn’t love me; we were unhappy; I miss her.”

Here another level of Barnes’s art becomes clear. Not only has he been telling this story while seamlessly inserting self-reflexive comments on creation, but he has been doing so for a reason beyond simple playfulness. “The author in his book must be like God in his universe,” he quotes, “always present, but never visible.” And so Barns has been, truly parroting Flaubert, but his workings are everywhere. Barns created the form out of the content in this novel so well, that the reflexivity of the voice reflects not only on art, but on this piece of art, on Braithwaite’s psychological narrative, so that every progression, regression, digression, and transgression inform every other, bringing up the deepest questions of art while seamlessly producing it.

“He wanted to believe that happiness was impossible,” Barnes has Braithwaite say of Flaubert as Flaubert’s mistress, so Braithwaite says that this is what others would think of Flaubert, and it is also what we think of Braithwaite. By blurring the lines Barnes has drawn them doubly bold.

Yet, one could argue, Braithwaite still writes the Flaubert dictionary, his final attempt to categorize, to give define boundaries to facts and the emotions tied to them. But the dictionary is full of questions, “Which of them said that?…which needs the other more?” etc., and ends with the statement of art, not dictionaries, “Discuss without concluding.”

Then, in the following chapter, when discussing his wife’s suicide, he rebukes the idea that categorization leads to real knowledge, recalling a hail storm that wrecked and his wife and his garden thus, “Applaud the stones that break the glass. People understand a little too quickly the function of the sun. The function of the sun is not to help the cabbages along.” That is a homocentric idea of the purpose of the sun, but the sun is actually part of a higher order.

This idea is taken further in the next chapter, which is surfacely an examination. Two quotes follow thus, Flaubert’s defence of literature to his father: “You know nothing of what the spleen is for, except that it is indispensable to our bodily organism as poetry is to our mental organism;” followed by a modern medical explanation of what the spleen does to support the body. Does this refute the importance of art? the reader is forced to ask. The answer is no, because the spleen is still indispensable. Even if, one day, the mystery of art is solved, people will continue to create, people will continue to tell stories, because that is indispensable to human existence.

And so the last line of the book reads, “Perhaps it was one of them,” referring to the closet full of parrots. Perhaps: a tricky word. Perhaps read flippantly would have you see the narrator at the end of his search, given up, leading you to believe that even if the correct answer were available, it can never be found, and is thus not worth looking for. Perhaps read optimistically would have you see the narrator as hopeful of finding joy in further searching, even if he finds nothing, as the book has proven by searching for truth in vain, while teaching us all the while.

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