When Flaubert took wing
One evening in 1983, I was having a drink with Kingsley Amis. He made the mistake of asking me what I was working on. I made the mistake of telling him. I made the further mistake of not looking across at him, in order the better to concentrate. My account would have involved words such as "Flaubert" and "parrot" and perhaps, as an indicator of generic category, the phrase "an upside-down sort of novel". As I was nearing the end of my preliminary outline - still with some way to go - I glanced up, and was confronted with an expression poised between belligerent outrage and apoplectic boredom. It was the sort of look pioneered by Evelyn Waugh and now more or less extinct in literary society.
I managed not to let this frank display of doubt affect my subsequent work on the book. This was less because of an adamantine confidence in what I was up to than because I had relatively few expectations. My first two novels had sold 1,000 or so copies in hardback and had just about staggered into paperback - on separate lists, each of which had collapsed shortly afterwards. I suspected that Flaubert's Parrot might interest a few Flaubertians, and perhaps a smaller number of psittacophiles. There was no reason to write anything other than the (unAmisian) book I had always intended to.
I can identify exactly the moment at which the novel began - even if I didn't recognise it myself at the time. I had first read Madame Bovary at about 15; had done a special paper on Flaubert at university; and felt that at some point I would want to write about him. All I knew was the sort of book I didn't want to write - any kind of biography, for instance, or something in that charmingly illustrated Thames & Hudson series about writers and their worlds (not that I'd been asked).
In September 1981, on holiday in Normandy, I visited the three main Flaubert sites in Rouen. First, his statue in the intimate and leafy Place des Carmes, where the novelist (as I wrote in my travel notebook) is "looking loftily upwards, with a sticking-out moustache, disdaining the game of boules being played beneath him". Next, a walk down the Avenue Flaubert (past the Imprimerie Flaubert and a snack-bar called Le Flaubert) to the Flaubert museum at the Hôtel Dieu, where the novelist's father had been head surgeon. Here, I noted antique medical instruments and family memorabilia, and then "most memorably, the bright green, perky-eyed parrot which was lent to him when he was writing Un coeur simple, & which irritated him at the same time as giving him an inner sense of parrothood".
Finally, a day or two later, I went downstream from the city centre to Croisset and "the high point of the pilgrimage", the small, square pavilion which was all that remained of the Master's house. My four pages of notebook description of this one-room museum and its rather haphazard contents end like this:
"Then, crouched on top of one of the display cabinets, what did we see but Another Parrot. Also bright green, also, according to the gardienne & also a label hung on its perch, the authentic parrot borrowed by GF when he wrote UCS!! I ask the gardienne if I can take it down & photograph it. She concurs, even suggests I take off the glass case. I do, & it strikes me as slightly less authentic than the other one: mainly because it seems benign, & F wrote of how irritating the other one was to have on his desk. As I am looking for somewhere to photograph it, the sun comes out - this on a cloudy, grouchy, rainy morning - & slants across a display cabinet. I put it there & take 2 sunlit photos; then, as I pick the parrot up to replace it, the sun goes in. It felt like a benign intervention by GF - signalling thanks for my presence, or indicating that this was indeed the true parrot."It had clearly made an impression, but of what sort - and with what consequences, if any? Was this just a Curious Fact? Half an anecdote? A small article for an academic journal? I didn't know, nor did I really ask. A year and more passed, whereupon the notion of the two-parrot encounter, and its implicit dilemma, taking place in a fictional context must have presented itself as a possibility (though I have no memory of the moment). What if someone - clearly not me, but someone sufficiently interested in Flaubert, someone whose life might have parallels and points of bouncing contact with Flaubert's work and perhaps life - were to have the same experience? It could be the opening - or perhaps clinching - moment in a story about life and art, about France and England, about the pursuit of the writer by the reader, and that moment of contact - practical yet mystical - between the two of them.
So I came up with my narrator: a retired English doctor, a widower and war veteran, returning to the Normandy beaches as well as to Rouen. I also shifted the inner narrative of the parrot encounters: the first makes the reader-pursuer feel warmly close to the writer-hero, while the second acts as a rebuking reply - Ha, don't be so sentimental, don't think you can get in touch with the artist as easily as that. I began writing what I intended as a freestanding short story, but then felt increasingly that I was on to something with this mix of fact and fiction, something which might be elastic and capacious. So: not a story but the beginning of a novel, one in which an at times attenuated fictional infrastructure would support a factual superstructure. Or (as I would have more likely put it to myself): my narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite is about to tell you a load of stuff about Flaubert because he is unable to tell you the real story he is loaded down by. It will be a novel about emotional blockage, about grief.
Obviously, it wasn't as clear as that at the start - it rarely is. But in the writing it became so. It also became a matter of urgency: I was already some way into a different novel, but laid it aside to write Flaubert's Parrot. I also found myself excitedly wondering how far I could push the constraints of traditional narrative: how far I could distort and fragment the narrative line while still keeping (I hoped) a continuous and rising expectation in the reader.
"The reader", indeed - at times I felt there might only be one of them, or at most a few hundred. Yet this apprehension was liberating rather than constricting; my only possible calculations were aesthetic. It never crossed my mind, for instance, that the novel would be translated into French, let alone read there by native Flaubertians. If I'd thought that, it might have had an inhibitory effect. Instead, I felt free to indulge my narrator's reflections on France and the French; I allowed him, for instance, full licence to show disrespect for Sartre. As it turned out, this unself-consciousness worked to the book's advantage - especially in France.
Text by Julian Barnes