January 2009 archive

Flaubert and Julian Barnes

The best I can offer to day are some quotes from Julian Barnes’s ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’. A friend recently offered me a quote from this most wonderful book. I have bettered him with a whole series of quotes and include them here for any of you who might be interested.

I do not share Flaubert’s apparent view of the author as God-like but I do love his attention to detail and his artistry. He was a creature of his times.
In a talk, Gail Jones gave at Latrobe the year before last, she talked about every space as heterotopic and used Flaubert’s visit to Egypt as 27 year old in 1849, five years before he completed Mme Bauvary to clarify the meaning of the term.

A ‘heterotopia’ is a space of difference, a space that is absolutely central to a culture but in which the relations between elements of a culture are suspended, neutralized, or reversed. Unlike utopias, heterotopias are real places ‘designed into the very institution of society’ in which all the other real emplacements of a culture are at the same time, represented, contested, and reversed. They are the sorts of places that are outside all places, although they are actually localizable’ (Foucault 1998: 178).
Foucault’s prime examples of the heterotopia are the cemetery and the ship: the cemetery is a different place compared with ordinary cultural spaces; it is a space that relates to the difference between life and death, duration and eternity; and yet it is a space that is connected to all the other emplacements of the society, since every individual and family has relatives in the cemetery. The ship is ‘a piece of floating space, a placeless place’; it functions according to its own rules in the space between ports, between cultures, between stable points (Foucault 1998: 185). Holiday resorts, gardens, fairs, theme parks, cinemas and museums are also heterotopian for Foucault: they are those sites in a culture designated as spaces of difference, spaces in which ordinary relations within the culture are made and allowed to be other.

As Gail Jones points out,from Flaubert’s letters to his mother from Egypt and from his journal which was never intended for public consumption, but discovered in 1970s, it becomes clear that Flaubert was an orientalist, a fetishist. He bought women’s underwear and wore it. He was obsessed with filth and decay. He saw the pyramids and was preoccupied with the bird droppings on them. He was obsessed by the diseased body, the plague-ridden prostitutes.
He traveled with his friend Maxim DeCamp, an early photographer, and brought back home to the continent, stuffed ibises and venereal disease.
Egyptian travels in those days involved imperial pornography of the gaze. According to Jones, Flaubert sees Egypt as a place of decay and debauchery, despotism and cruelty. After he returned he became clinically depressed. He had found Egypt so unlike Paris. What did he expect? Flaubert was a creature of his times.
I must not judge by today’s standards. Yet how much I imagine I would dislike him if I were to meet him now.

Selected quotes from Barnes’s ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’follow:

Books aren’t made in the way that babies are made: they are made like pyramids. There’s some long pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it’s back-breaking, sweaty time-consuming work. And all to no purpose! It just stands like that in the desert! But it towers over it prodigiously. Jackals piss at the base of it and bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc.

If you participate in life, you don’t see it clearly, you suffer from it too much or enjoy it too much. The artist to my way of thinking is a monstrosity, something outside nature. All the misfortunes Providence inflicts on him come from his stubbornness in denying that maxim.

In the ideal I have of Art, I think that one must not show one’s own, and that the artist must no more appear in his work than God does in nature. Man is nothing, the work of art everything…but what is the importance of the said gentleman.
This demand for authorial absence ran deeper still. Some writers ostensibly agree with the principle, yet sneak in at the back door and cosh the reader with a highly personal style. The murder is perfectly executed and yet the baseball bat left at the scene of the crime is sticky with fingerprints. Flaubert…believed in style; more than anyone. He worked doggedly for beauty, sonority, exactness; perfection- but never the monogrammed perfection of a writer like Wilde. Style is a function of theme. Style is not imposed on subject matter, but arises from it. Style is truth to thought. The correct word, the true phrase, the perfect sentence are always ‘out there’ somewhere; the writer’s task is to locate them by whatever means he can…

Some Italian once wrote that the critic secretly wants to kill the writer. Is that true? Up to a point. We all hate golden eggs. Bloody golden eggs again, you can hear the critics mutter as a good novelist produces yet another good novel; haven’t we had enough omelettes this year?
…the many critics would like to be the dictators of literature, to regulate the past, and to set out with quiet authority the future direction of art.

The past is a distant, receding coastline, and we are all in the same boat…

Does the world progress? Or does it merely shuttle back and forth like a ferry?
Flaubert was an artist. He was a writer of the imagination. And he would alter a fact for the sake of a cadence; he was like that. Just because he borrowed a parrot, why should he describe it as it was? Why shouldn’t he change the colours round if it sounded better?

Books are not life, however much we might prefer it if they were. Ellen’s is a true story; perhaps it is even the reason why I am telling you Flaubert’s story instead.
You expect something from me too, don’t you? It’s like that nowadays. People assume they own part of you, on no matter how small an acquaintance; while if you are reckless enough to write a book, this puts your bank account, your medical records, and the state of your marriage irrevocably into the public domain. Flaubert disapproved. ‘The artist must manage to make posterity believe that he never existed.’ For the religious death destroys the body and liberates the spirit, for the artist, death destroys the personality and liberates the work. That’s the theory anyway. Of course it frequently goes wrong… Flaubert would hardly have been spared at the lazy rush to understand. It was an impulse out of which he made a whole book (or at least a whole appendix): Dictionnaire des idees recues.

Flaubert teaches you to gaze upon the truth and not blink from its consequences; he teaches you…to sleep on the pillow of doubt…he teaches the pre-eminence of truth, Beauty, feeling and Style.

And last but not least, my favourite:

Form isn’t an overcoat flung over the flesh of thought (that old comparison, old in Flaubert’s day); it’s the flesh of thought itself. You can no more imagine an Idea without a Form than a Form without an Idea. Everything in Art depends on execution: the story of a louse can be as beautiful as the story of Alexander. You must write according to your feelings, be sure those feelings are true, and let everything else go hang, when a line is good, it ceases to belong to any school. A line of prose must be as immutable as a line of poetry. If you happen to write well you are accused of lacking ideas. Maxim by Flaubert.

On his Blindness

After nearly two weeks I can now say I’m getting into this holiday. Most of my physical tasks are done, though I’ve yet to complete the tax. Thereafter I can concentrate on writing and have a holiday.

In ten days we’re off to Tasmania, for a few days only, but it should be fun. I am looking for a way into writing a story. It comes in the here and now and winds its way back into the past. I must ring Tania and invite them for dinner. Can you see the way my mind works? Initially it’s all about jobs to do and preoccupations.

I regret that I was born so much earlier than the world of blogs and face book. They still seem unfamiliar to me. I cannot freely enter the world of internet and advanced technologies the way my children do. I feel so awkward. To my credit, I am trying to enter this world but I do feel elderly when I get there. Yet yesterday I saw on Esther Helfgott’s face book that she has made friends with Maya Angelou and Angelou is now eighty years old.

For a minute I thought to invite myself as a friend to Angelou, too-I read her autobiographical series years ago – but then I decided against it. I do not want a long line of superficial ‘friends’ on my face book, I want only the names of ‘real’ people with whom I can interact, even if I never meet them.

Not for me a collection of names, like trophies. Maya Angelou has 5000 friends listed, it should read more like 5000 fans, though of course not all would be fans. some would be fellow writers, family perhaps but most would be hangers on and admirers.

I must get my eyes checked. They seem to be deteriorating and this morning I notice a little insect like spot wavering there in front of my eyes. To lose my eyes would be to lose my life. I could not bear it. I could not write or read, or see people as I see them now. That would be a cruel punishment.

When I consider how my light is spent ere half my days and that one talent which is death to hide lodged in me useless. Doth god exact man’s …light denied, I fondly ask, and patience…I cannot remember anymore of the words. Milton ‘On his Blindness’.

I learned the poem in year ten, when I was fourteen, going on fifteen years old. I remember that I wanted to learn a difficult poem and one that no other girl in my class would choose. I wanted to recite it with panache and wow them with my intellect.

I was in form Four A. Ours was the dumb class, unlike Four Alpha, the class of science nerds and mathematicians. I did not mind too much being in the dumb class, it meant that there was room for me to excel, and not be overshadowed by the other smart kids in the other fourth form. I was also chosen as class captain.

Our teacher, Mother Francesca, a short bespectacled nun, urged us all to write onto a piece of paper our choice of captain and then she would count the tally on the back of the black board out of sight. Finally she announced the class captain and in my memory every term of that year, I was chosen.

In Four Alpha there would have been stiff competition for the position but not in Four A, my position was secure. I was the only goody two shoes, and the smartest one at that. I was the obvious choice.

I cannot remember whether there was any direct competition. The form Four A class room stood at the end of the ambulacum opposite the sacristy door of the chapel. It took up the corner space and looked out on one side over the basketball court, to the front the end of the chapel, in yellow brick, and at the back a sealed wall with a door that led into the vestibule and hall way near to the staff room. The floor was made of shiny Baltic pine. Outside the floor surfaces on the veranda and in the vestibule were of red tiles interlaced with a yellow pattern, terracotta, ornate and shiny with age. There were grooves in the stairs that led from the vestibule up to the second floor and the other class rooms. The grooves were so well worn I imagined the hundreds of students and nuns who had walked on those steps before us. Over a century worth of people before us.

Enough for today. Today I must move onto the tax.

1 2