Monday, August 28, 2006

A Word or Two With Julian Barnes

Flaubert’s Parrot forms part of the syllabus for the agrégation competitive examination in France in 2001/2002, an examination for students who want to become teachers in secondary schools or university. In previous years, The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi, A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro were part of the syllabus and the Sorbonne research centre “Écritures du roman contemporain de langue anglaise”, headed by François Gallix and Vanessa Guignery,
invited Hanif Kureishi (1997), Margaret Atwood (1998) and Kazuo Ishiguro (1999) to talk about their books. The debates proved extremely lively and stimulating. This year, Julian Barnes generously offered some of his very precious time by kindly accepting to come to the Sorbonne and talk about Flaubert’s Parrot, despite his general reluctance to take part in academic meetings. The debate took place on November 14, 2001 at the Guizot amphitheatre at the Sorbonne University in front of about 250 people and it lasted about 90 minutes. It consisted of an interview with Julian Barnes, led by François Gallix, professor of English contemporary literature at the Sorbonne, and Vanessa Guignery, senior lecturer at the Sorbonne and author of a thesis, two books and several articles on the work of Julian Barnes.

To answer François Gallix’s first question on the genesis of Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes explained that in 1981 he had been commissioned by a publisher to write a guide - that he finally never wrote - to the houses of French writers and artists. This led him to visit many houses, but also the two museums devoted to Gustave Flaubert in Rouen and Croisset. Julian Barnes had brought to the Sorbonne the travel notebook that he had kept on that journey and read passages related to the question of the parrots, which proved extremely close to some passages of the first chapter of Flaubert’s Parrot. Julian Barnes then answered a question on biography and gave several reasons for his suspicion of biography as a genre. He pointed to the fact that a biography is usually boring until the subject has grown up, argued that a biography is often reductive and tends to minimise the work itself, and suggested that it is a mistake to judge the subject of a biography from a contemporary point of view. Asked about the amount of control over his characters, Julian Barnes said that he sat in the middle of two extremes, i.e. between writers who strictly control their characters and writers who suggest that the characters are completely free. As Vanessa Guignery suggested that Flaubert’s Parrot might be considered as an original form of detective fiction, Julian Barnes concurred that there were mysteries in the book (about the parrots, about the narrator’s life), but argued that the book was not characterised by a thrilling narrative drive and was more based on diversion. Attention was then drawn to similarities between Flaubert’s Parrot and The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, which led Julian Barnes to explain why he deeply admired this book which is still undervalued. He explained the difference between John Dowell, the narrator of The Good Soldier, who defers telling his own story because he doesn’t understand it, and Geoffrey Braithwaite who defers telling his private story because of emotional blockage. Julian Barnes then said a few words on Something to Declare, the volume of essays to be published in January 2002, and In The Land of Pain, his translation into English of La Doulou by Alphonse Daudet which will be published in March 2002.

A member of the audience then raised the question of the influence of Gustave Flaubert on the style of Flaubert’s Parrot; Julian Barnes answered that he agreed with some of Flaubert’s positions but refused to acknowledge a word-to-word level influence. Asked whether he was a postmodernist writer, Julian Barnes was typically ironic and sarcastic, suggesting that the concept was no longer up-to-date and that he didn’t want to be imprisoned in such a box. He remarked that Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters certainly bent form but added that he also wrote more conventional novels. Matthew Pateman, senior lecturer at the university of Scarborough, author of a thesis and several articles on Julian Barnes’ work, asked whether Geoffrey Braithwaite was a Larkinesque character, which led Julian Barnes to claim his admiration for Philip Larkin, pointing to both his gloominess and his humour, and to define Braithwaite as a very British character. The debate ended with Julian Barnes saying that he hoped people read his books in ideal circumstances but arguing that he had no ideal reader in mind when writing.

The full transcript of the interview, together with an introduction and a bibliography on Flaubert’s Parrot, will be published in English by Études britanniques contemporaines: Gallix François and Vanessa Guignery. “Julian Barnes at the Sorbonne. 14th November 2001.” Études britanniques contemporaines 21 (Dec. 2001).

Orders can be sent to Service des Publications, Montpellier III, Route de Mende, 34199 Montpellier Cedex 5, France. (email: The issue costs 10€ (approximately $10).

Rouen - 9th November 2001

Flaubert’s Parrot forming part of the syllabus for the agrégation competitive examination in France in 2001/2002, and Rouen being the Flaubertian city and the place where the enigma of the parrots started, Antoine Capet, Professor at the University of Rouen, decided to organise a symposium on Julian Barnes’ book. Among the participants were specialists of the contemporary novel (Nicole Terrien, Christelle Chaussinand), distinguished Flaubertians, both French and English (Yvan Leclerc, Lionel Archer, Tony Williams, Michael Wetherill), a member of the French department (Catriona Seth), and Barnes scholars (Matthew Pateman, Vanessa Guignery). The first day of the symposium ended with an interview with Julian Barnes, led by Vanessa Guignery.

The first question concerned the genesis of Flaubert’s Parrot, and Julian Barnes explained how he had been commissioned to write a guide to the houses of French writers and artists in 1981, and how it led him to visit several houses including the two museums devoted to Flaubert in Rouen and Croisset. Julian Barnes read passages from the travel notebook that he had kept on that journey and the extracts he chose proved extremely close to some passages of the first chapter of Flaubert’s Parrot. He then explained how he turned the anecdote into a piece of fiction and eventually wrote a whole book. On being asked to talk about the fragmented structure of Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes described his book as a non-conventional upside-down novel, “half homage and half junk-shop”. He said that he deliberately avoided the official mode of writing a biography, for example undermining conventional chronologies by proposing three different versions. Julian Barnes then denied trying to confuse the reader at some points in Flaubert’s Parrot; he argued that everything Geoffrey Braithwaite says about Flaubert is true and that the fact of proposing three chronologies is not confusing but illuminating. Asked about the fictional infrastructure of the novel, Julian Barnes concurred that the book wouldn’t be coherent without it and said that it was, among many other things, a book about grief and about a man’s inability to express his grief. On the subject of the third chapter concerning Juliet Herbert, Julian Barnes developed the metaphor of the net that he proposes in Flaubert’s Parrot to point to the necessarily incomplete nature of biographies; he explained that he decided to write this chapter on lost letters to bring in some kind of narrative excitement. In the wake of his “Letter from Genoa” published in the TLS in 1999, Julian Barnes then talked about another quest, that of the painting called The Temptation of Saint Antony which inspired Flaubert for his book. Barnes went to Genoa in 1999 to see the painting just as Flaubert had seen it in 1845, but he was told that the painting was no longer there but in Rome. Asked what attracted him to museums devoted to writers, Julian Barnes answered that he liked them to be messy, dusty and incoherent. That’s what he particularly enjoyed about the pavillon in Croisset where disparate objects draw you into contact with Flaubert.

Nicole Terrien, senior lecturer at the University of Rouen, then asked a question about the structure of the novel and the non-linear organisation of chapters. Julian Barnes explained that he first put the key chapters in place and then tried to balance narrative drive against the pleasures of diversion and digression. Tony Williams, a Flaubert scholar from the University of Hull (Great Britain), wondered if Julian Barnes had ever considered making Geoffrey Braithwaite go off to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris to look at the manuscripts of Un Coeur simple. Julian Barnes answered that Braithwaite is only an amateur cranky scholar and would certainly have a fear of manuscripts and libraries, that’s why he chose the practical way, meeting M. Lucien Andrieu at the end of the book. There’s no solution at the end of Flaubert’s Parrot because Julian Barnes likes works of art that leave things unresolved.

The full transcript of the interview, together with the papers of the symposium, will be published by the Publications de l’Université de Rouen in January 2002. Orders can be sent to Publications de l’Université de Rouen, rue Lavoisier, 76821 Mont-Saint-Aignan Cedex, France.

The titles of the papers presented during the symposium are the following:

  • Nicole Terrien (Rouen) : Le psittacisme ou la parole de l’autre.
  • Matthew Pateman (Scarborough) : “Knees not quite unbent” : Precision and uncertainty in Flaubert’s Parrot.
  • Christelle Chaussinand (Dijon) : Lexicophagie et ipsophagie dans Flaubert’s Parrot de Julian Barnes.
  • Catriona Seth (Rouen) : “Your favourite mode of utterance”: Italics in Flaubert’s Parrot.
  • Vanessa Guignery (Paris IV-Sorbonne) : Sur la piste des perroquets : les figures de la quête dans Flaubert’s
    de Julian Barnes.
  • Tony Williams (Hull) : A Trainspotter’s Guide to Julian Barnes.
  • Lionel Acher (Rouen) : Jeux de miroir(s) dans Le Perroquet de Flaubert.
  • Michael Wetherill (Manchester) : Mixing it up as you go along - history then and now.
  • Yvan Leclerc (Rouen) : L’impossible biographie.

-- Vanessa Guignery, © December 2001


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