Goodness knows why, but my wife (who is Parisian) likes me to read to her in French. I have heard Englishmen speak French, and on the whole, except for those who grew up bilingual, I have not been impressed, not at any rate favorably impressed, with the result.
I cannot believe that the English accent in French is anything other than charmless and painful on the ears of native speakers; and though I do not think I am by a long shot the worst of my countrymen (who make no concessions whatsoever to the pronunciation of foreign languages, of whose very existence they do not really, in their heart of hearts, approve), and though the local bookseller in my nearest town in France once flatteringly asked me not to lose my accent, as if she believed there were any possibility of my actually doing so, mine is no exception. True, my pronunciation is absolutely perfect, even Parisian, so long as it remains within the confines of my skull; but the moment it reaches my larynx it undergoes a reverse metamorphosis, and the butterfly turns into a caterpillar.
Still, there is no accounting for taste, and my wife does like it.
We have read a wide variety of books together, from standard works on the Dreyfus affair to an account of the great French serial killer of the early twentieth century, Henri Landru. It was reading the latter that stimulated me to formulate a law (more or less) of serial killing: in Anglo-Saxonia they do it for sex, but in the Frankish lands they do it for gain. And this is precisely as it should be, because the Anglo-Saxons are hypocrites about sex and the French are hypocrites about money. Which is the more attractive hypocrisy? I leave it to my readers to decide.
We once moved seamlessly from a biography of Robert Brasillach, the talented novelist who was a collaborator during the Occupation and was afterwards shot despite (or should I say because of?) the leniency shown to far worse collaborationists than he, to the autobiography of Louis Althusser, the Marxist philosopher who murdered his wife. This latter gave us a stock phrase that we still use in everyday life when one of us has committed a minor mistake such as dropping a cup or a bowl: J’ai étranglé Hélène, I have strangled Hélène!
In the admittedly rather special context of wife-murder, Althusser’s act was banal; he had his hands around her throat and (to quote a phrase I have heard many times) “the next thing I knew, doctor, she was lying there.” When Althusser, on his own account, recovered his senses, he uttered the exclamation that we have made our own—a little shamefacedly, for Hélène’s death, at the age of seventy, was of course truly a tragic one. Up till then, Althusser had been guilty only of strangling the French language, squeezing the meaning from it until only a vague but unpleasant Marxist connotation remained, and it lay lifeless on the page.
We sometimes read fiction together as well; for example, currently we are reading the latest novel by Patrick Modiano, a writer whose depictions of the recent past are like blurred monochrome photographs that are full of atmosphere and perhaps of documentary significance, though the latter always remains just out of reach, like the meaning of life.
A few weeks ago, however, on a day for which, rather unusually, we had absolutely nothing planned, we had, after coffee but before breakfast, a short lesson in real literary, and not only literary, greatness. We woke up and I read Flaubert’s story, Un coeur simple, to my wife.
Shortly before, I had bought a cheap edition ($2) of this conte, complete with a scholarly apparatus that doubled the length of the story but still left the book slender enough. This apparatus was in itself not without interest. It was directed, I think, at secondary school pupils, who needed, apparently, to be told in a footnote that “the Napoleonic wars required numerous soldiers” (an assertion for the truth of which a book published by the same publisher was cited as evidence).
The footnote explaining First Communion to the young readers is heavy with irony.
Even more necessary, apparently, was an explanation of Catholicism, for example that lighting a candle in a church is “a rite of popular piety to ask for a favour from God,” that until Vatican II Catholic services were conducted in Latin, that Catholic dogmas are “points of doctrine that must be accepted on pain of exclusion from the Church,” that “in confession, the Catholic confesses his sins to a priest who has the power to grant him God’s absolution,” and that the Holy Spirit is “one of the three persons who, according to the Christian religion, with God the Father and His Son, make up ‘one God in three persons.’” The Christian religion and its associated rituals were here referred to as if they were as alien to the current generation of children of the Eldest Daughter of the Church, France, as the witchcraft ceremonies of the Azande, and required the interpretation of an anthropologist to render at all intelligible. The footnote explaining First Communion to the young readers is heavy with irony: “In the religious France of the nineteenth century, they debated very seriously the opportune age at which a child should take communion for the first time.” One can just hear the squeals of incredulity that such a question should have once seemed important: for the strange thing is that the more officially multicultural we become, the less seriously we can take anyone’s point of view but our own.
As it happens, Un coeur simple is a magisterial example of how to do this; of how it is possible to enter into, and convey to others, a mental world that is not one’s own, indeed that is very alien to it, without the least disdain, condescension, or disapproval, and how the ability to do this suggests (though it does not prove in any formal sense) that there are more important or valuable things in life than mere cleverness or intellectual acuity.
Since Julian Barnes summarized the plot of Un coeur simple so elegantly in his novel Flaubert’s Parrot, I shall quote him to save myself the trouble of doing it not so well as he:
It is about a poor, uneducated servant-woman called Félicité, who serves the same mistress for half a century, unresentfully sacrificing her own life to those of others. She becomes attached, in turn, to a rough fiancé, to her mistress’s children, to her nephew, and to an old man with a cancerous arm. All of them are casually taken from her: they die, or depart, or simply forget her. It is an existence in which, not surprisingly, the consolations of religion come to make up for the desolations of life.
The final object in Félicité’s ever-diminishing chain of attachments is Loulou, the parrot. When, in due course, he too dies, Félicité has him stuffed. She keeps the adored relic bedside, and even takes to saying her prayers while kneeling before him. A doctrinal confusion develops in her simple mind: she wonders whether the Holy Ghost, conventionally represented as a dove, would not be better portrayed as a parrot. . . . At the end of the story, Félicité herself dies. “There was a smile on her lips. The movements of her heart slowed down beat by beat, each time more distant, like a fountain running dry or an echo disappearing; and as she breathed her final breath she thought she saw, as the heavens opened for her, a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.”
The narrator of Barnes’s novel (like me, a retired doctor) goes on to say, with justice:
Imagine the technical difficulty of writing a story in which a badly-stuffed bird with a ridiculous name ends up standing for one third of the Trinity, and in which the intention is neither satirical, sentimental nor blasphemous. Imagine further telling the story from the point of view of an ignorant old woman without making it sound derogatory or coy.
But actually the difficulty is not just technical. It is not merely that the writer has to engineer his sentences in an elegant way (Barnes himself is certainly capable, being one of the best stylists now writing in our language). It is also a question of emotional insight, obliteration of self, and emotional self-control. In one sentence of the narrator’s summary, which I have not yet quoted, the narrator (and I suspect Barnes himself) gives himself away. He cannot resist a snide remark that adds nothing to the summary qua summary, but is deeply revealing about his underlying attitude:
Logic is certainly on [Félicité’s] side: parrots and holy ghosts can speak, whereas doves cannot.
To put the Holy Ghost into the plural is to satirize from a superior intellectual standpoint, precisely what Flaubert does not do, though he himself is no believer in the Holy Ghost. The tiny act of removing the definite article and adding the s to Ghost lets us know that we are back in the world of the metropolitan intellectual. But it is the very respect that Flaubert accords the beliefs of the simple heart, when he shares neither the beliefs nor the simplicity, that makes the story so deeply moving. Again Barnes, or at any rate his narrator (one should not confuse the two), shows not a simple heart, but a shrivelled one, when he says, “The parrot is a perfect and controlled example of the Flaubertian grotesque.” It would hard to think of a word less appropriate for the parrot and Félicité’s relationship to it than “grotesque.”
Of course, no summary can do justice to the subtlety, acuity, or beauty of Flaubert’s story. The only real way of doing it justice would be to repeat it word for word. Let me, however, point to just a few instances, not by any means exhaustive.
We learn of Félicité’s disastrous love affair that was to have a permanent effect on her life. First comes a description of how she appeared after having spent fifty years as a servant:
Always quiet, her figure straight and her gestures restrained, she seemed like a woman of wood, functioning in an automatic way.
The account of her affair many years before then begins with a lapidary change pace and tone: “She had had, like any other woman, her love affair.”
At the age of eighteen, already an orphan, she meets a young man called Théodore at a village fête. On walking with her afterwards, he half-assaults her; later, he apologizes to her and attributes his conduct to having drunk so much. Félicité is not innocent, having been brought up among farm animals, but she is virtuous; she accepts Théodore’s apologies, and allows him to woo her. His ardor seems increased when she refuses to submit to him before marriage, but, at the last minute, he jilts her, marrying instead a rich widow to ensure that he is not conscripted into the army.
In her grief, she runs away to the small Normandy town of Pont l’Évêque, where she immediately meets Madame Aubain, the widow who takes her on (at the lowest possible rate) as a maid of all work. We already know that that is where she will stay because the story begins as follows:
For half a century, the bourgeois women of Pont l’Évêque envied her servant, Félicité.
For a hundred francs a year, she cooked and did the housework, sewed, washed, ironed, knew how to bridle a horse, fattened the poultry, beat the butter, and remained loyal and faithful . . .
With the greatest possible economy and humanity, that makes most psychiatrists seem like intolerable windbags, Flaubert shows us how one disastrous experience can affect the rest of a life, especially where the person is as vulnerable as Félicité: orphaned, illiterate, poor, and without protectors or confidants. And all this without sentimentality, because we cannot imagine that her life with Théodore, had the marriage gone ahead, would have been any better—quite the reverse.
Though her life appears dried up, Félicité (the very name is ironical) demonstrates both a need and a great capacity for unselfish love. She loves Madame Aubain’s children, taking happiness in their happiness, and when the daughter dies of tuberculosis she spends two days and nights praying over the body.
She grows deeply attached to her nephew Victor, having been reunited by chance with her sister and becoming immediately fond of her son because of her great need for fondness. Victor goes to be a sailor, but dies in Havana of yellow fever, and of course this is another hammer blow to Félicité’s heart. For someone with an interest in medical history, incidentally, what Flaubert tells us is illuminating:
Much later, Félicité learned of the circumstances of Victor’s death from the captain himself. They had bled him too much for the yellow fever. Four doctors did it at once. He died immediately, and the chief said:
“Good! Another one!”
This is ironical (and well-informed, as great authors such as Flaubert, Turgenev, and Ibsen often were about matters medical) for it was French scientific researchers at the very time that Victor died who were establishing—after two thousand years!—that bleeding was of no therapeutic value. Benjamin Rush, the physician who signed the Declaration of Independence, was a great believer in bleeding and was accused by William Cobbett (then residing in America) of killing more patients than he saved, including during the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Cobbett fled after a judgment of $500 was given against him.
The last living object but one of Félicité’s love is Loulou the parrot. The bird comes to her not by a series of coincidences, but by a series of chances. A French consul who returns from South America settles in the area with a parrot that he has brought home; but after the revolution of 1848, he is promoted to a prefecture. He cannot take the parrot with him, so he presents it to Madame Aubain as a souvenir. Finding it noisy and inconvenient, she consigns it to Félicité to look after. Félicité falls in love with the parrot.
Loulou dies, and Félicité, desolate, has him stuffed. Then Madame Aubain, learning that she has been swindled of much of her property, also dies; and Flaubert conveys Félicité’s essential, and one might say existential, modesty and humility:
That Madame died before her troubled her, seemed to her contrary to the natural order of things, monstrous and unthinkable.
After Madame’s death, the house was put up for sale:
What worried [Félicité] mostly was having to leave her room—so comfortable for poor Loulou.
To this sentence, in my cheap edition, there is a footnote to help the adolescents understand what Flaubert meant. It says: “An example of the irony of the author towards his protagonist who treats the parrot as a living being.” This footnote, in my opinion, is an example of the corruption of youth in the direction of crudity by a cheap rationalist, for surely Flaubert intended no irony here, but rather a compassionate description of the universal human tendency—and need—to keep loved ones alive in the mind after they have died. (Twenty-five years after the death of his friend Alfred Le Poittevin, Flaubert said that he thought about him every day.) Perhaps the editor sets his pupils the task of going down to the local cemetery and persuading people who come to place flowers on the graves that their activity is redundant, since the person under the slab is dead and not in a position to appreciate the flowers.
Félicité’s final love, the one to which the love of Loulou leads her, is the love of God. The beauty of this bird, even when badly stuffed with its wires protruding though its feathers, persuades Félicité that the catalogue of loss and suffering that she has endured in her life is not without higher purpose, that all the love that she has poured into vessels that have broken has not been lost. Incidentally, a visit to any cemetery with nineteenth-century graves will soon persuade anyone that Flaubert has not manipulated his story for cheap emotional ends: such cemeteries are full of tombs of children who died forty years before their parents, “contrary to the natural order of things”; even today it is not impossible to find a grave of a child who died aged four fifty years ago, with flowers placed upon it by parents.
I once heard a Catholic theologian of the school of Liberation Theology denounce the more traditional forms of religious belief as “merely consolatory”; the proper task of religion, in his opinion, was to build heaven on earth, here and now. (I thought at the time of the Tower of Babel; now I would think of the Muslim fundamentalists.) Presumably he thought a time would come when life would be so perfect that Man would need no consolation: the existential equivalent of the time when society was so perfect that no one would have to be good. Suffice it to say that I do not see that time coming soon.
Neither, I think, did Flaubert. What his wonderful story shows us (not, I hasten to add, in any preacherly fashion) is the redeeming power of love. This love is not so much in return for any service rendered to us by the world, for the world has played Félicité, for example, many dirty tricks, but an approach to the world that in the end is rewarded by an assurance that the world is itself good and that suffering is not arbitrary but has some meaning. Whether or not this is true, it is certainly consolatory in a way in which we all need consolation sooner or later.
Not long ago, I shared a platform with a famous Australian intellectual. The subject of our deliberations was what it took to be good. She stated that it took, as a precondition, high intelligence and intellect. I found this profoundly horrible (as well as obviously untrue) because of what was unsaid: that only one percent of the human population possessed the intelligence and intellect.
Flaubert, who was no Pollyanna when it came to his assessment of humanity, would not have agreed with this, as is shown by Un coeur simple. In it, he managed the difficult technical feat of making someone interesting who was good but ordinary and not particularly intelligent, and he also managed the far more difficult emotional and ethical feat of entering the world of someone with whose outlook he did not agree, and portraying it with sympathy, understanding, and admiration, recognizing in it the beauty that it possessed. Here is true tolerance, in a non-ideological sense; it is rare in an age of diversity in which ignorant armies nevertheless insist on clashing by night.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 10, on page 15
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