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BARNES, Julian



Flaubert’s parrot

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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.

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You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on your point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with string.

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Some Italian once wrote that 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?

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The past is a distant, receding coastline, and we are all in the same boat. Along the stern rail there is a line of telescopes; each brings the shore into focus at a given distance. If the boat is becalmed, one of the telescopes will be in continual use; it will seem to tell the whole, the unchanging truth. But this is an illusion; and as the boat sets off again, we return to our normal activity: scurrying from one telescope to another, seeing the sharpness fade in one, waiting for the blur to clear in another. And when the blur does clear, we imagine that we have made it do so all by ourselves.
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We continued through the museum until we reached the room containing the parrot. I took out my Polaroid camera, and was allowed to photograph it. As I held the developing print under my armpit, the gardien pointed out the Xeroxed letter I had noticed on my first visit. Flaubert to Mme Brainne, July 28th, 1876: 'Do you know what I've had on my table in front of me for the last three weeks? A stuffed parrot. It sits there on sentry duty.

The sight of it is beginning to irritate me. But I keep it there so that I can fill my head with the idea of parrothood. Because at the moment I'm writing about the love between an old girl and a parrot.'

'That's the real one,' said the gardien, tapping the glass dome in front of us. 'That's the real one.'

'And the other?'

'The other is an impostor.'

'How can you be sure?'

'It's simple. This one comes from the Museum of Rouen.' He pointed to a round stamp on the end of the perch, then drew my attention to a photocopied entry from the Museum register. It recorded a batch of loans to Flaubert. Most of the entries were in some museum shorthand which I couldn't decipher, but the loan of the Amazonian parrot was clearly comprehensible. A series of ticks in the final column of the register showed that Flaubert had returned every item lent to him.

Including the parrot.

I felt vaguely disappointed. I had always sentimentally assumed—without proper reason—that the parrot had been found among the writer's effects after his death (this explained, no doubt, why I had secretly been favouring the Croisset bird). Of course the photocopy didn't prove anything, except that Flaubert had borrowed a parrot from the Museum, and that he'd returned it. The Museum stamp was a bit trickier, but not conclusive…

'Ours is the real one,' the gardien repeated unnecessarily as he showed me out. It seemed as if our roles had been reversed: he needed the reassurance, not me.

'I'm sure you're right.'

But I wasn't. I drove to Croisset and photographed the other parrot. It too sported a

Museum stamp. I agreed with the gardienne that her parrot was clearly authentic, and that the Hôtel-Dieu bird was definitely an impostor.

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