By Jean Baird | January 1, 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations. As we become more experienced readers how much do our expectations affect our response to a novel? The rest of our lives ebb and flow with our expectations so why not reading?

George and I  lost our sea legs in Singapore, but it took a while, and not until George swayed his way through several museums. We had an early flight from Singapore to Beijing on Christmas Day so we knew Christmas Eve would be an early-to-bed night. Online I found a 5-star hotel at a great rate that offered an “oasis” in Singapore and the “most restful beds in town. With a distinctively majestic atrium soaring through 21 levels of the hotel, Marina Mandarin Singapore is imbued with a philosophy of providing Asian grace, warmth and care in an atmosphere of relaxed elegance.”

When we checked into our hotel we discovered it was a pretty modern and pretentious affair—a large open atrium that indeed did rise 20+ floors. Five elevators accessed the room floors—two moved inside while the other three rose up through the atrium allowing you to see across, and down, down, as the floors passed. Each time we rang for the elevator George would go wait near the two inside ones, hoping one of those would arrive first. If we did get the atrium view he would stand just inside the door, and stare directly at it for the whole trip, with his back to the view. Hallways ran around the atrium with doors on one side and the atrium view on the other. George always walked on the inside/room side, insisting that the floor was sloped.

Just outside our door on the 12th floor was a huge net half full of white balloons. Looking up you could see other nets with balloons. Pretty early to be getting ready for New Year’s Eve, I thought. Over the following days we noticed hotel staff continuing to fill the nets. Once in a while a balloon would pop, and in that huge atrium the noise sounded like a gun going off. You get bad, bouncy acoustics in that sort of space.

Christmas eve we finished packing and thought we’d have a quiet game of cribbage and a drink before calling it an early night. As we crossed the bridge from the elevator to the lobby/restaurant/bar area (with its running stream) where we had played the night before, we saw that the whole seating area had been converted into linen-covered dining tables. We were stopped at the end of the bridge. Did we have a reservation? No, so we sidled up to the bar. Perhaps we should have connected the balloons with the silver lame dresses worn by the female servers that had replaced the traditional garb we’d been seeing for days. At the beginning of our second game the music came on—I use the term “music” lightly but there was nothing light about the decibel level. Uh oh, we thought.

Up in our room the noise level was still deafening. Around 10:30 the sound system switched to a lower level and we were foolish enough to think that was it. At 11:30 the “Christmas Eve countdown” began. Daytona Beach during March Break is not this noisy. What do they play on Christmas Eve in Singapore? Stayin’ Alive and YMCA. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and those thousands upon thousands of balloons were released to the heart-thumping disco rock version of Christ the Saviour is Born.

I had to look. Twelve floors down, four feet deep in balloons the revelers were now busting balloons. It took them 45 minutes to complete the task.

Every time I open one of these Booker novels I am expecting balloons and a party, rather than a restful sleep. It’s an unhealthy way to read. Instead of just reading and responding, lurking in the back of my brain is The Question—good enough to win a prize? Nasty.

Jean Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1964 but refused it, stating, “A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honourable form.” I wonder what Sartre would say about the “poem” read at the Vancouver Olympic opening ceremonies; it was commissioned and paid for by Canadian Tourism.

1984 Jury: Professor Richard Cobb, British historian. Anthony Curtis lectured in English at the Sorbonne, and moved to literary journalism as Deputy Editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He was Lit Ed of the Sunday Telegraph (1960-1970), and of the Financial Times (1970-1990). He has written on theatre, on Maugham, Henry James and Philip Larkin. Polly Devlin, author, journalist, broadcaster, film-maker, art critic and conservationist, and Features Editor for Vogue. John Fuller, poet, novelist, critic. Ted Rowlands

Penelope Lively According to Mark purchased

Mark is a well-respected biographer who is researching his next book, a biography of Gilbert Strong. With good story telling and clean prose Lively examines the nature and challenges of biography, lost loves, stifled lives, the place of books in our lives, the curious course of love and how the life of the individual fits into the larger picture.

Your own doings were interwoven with the coarser and more indestructible fabric of history, to give the movement of time a grander name than it seems to deserve when one is part of it.

And yet how unspeakably much more so it might be—had been indeed for countless millions of people in this century. Mark, like any normally imaginative person with a grasp of world events, was frequently humbled by the fact that few demands of any significance had ever been made on him.

The novel has the usual cast of required eccentric characters—though the forgiving wronged wife is less than convincing—and is readable if not really remarkable. It gets a bit maudlin and overly philosophical at the end.

Julian Barnes Flaubert’s Parrot purchased

Guest report by Stan Persky

The eponymous parrot in Julian Barnes’ breakthrough 1984 novel, Flaubert’s Parrot  — or perhaps Barnes’ book should be called a jeu d’esprit since one of the things that it’s doing is calling into question the very notion of a “novel” — is a many-feathered literary creature.

It is first found in Gustave Flaubert’s conte, “A Simple Heart, or The Parrot” (1877), the story of a faithful servant, Felicity, and her pet parrot, LouLou, who she comes to envisage, while on her deathbed, as the embodiment of The Holy Ghost. While writing the tale, Flaubert allegedly kept a stuffed parrot on his desk for inspiration. The stuffed parrot was allegedly borrowed from a collection in Rouen, the provincial capital closest to Flaubert’s house in nearby Croisset. But in the little museum at Croisset, there’s also a stuffed parrot, whose curators claim is the real stuffed parrot that inspired Flaubert. At which point, readers of Flaubert will recognize that we’re clearly beyond the quotidean territory of Madame Bovary (1857), and well into the fanciful landscapes of Flaubert’s final work, Bouvard and Pecuchet (1880), a satiric paean to the futility of human knowledge.

The amateur scholar attempting to sort out the rival feathered claimants to literary authenticity is the protagonist of Barnes’ book, Geoffrey Braithwaite, a widowed, retired doctor visiting Rouen and environs, in search of Flaubert landmarks and relics. Barnes provides a very lightly sketched, but strangely touching, backstory that centers on just exactly how Braithwaite came to be a widower, but about 90 per cent of the book consists of the elderly Flaubertophile’s ruminations on literature, life, Flaubert, and the parrot(s). Which means that it’s not what most people thought of as a novel, circa a quarter century ago.

It begins with Braithwaite in Rouen, where a half dozen North Africans are playing boules beneath the town’s Flaubert statue:

“Clean cracks sounded over the grumble of jammed traffic. With a final, ironic caress from the fingertips, a brown hand dispatched a silver globe. It landed, hopped heavily, and curved in a slow scatter of hard dust. The thrower remained a stylish, temporary statue: knees not quite unbent, and the right hand ecstatically spread. I noticed a furled white shirt, a bare forearm and a blob on the back of the wrist. Not a watch, as I first thought, or a tattoo, but a coloured transfer: the face of a political sage much admired in the desert.”

Those contemporary North Africans at the outset of Barnes’ book wear an image of Mao on their wrists, just as Flaubert’s North African soldiers in his Salammbo, as we eventually learn, bore the sign of, yes, a parrot. So, if Flaubert’s Parrot is not a “real” novel, it is, as you can see from its opening paragraph above, real writing.

As British critic Frank Kermode said in his enthusiastic review of the book (“Obsessed with Obsession,” New York Review, Apr. 25, 1985), “Barnes’ physician hero is in search of the crumbled, junky past, of the truth about Gustave Flaubert, which, like the truth about his own life, is on some views both unimportant and inaccessible.” Amid “the decaying rubbish that testifies to the existence of Flaubert” are those now bedraggled, ambiguous, stuffed parrots. In the end, the parrots gaze at us, as Barnes puts it, like “quizzical, sharp-eyed, dandruff-ridden, dishonourable old men.”

Whatever else it is, Flaubert’s Parrot is compellingly readable and pretty thoroughly succeeds in raising Barnes’ bookish challenges to the state of the novel. Its “winning” cleverness (two traits associated with Barnes himself) probably got it onto the Booker shortlist (i.e., it was hard to ignore), but it was unlikely to win (a little too unconventional).

In addition to its intrinsic pleasures, Flaubert’s Parrot was part of a “postmodernist” turn that writing was taking at the time. After the post-World War II magical realist novels of Gunter Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Salman Rushdie (an attempt, I think, to reconnect the novel to the classical, picaresque “epic”), writers now attempted to disassemble (okay, “deconstruct”) the traditional novel in playful, self-reflexive experiments. Barnes’ book is contemporary with a wide range of kindred works that stretch from Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler to, in Canada, George Bowering’s Burning Water, both of which also ask pertinent questions about the nature of writing, reading, and the possibility of knowledge.

Stan agreed to do a guest report before I read the book. I wrote my report below before I read Stan’s. And I’m fascinated. Here’s the reason.

About a year ago I saw a production of Romeo and Juliet. I’ve studied the play at grad school and have seen at least a dozen productions and maybe as many TV and film productions. But at the end of this production, when the stage holds the bodies of two dead children, watched over by grieving parents, I suddenly saw the play very differently.

When my daughter Bronwyn died in October 2006 I turned to reading and to projects. One result is The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning. I’ve made half a dozen quilts in a ridiculously short period of time (people spend years making one). I founded the Al Purdy A-frame Trust. And, in part, this Booker project and my obsession with the impact of prizes on the publishing world are part of what I am talking about. So what I saw in the character of Geoffrey Braithwaite was a fellow mourner, and one with a project developed from that grief. What Stan sees as the “backstory” was for me a full and reasonable explanation for the frontstory—the Flaubert research. I was going to edit my report after reading Stan’s to remove any repetition, etc., but I’ve decided to leave it as written.

What a romp. This is such an exciting and fun book to read. A brief report won’t begin to capture the energy and inventiveness.

Geoffrey Braithwaite is a doctor and amateur Flaubert expert (can you be an amateur expert? He is not a scholar and does not publish his extensive research) who is trying to determine which of two stuffed parrots in two separate museums is the one that was on Flaubert’s desk while he wrote Un Coeur simple. Like many of the recent Booker novels it is part exploration of the past and how people fall over it “trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process.” And also the role of biography and the uncovering of information about the dead. My favourite parts are the romp through the absurdities of academic life and research. This novel should be read just for the list of novels that should be banned.

Many critics would like to be dictators of literature, to regulate the past, and to set out with quiet authority the future direction of the art. This month, everyone must write about this; next month, nobody is allowed to write about that. So-and-so will not be reprinted until we say so…let’s play. I’ll go first.

1. There shall be no more novels in which a group of people, isolated by circumstances, revert to the ‘natural condition’ of man become essential, poor, bare, forked creatures…

4. There is to be a twenty-year ban on novels set in Oxford or Cambridge, and a ten-year ban on the university fiction. No ban on fiction set in polytechnics (though no subsidy to encourage it). No ban on novels set in primary schools’ a ten-year ban on secondary-school fiction. A partial ban on growing-up novels (one per author allowed). A Partial ban on novels written in the historic present (again, one per author)….

7. No novels about small, hitherto forgotten wars in distant parts of the British Empire, in the painstaking course of which we learn first, that the British are averagely wicked; and secondly, that war is very nasty indeed.

8 No novels in which the narrator, or any of the characters, is identified simply by an initial letter. Still they go on doing it!

Barnes takes the novel, turns it inside out, flips it on its head and forces reconsiderations of the genre and criticism. Get a copy and jump in, but don’t read anything on the book jacket. It might give away something.

While we have been on this trip The Heart Does Break has been published. As I’ve mentioned before, I think, this anthology is in part the response to the death of my daughter, now more than three years ago. In the first few months I was struck by the bad language that is used about grief, as if it were a disease, something to “get over.” The anthology contains 20 commissioned pieces by creative writers about how they responded to the death of a loved one. We picked creative writers because language matters, particularly in such circumstances, so I believe.

At the heart of Flaubert’s Parrot is grief, how to respond to the absence of a beloved, a particularly difficult and unfaithful beloved.

And then it happens to you. There’s no glory in it. Mourning is full of time; nothing but time…I’ve tried drink, but what does that do? Drink makes you drunk, that’s all it’s ever been able to do. Work, they say, cures everything. It doesn’t; often, it doesn’t even induce tiredness: the nearest you get to it is a neurotic lethargy. And there is always time. Have some more time. Take your time. Extra time. Time on your hands.

Other people think you want to talk…Sometimes you talk, sometimes you don’t; it makes little difference. The words aren’t the right ones; or rather, the right words don’t exist. ‘Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.’ You talk, and you find the language of bereavement foolishly inadequate. You seem to be talking about other people’s griefs…

‘It may seem bad, Geoffrey, but you’ll come out of it. I’m not taking your grief lightly; it’s just that I’ve seen enough of life to know that you’ll come out of it.’ The words you’ve said yourself while scribbling a prescription…And you do come out of it, that’s true. After a year, after five. But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the Downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil-slick. You are tarred and feathered for life.

Anita Desai In Custody purchased

On the book jacket Salman Rushie is quoted as declaring this novel “magnificent.” I read most of it in India, and I still don’t get it. Cultural differences I suppose. One day in Singapore to escape the heat and get a cheap lunch we ducked into Hooters. This might be the only Hooters in the world with no cleavage. A sign on the wall said, “Danger, Blondes Thinking” but there wasn’t a blonde to be seen. Some cultural things don’t translate well.

About 50 pages in I realized this novel must have been the basis for a movie George and I watched a while back. A young aspiring poet named Deven goes to visit an Urdu poet whom he has revered since childhood. Deven is an irritating weakling and the Urdu poet turns out to be manipulative has-been. The poetry is bad and sentimental. The plot is also melodramatic and manipulative, obviously so. It’s an examination of what happens when a revered guru turns out to be a grubbing asshole.

A few days after we watched the movie George and I looked at each other, “Do you think it was a comedy and we just didn’t get it?” I’m still not sure.

David Lodge Small World purchased

Sometime in the late 80s I read Lodge’s early novel about the creaky world of English departments, Changing Places. This novel goes over much of the same territory, and with some of the same characters. Category: university professor novel. Barnes would disapprove.

This time rather than teaching exchanges the focus is the whirl of literary academic conferences. It’s full of clever literary allusions (a set of twins are left in a jet, adopted and later reunited with their parents—a deft theft from Oscar Wilde) from a rather smug know-it-all viewpoint particularly targeting English pomp and inefficiency. If you happen to be a graduate student—as I was when I read the first novel—Lodge is a wonderful giggle. But does anyone else care? Are the British more concerned with academia? Is this a novel for the university community that Lodge slams to read and nod their heads agreeingly and say, “Yes, bang on.”

There are sure to be lots of further in-jokes, guessing that most of the characters—professors and writers—have some basis on real people.

J. G. Ballard Empire of the Sun purchased

Ballard might be best known for this autobiographical novel, made into a movie by Steven Spielberg with film script by Tom Stoppard, and Crash also made into a movie, this time by David Cronenberg. After I read the novel, we watched the Spielberg film and it’s pretty good, except for the over-the-top music.

Jim is a 10-year-old boy with well-to-do British parents living a privileged life in before-war Shanghai. Jim is obsessed with planes. When the war begins Jim and his parents get caught in the melee of the attack, are separated and Jim will spend the war, alone, in various camps.

Like many coming-of-age novels Jim has a series of surrogate fathers. Basie, an American seaman who is a scavenging survivor, using the war to amass desirable products. A doctor with more advanced morality which doesn’t help him deal with the harsh day-to-day realities.

In some ways the novel is reminiscent of Treasure Island, even sharing the name of the title character. Like Jim Hawkins, Jim becomes an Everyboy. He is a symbol of all children caught in war. And also like Jim Hawkins he learns the pirates (in this case the Japanese) are not always the bad guys and are often better examples of courage than the good guys.

But this is no straight-ahead fable. Jim’s coming of age is a complicated and twisted maturity. The war and world of this novel have nothing to do with bravery. It’s a mean and selfish survivor. All are left scared. There are no clear victors.

No recognition of Chinese war effort, and Ballard suggests that will haunt the 20th and 21th centuries.

The only forces not to be celebrated were the Chinese communists, but they had been cleared out of Shanghai and the coastal cities. Whatever contribution their troops had made to the Allied victory had long been discounted, lost under the layers of newsreels that had imposed their own truth upon the war.

What really sets this novel apart is the way the world is viewed through the eyes of a child, without anything childish. Perhaps it is Ballard’s experience with sci-fi, his ability to portray other worlds that lends the power, but power it does have. At the end as the world settles into peace, Jim settles into his new reality—he is living WWIII.

Anita Brookner Hotel du Lac purchased WINNER

This win caused a big stink, many believing the Brookner to be a much inferior book to Ballard. Malcolm Bradbury called the novel “parochial.”

Her friends have sent Edith Hope packing after a no-show at her wedding. Don’t be a spinster, and the alternative isn’t any better. The novel is a slow examination of the lives of a dull, uninteresting woman. The book uses the small painful canvas so popular with some female British novelists (Elizabeth Taylor is another) during this time. It’s slight, and contrived. And humourless. That is beat out the Ballard and the Barnes is absurd.

1984 John Fuller from The Guardian

This was the year when the hot favourite, JG Ballard (Empire of the Sun), was passed over for a relative newcomer, Anita Brookner (Hotel du Lac). Hardly a scandal, but in a strong year we had already discarded some big names (Burgess, Golding, Spark, Bainbridge, two Amises, etc) before reaching the shortlist, so that journalistic antennae were twitching, and the outcome was felt to be a further surprise. The judges got on pretty well together. We were somewhat exercised by the question of whether Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot was really a novel, while in the final judging session Anthony Curtis continued to argue for David Lodge (Small World), and Ted Rowlands stuck out for the Ballard. I thought that the Brookner was, in its economy and elegance, a small triumph of moral insight worthy of the tradition of James and Forster to which it belonged. I was relieved to have support from Polly Devlin and the somewhat eccentric Richard Cobb in this, and pleased at the nudge to her career that the prize must have given.

January 3, 2011,  3812 words


  • Jean Baird

    Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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