“Flaubert’s Parrot” by Julian Barnes

It is my ideal book. By saying that I do not mean that it is the best book in the world, kind of war-and-peace-or-crime-and-punishment masterpiece, because it is not. However, it contains everything I love in books. First of all, it is about another author – Gustave Flaubert. Since, apart from novels, I am a big fan of writer’s journals and biographies, I admire Barnes’ idea to put his own admiration for an author and knowledge which is a result of it into a novel. Second of all, this book, being written in 1984, is highly postmodern and metafictional. According to some critics, we no longer live in postmodernism and writing in this mode is passé. And I would have to agree with that but, despite my belief that postmodern techniques have probably petered away, I still find some of its examples interesting and entertaining. One of these examples is definitely Flaubert’s Parrot. In a way it comprises of two parallel stories. The first one is about Geoffrey Braithwaite – Flaubert’s expert who not only recalls his personal memories but also tells the account of Flaubert’s life – and this is the second story. Interestingly, these two parts are not separated; rather the opposite – they are meshed and one results from the other. However, what I find really attention-grabbing is the range of narrative techniques Barnes uses. There is a chronological biography told in three different versions, there is a dictionary, a bestiary, fragments of letters and journals and even parts of examination papers. I am not going to investigate why he actually chose these particular types of narrative. At some point in reading and writing about postmodern literature I realized that kind of choice is, most of the time, a consequence of writers’ inability-to-represent-the-complexity-of-our-reality-ble-ble-ble belief. I just think it is remarkable how efficient Barnes is in all these different styles of writing. Flaubert's parrot

And finally – his sense of humour. I have this old fashioned and rather naive habit of underlining quotes that somehow describe our experience in this world in a more general and objective way. I called it old fashioned since, considering aforementioned “inability to represent the complexity of our reality”, conveying this experience in words, not mention one sentence, is rather undoable; and if someone dares to do it, it comes out as rather Harlequin like. But that is not the case with Barnes. Because of his sense of humour, which I absolutely love, that kind of attempts to generalize world are funny, ironically true and close to reality. One of my favourite examples: “To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness- though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless” (Barnes 166-167). There is also a fantastic list of novels that should never be written again where Barnes ridicules the literary world he lives in. Point nine in the list reads:

There should be no more novels which are really about other novels. No “modern versions”, reworkings, sequels or prequels. No imaginative completions of works left unfinished on their author’s death. Instead, every writer is to be issued with a sampler in coloured wools to hang over the fireplace. It reads: Knit Your Own Staff (Barnes 99)

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Luckily, there is nothing about immensely interesting and dead funny books about other writers so I am waiting for another one of that kind. Not a reworking or a sequel, of course, since these are forbidden.

Barnes Julian, Flaubert’s Parrot, London: Vintage Books, 2009.

“Virginia Woolf. Art, Life and Vision” by Frances Spalding

This book became one of my favourite even before I read it. “Virginia Woolf. Art, Life and Vision” was first experienced by me in the form of an exhibition since its author, Francis Spalding, is the curator of the latest exposition on Virginia Woolf in the National Portrait Gallery.

VW

This July I was lucky enough to see it and be amazed by it. As an established admirer of art, life and vision of Virginia Woolf, I appreciated the informative scrupulousness with which the exhibition was prepared. I was absolutely moved seeing the very same walking stick she left on the shore before her last, tragic journey. However, the most important thing that this exhibition along with the book do, is making us realize that Virginia Woolf was actually a real person. Off course, both the exhibition and the book contain Wool’s portraits, those really well known by her sister Vanessa and those less popular by Roger Fry, but the real treasure here are the photographs. We see Virginia as a little girl with her parents or playing with her sister, we see her with Leonard and their dog, we see her photographed by Man Ray and we see her in 1938 – three years before her death. And suddenly she stops being a “ghost” behind the initials V.W. and behind the pages of novels or diaries – she becomes a person with flesh, who not only wrote books but actually lived. What is more, thanks to Spalding’s book we have this life at our fingerprints. It is like reading illustrated version of Woolf’s diaries. We learn about the author’s childhood, mental breakdowns, her work as a writer and as a social figure, the origins of Bloomsbury group, postimpressionism and Vanessa Bell’s art, the impact of war; and all this is accompanied by numerous photographs, paintings, letters, book covers, personal notes which, I believe, were not published before, definitely not in a form of a book. Importantly, Woolf’s life and work is put in a historical and cultural context what makes the work much more accessible for non-fans. However, regardless of your knowledge about Woolf and her writing, after reading Spalding’s work you will get to know Virginia but more as a person than as a writer; and exactly that’s why watch out for the last pages of this enthralling story. I am not saying anything more …. just watch out…

The exhibition available here.

Eden Project – Cornwall (1)

China clay- that was the beginning of Eden Project . This global garden – the re-creation of microclimates of rainforest and Mediterranean- was build in the old china clay quarry near St Austell in Cornwall where I stayed last week. Eden Project happened to be the first place we visited and I have to admit it was quite an ambivalent experience; actually it was something like a semi-experience.  As much as I enjoyed wandering through  the paths of “rainforest” or “Mediterranean  coast”, I was constantly reminded I am not actually there. All the signposts that advised me to drink lots of water, to follow this particular route or the sky covered with a cosmic capsule were giving me the sense of some kind of parallel reality. It was like watching a live show through the lenses of a camcorder. However,  there was one thing that let me feel at home.

The Entrance to the Mediterranean Biome

This short poem of an unknown origin welcomes you when entering the Mediterranean gardens. Several other fragments of literarure are inscribed on walls or smal rocks laying on the soil like this fragment of T.S. Eliot “The Hollow Men”:

T.S. Eliot “The Hollow Men”

What I love about this idea is not only the fact that you can read these pieces of art being surrounded by beautufil landscapes- it is more the notion that literature is inscribed into the nature like the were coming from the same source…

Virginia Woolf and Autism

In February I wrote about Virginia Woolf and her attempt to go beyond words and literature. Recently,  I have come across a book titled Thinking in pictures: and other reports from my life with autism by Temple Grandin. I was captivated by these particular words:

I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full colour movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR type in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. [1]

Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin

 

What fascinated me about this fragment was the fact that autistic mind not able to cope with language-based communication chose pictures as an alternative form. This conclusion instantly brought me back to Virginia Woolf. At the beginning of The Waves thereis a fragment when every character announces what they see (and rarely hear). Later we find out that every object they described refers to their personality, as if their perception defined them as individuals. They do not talk about their feelings, about events in their lives- they only tell what they see.[2] When I compared these two fragments – Woolf’s and Grandon’s- it occurred to me that in The Waves Woolf, in a strange way, wanted to communicate in images; still using language, she attempted to allow the characters to communicate in their perceptions, to omit the level of linguistic understanding and metaphorically go back to “the roots”.  What I mean by “the roots” are the first attempts of a human to write down oral communication, namely,  first proto-writing systems which were  based mainly on pictograms- images that resembled objects or ideas and had literal, as opposed to ambivalent, connection with them.

Thus, it seemed that Woolf perceived images as something much more instinctive and therefore natural/truthful  to human soul than words. Paradoxically, however, being a novelist, and not a painter, she decided to combine them and paint with words.


[1] Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures: and other reports from my life with autism, London, 2006. p. 3

[2] Virginia Woolf, The Waves, London, 2000, p. 5-6.

Anne Frank’s Diary – Reflections

I have finally found some time to write about Anne Frank’s Diary which I finished some time ago. Paradoxically the most distressing part of this book is the epilogue, not even written by the author, when we find out in almost journalistic sentences that majority of the characters, including Anne, die. This short fragment is so contrasting to Anne’s narrative that almost unbelievable. Ann, despite living in really difficult circumstances, does not write a story of a refugee but rather a story of a teenage girl. She focuses on her loneliness, relationship with her parents, Peter or other occupants. She obviously mentions the trouble of living in the hiding but it seems to be only the background to her spiritual struggles. That is why the book advertised as “a heartbreaking testimony of Holocaust” might be  little disappointing as it was for me. I am not trying to say it is not worth reading because it definitely is. Nevertheless, I guess after reading Nalkowska’s Medallions every testimony of Holocaust is not heartbreaking enough.