Sunday, 15 February 2009

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you are losing faith


Towards the end of 1875, Gustave Flaubert wrote a number of gloomy letters describing his poor health and impending financial ruin. He was only 54, but felt far older, suffering from the continuing effects of epilepsy and syphilis, and the hurtful attacks of critics. Flaubert’s theatrical debut, The Candidate, had flopped the previous year, surviving only four performances, and the publication of The Temptation of St Anthony – upon which he had laboured for quarter of a century – was equally disastrous. “Torn to pieces,” he wrote, noting “the hatred underlying much of this criticism… This avalanche of abuse does depress me.”

Yet by March 1876, he was working on ‘A Simple Heart’, a story responding to the advice of one of his closest friends, George Sand, who had suggested that Flaubert’s books were responsible for ‘spreading unhappiness’, and that he might attempt a different, more heartening approach. For inspiration, he borrowed a moth-eaten stuffed parrot from Rouen Museum (more details of which are to be found in Julian Barnes’ wonderful book, ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’).

The ensuing story, according to Flaubert’s own description, ‘is just the account of an obscure life, that of a poor country girl, pious but fervent, discreetly loyal, and tender as new-baked bread. She loves one after the other a man, her mistress’s children, a nephew of hers, an old man whom she nurses, and her parrot. When the parrot dies she has it stuffed, and when she herself comes to die she confuses the parrot with the Holy Ghost.’ This may sound more grotesque than consoling, and yet ‘A Simple Heart’, based in part on Flaubert’s childhood, is strangely uplifting. Felicite – the girl with a simple heart, who grows old but never grows hard – has lived a life filled with loss, yet her love and faith is undiminished. Loulou -- the parrot that speaks without understanding or freedom – could be seen as a metaphor for the pointlessness of a writer’s life, or the confines and limitations of language; yet the story of the bird and Felicite escapes from easy interpretation, into something entirely itself. Whenever I read it, I feel my faith restored – in writing, in human nature, in our mysterious capacity to find consolation amidst desolation, and in the enduring magnificence of parrots.

10 comments:

Gondal-girl said...

I must read this one Justine, after reading Flaubert's parrot, I am intrigued ( there is an interesting interview with Barnes on my post on Flaubert's parrot)

thinking of you Justine.

An un-literary solution re losing faith/darkness - bach flower remedies, rescue remedy is good, but there are others, perhaps it is Walnut?)

oxford-reader said...

I gave up reading Madame Bovary because it was so bleak, but this sounds like the perfect antidote! I loved 'Flaubert's Parrot' when I read it, so it'd be good to see the fictional inspirtation.

There are certain books that I always go to when I feel my view of the world slipping. One of them is 'Little Women', which also lets you have a good cry, and the other is 'Revelations of Divine Love' by Julian of Norwich. I'm not particularly religious, but the knowledge that 'All will be well' can be very comforting at certain times.

Justine Picardie said...

Little Women! You are so right! If only I had a copy now, to read at one in the morning...

kairu said...

I am sure Project Gutenberg would have Little Women available online, or as an ebook. Sadly I can't send you my copy by courier pigeon.

Lou said...

I have a brand new copy of Little Women.I'm sure that by the time I sent it to you from Australia ,you would have been easily able to get hold of a copy.I bought it for my daughter to read ,who couldn't see what all the fuss was about.Even buying the DVD didn't help!(Although I got to admire Gabriel Byrne's brooding good looks)
Mrs.March is an uplifting example of who to look to for inspiration when you are losing faith.It is also a beautiful portrayal of that special bond between sisters.
Take care (and hopefully get some sleep)
Louisa

Louisa

kairu said...

Come to think of it, I have two copies of Little Women, a battered old copy held together with packing tape, and a Penguin Deluxe edition with a fantastic cover illustration by Julie Doucet.

When I find myself losing faith or feeling down, I turn to A Room With a View. "Remember the view," Mr. Emerson tells Lucy. I think of the view over Florence, the view over all the places I have loved in my life (the view of Mt. Rainier on a clear day, the view of Moscow from Sparrow Hills, which reminds me of The Master and Margarita). And somehow I am happy again.

Justine Picardie said...

My reading list so far is Heartburn, Little Women, Room with a View. Last night I re-read Pippi Longstocking, which was fantastic.
Thanks to all of you for the support and kindness...

oxford-reader said...

Have you read 'The Eyre Affair' by Jasper Fforde? It's completely mad, but based in a bookish world that I somehow wish was reality. It'll have you giggling like a trouper!

Paperback Reader said...

Justine, if you are needing another film to curl up on the sofa and enjoy then I recommend Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. I watched it today as I was feeling a little down and it was just what the doctor ordered! I blogged about it some.

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