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.