“Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the while we long to move the stars to pity.” [Madame Bovary, 1857]
Gustave was the bear. “I am a bear and I want to stay a bear in my den, in my lair, in my skin, in my old bear’s skin; I want to live quietly, far away from the bourgeois.” [Gustave Flaubert, 1841]
A few years ago, I was studying for a Faber Academy course and Flaubert’s Parrot (FP) by Julian Barnes (JB) popped up for the class to review. The set text was a slow burn; I had no interest in, or knowledge of, the subject in hand. So, it was a slog at first, but then as with all JB’s books, the detail and magic slowly emerged. Like an expensive malt whisky (blended or single, outstanding quality is available in either), an undiluted pleasure comes from the afterglow. You can taste the velvet smooth richness, the aged oak, the smokiness and depth of character; you can sense the artisan at work. You may savour the prospect of a repeat experience and allow the bottle during the working week to stand idle, but it is always there for you to return to whenever the urge arises. Similarly, with JB’s prose, whenever I return to his inventions, they always seem to reveal so much more. ‘So why not revisit FP again?’ I thought to myself. After all, who only listens to a piece of music once? The scholarly application in all JB’s books (The Man in the Red Coat still awaits me) weaving fiction with fact, always makes for a compelling experience, and often leaves the reader to decipher their own, personal sense of an ending.
“The author in his work should be like God in the universe: everywhere present and nowhere visible.” [Letter to Louise Colet, Dec 9, 1852]
In 1843, as a law student in Paris, Flaubert met Victor Hugo and so, whilst re-reading FP an idea popped into my head: what might happen if Flaubert met the master of all writers, P.G. Wodehouse? Flaubert died on Saturday, 8th May 1880. P.G. Wodehouse wasn’t born until Saturday, 15th Oct 1881. But what would happen if their worlds collided? They both lived in France after all, so it seems a mere trifle to biff the dates along a bit and see how they might get along whilst stuck waiting for the Eurostar at a newly refurbished St. Pancras Station.
“Points Failure” – when Wodehouse met Flaubert at St. Pancras Station
“Ladies and gentlemen, following storm Emma, we are sorry to inform you that due to a Points Failure just outside Ashford, the Eurostar will be delayed by…”
‘Blah, blah, blah! Mon dieu! Ze English cannot organize anything,’ muttered the balding Frenchman as he shuffled past the Champagne Bar on the mezzanine floor inside St. Pancras Station. He waved to dismiss the offending loudspeaker above his head. ‘And you steal ze beautiful name de ma cherie Bovary.’ His sagging shoulders, paunch and drooping moustache seemed to be weighing him down, as he sauntered along the platform with his luggage. Chuntering beneath the healthy wilderness of his hairy upper lip, he crossed onto the smooth white tiled floor, loosening his diatribe and the rolling wheels of his case. ‘The trains are like their newspapers, their theatre, their writers…all rubbish!’
Just then, a tall, slim, man in spectacles, polishing a bar stool with the seat of his trousers, swung around to see who had insulted his country and profession. Recognising the reclusive French novelist, his face softened as he leaned over the chrome railing to address him. ‘Excusez moi, monsieur! I see you’re stuck in this ghastly business as well!’
Gustave stopped, his luggage bumping into the back of his legs. ‘You must be mistaken – I am never stuck. I am famous, a Chevalier de la legion d’honneur!’
Both men considered their opposite number, colleague, peer, match…rival!
Eager to avoid any confusion, P. G. Wodehouse hopped onto the rail with his foot and explained. ‘My dear chap, I mean no offence. Would you care to join us for an early evening snifter or two?’ He motioned to an elderly woman behind him, clutching a handbag in her lap, the fur collar of her coat turned up against the chilly blast of station air.
‘Peut-être,’ Gustave said, glancing at his pocket-watch. ‘Vous êtes monsieur Wodehouse, n’est ce pas?’ he added, before wheeling his case around the glass barrier. ‘You are also catching ze train to Paris?’
‘Yes, we have digs at Le Touquet. Lovely spot. With any luck, we’re hoping to get home this evening.’
‘How do you English people cope with the incessant fog and chaos? My country is far superior to yours,’ Gustave declared, smiling at the lady. ‘And this must be your wife, Ethel? I have heard a lot about your fêtes célèbres. Enchanté, madame!’
Plum ordered another bottle of Veuve Clicquot from the waist-coated bartender, as Gustave squeezed between stools, the front of his shirt billowing from the overhang of his fat belly.
‘So, do you do this journey often?’ Plum said, sliding his wallet back inside his blazer pocket. ‘All a bit of a drag, what?’
‘Not if I can help it. But sometimes I have to travel to meet people. I live a quiet life in Rouen, you see. Well, Croisset. I stay regular and orderly in my life, so I may be violent and original in my work.’
‘Golly, there’s a thing. I’m afraid my existence is dull, dull as rice pudding. We decided early on, that Ethel would captain our team, didn’t we dear?’
Ethel smiled and took a sip of Champagne. ‘Plummy enjoys working too much, you see. He earns it and I spend it. Did you see any shows in the West End while you were here, Mr. Flaubert?’
‘No, madame. I travel and dine alone, since I lost my dear friend Alfred Le Poittevin, twice – once when he married and then again, when he sadly passed away. Not a day goes by that I do not think of him. He was my very best friend in all the world. Each of us possesses in our hearts a royal chamber, I have now bricked mine up!’ Gustave dabbed his handkerchief at a tear in the corner of his eye, glanced at Plum, then back at Ethel, and grinned. ‘We were not lovers, no, no, no.’
The champagne arrived with a set of clean flutes on a silver tray, and Plum soon popped the cork and they clinked glasses. ‘Well, cheerio, everyone!’
‘And is there a Madame Flaubert?’ Ethel said, smiling at her guest.
‘Yes, but not like that. I live with my mother and little niece, since my sister died. Dans le jardin, there is a row of old lime trees, how you say it in English, “pruned like a hedge?” This leads to our summerhouse by the water, with its beautiful honeysuckle vine. There I sit and smoke and watch my darling niece play. I give her the occasional lesson or tell her a story in my study. She comes in and throws herself on my white bearskin rug, covers the head with kisses.’ Gustave demonstrated by pecking the back of his hand. ‘And then we begin. I work after dinner from 9 p.m., sometimes until 2-3am in the morning. This is the perfect time, the only voice allowed, or should that be, aloud? Never mind…is the one inside my head. It is the writer’s life…une vie solitaire!’
‘Couldn’t agree more,’ Plum said. ‘My routine is similar, although I like to get up and at it, first thing. I find my head is clear in the morning. Then, we’ll have a spot of lunch and I’ll take the dogs for a walk. That is where the real writing is done, inside the old bean.’
‘If ever we have anyone round for dinner,’ Ethel interrupted, leaning forward. ‘Plum will be the perfect host for an hour or two and then disappear back to his study.’
Gustave Flaubert took his pipe from his pocket, loosened some moist tobacco, filled the bowl, and glancing up at the “No Smoking” sign above the bar, scratched a match against the exposed brickwork; the smell of apple and wood mixed with the sulphur of the match as he puffed away and smiled at the glaring bartender.
‘I’m afraid,’ Plum said, clearing his throat, as if checking with Ethel whether to admonish or proceed. ‘I couldn’t help but overhear your earlier remark. I’ll grant you the one about the trains, but I must differ over the theatre and writers. Seems a bit steep, wouldn’t you say so?’
Gustave lifted his glass to sniff the biscuity aroma, then held it up to the light to examine the bubbles as they fizzed to the surface. ‘Mr. Dickens,’ he began. ‘He is a genius. He has written many fine books, with many fine characters and beautiful illustrations from Monsieur Cruickshank. But you sir, you are the greatest genius of all.’
‘Oh, how so?’ Plum said, glancing at Ethel and shifting on his stool.
‘Because you have made an entire career from one story. La même histoire! How you say this…répétitif, if you please? Yes, this is the sign of a true mastermind!’
‘Well, I’ll take that as the back-handed complement I’ll suppose it to be. I think you’ll find it’s what’s called “a winning formula.” When you hit the jackpot and write something funny, you stick with it. My readers know where they are.’
Gustave smiled at his peer and took another sip of ice-cold champagne, the soggy tails of his moustache drooping inside the narrow head of the glass. ‘And you think Madame Bovary is, how you say so…the jackpot for me?’ Gustave glanced at Ethel and laughed. ‘My…jolly old fame?’
‘I should say so. It’s a first-class novel. Naughty in parts, and not really my sort of stuff, but I hear you set the world alight amongst the cognoscenti!’
‘Vraiment! There is a trial going on as we speak, and they may prosecute me. But I have come to hate it all now. Success is a two-sided coin – fame, money and notoriety on one side, but when casually flipped over, it reveals intrusion and opinion from the darkness. Writing this book has been so very painful…I was like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to my knuckles, and if I had enough money, I should buy up all the copies and throw them on the fire. But enough of my troubles. May I say, merci beaucoup, for your generosity…French champagne is the best. In my country, we have only the best!’
‘If you say so. The weather is marvellous. We have a lovely veranda at Low Wood. Climbing roses, and the people are very friendly. I like the proximity to London. Means I can pop over whenever duty calls.’
‘Is that so? I heard it was simply to avoid the tax.’ Gustave grinned, revealing his black teeth.
‘Well, yes, I suppose that as well. You see I’m paying double. In the USA and here. It just won’t do. It’s killing me, financially.’
‘The poor famous author. How you must struggle to count your millions.’
‘Now, steady on. I’m not pleading poverty, I’m just saying it’s not fair, that’s all. Needs someone from the Revenue to cast an eye over it. Sort things out.’
‘Monsieur, I am sorry. I mean no offence. I am merely tired and dirty from such a long day. If Alfred were here, I would be fooling around with him. And now this!’ Gustave motioned to the static trains lined up on the platforms behind them. He yawned and stretched his arms aloft, folding them behind his head.’
‘It’s not all bad. Look, around you. They’ve just finished refurbishing this station. It’s just the ticket.’
‘I shall ignore your accidental pun as you are making this all too easy for me, mon amis. It is because you English know that the trains are rubbish and that you will have to spend such a long time sitting, watching and waiting in your stations. That is why Gare du Nord is empty, cold and dogs piss against the brickwork, because there is no-one inside – everyone is travelling on the train!’
‘I say, I think that is a little ungracious of you. It’s not all bad. They raised these platform decks on 688 cast-iron columns to allow the trains to pass through the Regent’s canal. That is British engineering for you.’
‘Your husband is a very sensitive man,’ Gustave said, winking at Ethel. But Plum was on a roll and could sense the bowler of insults was tiring.
‘That also meant they could build an arched roof in one span with no intermediate columns. William Henry Barlow. An Englishman, if I’m not mistaken.’ Plum took a long sip from his glass and felt the prickle of sweat on his forehead. He studied the Frenchman’s gaze up to the roof. ‘In case you were wondering, it comprises twenty-five arched trusses, each weighing fifty-five tons. The trusses are linked by longitudinal purlins, that rise to a slight point at the crown. It improves the architectural effect, don’t you think? Barlow said it adds more protection from a lateral wind. Built to last, you see.’
‘Yes, I see. But I should instead be on the train, admiring your dull grey sky and your dull grey countryside.’
‘Is it true, Mr. Flaubert,’ Ethel said, changing the subject. ‘That you have a funny parrot on your desk?’
‘Oui et non, madame. Parrot, yes. Funny, no. But you know more than you let on. Her name is “Loulou.” I borrowed her for a few weeks while I finished Un Coeur Simple. My how you English love…les ragots, les potins…how you say it…ze gossip, ze tittle-tattle?’
‘I am afraid “guilty as charged,” Ethel giggled. ‘But it comes in handy every now and then.’
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are pleased to announce that the delayed 20:45 Eurostar to Paris is now ready for boarding on Platform 7.”
Gustave smiled and staggered to his feet. ‘Now, if you will excuse me. I must pay a visit to the salle-de-bain, before we leave. I cannot bear to use the toilets in the First-Class compartment.’
‘Shall we see you on board?’ Plum said. ‘Perhaps we might have dinner?’
‘Sir, that is most kind of you, but I have work to do. Another novel to finish. And besides, the bourgeois would only keep pestering me for autographs. Or, how you say now, a “selfie?” But, thank you for your hospitality.’ Gustave shuffled over to his case, turning back to wink at Ethel. ‘One day, perhaps, your husband will write a book as good as mine. Au revoir!’
Gustave hobbled around the bar and headed toward the toilets.
‘Well, what a rude little man!’ Ethel snapped, buttoning up her overcoat.
‘Yes, quite.’ Plum added, emptying the contents of his glass. ‘Still, with any luck we shalln’t see him again.’
‘Or her,’ Ethel said, pulling on Plum’s forearm. ‘Look over there, he’s kissing that woman. Wait, I think I recognise her. Isn’t that his English Governess? Yes, it’s Juliet Herbert. She’s rumoured to be his new fiancé.’