Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My reading is in a way pointless

I must confess that in all the times I read Madame Bovary, I never noticed the heroine's rainbow eyes. Should I have? Would you? Was I perhaps too busy noticing things that Dr Starkie was missing (though what they might have been I can't for the moment think)? Put it another way: is there a perfect reader somewhere, a total reader? Does Dr Starkies's reading of Madame Bovary contain all the responses which I have when I read the book, and then add a whole lot more, so that my reading is in a way pointless? Well, I hope not. My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it's not pointless in terms of pleasure. I can't prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell you one advantage we have over them. We can forget. Dr Starkie and her kind are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps this is why some critics develop a faintly patronising tone towards their subjects. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn't said anything new for years. Of course, it's her house, and everybody's living in it rent free; but even so, surely it is, well, you know... time?

— from Flaubert's Parrot, by Julian Barnes.

I'd wanted to read this novel for ages, but part of me held back, thinking I should properly acquaint myself with Flaubert first. Fresh off Madame Bovary's heels seemed like the perfect time.

Well, the first 50 pages or so I found dreadfully boring, and it took longer still to fully realize this opening passage was meant as a kind of satire of academic literary criticism. The narrator's an amateur critic, a doctor. I haven't yet decided whether his being a doctor is at all relevant.

I'm in the final stretch of the book and am glad to have stuck with it, even if only to discover this fabulous — my new all-time favourite — quotation, from Flaubert: "Whatever else happens, we shall remain stupid."

There are some insightful and funny passages about the art of criticism (the above passage hit me just as I was getting angry with Terry Castle's introduction to Maude Hutchins' Victorine), with examples of how a biography might be reconstructed from mere snippets of fact.

But I can't imagine anyone not interested in or familiar with Flaubert and his work enjoying this book at all.
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