Letter from America: Obama and Flaubert’s Parrot
By David Fedo
Poor Barack Obama.
The President of the United States, lumbering into the final leg of his second four-year term in the Oval Office, continues to face a decidedly mixed review by both Republican and Democratic members of Congress, as well as by many in the country's media.
Take the June 22 edition of the Boston Globe, a newspaper that's liberal-leaning but, like many voices on America's left, increasingly disappointed with the overall performance of their President. On the one hand, Obama receives plaudits in the Globe for his support for transgender citizens ("Without fanfare, Obama advances transgender rights," the headline booms), and Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, is quoted as insisting that he "has been the best President for transgender rights, and nobody else is in second place." All well and good, because many Americans are still uncomfortable about anything having to do with transgender issues, and in this case, Obama demonstrates what has been his characteristic bravery.
But in the same issue of the Globe, Obama is pilloried for his shameful turnaround on the international treaty banning land mines, which he strongly supported as a Senator in 2005. (The headline on page one screams, "Formerly a leader on land mine ban, Obama now balks.") Over 160 countries (but not the US) have signed the pact, which seems to be a no-brainer, but according to the Globe, Obama has consistently shown "an unwillingness to take on military officials who assert that the devices… are still needed."
When he was President, Bill Clinton called the dispersion of land mines "a global tragedy". Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Globe now reports, "is so frustrated at Obama's lack of action that he is complaining bitterly and publicly." In a recent speech on the floor of the Senate, Sen. Leahy, a liberal like Obama, spoke about unsuspecting children having their legs blown off, declaring sternly, "President Obama, you know what you should do."
Knowing what to do and doing it, of course, are two different things.
The President is being criticised by Democratic lawmakers and the country's liberals who want him to be more forceful and aggressive on a myriad of domestic issues – for example, on the country's desperately needed reform of its immigration policies, on the heavy burden of college and university loans to students, and on the imminent dangers of global warming. But the Republicans and Tea Party types want to pull him the other way, boxing him in by essentially taking a "do nothing" approach on much of his proposed legislation.
On foreign affairs, Obama has been criticised as being indecisive about how to address the ongoing catastrophe in Syria, for example, and at least up to the middle of June, about the stunning and violent rise in the Middle East of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Despite the claims of Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Speaker of the House John Boehner, both ardent conservatives, Obama's caution about deploying military resources is probably the best course, given the current disarray of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government. But as the slaughter continues throughout the Middle East, threatening even such countries as Lebanon and Jordan, this caution may not be sufficient. And the President's approval rating on his handling of foreign affairs, according to a June Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, has hit a new low of only 37 percent.
In my view, where President Obama clearly deserves low marks is in his non-handling of the future of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, the notorious military prison situated at an American base in Cuba. Here, more than 200 "detainees" are being held, probably illegally, although five were recently released to Qatar as part of an exchange agreement bringing an American soldier, a prisoner for five years in Afghanistan, back to the US. As everyone knows, Obama ran for President on an agenda that included closing Guantanamo, called by Amnesty International in 2005 the "Gulag of our times". The then-candidate Obama referred to Guantanamo as "a sad chapter in American history", and as President he signed an executive order in 2009 stating that the prison would be closed within a year.
But the closing has never happened, despite the concerns expressed by human rights advocates, the United Nations and other global organisations about the conditions enforced on the prisoners and the complicated legal issues surrounding their internment. The President, beleaguered by a contingent of Republican legislators, seems to have given up on the issue. It is a sad case.
Many Americans (I am one of them) still admire President Obama as a man of great virtue, as an eloquent speaker, and as possessing a broad and even dazzling intelligence. But the question is, are these qualities matched by his leadership on the critical issues of the times? In the dangerous days of mid-June 2014, the answer seems increasingly in doubt.
If there is a stranger novel written in English over the past 30 years than Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot, please, please send me your nomination. This surprising and multi-layered book, published in 1984, is reputed to be the Englishman's "breakthrough" work; it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, which Barnes actually won 27 years later, in 2011, with his more traditional and linear novel, The Sense of an Ending.
I've come to Barnes' fiction rather late, having just this April passed a row of his books on the shelves of Hatchards Booksellers while visiting London. After spending my book-reading life with the older generation of British 20th-century fictionalists – Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene as prominent examples – it was about time. I started with The Sense of an Ending, and have worked my way back to Flaubert's Parrot, which is less about the parrot that ostensibly inspired the novelist but more about the engagement of or, more accurately, the obsession by Barnes' narrator, Dr Geoffrey Braithwaite, with Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), still France's most celebrated novelist.
But how is one to "take" Flaubert's Parrot, with its 15 wildly contrasting chapters covering every aspect of Flaubert's life and work, especially Madame Bovary (1857) and Un Coeur Simple (1877)? The famous Amazonian "stuffed parrot" named Loulou, which allegedly served "sentry duty" next to Flaubert, as the Master Craftsman delivered excruciating birth to his impeccable prose, and which was preserved in the Museum of Rouen, turns out to be only one of the 50 similarly preserved birds. Flaubert's parrot is thus finally undiscoverable.
But is Barnes' work actually a novel, or is it something else altogether? A book that seems to be so biographical and often literal about a real person – in fact, about Gustave Flaubert, the esteemed 19th-century French writer – can't really be called a novel, can it? In some ways, the narrator Dr Braithwaite's book is a scrupulously annotated chronicle of Flaubert's life and works and his very words, including his relationships with friends, his detailed sexual experiences (Flaubert seems to have had relations with both female and male prostitutes, with the result that he suffered from venereal diseases), his extensive travels abroad and his domestic routine in Croisset, a small town near Rouen in Normandy. His longtime lover, the mercurial Louise Colet, is even given an entire chapter to herself to present her "version" of this up-and-down affair (Flaubert never married); another chapter is devoted entirely to the discrepancy in Madame Bovary of the colour of Emma's eyes (are they brown, deep black or blue?).
These sometimes numbing details seem to argue against Braithwaite's earlier questions: "Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can't we leave well enough alone? Why aren't the books enough?"
I've finally come instead to read Flaubert's Parrot as a primer for writers struggling to find the path to their true voice. "The best life for a writer is the life which helps him write the best books he can," Braithwaite (Barnes) says at one point, and then, heeding Flaubert the teacher, adds the following:
And then later: "You must write according to your feelings, be sure those feelings are true, and let everything else go hang."
Makes sense to me.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 3 Jul 2014