I’ve never read Julian Barnes. But for some reason, I came across FP recently and I couldn’t resist. And all because of the title.
I seem incapable of ignoring unique, quirky book titles. Superficial, I know. Influenced by what's outside instead of what's inside. Buying books like this simply guarantees I will be disappointed. It's logical. A catchy title is obviously no proof of quality writing. Sometimes, the text is plain rubbish. And I have to desist from reading. Which you know makes me uncomfortable.
Still, they look good on the shelf. They attract attention. They start conversations. Even if the conversation goes nowhere beyond the title, because indeed there is nothing else to say. Superficial, indeed.
But FP, I’m delighted to say, was an excellent read. The life and times of Gustave Flaubert. Now, I’m not into biographies. I don’t rightly know why. Maybe I’m not that interested in people's lives. Authors' or otherwise. What does that say about me? Nothing positive, I’m sure. And that was a rhetorical question, I hasten to add.
But not FP. We studied L'Education sentimentale in school. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience. Heavy literature in a foreign language. For teenagers. Who understood the merest hint of anything. Of life, the language, of ourselves. It was hard work. A few years later, imagining myself older and wiser and more fluent in French, I tackled Madame Bovary. Flaubert did not impress me, I’m afraid. Although I admit the failings may well have been my own, not his.
Now I read this wonderful biography and I believe I am drawn to him. Almost like him. Firstly, JB speaks through a retired doctor and Flaubert amateur. The discussion is animated, passionate, droll. And exceedingly informative. Secondly, I find myself sharing GF’s sentiments, his frustrations. His loves.
One example: Flaubert apparently wrote in a letter to Alfred le Poittevin: “I attract mad people and animals”. How this made me smile. I had said a similar thing only days before reading it in FP. Possibly not for the same reasons as GF said it. But the sentiment was uncannily similar.
You see, recently, I have noticed a worrying - and increasingly frequent - tendency for encounters with (seemingly) mad people. Mainly in public transport. Not a day goes by without some strange being approaching me, mumbling at me (mostly incoherently), pawing me. We can enter at completely opposite ends of the bus / tram, but they’ll always find me. It's bizarre. Worryingly so.
I’m sure there’s an explanation. But I’m not sure I want to think about it too much. Explanations may explain, but they don’t always reassure. Still, I was glad to read GF’s words. If not reassured, you can always take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone...