is the name of Paul Collins’s awesome blog. It is also the name of “this blog post,” which is about how, after coming down with a “cold” and then “getting really drunk” on Friday night, I spent the rest of the weekend huddled in my home, reading.
I woke up hungover and ill on Saturday wanting to continue Magnus Mills’s The Restraint of Beasts, which in a fit of optimistic readerly enjoyment I brought — and subsq. left — in my office. I almost considered going back to get it, but hangover + sickness kept me indoors. So, completely naked, just kidding, wearing a camel-hair teddy, just kidding, I scrounged around my “bedroom” for a replacement. Should probably be Scottish or British… needs to be a novel… needs to be funny… I soon “lit” upon Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, which I’d long wanted to read, ever since my “heavy metafiction nerd” days of the “late nineties.”
Without going into even more excruciating detail about precisely how and in what combination I read these two novels this weekend, I’ll just say: I read these two novels this weekend.
As I started reading Flaubert’s Parrot this parched piece of paper fluttered out:
I like the size of this piece of paper. It’s about five inches high. It also marks a pretty aimless note-taking on the part of the book’s previous reader: they note the mention of a “do-it-yourself enema pump” on p. 208; they’re interested in a reference to the Encyclopedia Brittanica on p. 101. What’s the purpose of taking these sorts of notes on a novel if you’re not planning on writing an essay or a review of it? Did this person ever expect to wonder in the future, “where was that Julian Barnes enema reference again?” and then happily find their short piece of paper with the reference right there? Maybe. I took a few similarly useless notes while reading, on my own piece of paper, and felt a kinship with that old reader. It’s an explicit theme in the novel, too, this aimless, just-for-kicks style of reading:
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.
I also found this tucked near the back of the book:
Could you subscribe to the New York Times in California in 1985? Where did I pick up this copy, anyway? I think Aardvark, not sure.
I prefer to think that this newspaper was clipped in Manhattan, where the paperback was purchased by a wonderful bespectacled clean-shaven man. My dad lived in Manhattan at the time, and I lived with my mom across the Tappan Zee Bridge in Rockland County. I visited dad in 80s Bachelor Manhattan every other weekend, sometimes every weekend. I might’ve touched this newspaper when I was four years old!
The reverse side is just as fun as the review-side.
The Restraint of Beasts was great — funniest book I’ve read in a long time. “Very Scottish.” Reminded me of Dan Rhodes in a good way. The Barnes made me want to read Madame Bovary and Out of Sheer Rage. Finally started the latter last night. The Barnes and the Dyer make an interesting pair: in FP, Flaubert is all over the book’s life; it’s like the inverse of his quotation,
The author, in his work, must be like God in the Universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.
That is, Flaubert is visible everywhere, and “present” nowhere: long stretches of the book are essentially nonfiction literary biography of Flaubert, though the novel is narrated by, and really only a “novel” at all by virtue of a little-seen Julian Barnes–like Flaubert enthusiast named Geoffrey Braithwaite. In Out of Sheer Rage, D.H. Lawrence occupies a similar space — but really, I’ve only read 30 pages, so let me hold off on any comparisons.
Flaubert’s Parrot has a chapter called “Examination Paper” that takes the form of a (Very British) written exam:
Asses the technical difficulties involved in implementing the following stage direction (Le Château des coeurs, Act VI, scene viii):
The Stock-Pot, the handles of which have been transformed into wings, rises into the air and turns itself over, and while it increases in size so that it appears to hover over the whole town, the vegetables—carrots, turnips and leeks—that come out of it remain suspended in the air and turn into luminous constellations.
It would be fun and interesting to write an essay? a chart? an erotic thriller? about the history of unstageable stage directions in theater.