The human mind is hardwired to see patterns and connections where they otherwise would not exist. Faces are one of the images that our mind most automatically construes out of irrelevant and nondescript objects, so much so that two dashes and a curve or a parking meter can easily resemble a smiley face. I personally, though, have always found constellations bewildering, as the figures and animals and whatnot that the stars supposedly outline seem too far-fetched and arbitrary; I cannot see them until they’ve been pointed out to me, and even then, the only one I can readily recognize is Orion. And yet I find myself finding patterns and allusions in all other manners and modes of life. This facility is particularly beneficial for the apprehension of literature. It so happens that two works that I read in “Writers on Writing,” Professor June Foley’s First-Year Writing Seminar, deal with making sense of what seems meaningless. “Do we think the leavings of a life contain some ancillary truth?” asks Geoffrey Braithwaite in Flaubert’s Parrot.1 Julian Barnes in Parrot and Alice Munro in her “Meneseteung” both depict one’s attempt to make sense of life through imagining a story of another. Neither narrator ends up discovering the truth about what he or she inquires; the focus is their fictionalizing and the reason behind it.
Flaubert’s Parrot and “Meneseteung” are difficult to compare in some ways. The former is, simply put, the story of a man dealing with his wife’s death and adulteries. It is narrated in the first person as Braithwaite rambles about his research and opinions on Flaubert in many roundabout ways while occasionally revealing bits about his own story and motive behind his obsession. The primary technique is monologue, through which the reader becomes well acquainted with Geoffrey’s voice and character. It shows, more than tells, his emotional struggle with his wife in a simultaneously veiled and immediate way: veiled because the reader must work to connect the dots to understand his conflicts, and immediate because there is no intrusive explanation thereof; we get Geoffrey, and not merely a narrative about Geoffrey. His quest to understand Flaubert’s tumultuous life can be viewed as a symptom parallel to his struggle to come to terms with his own. “Meneseteung,” on the other hand, is told primarily in the third person by an outside narrator, of whom we end up knowing relatively little. All the great amount detail in the story is about Almeda Roth, a nineteenth-century Canadian poet fictional to us but real to the narrator, which is given with only the occasional personal interjection from the narrator. The primary technique through which the story is told is mere description without further opinion from the narrator, one quite unlike Braithwaite, who is all too eager to express himself. The narrator then becomes a more universal figure, one seeking to make “a connection, rescuing one thing from the rubbish.”2 The focus is not on the narrator herself (the gender is undisclosed throughout the story), but on her retelling of Almeda Roth’s life. The techniques and the ideas behind the two works are fundamentally different. All the same, their common thread is that they both deal with one who fictionalizes another’s life.
“I have to hypothesise a little. I have to fictionalise,” says Geoffrey Braithwaite as he, at last, reveals completely the story of his wife toward the end of the book.3 The same is true of the novel’s entirety: Everything he says stems, directly or indirectly, from his struggle to understand his wife’s adultery and suicide. Even as he impersonates Louise Colet in “Louise Colet’s Version,” he cannot help but reveal himself in her speech: “[Flaubert’s] mother had to sell land to bail him out. Five hundred francs for gloves! The white bear in white gloves? No, no: the parrot, the parrot in gloves.”4 Revisiting the beginning of the book, one can speculate that the reason why he is so eager to find out about Flaubert’s possible affair with Juliet Herbert and why he is so distraught by Ed Winterton’s burning of Flaubert’s correspondence with her is not merely because he wants to discover and publish new secrets about the author’s rambunctious love life and become famous. The latent, deeper motivation is his desire to understand his wife’s adultery, which he has transferred onto discovering Flaubert’s secret relationships. Since he can make no progress with the former, he invests himself in the latter. That is why Winterton’s burning of the letters is such a shock; it has frustrated his deeply rooted conflict in addition to the manifest fact that his rival has one-upped him a second time. Perhaps it also reminds him of the other rival men who have one-upped him with his wife. Ellen’s suicide is also why, in the ultimate chapter, “And the Parrot . . . ,” he makes an impassioned digression on Edmond Ledoux’s ridiculous theory of Flaubert’s suicide. There is no other reason why the theory should have been brought up in this chapter, as it has nothing to do with the parrots, and he himself is already sure of its falsehood and superfluity: “few books on Flaubert can end without a discussion . . . of the suicide claim. As you see, it’s happened all over again here. Another long digression whose tone of moral indignation is probably counter-productive.”5 Refuting the theory must give him some transferred consolation for the reality of his wife’s suicide, which he wishes had likewise never happened and that he could dismiss it just as easily. The entire book, one could say, is a depiction of Geoffrey’s veiled attempts to deal with traumatic experience, veiled so that the reader must do some Freud-like analysis to understand. The end effect of all this is to show how one tries to understand the real, unsolvable mysteries in one’s own life by fictionalizing another’s life.
It is a little harder to pinpoint a specific drive for the narrator of “Meneseteung,” because the story is told in a much less personal way. Nevertheless, one can see that the narrator has left many fingerprints in the process of telling the story. She does not recount merely the facts in her descriptions, but arranges them in an artful way that shows a contrivance not present in real life. She comments sardonically after Almeda’s death that “the Vidette runs on, copious and assured. Hardly a death goes undescribed, or a life unevaluated.”6 The same really could be said about her own account: She is making a fictionalized description and even an indirect evaluation of Almeda’s life, albeit in a more tasteful fashion than the tabloid does. The narrator makes her most pointed statements at the beginning: “The local paper, the Vidette, referred to her as ‘our poetess.’ There seems to be a mixture of respect and contempt, both for her calling and for her sex—or for their predictable conjuncture.”7 If we assume that the narrator is female, we could surmise that the reason behind her interest in Almeda is that she herself has also been labeled similarly, or else has some other kind of personal connection to Almeda’s situation. The narrator’s lurid details of Almeda’s “full, sombre dark eyes, which seem ready to roll down her cheeks like giant tears” and her characterization of Almeda from her “untrimmed shapeless hat” as having “artistic intentions, or at least a shy and stubborn eccentricity” could suggest that she is looking for something in Almeda, wanting to believe something, rather than merely observing.8 There is really not enough detail within the story itself to pinpoint anything definite about the narrator’s intentions, though. The plenitude of detail in the story matched with lack of definite cause makes the effect more abstract and universal. The detail is made the focus, and is crafted as a story with figurative and plot devices—the work of an interceding author on an otherwise normal life. The description of Almeda’s house is especially rich and symbolic: “Dufferin Street . . . is a street of considerable respectability . . . But Pearl Street, which her back windows overlook and her back gate opens onto, is another story . . . Nobody but the poorest people, the unrespectable and undeserving poor, would live there at the edge of a boghole.”9 Almeda sits on the cusp between the genteel and squalid parts of town, which are also the stiff, stifling part and the unrestrained, bacchic part respectively. She finds herself, in the end, repulsed by Jarvis Poulter, the successful businessman who epitomizes the former, and drawn to the latter, which for her represents her creativity set free. After she witnesses a particularly wild night of Pearl Street’s revelry, Almeda feels herself begin to menstruate and, at the same time, to have a flow of ideas. These are paralleled by the grape jelly dripping onto the floor and also by the great poem, the “Meneseteung,” that is boiling up in her imagination. All this dynamic symbolism is clearly the conceit of an artist, not the relation of a mere biographer, and the narrator indeed reveals that she “may have got it wrong . . . I don’t know if she ever made grape jelly.”10 Whatever her reasons are, the narrator has written the story of a woman, who, as a result of a crazy event, becomes an artist, a story fictionalized about a real person—real at least from the narrator’s position. This again shows the human need to make sense of things, to find meaning in an otherwise unmarked life. “Meneseteung” is, furthermore, very much “meta.” The narrator has Almeda think, in a stream of consciousness: “‘The Meneseteung.’ The name of the poem is the name of the river. No, in fact it is the river, the Meneseteung, that is the poem.”11 Of course, it is the narrator herself speaking as Almeda in this story of creation. And yet it is Alice Munro speaking as an unnamed narrator creating this story of creation, all in a story that is itself called “Meneseteung.” And still more, the reader is trying to make sense of this story, drawing parallels and tracing motifs, just as the narrator tries to make sense of Almeda’s. We can continue in this vein, as I am writing about the reader reading the story about a narrator telling the story of . . . and you are reading my writing about the reader reading the story about . . . The entire story is a convoluted exploration of reader and writer, of story and storyteller, of art and artist. It reveals on many levels that at the heart of all this is the human drive to make sense of things.
These two works make a good conclusion to our course, “Writers on Writing.” They both deal directly with the nature of storytelling itself: The writer writes to make sense of his own life; the reader reads likewise to understand another’s life, and thereby to understand his own. That is one way to look at it. There is something very fundamental about this communion of seeking to understand. Fiction, then, is not a removal from real life, but actually an intimate way of interacting with it.