January 5, 2022

On the Eve of January 6, Flaubert’s Parrot Intercepts Le Tellier’s “Anomaly”

By Stuart Mitchner

According to Merriam-Webster, the “full definition” of anomaly is “something different, abnormal, peculiar, or not easily classified.” My first column of 2022 brings together Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, a 72-page novella published in 1877, with Hervé Le Tellier’s The Anomaly, a 389-page novel published last year. By definition, then, Flight 22, Paris to Princeton, will be an anomaly about an anomaly, fueled by the fact that the only thing these two enterprises appear to have in common is that both were translated from the French and are landing on the same page at the same time.

No Comparison

Le Tellier’s novel begins, “It’s not the killing, that’s not the thing.” The speaker is a passenger on Air France Flight 006, a hired assassin “who builds his life on other people’s deaths.”

Flaubert’s novella begins, “Madame Aubain’s servant Félicité was the envy of the ladies of Pont-l’Évêque for half a century.”

When I first read that sentence, I was a college sophomore on the rebound from Madame Bovary. So I put the book aside, figuring that the life of a servant in the provinces could not compare with the story of a star-crossed adulteress. 145 years from takeoff, A Simple Heart has arrived. The question now is how can it compare with a literary mystery timed for the misinformational, confrontational turbulence of the current Omicron moment, on the eve of the first anniversary of the January 6 assault on democracy?

The Princeton Connection

One thing the two books have in common is that I almost put aside The Anomaly. The characters, including the assassin, left me cold. Fortunately I skipped ahead for a look at the Princeton chapter, which begins at Fine Hall (on a campus that’s “trying to look like Hogwarts”) with two unkempt genius mathematicians —  “a probabilities expert” named Adrian Miller and his coworker Meredith Harper, the British topologist he at first glance thought “plain ugly” with “her overthin legs and her overtidy brown hair, her overlong nose and her overdark eyes.” Now, after a few beers, she’s becoming “irrationally attractive” as she blows through the small talk (he wants to ask her about “specifically symmetrical spaces,” she wants to get “conscientiously drunk”) with a haphazard story-of-her-life monologue about her “crappy bungalow in Trenton” and how long it’s been since she slept with anyone, which ends: “How about you, Adrian? Everything okay? House, car, sex life?”

Amazing, suddenly a sympathetic character dances off the page, thanks to the author’s obvious affection for the anomaly of appearances (the “sweet disorder in the dress” syndrome). I know the feeling. I was hoping someone like Meredith would come along. And here she is in Princeton, a thinking, feeling, sexually alive human being who would fit right in with the bedhopping academics in Roberto Bolaño’s 2066 and Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, which features a bisexual mathematicial genius Russian orphan named Yashmeen Halfcourt.

Although I didn’t really expect anything Pynchonesque in a carefully programmed “page-turner” like The Anomaly, I was curious to see what happens when Adrian’s called away on a secret government mission involving the mystery of Flight 006 at the very moment he and Meredith are getting physical, “pressed against each other for a little while, not even daring to kiss.”

Dr. Strangelove

The dumbed-down essence of the anomaly that The Anomaly revolves around is stated in a phone call in which the American president tells his Chinese counterpart, “Two days ago an Air France plane landed on U.S. soil. A plane that already landed two months ago.” It wasn’t until the Trump-based POTUS put the situation in those terms that I flashed on Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which long ago provided Merriam-Webster with a convenient label “for any irrational, circular, and impossible situation.” 

While the Chinese president is still trying to make sense of “landed, already landed,” the president hands him over to “one of my scientific advisers, Professor Adrian Miller of Princeton University.” As Adrian tries to explain the inexplicable, echoes of Catch-22 merge with the War Room scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Meredith Unbound

In fact, the character closest to the author’s heart, mind, and humanity made the Strangelove connection the moment she laid eyes on the vast hangar at McGuire Air Force Base. In the preceding chapter, on her way to eloquently demonizing and demolishing the most recent scientific/mathematical/philosophical consensus for the why and wherefore of the Air France 006 anomaly — that everything and everybody is simulated — Meredith was on her fourth cup of coffee (“I refuse to be a program!”) as she vented on “this bonkers hypothesis, the most elaborate conspiracy theory devised by the most enormous imaginable conspiracy.” After riffing sarcastically on the possibility of “a non-afterlife after our non-death,” she began singing, “I can’t be no simulation” to the tune of the Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” Dancing and spinning, she grabbed the dazzled Adrian by both hands (“Come on, Adrian, don’t stand there like a lemon!”). By now you know Le Tellier’s smiling, watching her, like Adrian, with “a vermillion enchantment in his heart.” 

A Geographical Anomaly

The epitaph for Part I of The Anomaly, comes from Victor Miesel’s Anomaly, the novel inside the novel: “There is something admirable that always surpasses knowledge, intelligence, and even genius, and that is incomprehension.”

You better believe it. After his suicide, Miesel’s ashes are scattered into the English Channel from a cliff in Yport, a town in Normandy 44 miles north of Pont-l’Évêque, where Flaubert’s Félicité lives out her life.

While it’s easy to comprehend the geographical coincidence shared by two novels, as well as the fact that the real-life novelist Flaubert died in Normandy on May 8, 1880, it’s hard to fathom the idea that a fictional novelist who took his fictional life on April 22, 2021, has appeared in Normandy on June 29 to witness the scattering of his own ashes. To sustain that massive “suspension of disbelief” it definitely helps to believe in the surpremacy of incomprehension.


I sensed from the first paragraph that translator Adriana Hunter was in tune with Le Tellier. “Gotta watch, monitor, think, a lot, and — come the time — carve into the void.” You can feel the author’s compositional pulse in those words. As it happens, the assassin’s credo could be applied with a few adjustments to what Flaubert does in A Simple Heart: he watches, monitors, thinks, carving his way into the void of provincial life, all part of the quest for “le mot juste” or “the unique phrase,” as Harry Levin puts it in his introduction to the 1944 New Directions version translated by Arthur McDowall. While noting McDowall’s skill in “surmounting the many difficulties involved,” Levin declares “a few of them” to be “insurmountable.” Not to worry. The insurmountable wonder of Flaubert’s tale is that it contains a natural translator in the form of a parrot named Loulou. And somehow you sense early on that “something different, abnormal, peculiar, or not easily classified” is coming your way.

One Late Afternoon

I read A Simple Heart in one deeply satisfying late afternoon. It’s wonderful, the way you can feel yourself settling into a work of art even when no one sentence strikes you or stops you or makes you pause to savor it. The element is warm and fluid, so on you go, feeling, thinking, absorbing every word, all the components in a temperate balance, aware all the while that the inarticulate Félicité, who works for an “unamiable” mistress in a house behind the market in Pont-l’Évêque, is inhabited and beloved by Flaubert. He not only loves her, he becomes her (as he famously became Emma Bovary), much as she “becomes” Virginie while watching her mistress’s young daughter take the sacrament during her first communion: “When Virginie’s turn came Félicité leaned forward to see her and with the imaginativeness of deep and tender feeling it seemed to her that she actually was the child; Virginie’s face became hers, she was dressed in her clothes, it was her heart beating in her breast.”

A few years later when Virginie dies, Félicité sits through two nights with the body. At the end of the first vigil “she noticed that the face had grown yellow, the lips turned blue, the nose was sharper, and the eyes sunk in. She kissed them several times, and would not have been immensely surprised if Virginie had opened them again.” At this point, Flaubert feels the need to tell us that in “minds like hers the supernatural is quite simple.”

A Great Happiness

Soon after the girl’s death, “a great happiness befell” Félicité. “His body was green, and the tips of his wings rose-pink; his forehead was blue, and his throat golden.” Since the parrot also had “the tiresome habit of biting his perch, tearing out his feathers, sprinkling his dirt about, and spattering the water of his tub,” Madame Aubain gave Loulou to Félicité “for good.”

How the parrot became confused with the Holy Ghost is easier to explain than the strange fate of Flight 006. While for minds like Félicité’s “the supernatural is quite simple,” making great literature of it is not. After numerous adventures, Loulou dies, is taken to be stuffed on a journey that nearly kills Félicité, after which she “formed the idolatrous habit of kneeling in front of the parrot to say her prayers. Sometimes the sun shone in at the attic window and caught his glass eye, and a great luminous ray shot out of it and put her in an ecstasy.” Her last request, is that the parrot be given a place on the altar, where he was “hidden under roses, and showed nothing but his blue forehead, like a plaque of lapis lazuli.” Dying, Félicité wonders, “Does he look well?” As “she sighed her last breath she thought she saw an opening in the heavens, and a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.”

The Spirit of 1/6/2021

Having carved his vision out of the void, Le Tellier has to deal with the inevitable adjustments and consequences, such as how do the passengers go on with their double lives in the shadow of a government coverup, since their existence is a threat to the sizable lunatic fringe on the Christian right that considers them “Satan’s spawn.” After slaughtering two young women who enjoy their doubleness so much that they want to show it off, a member of the Army of the Seventh Day has a vision. Through “half-closed eyes,” he sees three spirits rising from the mouths of the dragon and the Beast and the false prophet, “and these three spirits look not unlike frogs.”

At the end, unaware that a third Air France Flight 006 has been spotted in the Atlantic skies, the Princeton mathematicians, Adrian and Meredith, are in bed in Venice, talking quietly, snuggling “under a pyramid of sheets,” as “Meredith’s clear laughter rings out.”