Thursday, 15 December 2016

Book Review: Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes
2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Most avid readers like me will know the experience. You get engrossed in a book and as you advance page by page you become ever more impressed by the power, the wisdom and the beauty of the words. And it’s only natural to long for more of it, isn’t it? Sometimes it can be sobering to read another work from the pen of the same author who caught our attention and touched us in such a way. If we’re lucky, though, further reads confirm the first impression and we become fans not just of the writings but of the woman or man who put them to paper. The narrator of Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes greatly admires the work of the nineteenth-century French writer Gustave Flaubert. During another visit to Rouen on the traces of his literary idol he becomes obsessed with finding the stuffed parrot that Flaubert had on his desk for a while in 1876.

Julian Barnes was born in Leicester, England, U.K., in January 1946. The son of two French teachers graduated in Modern Languages from Magdalen College, Oxford, and then went to work first as a lexicographer, later as a reviewer, literary editor and TV critic. Only in 1980 he made his literary debut bringing out Metroland under his real name and the crime novel Duffy under his pen name Dan Kavanagh. Apart from three more crime novels released under his pen name and some non-fiction including the memoirs Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008) and Levels of Life (2013), he wrote among others the much praised novels Flaubert's Parrot (1984), A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989), Talking It Over (1991), England, England (1998), Arthur & George (2005), and Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending (2011). The author’s latest published work is The Noise of Time (2016). Julian Barnes lives in London, U.K.

The quest for Gustave Flaubert's Parrot that served as model for Loulou in his famous story A Simple Heart, i.e. after the one specimen that the writer borrowed from the museum of Rouen’s stock of at least fifty stuffed parrots, is at the same time an attempt to fathom the soul of the celebrated French writer. The obsessive hunter is Geoffrey Braithwaite, an Englishman in his sixties, the widower from an unfaithful woman who committed suicide, the father of grown-up children who only give a sign of life when their bad conscience overwhelms them, a retired general practitioner… and an amateur scholar of Gustave Flaubert’s work who longs to know the person behind it.
“… Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well alone? Why aren’t the books enough? Flaubert wanted them to be: few writers believed more in the objectivity of the written text and the insignificance of the writer’s personalty; yet still we disobediently pursue. …”
Geoffrey Braithwaite goes about his search for the man Gustave Flaubert almost like a police profiler. His starting point for understanding the personality of the famous writer with all its odd edges is a triple chronology – of achievements and successes, of losses and failures, of self-reflective journal entries that show his frame of mind as time advanced. His next step is to find the inevitable repercussions of biographical facts in what the author wrote and vice versa. The researcher puts together lots of bits and pieces, even writes Braithwaite’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas about Gustave Flaubert and the people connected to him. Nonetheless, the picture remains somewhat blurred, if not incomplete and contradictory.
“How do we seize the past? How do we seize the foreign past? We read, we learn, we ask, we remember, we are humble; and then a casual detail shifts everything. Flaubert was a giant; they all said so. He towered over everybody like a strapping Gallic chieftain. And yet he was only six feet tall: we have this on his own authority. …”
Analysing not just the life of Gustave Flaubert but also his books, makes Geoffrey Braithwaite muse about literature in general and about writers and literary critics in particular. At the same time, what he finds out about the impressive author evokes memories and associations that urge him ever more violently to deal with his late wife whom he never really understood and to reflect on himself. And all the while he keeps looking for the stuffed parrot.

It’s difficult to determine what kind of a novel Flaubert's Parrot actually is because the author deftly mixed various literary forms of fiction as well as non-fiction (including a chapter imitating an exam paper) to shape a text body that is as unusual as alluring. Since the book’s frame plot is a first-person narrative surrounding the hunt for the stuffed parrot, and in a wider sense, for the real person of the writer, it of course shows many characteristics of the memoir and of the mystery novel. At the same time, it’s a thoroughly researched biography and character study of the French author that explores known and likely connections between milestones of his life, his social setting, his often idiosyncratic ways and his writings. Along the way the book offers lots of quotations, analyses of certain aspects of Flaubert’s work, and many musings about the nature of writers as well as literary critics. The diversity of literary form that implies the same diversity of style can’t prevent that both the fictional character Geoffrey Braithwaite and the historical Flaubert appear as human beings in flesh and blood, nor can it lessen the pleasure of the read that owes much to the unpretentious language and the subtle irony of the author.

I first read Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes a couple of years ago, shortly after I had finished Gustave Flaubert’s sublime Three Tales comprising A Simple Heart. The novel wasn’t quite what I had expected, but I loved it nonetheless and when I reread it for this review my delight wasn’t any smaller – on the contrary because I discovered aspects that had escaped me the first time. Most of all I liked the author’s unconventional and entertaining approach to Flaubert’s biography interweaving it with the fictional story of an obsessive amateur scholar. And having enjoyed this novel so much, how could I not recommend it here?

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This review is a contribution to
(image linked to my reading list):


  1. Wonderful review. I had been holding off on reading this book until I read at least something by Flaubert. Now I have read Madame Bovary twice, so I guess I am ready!

    1. I hope that I did the book justice. It was particularly difficult to review because it has to offer so much.


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