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Flaubert's Parrot Paperback – November 27, 1990
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Just what sort of book is Flaubert's Parrot, anyway? A literary biography of 19th-century French novelist, radical, and intellectual impresario Gustave Flaubert? A meditation on the uses and misuses of language? A novel of obsession, denial, irritation, and underhanded connivery? A thriller complete with disguises, sleuthing, mysterious meetings, and unknowing targets? An extended essay on the nature of fiction itself?
On the surface, at first, Julian Barnes's book is the tale of an elderly English doctor's search for some intriguing details of Flaubert's life. Geoffrey Braithwaite seems to be involved in an attempt to establish whether a particularly fine, lovely, and ancient stuffed parrot is in fact one originally "borrowed by G. Flaubert from the Museum of Rouen and placed on his worktable during the writing of Un coeur simple, where it is called Loulou, the parrot of Felicité, the principal character of the tale."
What begins as a droll and intriguing excursion into the minutiae of Flaubert's life and intellect, along with an attempt to solve the small puzzle of the parrot--or rather parrots, for there are two competing for the title of Gustave's avian confrere--soon devolves into something obscure and worrisome, the exploration of an arcane Braithwaite obsession that is perhaps even pathological. The first hint we have that all is not as it seems comes almost halfway into the book, when after a humorously cantankerous account of the inadequacies of literary critics, Braithwaite closes a chapter by saying, "Now do you understand why I hate critics? I could try and describe to you the expression in my eyes at this moment; but they are far too discoloured with rage." And from that point, things just get more and more curious, until they end in the most unexpected bang.
One passage perhaps best describes the overall effect of this extraordinary story: "You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on your point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define the net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with string." Julian Barnes demonstrates that it is possible to catch quite an interesting fish no matter how you define the net. --Andrew Himes
From the Inside Flap
A kind of detective story, relating a cranky amateur scholar's search for the truth about Gustave Flaubert, and the obsession of this detective whose life seems to oddly mirror those of Flaubert's characters.
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This was Julian Barnes' third novel, published in 1984. It won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and was short listed for the Booker, the first of several of his books to be so listed. It is a short novel, very experimental in concept and structure. Some would call it plotless. It is certainly nonlinear in its story-telling.
Barnes gives us as his main character and narrator English doctor Geoffrey Braithwaite, who is obsessed with Madame Bovary's author, Gustave Flaubert. Braithwaite's conceit is that he will write a biography of Flaubert. and to that end, he pores over Flaubert's correspondence, his books, and other biographies of the man.
He becomes consumed by the minute details he discovers. Why do Emma Bovary's eyes change color in different editions or sections of the book? Which parrot inspired A Simple Heart - the one Flaubert borrowed from Rouen Museum and kept on his desk during the writing of the story or another one from a hotel? Braithwaite spends much of his time investigating the parrot issue and trying to resolve it.
He also explores Flaubert's intellectual and physical relationships with others and particularly how they relate to the creation of Emma Bovary. It gradually becomes clear that there are parallels in Braithwaite's own life, that he sees something of Emma in the life of his own wife, now dead.
All of this is revealed slowly, in fragmentary fashion, through extraordinary word play and dissertations on the writer's role, the relationship between art and life, and the unproductive role of literary critics. While most novels are presented in a straightforward, linear fashion that allows the reader to easily digest the meal being served, this one reveals itself somewhat as a coconut. The reader has to work to get at the milk and meat inside.
The plot, if it can truly be called that, is Flaubert's life of the mind and the body. As Braithwaite enthusiastically explores that life, we are privy to his research, his notes, musings, and speculations. And that makes up the main body of the book. When we learn, finally, that Braithwaite's own much-loved wife had been unfaithful to him in the manner of Emma Bovary, we begin to appreciate his obsession, his need to understand both the writer and his fictional creations.
Flaubert's Parrot brilliantly marries the details of Flaubert's life, his creation of the world of Emma Bovary, and the life of the narrator, Geoffrey Brathwaite, who had his own experience of adultery and, ultimately, of bereavement.
And what about that parrot? Where did Flaubert get it? How did he conceive of it? How did it inspire him to write? Does it matter? Probably not. Well, then, never mind.
His 1984 book, “Flaubert’s Parrot,” takes us into this process through the imagined thoughts and conversations of several people, some current and some past contemporaries of the title’s human subject, the 19th century writer, Gustave Flaubert, whose “Madame Bovary” broke the mold for conventional fiction at the time.
The initial journey is delivered through the travels and musings of an English physician, Geoffrey Braithwaite, fascinated, if not obsessed, with the life and relationships of the author. The good doctor’s initial focus is on identifying Flaubert’s original parrot, Loulou, now stuffed, who once was a living inspiration and companion during the writing of “Une Coeur Simple.”
However, there is more than one stuffed bird. This doppelganger inspires an exhausting review of Flaubert’s life, habits, peculiarities, lists of his use of animals, trains, debates about the color of Emma Bovary’s eyes – all done to show much has been recorded about the author. It is exhausting.
As counter point to all this detail, the author uses a ploy – the willful destruction of printed information of interest to the main character by another – that he revisits in his 2011 novel, ”The Sense of an Ending.” It seems to be his way of showing how transitory our ability to reconstruct events really is - no matter how many resources are available.
Two chapters stand out and are worth reading on their own: “Louise Colet’s Version,” a tour de force by Barnes into the mind and emotions of Flaubert’s off-again, on-again lover and, “Pure Story,” a thoughtful exploration of feelings by a man reflecting on the loss of his wife who had a second life not unlike Emma Bovary. There are memorable lines such as: “The old times were good because then we were young and ignorant of how ignorant the young can be.”
As to the parrot, there are more than meets the eye by the end of the book.
You can also rest assured you will know more about Gustave Flaubert and his peccadilloes than you ever cared to… at least I did.
Obviously this is not a whole history of the world (some of the reviewers seem surprised by this, failing to grasp the self-deprecating irony of the project), but a collection of interwoven reflections from a variety of perspectives (human and animal alike). The change of narrative voice is perhaps the most interesting thing about this book, as the reader constantly encounters a new perspective and, at times, has a hard time distinguishing "fact" from "fiction." This is, of course, Barnes's very point. The author's own narrative voice finally comes to us in the half chapter between 8 and 9 where he reveals (or seems to, anyway,) his own view of history: "History isn't what happened. History is just what historians tell us. There was a pattern, a plan, a movement, expansion, the march of democracy; it is a tapestry, a flow of events, a complex narrative, connected, explicable. One good story leads to another."