Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes (there is also a short interview at this link). Excellent reading. Short, quick, enjoyable, yet thoughtful and thought-provoking. Good for the beach. Good for the airplane. Good for a rainy day. Good for a snowy day. All around good for any day really.
The book’s premise. Geoffrey Braithwaite, medical doctor and amateur Flaubert scholar narrates–I’m not sure what. This isn’t a book with a plot. There is no story other than Flaubert’s life. But that’s not quite right because there is a little story about Geoffrey search for the letters of Flaubert and the governess Juliet Herbert in order to discover whether they ever consummated their affair. But this is just a small story that is over by page 50. There is the underlying story of Geoffrey and his wife, Ellen, who seem to have a Madame Bovary sort of marriage. But only sort of. But we don’t find out about that until the end of the book. We are back to Flaubert who is the only subject that goes from start to finish. But the book is not a biography.
The book asks questions like “Do the books that writers don’t write matter?” There are meditations on the difference between life and fiction. Suicide is also wondered about. The book critiques Flaubert’s writing and also makes fun of critics. One of my favorite parts was Brathwaite’s send up of Dr. Enid Starker, Reader Emeritus in French Literature at the University of Oxford. Our narrator heard her lecture once. She criticizes Flaubert for his carelessness because Emma Bovary’s eyes keep changing color. Brathwaite confesses:
In all the times I read Madame Bovary, I never noticed the heroine’s rainbow eyes. Should I have? Would you? Was I perhaps too busy noticing things that Dr. Starkie was missing (though what they might have been I can’t for the moment think)? Put it another way: is there a perfect reader somewhere, a total reader? Does Dr. Starkie’s reading of Madame Bovary contain all the responses which I have when I read the book, and then add a whole lot more, so that my reading is in a way pointless? Well I hope not. My reading may be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it’s not pointless in terms of pleasure.
The book also contains “Brathwaite’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas which is a joke on something Flaubert wrote. The “Dictionary” includes such entries as
Epilepsy. Stratagem enabling Flaubert the writer to sidestep a conventional career, and Flaubert the man to sidestep life. The question is merely at what psychological level the tactic was evolved. Were his symptoms intense psychosomatic phenomena? It would be too banal if he merely had epilepsy.
There is a chapter in which Louise Colet, one of Flaubert’s mistresses, gets to tell her side of the story. The second to last chapter is an examination paper for which we are to answer four essay questions in three hours.
Oh, and there is the parrot which bookends the whole thing.
I think what I liked best about the book was the narrative voice which gallops along like a dog that is almost fully grown but is still a puppy. I didn’t expect the book to be so gosh darn funny; what a delightful surprise! I now understand why this is on so many people’s favorite books list. Such a gem. My first book by Barnes and definitely not the last.