Geoffrey Braithwaite is a retired doctor haunted by an obsession with the great French literary genius, Gustave Flaubert. As Geoffrey investigates the mystery of the stuffed parrot Flaubert borrowed from the Museum of Rouen to help research one of his novels, we learn an enormous amount about the writer's work, family, lovers, thought processes, health and obsessions. But we also gradually come to learn some important and shocking details about Geoffrey and his own life.
Anyone who doesn't wonder at such things probably doesn't deserve to be allowed to read novels.
What follows is a close examination of Flaubert’s life as pursued by Braithwaite, fascinating in itself, but less fascinating than the revelations about Braithwaite that emerge unintentionally on the part of the narrative voice. It is the death of his wife, Ellen, that is the major revelation that fuels our understanding that Braithwaite, like Flaubert, suffers from debilitating loneliness.
Lovely, ingenious, witty, rich, and “wallowy” in spite of its brevity. This is a literary novel in every sense of the word, including a scolding of literary critics. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Barnes is a writer who wrestles with the meaning of life and lives lived without reaching for the pat answers that so many search for. Meditating upon his wife’s suicide, the author says: “Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own.”
What are history and memory and truth? And can “truth” be discerned when past events are interpreted by the players who have conscious and unconscious cares or desires in how they shape those memories; and what are the limitations of memory just due to the functioning of the brain? “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.” Barnes recounts an incident in Flaubert’s life for which Flaubert and a friend with him had quite different versions and he concludes: “What happened to the truth is not recorded.” Because it is the nature of things that it cannot be recorded unless a version is agreed immediately and set down and signed by the participants! The fallacy of memory is sometimes a protective mechanism: could an individual survive if he remembered perfectly and felt on his skin or in his mind every painful or evil thing that ever happened to him? Of course not: so “Memories come out of hiding, but not emotions; not even the memories of emotions.” What about History? Does it not guide us in assessing the past? Perhaps not: “we can study files for decades, but every so often we are tempted to throw up our hands and declare that history is merely another literary genre: the past is autobiographical fiction pretending to be a parliamentary report.” And then how do you factor-in that, “It is not just the life that we know. It is not just the life that has been successfully hidden. It is not just the lies about the life, some of which cannot now be disbelieved. It is also the life that was not led.” How can anyone hope to really construct a past?
And what about Flaubert as a writer? “He believed in style more than anyone. He worked doggedly for beauty, sonority, exactness: perfection—but never the monogrammed perfection of a writer like Wilde. Style is a function of theme. Style is not imposed on subject-matter, but arises from it. Style is truth to thought. The correct word, the true phrase, the perfect sentence are always ‘out there’ somewhere; the writer’s task to locate them by whatever means he can.” Barnes on Flaubert’s maxims: “Form isn’t an overcoat flung over the flesh of thought…; it’s the flesh of thought itself. You can no more imagine an Idea without a Form than a Form without an Idea. Everything in art depends of execution: the story of a louse can be as beautiful as the story of Alexander. You must write according to your feelings be sure those feelings are true, and let everything else go hang. When a line is good, it ceases to belong to any school. A line of prose must be as immutable as a line of poetry. If you happen to write well, you are accused of lacking ideas.” Writers today, according to Barnes: “Well they seem to do one thing well enough, but fail to realise that that literature depends on doing several things well at the same time.”
How does Flaubert approach writing and life? He, “teaches you to gaze upon the truth and not blink for its consequences; he teaches you, with Montaigne, to sleep on the pillow of doubt; he teaches you to dissect out the constituent parts of reality, and to observe that Nature is always a mixture of genres; he teaches you the most exact use of language; he teaches you not to approach a book in search of moral or social pills—literature is not a phramacopoeia; he teaches the pre-eminence of Truth, Beauty, Feeling and Style. And if you study his private life, he teaches courage, stoicism, friendship; the importance of intelligence, skepticism and wit; the folly of cheap patriotism; the virtue of being able to remain by yourself in your own room; the hatred of hypocrisy; distrust of the doctrinaire; the need for plain speaking.”
Barnes on patriotism: “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously. The writer must be universal in sympathy and an outcast by nature; only then can he see clearly.”
Barnes on life: “When you are young, you think that the old lament the deterioration of life because this makes it easier for them to die without regret. When you are old, you become impatient with the way in which the young applaud the most insignificant improvements—the invention of some new valve or sprocket—while remaining heedless of the world’s barbarism. I don’t say things have got worse; I merely say the young wouldn’t notice if they had. The old times were good because then we were young, and ignorant of how ignorant the young can be.”
Maxims for life: “You cannot change humanity, you can only know it. Happiness is a scarlet cloak whose lining is in tatters. Lovers are like Siamese twins, two bodies with a single soul; but if one dies before the other, the survivor has a corpse to lug around. Pride makes us long for a solution to things—a solution, a purpose, a final cause; but the better telescopes become, the more stars appear. You cannot change humanity, you can only know it….Truths about writing can be framed before you’ve published a word; truths about life can be framed only when it’s too late to make any difference.”
A wonderful book
I'm sure a lot of us bookish types have at least one author we could obsess over and defend against all critics, learning every little detail of their lives, collecting their works, and every 'dripping' from their pen.
On the surface it is about Flaubert and an amateur Flaubert scholar sifting through what we know about the author, with the narrator's quest to determine what became of Flaubert's (stuffed) parrot which he had on his desk for a period, but the book does not proceed linearly and there are numerous detours along the way in which we learn perhaps as much about the narrator and his attitudes as we do about Flaubert.
The book is a mix of historical fact and fiction, so although I feel I now know more about Flaubert than when I started, I'm not sure how much of what I know is actually 'true'.
The writing is very 'clever' - and I don't mean that in a bad way, there are some great passages, beautifully written and thought-provoking.
I toyed with this as being my favourite quote from the book: "A doctrinal confusion develops in her simple mind: she wonders whether the Holy Ghost, conventionally represented as a dove, would not be better portrayed as a parrot."
... but it turns out that you can't beat this favourite from Madame Bovary: "Language is like a crack'd kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity."
I've no idea why some librarything users have tagged this book as 'postmodern'.
I have enjoyed other work of Barnes more than Flaubert's Parrot. It is very representative of his work (mixing short stories, literary criticism and journalism into a novel), but in the end, I don't care enough about Flaubert to really love this novel. Two chapters stand out for me and made this book well worth reading: 'Emma Bovary's Eyes', a rant by a fan against a harsh and careless critic, and especially 'Louise Colet's Version'.
Flaubert's writing is quoted extensively throughout the novel, with commentary by Braithwaite, and the reader nearly feels like they have a sense of who the writer was. But at the same time, the novel - both in form and content - mocks that assumption and mocks the reader for presuming to find anything worthwhile in a novel. It's a very strange piece of literature; I'm not sure how I feel about it but it is worth exploring
In this case, there was a well-respected literary author with a long-in-print postmodern novel. It made reference to a long-dead author whom I've never read. And that was enough to allow me to fall into the book and not to question its unusual structure, its overall intent, or its specific critical reception. I just flat-out enjoyed it. It was unusual, yes, and it defied my narrative expectations. It flirted with the notion of uncovering a few minor historical mysteries of no more than academic consequence. But it amused and intrigued me. It seemed possessed of a mature point of view. It didn't fret and agitate and strive the way many contemporary books of my recent acquaintance have done. It did not come floating into my life on a tide of giddy adulation that made me think, by God, I'd better love the hell out of this if I'm going to make conversation about it amongst the very few readers I know.
None of that tells you very much, which is probably a good thing if you think you might read the book as well. Maybe you will like it a lot. Or maybe it will annoy you with its refusal to shovel ready answers at you or to make a full-throated declaration about its seriousness and its relevance and its undeniable claim to your rapt attention. For me, the lack of those things made the book all the more welcome. Revelations needn't be earth-shattering and ambiguity needn't be dispelled. Leave that to movies and television.
I will definitely return to read this book again, which is a rare thing for me to declare. If I'd read it when it was first published, who knows if I'd have said the same thing. Books can be that way. When you read them can be as important as what they contain. If you adore FLAUBERT'S PARROT a bit less than I did, perhaps you can chalk it up to a problem of timing. Or perhaps I've oversold it, and now it can't fail to disappoint. In that case, I'm sorry I mentioned it, but something needed to be said.
Barnes is clearly talented and I assume there is something about this book I just don't get. It wasn't really my sort of this but I read it for my course. it was written well, it just wasn't interesting to me.
However, it almost seems unable to decide what it wants to be, and some of the comments by the narrator about his own history seem intrusive and out of place. The format of the book is somewhat unorthodox, and I couldn't decide whether it was a success in experimental literature or whether the author was trying to be bold and experimental and just ended up coming across as pretentious. I can't decide what I think about the book - but I shall certainly continue to think about the book even now that I've finished it.
Always a sucker for a smart cover, and add in the fact that it had been enjoyed and praised by no less than the likes of John Irving and Graham Greene, with a price tag of a whopping 30p in whatever charity shop I was browsing about 10 years ago and it was pretty much a given that I would be reading this sometime in the distant future.
After a previous start, stall, stop attempt to read this some years ago, I reopened it with a new found determination to read it start to finish and hopefully at the same time enjoy it.
Well in places it was okay, amusing and informative. In other places it was dull and tedious and though it is classed as a novel, it has a strange structure to it. One of the plus points was it was relatively short!
I’ve found some detail out about Gustave Flaubert that I previously didn’t know; a French author of the 19th Century, who’s first published work – Madame Bovary - brought him and his publisher up on immorality charges, of which he was acquitted. Flaubert is regarded by some as one of the greatest novelists of Western Literature. He never married, he took on average about five years or so on each book, plus he at some time borrowed a stuffed parrot.
I haven’t been inspired to go and seek out anything from Flaubert to form my own opinion on his value as a great exponent of Western prose. Similarly neither have I been encouraged to seek out much else that Barnes has penned, apart from his recent book - A Sense Of An Ending - which I’ll get to sometime, though it might be another 10 years or so.
On reflection, it was probably a bit better than a 2 from 5, but not quite a 3, but in the process of rounding up 3 from 5 it is.
As indicated earlier, I bought this copy second-hand.
In short, this novel is fun and engaging, certainly worth the read. Whether you've read Flaubert not at all, recently, or not for a while, this is a worthwhile diversion.
Insightful,funny at times, sad at others.
A great read for lovers of good literature