Flaubert's Parrot

by Julian Barnes

Paperback, 1990

Call number





Vintage (1990), Edition: Reissue, 192 pages


A retired English doctor, in solitary widowhood, makes a pilgrimage through the life and art of Gustave Flaubert, whose work he has always venerated. As he meditates on his passion, he reveals as much about himself as he uncovers about Flaubert.

User reviews

LibraryThing member KayDekker
I really don't understand the comments in others' reviews. There's nothing perplexing about this beautifully-crafted little book: it's a novel about someone who wonders about what it means to be "the author of a book", and about the differences between fictional reality and what I suppose I'd have to call "real" reality. Which parrot is Flaubert's? The one about which he wrote? either of the two that rival establishments claim as the true parrot? Or no parrot at all?

Anyone who doesn't wonder at such things probably doesn't deserve to be allowed to read novels.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
I had planned to read "Flaubert' Parrot" after I'd read a good quantity of Flaubert, but, three or four years after I'd bought a copy of this novel, that didn't seem so likely. I went ahead and read it anyway, sans Flaubert. It isn't a bad read, even for someone who knows nothing about that particular mustachioed French author, but I'm not sure I'd go out of my way to recommend it, either. While many novels are political tracts in disguise, and many others read like lightly doctored diaries, "Flaubert's Parrot" is something a little rarer: the literary essay as novel. It's an affectionate collection of musings, jokes, opinions, theories, and rather good thoughts about someone's favorite author, the nineteenth century, and French things in general. Sure, there's a character involved here somewhere -- a widowed English doctor -- but his experience hardly seems essential to the novel. Some readers will likely to be moved to want to ask Barnes why he couldn't have made "Flaubert's Parrot" a collection of short essays and left it at that. Heck, I might, too. But Barnes's writing is fine: flowing and easy, like a good Philip Roth, so reading it is unlikely to do anyone any harm. I'm a bit mystified why it came close to taking home a Booker Prize, but that's a discussion for another day. Otherwise, this is a fine, if somewhat shaggy, collection of literary ephemera, the product of one man's love for and dedication to a favorite author. Many bibliophiles, I expect, will look upon it sympathetically.… (more)
LibraryThing member Limelite
Gregory Braithwaite is a long married and now retired doctor who has taken an obsessive amateur’s interest in Gustave Flaubert after discovering what is purportedly the taxidermied remains of the parrot that the author kept in his study while writing Madame Bovary. Then he discovers a second parrot, also supposedly the inspirational bird.

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.
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LibraryThing member John
This is a wonderful book that defies categorization: it is a biography of Gustave Flaubert, an analysis of his thought and writing, a critique of literary criticism, an appreciation bordering on obsession of Flaubert the man and writer, a novel as the author-protagonist gradually reveals himself to be a man trying to fathom the suicide of his wife; throughout, it is a meditation on life and memory and identification and history and death and love and sex. It is a book that deserves re-reading because of the wealth of ideas that it raises without always pretending to have the answers, indeed for many things there are no “answers”, there are no “whys” because this is life.

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
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
A curious experimental examination and tribute to a Great Master of the early novel - Flaubert. Briefly pretends to be a bit of fiction, but instead launches into a multi-pronged investigation and defense of the man Flaubert.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member jeanned
This novel tries to be, and is, many things: an exploration of the relationship between writer and reader; a treatise on postmodern life; a view of history as reflections in a rippling pond; a story about the displacement of grief through intellectual exercise. While ultimately I appreciated the fractured presentation, I found this Booker Prize nominee and New York Times Editors' Choice to be a difficult and unsatisfying read. I rate it at 6 out of 10 stars.… (more)
LibraryThing member Amzzz
Starting as a strange biography of author Gustave Flaubert, towards the end the narrator tells his own story as well. Not as good as the standard I've come to expect of Julian Barnes.
LibraryThing member aaronbaron
Why is our age so preoccupied with mixing fiction and history, particularly literary history? Are we so cowed by the originality of the great artists and works of the last few centuries that we cannot overcome them, so that instead of blazing a new trail we revise existing ones, writing alternative turns, differing perspectives, analytic meditations? Here we have Barnes, clearly a wit with a flare for the written word, passing off a few choice essays on Flaubert as a novel. His ruminations on Flaubert are excellent, full of insight and peppered with an irony and humor that Flaubert himself would have appreciated. They make for enjoyable reading, hence my rating. If only Barnes would just play an honest hand and write about Flaubert! But no, Barnes chose to march in step with the legion of contemporary writers who coat biography and literary analysis with thin fiction. In this case, the “fiction” part is an anxious narrator with a Flaubert fixation who eventually reveals that his deceased wife was unfaithful. The narrator and his little asides are so anemic that they exasperated my patience. I burrowed through them to get to the bits on Flaubert, the way I once had to eat bitter greens in order to earn another bite of pie. But whereas vegetables actually provide nourishment, the only thing the fiction passages did was to point out, yet again, that the line between fiction and reality is itself a fiction. I found that sort of thinking stark brilliant in college; now it bores me to no end. I so tire of the cowardly writer who either cannot come up with original stories or, even more damning, believe that original stories are somehow naïve. Many such writers love literary history and the great works of the past. Wonderful, so do I. So why not just write about them? Or, if a personal angle is desired, why not write about the impact these works had on us? Why not, in other words, write brave, deeply personal, innovative combinations of biography, memoir, and essays in the manner of Richard Holmes? I wish they would. There are far to many clever “meta fictions” on the market right now, and far too few good books.… (more)
LibraryThing member rcorfield
This is a curious patchwork-quilt of a book; I hesitate to call it a 'novel'.

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'.
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LibraryThing member jdth
Absolutely marvelous. I can not escape the idea that this book is a lot more than just Flaubert’s life. Mme Bovary was considered to be the first “novel of realism” in the literary world, but Flaubert very much refused to parade around as a contemporary celebrity. I always wonder is there a message here? Read Barnes' other book “Something to declare” right after this one.… (more)
LibraryThing member teunduynstee
This book is very meta. It's about art and what the work tells about the artist. It's about literary criticism and what it tells about the critic. It's about Flaubert's life. It's about a doctor and fanatic Flaubert lover coming to grips with his own life and his adulterous deceased wife.

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'.… (more)
LibraryThing member mearso
It was a very enjoyable read. Humourous throughout but with ideas too about the search for truth, both in art and in life. The story is of a reitired doctor who has a passion for finding out more about Flaubert. As the story develops it transpires that his wife has committed suicide and his search for the reasons behind Flaubert's work and life echo his search for his wife's suicide.… (more)
LibraryThing member the_awesome_opossum
Flaubert's Parrot is a strange piece of metafiction, narrated by a retired doctor named Geoffrey Braithwaite who considers himself to be an amateur scholar of Flaubert. The plot is ostensibly about Braithwaite's search for the authentic parrot which inspired Flaubert during his writing of En Coeur Simple. But really it is a disconnected set of writings about Flaubert - and pointedly *not* about Braithwaite himself

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
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LibraryThing member phredfrancis
This book supports my increasing belief that I am most likely to enjoy those books about which I know the least. Of course, I do need to know enough about a book or its author to choose it in the first place. Otherwise, I'm likely to stumble into one unappealing literary relationship after another. There has to be a vetting process of some kind.

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.
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LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Goeffrey Braithwait is a retired doctor looking to solve a mystery. Two different museums claim to have Flaubert's muse, a stuffed parrot that sat on Flaubert's desk while he wrote 'Un Coeur simple.' Dr. Braithwait calls himself an amateur scholar of Flaubert and yet he knows the smallest of details about the writer's life which indicate a growing obsession. While the mystery of the two parrots is the token premise of the tale it takes on much more than that. First, it is revealed Dr. Braithwait would like to be an author. He wonders what it would be like to publish. This is a theme that runs concurrent with the search for the correct parrot. In time Dr. Braithwait's wife suicide is revealed. He searches for meaning to her demise. There are multiple personalities of writing styles at play in the telling of Flaubert's Parrot. First, an most obviously, is the fictional/factual biography of Flaubert. Then there is a "Dear Diary" approach to a literacy criticism of Flaubert's work. The writing is sparse and humorous.… (more)
LibraryThing member amydross
Entertaining, thought-provoking, sometimes hilarious. I'm somewhat interested in Flaubert, but I don't know that it was necessary -- with a narrator this charming and witty, I'd listen to him talk about anything. Except his wife -- I didn't hate the more personal, "novelish" sections, but I wasn't convinced they added much to the book. Nevertheless, a great read.… (more)
LibraryThing member Jayne.Winn
I have never been more relieved to have finished a book (excpet maybe when I read Bleak House in a few days for university)

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member jmoncton
This is an odd book to review. Not quite a novel, it is more a biography of Gustave Flaubert, filled with some very interesting rants about literary critics, truth in fiction and with a tiny bit of a mystery thrown in. I thought some of the commentary about writing and the types of novels was clever and interesting, but seemed more appropriate as an article in a literay magazine. The essays are intermingled with a LOT of detail about Gustave Flaubert - more than I am personally interested in knowing. Not sure why this made the Booker prize short list or 1001 books to read before you die. It was well written, but seemed to ramble.… (more)
LibraryThing member catherinestead
This book is a strange amalgam of fictionalised biography, literary criticism and novel, with a light sprinkling of authorial philosophising. It is also considerably more entertaining than I expected.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member lucasmurtinho
Between literary essay and novel, this book has the good qualities of both genres, but the indecision between them ends up weakining the final result. The chapter on the death of the narrator's wife is quite beautiful, but disconnected of the rest of the novel; most theories about Flaubert and his work are quickly exposed and never amount to much. An excellent read that manages to be disappointing.… (more)
LibraryThing member col2910
Blurb......... 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 himself.

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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.
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LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
One of the most uniquely conceived and structured novels I've come across, this novel is fast and engaging. It reads more like an interesting digest than a single novel, but in the end still works as a unified exploration of one man's engagement with a historical personality's life, art, and loves. Exploring the narrator alongside Flaubert, and exploring anecdotes and quotes alongside a contemporary life, makes this read as much of a mystery as a short and unique engagement with art and life as questions and matches for one another themselves.

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.
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LibraryThing member sogamonk
Extraordinary study of Flaubert by the brilliant Julian Barnes.
Insightful,funny at times, sad at others.
A great read for lovers of good literature
LibraryThing member lucybrown
Well...that was different. Still I contend that this was more meta than fiction. The story comes rather late, but packs a fair wallop when it finally arrives. I can see how people might get frustrated with this book, my advice would be to hang in with it; it has a unique approach and interesting ideas to savor. I can't imagine being disappointed with it when one is done. Have faith there is a point to all the rambling about Flaubert's life, that is a fictional point, as opposed to philosophic or literary.… (more)
LibraryThing member lucybrown
Well...that was different. Still I contend that this was more meta than fiction. The story comes rather late, but packs a fair wallop when it finally arrives. I can see how people might get frustrated with this book, my advice would be to hang in with it; it has a unique approach and interesting ideas to savor. I can't imagine being disappointed with it when one is done. Have faith there is a point to all the rambling about Flaubert's life, that is a fictional point, as opposed to philosophic or literary.… (more)




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