Monday, March 04, 2013

Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes (1984)

A review of "Flaubert’s Parrot", Julian Barnes (1984) - as recommended to me (via the Canadian public library system) by Adrian.

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about it, - slightly edited: I think their review is a little superficial.

The novel follows Geoffrey Braithwaite, a widowed, retired English doctor and amateur Flaubert-scholar as he visits France and  Flaubert landmarks in the vicinity of Rouen. While visiting various sites related to Flaubert, Geoffrey encounters two incidents of museums claiming to display the stuffed parrot which sat atop Flaubert's writing desk for a brief period while he wrote “Un coeur simple”. While trying to determine which is authentic, Geoffrey ultimately learns that either/neither could be genuine and Flaubert's parrot could be any one of fifty ("Une cinquantaine de perroquets!", p. 187) that had been held in the collection of the municipal museum.

Although the main focus of the narrative is tracking down the parrot, many chapters deal in Geoffrey's reflections, such as on Flaubert's love life and how it was affected by trains, and animal imagery in Flaubert's works and the animals with which he himself was identified (usually a bear, but also a dog, sheep, camel, and parrot).

One of the central themes of the novel is subjectivism. The novel provides three sequential chronologies of Flaubert's life: the first is optimistic (citing his successes, conquests, etc.), the second is negative (citing the deaths of his friends/lovers, his failures, illnesses etc.) while the third compiles quotations written by Flaubert in his journal at various points in his life. The attempts to find the real Flaubert mirror the attempt to find his parrot – an exercise in apparent futility.”

Prerequisites to reading this novel: (i) Read “Madame Bovary”; (ii) Check out Flaubert’s bio at Wikipedia; (iii) know some French.

Julian Barnes is deeply familiar with Gustave Flaubert’s life and works, but their meaning and significance is hardly uncontested. Flaubert seems to me to emerge as a more sedentary DSK (Dominique Strauss-Kahn) – sexually predatory and manipulative: key differences – Flaubert was actively bisexual .. and a literary genius. He treated his women badly: there is an excellent imagined take on Flaubert (chapter 11) from his long-time associate/mistress Louise Colet - illustrious in her lifetime but now somewhat forgotten - which seems compelling.

Barnes comes at his subject from every angle: a mock examination paper (chapter 14), a pastiche of Flaubert’s own pastiche of contemporary received-wisdom (chapter 12), a skewering of dry-as-a-stick critics who observing the trees of Flaubert’s output, completely fail to understand the wood (all over). One can only marvel at Barnes’ erudition, playfulness and sheer intelligence.

Strangely the character of Geoffrey Braithwaite jars a little. Plainly a representation of the author in his views and researches, the intended parallels with Charles Bovary are hardly lost on the reader. The meditation on grief and infidelity (chapter 13) is extraordinarily insightful and moving, but Mrs Braithwaite – Ellen – isn’t quite Madame Bovery. The Geoffrey Braithwaite back-story seems to me a little forced – I didn’t really understand what it added to the Gustave Flaubert tour-de-force of the rest of the novel.

I now know quite a bit about Gustave Flaubert, his life, times and associates. He comes across as rather infuriating.