My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What a strange book. How does one even begin to categorize it? Maybe that's the point. Maybe it shouldn't be categorized at all. It is literary criticism, posing as literary biography and meditation on fiction. It is an amalgam of those things and others. But mostly it is a tour de force of writing.
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.
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