Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes

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This is a funny, structurally unique novel that meanders along a number of separate story lines. In the beginning we are introduced to Dr. Geoffrey Braithwaite, a sad character; a retired physician whose wife has died and whose children are grown leaving him to pursue his interest in the life and work of French writer Gustave Flaubert. This private quest develops into more of an obsession than a hobby. He is an amateur scholar hoping to contribute something to the tome upon tome of material written about Flaubert and he despises those literary critics who dissect novels into minute particles paying too much attention to detail and small mistakes rather than appreciating the body of Flaubert’s work as a whole. The period is the late 1970’s and the story follows Dr. Braithwaite as he visits Flaubert’s province of birth, Normandy, and his hometown of Croisset.

The title, Flaubert’s Parrot is explained in the early pages. According to local lore, Flaubert had borrowed a stuffed parrot from a museum and placed it on his desk for inspiration when writing a story entitled, ‘Un Coeur Simple’. In this story a poor domestic servant is so attached to her pet parrot that when it dies she has it stuffed and before her death raises it to the idolatrous status of the Holy Ghost. During his exploration of Flaubert’s literary environment Dr. Braithwaite comes across two different historic sites that claim to have the very same stuffed parrot that Flaubert had borrowed. The question that is raised is whether it is important to know which parrot is the true artefact and which the imposter? In his explorations Dr. Braithwaite discovers that there is little that remains of Flaubert’s world. Two World Wars and the momentum of modernity have wiped away so many traces of the man. Another question therefore, is whether this diminishes the literary legacy of Flaubert.

This is a delightful quirky little novel that wanders down a dozen different lines of thought. The reader is treated to: a chronology of Flaubert’s life, a bestiary of animals that might have been important to him and a Flaubert alphabet of words that may have had significance in his life. Flaubert’s travels, love affaires, education, eccentricities, ailments (notably syphilis contracted while visiting a brothel in Egypt) and his relationship with his mother are all explored. Three quarters of the way through the book a deeper reason for Dr. Braithwiath’s interest is revealed. It becomes apparent that Dr. Braithwiate finds certain events and circumstances of his life run parallel to those of Madame Bovary, the protagonist of Flaubert’s most important literary endeavour. Like Madam Bovary, Mrs. Braithwaith did not love her husband. She found comfort in other lovers and in the end despaired of her situation and committed suicide. So in part Dr Braithwiate’s attempt to understand the life and work of August Flaubert is an attempt to understand the circumstances surrounding his own life.

The mystery of which parrot is which is solved in a way you may be able to guess (although I didn’t). This is an amusing and very humorous read. Julian Barnes demonstrates that he is unconditionally fond of Flaubert and admires the sum of his accomplishments and forgives the accumulation of his failings. The book is a brilliant mixture of biography and fiction and a joy to read. It was short listed for the Mann Booker in 1984; it should have won… but who am I to voice such an opinion? (but it should have won).

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