Tuesday, September 1, 2009

248. Flaubert’s Parrot – Julian Barnes

History: This book was published in 1984.
Plot: The novel follows Geoffrey Braithwaite, a widowed, retired English doctor, visiting France and the Flaubert landmarks therein. While visiting various sites related to Flaubert, Geoffrey encounters two incidences 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 differentiate which is authentic Geoffrey ultimately learns that (n)either could be genuine, and Flaubert's parrot could be any one of fifty 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 exist independently of this plotline, consisting of 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). The only plot is Flaubert's life, both physical and intellectual, alongside that of his enthusiastic intended biographer, the doctor, Geoffrey. Geoffrey's research, notes, speculations and musings provide the book's utterly original form. Since the adultery of Flaubert's fictional Madam Bovary provided the scandal that created his fame, evidence of his attitudes towards women and sex in his own life provides a fascinating backdrop against which we can assess the author's motives and desires. The death and revealed adultery of the narrator's own wife provides motive for his obsession with Flaubert and his femme fatale, and, quite unexpectedly, this culminates in a truly moving moment of emotional empathy that the author, Barnes, not Flaubert, not the narrator, evokes in his reader.
Review: This book is a brash, footloose ramble through the life and works of Gustave Flaubert. This is literary fiction, but it swings more in the direction of academic writing. It is a clever novel, but there is 'clever' in the way that most people will identify with and enjoy and there is clever in a way that reaches out only to very few. This weakness is also perhaps augmented by the fact that the narrator is extraordinarily underdeveloped. The connections between his life and the life of Flaubert is only especially prominent in one chapter and is hardly detectable at all in the others. Being able to 'sense' the main character or narrator is important to most people when reading, even if actually liking the character is not; if you can barely even form a picture of said character or narrator, you are arguably in trouble.
Opening Line: “Six North Africans were playing boules beneath Flaubert’s statue.”
Closing Line: “Perhaps it was one of them.”
Quotes: “What was the point of scientific advance without moral advance?
“That’s the real distinction between people; not between those who have secrets and those who don’t, but between thoses who want to know everything and those who don’t. This search is a sign of love, I think.”
“Each of us possesses in his heart a royal chamber. I have bricked mine up.”
Rating: Okay

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