Julian Barnes’s “Flaubert’s Parrot”

ImagePerhaps some of you who frequent our previews section will recall a rather disparaging post I wrote a few months ago on Barnes’s “The Sense Of An Ending,” which, though I do not claim was by any means a poor novel/novella, seemed to me as though the author were selling himself short. Barnes’s dry, post-middle age-ish protagonist, recalling and reconstructing his equally dry teenage years in the hope of finding, to put it briefly, where things went wrong, felt parceled and scathingly edited—more like the stuff of Ishiguro, which moves the reader towards a faint sense of unease rather than drive him towards catharsis with a toppling climax—than the style that I had come to associate with the novelist.

What is that style? Gimmicky and brash, charming and moralizing, erudite yet simple, digressive without ever seeming unnecessary, obsessively quotable. In short, everything that you find when you sample his great antinovel “Flaubert’s Parrot.”

And what a relief it is to return to the Barnes I know! Call it a long-overdue reunion with an old friend—Barnes engages the reader like a beloved confidante—or several old friends for that matter because the whole gang’s turned out for the social event of the season. Nabokov and Pushkin exchange a few words over the delicatessen, Joyce and Calvino regard the festivities with vague curiosity to make sure everything’s in order, Barnes, the writer-as-god keeps his quaint and dry post-middle age-ish protagonist (a character that, like the seedy, sandy-colored coat-wearing Englander of Graham Greene, is fast becoming a Barnes patent) Geoffrey Braithwaite in line as the indomitable spirit of Gustave Flaubert, father of realism and Emma Bovary, steals the show.

An unconventional life requires an unconventional novel; a genius of style should not have to make due with the banalities of tradition. Barnes recognizes the abnormalities of literature more than most and embraces them with a childlike glee, tossing form to the dogs to make room for style, style, style. “Style is a function of theme. Style is not imposed on subject-matter, but arises from it. Style is truth to thought.”

He says everything but style is gospel, although he doesn’t need to. “Flaubert’s Parrot” is as much the Gospel According to Gustave as it is the Gospel According to Geoffrey, as narrated in the Book by Barnes. What is interesting about this experiment is that Barnes ably argues the case against plot, citing style and subject as the fulcrums upon which a story turns.

It is for this reason that I feel uncomfortable attempting to summarize this novel. What we have is a subject: Geoffrey Braithwaite, a retired doctor, widow, and amateur Flaubert scholar who is taking a holiday in France in order to investigate the author’s source for the character of Loulou, the parrot of Félicité, the main character of Flaubert’s novel “Un Cœur Simple.” To be clearer: there are two stuffed replica parrots from two separate museums, each of them claiming to be the parrot which sat on the writer’s desk as a model for Loulou. The mystery of the source parrot is a cause of considerable anxiety for Braithwaite—the scholar’s investigation into the matter begs the word obsessive—yet the reader never really gains much knowledge why the parrot is so crucial and demands so much introspection.

But let’s not mind the parrot, at least for a moment. What’s most striking about this initial setup isn’t the bird but the Flaubert: a two hundred year-old French writer of scandalous novels who, bloated and rakish (with both sexes) and ugly, hardly qualifies as sexy subject matter. Regard him as the preeminent literatur of the 19th century if you will, but it doesn’t change the fact that most readers, notwithstanding the more serious Braithwaites out there, don’t give a damn who he is nowadays. How does Braithwaite convince us otherwise?


The great realist himself. Gustave Flaubert divided his time between bouts of writing, and wild sexual escapades with members of both genders

Examine these lines from the opening pages of Braithwaite making observations on a ruinous statue of his idol: “[It was] the one crying cupreous tears, the floppy-tied, square-waistcoated, baggy-trousered, straggle-mustached, wary, aloof bequeathed image of a man.” What do we gain from this? A sense of our narrator’s powers of observation; a staccato-poetic list of mundane features; a reoccurrence of the fact that what we are reading is untrustworthy, for we are not seeing the man or even the image of the man, but an image that has been twice-filtered—first through the observations of the men who made the statue of Flaubert, and then through the observations of Braithwaite—before the reader was even able to arrive at his deductions.

Simple observations, no? But what we’ve been given in this quote is in reality a very condensed example of the characteristics that make the reader follow Braithwaite and his observations for the next two hundred pages, irregardless of the lack of plot. He is charming and well-informed and well-expressed: an elderly professor, or a Disney tour-guide for your journey into the heart and mind of the writer. He begs trust, and we topple over one another handing it over. But wait! There’s the other side: the guarded unreliability, as though we were not seeing the whole truth but its warped version: as though the truth was a convoluted riddle with hints eked out by the narrator like helium from a balloon. “Aloof bequeathed image of the man.” If it was bequeathed, to whom did it belong? Whose image are we looking at?

Things get more interesting when the reader can begin asking the same questions from Braithwaite that he has been taught to ask from Flaubert. The transition is as perfectly balanced as one could hope for: dead center in the novel, and with a chapter entitled “Cross Channel” in reference of the cross from Flaubert to Braithwaite.

 “Directness confuses. I told you my name: Geoffrey Braithwaite. Has that helped? A little; at least it’s better than ‘B’ or ‘G’ or ‘the man’ or ‘the amateur of cheeses’. And if you hadn’t seen me, what would you have deduced from the name? Middle-class professional man; solicitor perhaps; denizen of pine-and-heather country; pepper-and-salt tweeds; a moustache hinting—perhaps fraudulently—at a military past; a sensible wife; perhaps a little boating at weekends; more of a gin than a whisky man; and so on?”

What an interesting paragraph! Look back to the early lines and notice the comparisons: we know that the “bequeathed image” comes from the writer himself, that the image we are looking at is the image formed by the writer, observed by the reader. Trust builds tremendously between the reader and Braithwaite, for the writer that can interpret the reader’s mentality; construct for him the images he is meant to see, has revealed himself to be just another fellow reader: a fellow at an airport terminal flipping through the same pages of the same novel as you, whom you happen to see and, in that instant, make a friend of, by virtue of a shared narrative. Braithwaite has answered our earlier questions and earned our trust.

But wait—do not let the adulations get too carried away—here is a proceeding paragraph:

“I am—was—a doctor; first-generation professional class; as you see, there’s no moustache, though I have the military past which men of my age couldn’t avoid; I live in Essex, most characterless and therefore most acceptable of the Home Counties; whisky, not gin; no tweed at all; and no boating. Near enough, and yet not enough, you see.”


Barnes, a master of slippery characters and beautiful prose

We’ve been had. Instead of unveiling himself, the writer has done just the opposite; he has put on another mask, no longer the writer we thought we were reading, nor the reader we thought we were empathizing with, but a new writer: one who has chosen to interpret the mind of the reader and mislead him, only to project another, different, image in place of the one he has just offered. But why should we trust the second image? Why should the reader assume that Braithwaite, who has already lied once, duping the reader with a false self image, would not lie again?

I could go on and on, but won’t. One has enough interpretations of “Flaubert’s Parrot” to last five years’ worth of term papers and I won’t waste any more room offering my own reading. Yours, the writer’s, Flaubert’s own, is equally as valid as mine. In the end (and perhaps this gives something away from the novel’s conclusion) the one parrot who inspired “Un Cœur Simple” is nothing different from any other parrot, chosen but for grace of chance.

What Barnes has accomplished in his novel is a feat no less extraordinary than a literary miracle: the Death of the novel and the Birth of style; the character and the writer overcoming the form of the novel; the triumph of expression.

I’ve left the remainder of this preview for some of the novel’s most memorable quotations. Writing anymore on behalf of the book stinks of hypocrisy.

Quotes Quotes Quotes

“Words came easily to Flaubert; but he also saw the underlying inadequacy of the Word.”

 “Some fatal attraction draws me down into the abysses of thought, down into those innermost recesses which never cease to fascinate the strong.”

“ ‘People are like food. There are lots of bourgeois who seem to me like boiled beef: all steam, no juice, and no taste (it fills you up straight away and is much eaten by bumpkins)…Me? I’m like a runny, stinking macaroni cheese, which you have to eat a lot of times before you develop a taste for it.’ ”

 “If anyone ever asks you what my letters contained, or what my life was like, please lie to them. Or rather, since I cannot ask you of all people to lie, just tell them what it is you think they want to hear.”

“Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

 “It isn’t so different, the way we wander through the past. Lost, disordered, fearful, we follow what signs there remain; we read the street names, but cannot be confident where we are.”

 “ ‘Whatever else happens…we shall remain stupid.’ “

“Books are not life, however much we might prefer it if they were.”

 “The novel with two endings doesn’t reproduce reality: it merely takes us down two diverging paths.”

 “The past is autobiographical fiction pretending to be a parliamentary report.”

 “He finds himself by looking in the works of others.”

 “There is the life, and then there is the not-life; the life of ambition served, and the life of porcine failure.”

 “With a writer you live, the instinct is to defend…perhaps love for a writer is the purest, the steadiest form of love.”

 “ ‘I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.’ ”

“ ‘When you write the biography of a friend, you must do it as if you were taking revenge for him.’ ”


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