Which of two stuffed parrots was the inspiration for one of Flaubert’s greatest stories? Why did the master keep changing the color of Emma Bovary’s eyes? And why should it matter so much to Geoffrey Braithwaite, a retired doctor haunted by a private secret? In Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes spines out a multiple mystery of obsession and betrayal (both scholarly and romantic) and creates an exuberant inquiry into the ways in which art mirrors life and then turns around to shape it.
©1984 Julian Barnes (P)2011 AudioGo
A very unusual book that combines a critical biography (sort of) of Flaubert and an autobiography (sort of) of the narrator. Barnes manages what he's doing without ever becoming stuffy. In fact the narrative is full of lovely surprises. I quite enjoyed it though I'm still not sure I can describe it.
I don't mean that headline as derision, by the way. Readers of Barnes, Martin Amis, J.M. Coetzee, McEwan, and club, will likely enjoy this book. It shares the collective postmodern concerns of ambiguity and uncertainty conveyed through a narrative about minor detail, complexity, and literary tradition--like Derrida in literature, the parrot being the entryway to larger concerns. Barnes is a beautiful writer, and the project is largely aesthetic, like Amis' -London Fields-; it orbits a great deal without touching down at any center, except, well, the absent center of the eponymous parrot (or parrots). For what it is, it's a perfect thing. I can picture enjoying this book while walking about a city in particular. The attention to detail is exquisite, the research on Flaubert is interesting (for the scholar) and the narrator reads French quite well, his voice a perfect match for the book.
On the other hand, if the question, "Which of two stuffed parrots was the inspiration for one of Flaubert’s greatest stories?" (from the description) sounds boring to you, there are better reads. On a personal level, I indeed found the book pointless, boring, and meandering. For Barnes and a number of the authors above, a good question might be, Why write at all if you're going to write about some of this stuff? I don't see the point. I understand the issues at play, but they don't make for filling fiction, according to my tastes. The novel feels more like a working out of Bloomian Anxiety of Influence than anything else. It did make me want to pick up Flaubert's -Madame Bovary,- which is a plus. But, like a cover song that makes you want to listen to the original, you begin to wonder about the need for a cover in the first place.
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