Flaubert's Parrot, by Julian Barnes
1984, 190 pp.
I closed Julian Barnes' slender, elegant novel with an audible sigh of despair. I have a teetering pile of some twenty books I intend to read before the end of the summer, including two weighty Russian doorstoppers, and now I have no choice but to obtain and read everything Barnes has written. I had intended to start in on Richard Ellmann's massive biography of Joyce in preparation to taking a running-start at Ulysses, and now I've got to drop everything, all of my meticulous plans, and read a dozen more slender, elegant books by a talented, intelligent, gifted writer.
Flaubert’s Parrot is a novel and a collection of essays centered around the trivia and minutia of Gustave Flaubert’s life, as written by an elderly, lonely, melancholy, retired British doctor named Geoffrey Braithwaite. He does not appear in the first couple of essays except as an unobtrusive authorial voice, and I found myself scribbling down an objection: “Why present as novel, why not just book of essays by J. Barnes?” But details begin to accumulate about Dr. Braithwaite, as the reader begins to notice what sort of things interest him, what other people think about his Flaubert obsession, and how, alone and at the end of his life, his fixation with the dead French novelist is what keeps him going. As we get to know Geoffrey Braithwaite, he emerges from the margins of the essays on Flaubert as a kind, sad, terminally nice man, and through him so too does Julian Barnes appear as a genial master of ceremonies. I wanted to be friends with him, to sit in his quiet, dark study with a cup of tea and talk about L’Éducation Sentimentale. It’s an interesting gambit: Barnes could have presented us with just a collection of essays and reflections, which would have been interesting enough. But he decided not to. He decided to make the reader feel something, in addition to just thinking things, and I found myself wondering why he decided on that feeling specifically. Why Geoffrey Braithwaite as a narrator, instead of somebody else? Does Braithwaite’s story communicate a feeling Barnes associates particularly with Flaubert? Is he based on somebody Barnes knew? When he decided on an emotional experience for the reader in addition to an intellectual one, he could have settled on anything. I wonder why he wanted me to empathize with Geoffrey Braithwaite, in addition to Flaubert.
Whatever the case, Barnes effectively strips away much of the machinery of a conventional novel and replaces it with his endearing personality and wealth of knowledge. This is risky: if either the personality or the knowledge had proven insufficient it would have ended in disaster. Barnes pulls it off like a virtuoso running through the Toccata and Fugue in D minor just to warm up and check that all the pipes are clear. His knowledge of Flaubert is encyclopedic, and he presents it in a variety of forms. There are straightforward essays, reflections on Flaubert and trains, and Flaubert and animals. There are three chronologies of Flaubert’s life: one wholly positive, the other entirely negative, and one in Flaubert’s own words. Critically, he lets Flaubert talk in lengthy quotations from letters and novels, and doesn’t try to imitate his voice or produce a pastiche. Braithwaite has his own entirely separate voice, and beyond it is a layer of slightly postmodern subjectivism, as Braithwaite learns how difficult it is to find actual reliable knowledge about Flaubert, but persists in telling you anyway, because he cannot bring himself (yet) to tell you about himself. There is a highly amusing section in which he utterly eviscerates some poor literature professor (who, I was delighted to learn, actually existed), and a rendition of Braithwaite’s own version of Flaubert’s famous Dictionary of Received Ideas. There’s also an essay from the perspective of Louise Colet, Flaubert’s mysterious and much-maligned mistress, and a series of mock-term paper questions. Braithwaite has some pretty shrewd literary observations: “Flaubert’s planned invisibility in a century of babbling personalities and shrieking styles might be characterized in one of two ways: as classical, or modern…a century before [modern critics] he was preparing texts and denying the significance of his own personality.” Or, apropos of Sartre’s miserable book on Flaubert: “How submerged does a reference have to be before it drowns?” And based on the hilarious sequence on pages 98-100, I was ready to vote for him as Dictator of Literature. In the end, he produces a phrase which perfectly sums up Flaubert’s work, Flaubert’s life, and his study of both: “straight-faced, yet misleading.” He has a sharp insight into the state of modern literary criticism: "[Critics] act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn't said anything new for years...Whereas the common but passionate reader is allowed to forget; he can go away, be unfaithful with other writers, come back and be entranced again...I never find myself, fatigue in the voice, reminding Flaubert to hang up the bathmat or use the lavatory brush." Braithwaite has an immensely respectful approach of pursuing the writer as a reader which seems to be lacking in a world full of tendentious academics who half-learned from Freud how to tell artists what they really meant, using literature like a drunk uses lampposts: for support, not illumination.
In sum, it is a splendid literary entertainment, by someone who clearly loves books, about someone who loves books, writing about an author who revolutionized books, intended for readers who love books. It is funny and moving, and instructive. It takes its subject seriously and its audience as well: it assumes its readers capable of mature intellectual consideration and emotional empathy. An excellent book.