"Which of two stuffed parrots was the inspiration for one of Flaubert's greatest stories? Why did the master keep changing the colour 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 spins 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."
The lives of famous writers do not often take the stage in modern fiction; however, this does not mean that we are necessarily short of examples. Colm Toibin's The Master, for instance, adeptly covers the life of Henry James; Passionate Minds, by David Bodaris, fictionalises the life and loves of Voltaire; and finally, of course, the arguably most famous example presents itself in the form of Michael Cunningham's The Hours, which stars Virginia Woolf. However, none of these perhaps combine academic writing with fiction to quite the same extent as Barnes in his treatment of the life of Flaubert. Perhaps unfortunately for Barnes' readers - regular or otherwise - 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.
There is no denying that this novel is tight, well-researched, occasionally witty, makes subversive and intelligent use of language, and makes excellent use of quirkier details that other biographers would miss. Despite this, though, while the style of the novel is readable and accessible, the ideas perhaps are not, as well as at times only being of interest to the most die-hard of Flaubert fans (which cuts out a significant proportion of the reading population). 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.
This is therefore not the most enchanting start to Barnes' oeuvre; there are novels of his that are wittier and more crowd-pleasing. Do not start here: make a dash for his more digestible and amusing History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, or, for that matter, if you are not put off by the format of a novel chronicling the life of another author, opt for a tale based on the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur and George.
Other works by Julian Barnes
Before She Met Me (1982)
Staring at the Sun (1986)
A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (1989)
Talking It Over (1991)
The Porcupine (1992)
England, England (1998)
Love, etc (2000)
Arthur and George (2005)
First three Chapters....
8 years ago