Wednesday 19 October 2022

Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't

Flaubert's Parrot Three books have coloured my view of French literature, all set texts for study. They each feature a miserable woman, living a depressing life and turning to adultery as an escape: Marguerite Duras's Moderato Cantabile and its metaphorical magnolia flowers is a book I never, ever want to read again; Emile Zola's seedy Thérèse Raquin, saved only by its Parisian setting; and worst of all, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary and its intensely annoying eponymous protagonist.

Well, if you're considering reading Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot, it's not necessary to be a Flaubert scholar, nor to have read the French novelist's chef d'oeuvre, but it's useful to know that the plot of Madame Bovary involves a doctor and his philandering wife.

Barnes's book is narrated by a character called Geoffrey Braithwaite, an English doctor who's obsessed with Gustave Flaubert. On a trip to France he comes across two stuffed parrots, the owners of which assert that theirs is the original parrot that sat on Flaubert's desk as inspiration while he wrote Un Coeur Simple. Braithwaite sets about trying to discover which of the parrots is the famous one.

It's an amusing premise. Indeed the word 'parrot' is an intrinsically amusing word. There's plenty more to smile at in the book too, but you have to get past the structure. Much of the narrative involves Braithwaite's musings on his literary subject, and the chapters are not all written in a traditional prose style. For example, one chapter contains three brief biographies of Flaubert, one a straightforward chronology of facts, one that only relates the awful things in his life, and another that uses the French author's autobiographical notes. Two chapters are annotated lists, and the penultimate chapter is written as an exam paper.

The best is chapter 3, 'Finders Keepers', Braithwaite's tale of meeting Ed Winterton, an American academic who claims to have discovered some new, unpublished material about one of Flaubert's female acquaintances. It's highly amusing. Chapter 11 is also excellent, imagining 'Louise Colet's Version' of her relationship with Flaubert.

I'd certainly recommend Flaubert's Parrot to my Madame Bovary obsessed friend, or to someone who, like me, studied French literature. Perhaps it will feel too literary for the aficionado of cosy crime and best seller listings. It's not 'unputdownable'. It makes you pause and wonder how much you can really know or want to know about a person, even someone as close as a spouse. You're also led to question how much you can know about 'famous people' whose lives are reported on by the media or avidly studied by fans and biographers. I myself even began to wonder what might be the point of literary criticism and academic study. As Braithwaite says, "My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it's not pointless in terms of pleasure."

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