Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes is a book I have had queuing up to read for some time. I don’t know why I have never got round to reading it. Perhaps it’s because of the overtly “literary” tag that was attached to it when it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. I am not against “literary” fiction. Far from it: indeed I aspire to write it, after a fashion. My avoidance of Flaubert’s Parrot was never conscious, but was probably a result of thinking that I knew what to expect – word play, experimentation with form, biography, dissection of the writer’s role, relationship between art and life, in fact all the mundane things that your average novelist has for breakfast. The less than average ones, by the way, always have corn flakes. It is their convention. Having just finished the book, I can declare that I found all I expected and much, much, much more.
Julian Barnes has his character, a doctor called Geoffrey Braithwaite, consider various literary ideas. One, which only really applies to writing prose fiction, is the relation between form and content. Most novels, certainly most pulp fiction, never address this, since the authors usually present apparently literal material merely literally or, perhaps even more commonly, fantastical material literally. Generally within some recognisable genre, these offerings tend to preoccupy themselves with simple narration. In effect, most novels are presented in pictorial form, like a comic strip running a frame at a time through the author’s mind, with only minimally extended commentary. Their presentation is invariably linear, with the writer’s aim to spoon-feed the reader with bite-sized chinks of easily digestible plot in a context aimed at simplifying the experience.
Flaubert’s Parrot is the polar opposite of this. The only plot is Flaubert’s life, both physical and intellectual, alongside that of his enthusiastic intended biographer, the doctor, Geoffrey. Geoffrey’s research, notes, speculations and musings provide the book’s utterly original form. Since the adultery of Flaubert’s fictional Madam Bovary provided the scandal that created his fame, evidence of his attitudes towards women and sex in his own life provides a fascinating backdrop against which we can assess the author’s motives and desires. The death and revealed adultery of the narrator’s own wife provides motive for his obsession with Flaubert and his femme fatale, and, quite unexpectedly, this culminates in a truly moving moment of emotional empathy that the author, Barnes, not Flaubert, not the narrator, evokes in his reader.
This emotional intensity developed as a real surprise towards the end of the book. Through it, Julian Barnes achieves a perfect marriage of form and content, the finest I have ever encountered. No matter how much we analyse the creative process, it is our emotional lives that provide the stuff of art. The writer moulds it, contextualises it, formalises it, but eventually the rawness of the experience, the chasm of bereavement, the hollow of betrayal, the consonance of love that makes us laugh or weep as we read, and Julian Barnes provokes both responses in this beautiful book.
There are some stunning moments of virtuosity. There are, for instance, three concatenated chronologies of Flaubert’s life – an encyclopedia of success, a record of failure and a personal diary. This is a masterstroke, effectively answering the rhetorical question of why we remain interested in the author, even when we consider a work as iconic as Madame Bovary. The narrator’s dissection of “correctness” in fiction is utterly poignant, especially so when we cannot even agree on the detail of reality. And so what if the writer decides to change things around? Isn’t it supposed to be fiction?
But the enduring memory of Flaubert’s Parrot is that masterstroke of marrying motives via Falubert’s real life, whatever that was, the imagined world of his femme fatale and the apparently real life of Geoffrey Braithwaite, with its own experience of adultery and bereavement. And then, of course, we have Geoffrey’s obsession with Flaubert, through which we reflect on the ideas of the self and its selfishness. Stunningly beautiful.
And the parrot? Probably a fake. Or perhaps just faked. Or then again….