Flaubert’s Parrot – Julian Barnes: A Review

Date finished: March 16th 2016

We all have favourite authors, and Julian Barnes is one of mine. I say that, but the only book of his I’ve truly loved is The Sense of an EndingA History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters is also an impressive work. England, England was a fascinating concept with great moments but ultimately didn’t deliver on its potential (and wasn’t exactly classically Barnes either), and Levels of Life left me somewhat cold – the third part soliloquising on the passing of his wife was tender and enchanting, but the other two biographical parts about balloonists and their ilk left me somewhat cold.

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It seems that there are two Barnes’: Barnes the writer of literature, and Barnes the biographer. Unfortunately, Flaubert’s Parrot leans more towards the second camp. The protagonist is an amateur scholar of Flaubert exploring the author’s life through his work, diaries, letters, the work of his acquaintances, his places of residence – every possible relic and scrap of evidence he can get his hands on (yes, that includes a few parrots too). However, our biographer-narrator also hints that he has his own secrets and, as the life of Flaubert is unraveled, so is our protagonist’s.

It’s safe to say that having read some of Flaubert’s work (preferably Madame Bovary) would probably help, just to get a sense of the man. I have never read Flaubert – perhaps I should – I’ve been tantalised with enough quotes now. Certainly, Barnes delivers more than one could ever possibly need to know about the randy French writer. The sheer depth and extent to which Barnes has dredged Flaubert’s life is breathtaking – he even takes a little time to invent some of the missing pieces too, and with these facts he proceeds to analyse Flaubert in every conceivable manner and from every possible angle.

It’s all very clever. A bit too clever actually. There’s no denying that what Barnes has done is unique, exhaustive and borderline genius. But it’s not really a novel, and it’s not exactly an enjoyable read either. It would be utterly perfect to dissect for a literature dissertation as Barnes dives into the apocrypha, ironies, three different biographies (one positive, one negative, one in quotes), meditations on criticism, art as life, opinions on the significance of the author in relation to his text, and much more. I imagine Flaubert fans would get a great deal more than the lay observer too. But for a casual reader it’s just too avant-garde and a lot of the effort poured into this work is wasted.

Stylistically, I can’t help but be impressed. Barnes explores Flaubert through lists, timelines, dictionaries, bestiaries, and even includes a chapter that includes satirical exam questions on Flaubert. Flaubert’s Parrot can undeniably be read in many different ways, but the main thing I take away from it is a satire of the biographical genre and the pedantry and argumentativeness of biographers over various interpretations of their subject’s lives when it’s simply not possible to know everything about the subject and, ultimately, not always that important either.

Barnes is a writer of undeniable skill and wit, but he is two different writers. One is a master of prose and scholar of the human condition, who pens sentences that resonate with the soul in a reassuringly identifiable way:

“Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books.”

The other is a curious, analytical mind with a palpable love of art which he wishes to communicate. The two aren’t mutually exclusive and, moments like the above quote, as well as a lot of subtle jokes are thoroughly appreciated. But by and large, this is a love-letter to Barnes’ favourite author and he wants you to fall in love too. If anyone can make that happen, it’s Barnes. But to share in his enjoyment, one must have shared in his experience and, having never read Flaubert, I can’t share in the significance of this particular work. This isn’t a negative review – Flaubert’s Parrot has an obvious wealth of merits. It’s just that those merits are somewhat off-limits to a fleeting reader who wiles away his hours whoring about with many other books, authors and genres. I have a lot of respect for what Barnes has done, but without the time, knowledge and passion required, there’s a certain futility to my reading this. If you’re thinking of picking up this one, I advise having a degree in literature, an intermediate knowledge of Flaubert’s work and background, and at least a week to revel in this multi-faceted, all-encompassing work of literature – you’ll get a lot out of it. As for me, I’ll stick to the less biographical stuff.

6/10 as a general read, but 7/10 for sheer ambitiousness, scope and passion.

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