Flaubert’s Parrot, written by Julian Barnes, is a postmodern novel (if we can call it novel) about a man obsessed with one thing and one thing only: to find out which stuffed parrot did Gustave Flaubert use when he wrote Un Coeur Simple.
The protagonist, Geoffrey Braithwaite, used to be a doctor. Now he’s retired and spends his days investigating the strange case of the stuffed parrot that Flaubert borrowed from the Museum of Rouen. Flaubert’s biography is told from the perspective of Braithwaite, who in discussing Flaubert’s life, love and expectations, reveals a great deal about himself, his own story, love, and insecurities.
“Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life.”
Although it is biographical, it does not read like a biography. Braithwaite is too invested in Flaubert’s life to let his actions go unjustified. Quite often he stops the narrative to explain to the reader why Flaubert did what he did. I must say I felt like I was having a long conversation with the biggest Flaubert fanboy ever, but if you’ve ever been obsessed with a writer, you might understand Braithwaite’s position.
“Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well alone? Why aren’t the books enough?’”
In very postmodern fashion, the book is composed of 15 chapters that can be read in virtually any order. Even the publishers had trouble assigning it a genre:
“Literary biography? Literary criticism? Epistemological philosophy? Belles lettres? Evidently, the publishers and the Booker Judges have accepted that it is in fact a novel, perhaps because the author is a “novelist”. […] One might say that this is the antithesis of a novel.”Ian Davidson, “Passing the dummy”, The Financial Times
Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. My all-time favorite author, Julio Cortázar, would have preferred the term “counter-novel”, which was the term he used for his own postmodern novel, Hopscotch.
Just like the publishers, I find it hard to tell you what the book is really about. I can’t seem to be able to narrow it down, but I can tell you that Flaubert’s Parrot is a sort-of-novel full of facts, lists, chronologies, apparently pointless discussions, and reflections on the significance of the arbitrary coincidences in the lives of Gustave Flaubert and George Braithwaite.
It is definitely not for everyone; if you’re looking for a straightforward novel, you might want to skip this one. However, if you’re into weirder books that mix reality with fiction and that tell several stories all embedded into one, you’ll really enjoy this one. Besides, it’s written in a funny way, so maybe you’ll laugh from time to time.