Tapping crude rhythms on a cracked kettle or melting the stars?

This is my review of Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes.

This quirky biography of Flaubert wrapped up in an eccentric almost plot-free novel from the viewpoint of Geoffrey Braithwaite, an uptight retired English doctor obsessed with the French author is unusual, often amusing and, as some reviewers have commented, at times too clever by half.

If I had not read in French "Madame Bovary" and "Un Coeur Simple", I would have found it much harder to appreciate this book, which further restricts an appeal already limited by its status as a "literary novel".

I have learned a good deal about Flaubert, which I wish I had known when studying him for A Level decades ago, only no doubt his penchant for whores, young foreign boys and smutty jokes would have been considered unsuitable by my teacher. I can see that he was an original and truly independent thinker, probably still don't quite grasp the contribution he made to the modern novel, but do not find him very likeable as a person. He comes across as immature and opinionated at times, perhaps because his epilepsy isolated him, although he seemed to think he needed to be set apart, an observer looking on, to be able to write.

With his quicksilver intellect, Julian Barnes lets slip in passing a host of fascinating details and anecdotes. Flaubert wished he could afford to burn every copy of the very successful but deemed scandalous Madame Bovary. Did he mean it? Flaubert was bothered by his tendency to use metaphors. Was the famous parrot one of these and, if so, was it meant to be a symbol of the writer's voice, his obsession with "the Word"? Sartre, in what I find a surprisingly intense desire to attack Flaubert, rebuked him for, as Barnes cleverly puts it, being the "parrot/writer" who "feebly accepts language as something received, imitative and inert".

Barnes's mouthpiece Braithwaite lambasts the critic who claimed that Flaubert was so careless about the outward appearance of his characters that he gave Emmma Bovary three different eye colours: deep black, brown and blue. Instead, he shows how Flaubert subtly described her eyes in different lights and situations. Barnes uses some entertaining devices, such as three different versions of the chronology of Flaubert's life, the first very positive, the second negative, the third a series of striking quotations from different years of his life – or I think it is, but it's hard to know when Barnes is quoting and when he is making things up, which the novel format permits him to do.

I particularly liked the chapter written from the viewpoint of Flaubert's longsuffering mistress Louise Colet, who seemed to want to be his wife rather than his Muse and confidante, although she must have had "better offers". In the excellent chapter, "Pure Story", the narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite explores with great poignancy his relationship with his wife, managing in the process to draw comparisons with Madame Bovary.

Although I found some of the middle chapters tedious and rambling to little purpose, the book contains so many sharp insights it deserves to be kept and read more than once.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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