Geoffrey Braithwaite’s preoccupation with the nineteenth century French novelist Gustave Flaubert borders on obsession. Recently retired from medical practice and recently widowed (his late wife, Ellen, is another of his preoccupations), Braithwaite now has an excess of time on his hands. On a five-day visit to Rouen, Flaubert’s home city in the Normandy region of northwestern France, he happens upon the enigma that frames the novel and gives it its name: two stuffed parrots, each said to have sat on Flaubert’s writing table during the writing of “Un cur simple” (“A Simple Heart”), the heroine of which keeps a parrot as a pet. Braithwaite, certain that one of the birds is a fraud, resolves to find out which of them served as the model for Flaubert’s Loulou, the parrot in “Un cur simple.” The answer, such as it is, is withheld until the final chapter. Indeed, this mystery gets lost in the flood of information, opinion, and speculation that Braithwaite shares with the reader.
Though he never precisely dates it, Braithwaite’s interest in Flaubert is obviously of long standing, and certainly it is comprehensive. He is no mere enthusiast but, rather, a dedicated amateur scholar whose knowledge of the author would intimidate many professional literary critics (most of whom Braithwaite considers fools). Flaubert’s Parrot is not a traditional work of scholarship, however, nor is it a traditional work of imaginative literature. Braithwaite’s interpretation of Flaubert is not in the fanciful mode of the historical novelist, nor is it based entirely on documented fact. In its method and in its themes, Flaubert’s Parrot inhabits the murky realm where biography, fiction, and literary criticism meet and where the borders between them dissolve. As Geoffrey Braithwaite, through his search for the parrot, seeks the answer to the question: How do we seize the past? Julian Barnes’s unorthodox technique poses the fundamentally modern questions: What is literature? and What is an author?
Though the novel’s eccentricities may be unsettling to the reader who expects a novel to tell a story, introduce characters, and provide a definite beginning and end, Barnes’s (and Braithwaite’s) modification or downright rejection of such devices is central to the message and the subject matter of the novel. The setting—Rouen and its environs—is important only because Flaubert lived there; the novel’s real landscape is Geoffrey Braithwaite’s mind, crammed as it is with information about Flaubert. The major characters, aside from Braithwaite himself, are historical figures long dead: Louise Colet, Flaubert’s lover; Louis Bouilhet, his closest friend; Madame Flaubert, his domineering mother; and Flaubert himself (Braithwaite frequently refers to Flaubert affectionately as Gustave). There is no traditional plot. The only two remotely conventional story lines—the parrot mystery and the story of Braithwaite’s marriage—are deliberately underplayed, and while both of these “plots” tell the reader much about Geoffrey Braithwaite’s psychological makeup, they serve primarily as variations on the narrator’s obsession with Flaubert. For Geoffrey Braithwaite, the trivial concerns of mere mortals pale beside Flaubert’s eminence.
No writer who was not himself a scholar could have created a character like Geoffrey Braithwaite, and Julian Barnes’s own erudition permeates every page of this book. Flaubert’s Parrot is an anomaly in the literary world: a thoroughly imaginative work based on the most irrefutable historical fact. The known facts of Flaubert’s life are rigidly observed. So comprehensive is Braithwaite’s knowledge of Flaubert that the reader comes away from the book with a good beginner’s knowledge of Flaubert’s life, letters, artistic philosophy, and major works. Nor does Braithwaite excessively romanticize his subject. Each of his observations about Flaubert is...
(The entire section is 1617 words.)