This is a tantalizingly elusive work of fiction, exhibiting elements of biography, autobiography, literary monograph, parody, novel, and anthology of maxims and epigrams. It is narrated by Dr. Geoffrey Braithwaite, a retired British general practitioner in his sixties, widowed from a wife whom he never understood, who becomes obsessed with seeking to understand the essential nature of Gustave Flaubert.
Braithwaite begins—and finally ends—his quest by attempting to identify the particular green stuffed Amazonian parrot which Flaubert borrowed for a model while writing “Un Coeur simple.” In that tale, a simple, sacrificial Norman domestic, Felicite, devotes her life to serving a largely ungrateful family. The last object of her love is a parrot, Loulou, whom she comes to regard as the incarnation of the Holy Ghost. Braithwaite discovers a green stuffed parrot in Rouen, perched above an inscription certifying that Flaubert had been lent the bird by the city’s museum and had kept it on his desk for three weeks while writing “Un Ciur simple.” A few weeks later, in Croisset, the village where Flaubert lived most of his life, Braithwaite discovers another parrot, also stuffed, also green. Which is the authentic model for Felicite’s Loulou?
Braithwaite ascertains that Flaubert described an ugly English matron he met aboard a boat from Alexandria to Cairo as looking “like a sick old parrot.” In Salammbo (1862), Carthaginian translators sport parrot tattoos on their chests. In L’Education sentimentale (1869), the protagonist Frederic Moreau peers into a shop window and sees a parrot’s perch. Flaubert’s niece, Caroline, insists in her memoirs that Loulou had a real-life model, as did Felicite. The second and incomplete section of Bouvard et Pecuchet (1881) includes a passage wherein the copying clerks are to transcribe a newspaper account of a lonely misanthrope who comes to love a magnificent parrot and teaches it to pronounce, one hundred times daily, the name of the woman who rejected him. After the parrot dies, the owner takes to perching in a tree, squawking, extending his arms like wings. He is committed to a maison de sante. Finally, the small house in Croisset where Flaubert wrote was called un baton de perroquet, “a parrot’s perch.”
Braithwaite is strongly tempted to regard the parrot as emblematic of the author, as the magic madeleine whose dissolution in the waters of Flaubert’s complex life will provide the key to his tormented temperament. Could the parrot be the Life which repeats and mocks itself, just as Braithwaite remarks on episodes in Flaubert’s life that parrot his work? Or could the parrot, as the only creature capable of making human sounds, symbolize the supremacy of Language to which Flaubert offered all other opportunities for happiness? Braithwaite muses,
Felicite + Loulou = Flaubert? Not exactly; but you could claim that he is present in both of them. Felicite encloses his character; Loulou encloses his voice. You could say that the parrot, representing clever vocalization without much brain power, was Pure Word.... I imagined Loulou sitting on the other side of Flaubert’s desk and staring back at him like some taunting reflection from a funfair mirror. No wonder three weeks of its parodic presence caused irritation. Is the writer much more than a sophisticated parrot?
Braithwaite looks at Flaubert from many perspectives, collecting the views of the writer’s friends, critics, relatives, particularly his mistress for five stormy years, Louise Colet. He presents the traditional portrait of the artist consumed by the demands of his art to the peril of his relations with women, of the man who insists that love remain in the back room of his life while he cultivates the religion of Writing. What remains in the foreground of Flaubert’s life, in addition to literature, is his lifelong devotion to his dour mother, to three male friends who became intimate confidants, and to the romantic...
(The entire section is 1,231 words.)