Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Julian Barnes read French at Oxford University and has held such establishment literary posts as lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement (1969-1972) and deputy literary editor of the London Sunday Times (since 1979). His two previous novels, Metroland (1980) and Before She Met Me (1982), share with Flaubert’s Parrot the overriding theme of obsession. In Metroland, a bookish schoolboy is too caught up in the French classics of passion to participate in the Parisian student riots of 1968 or seize the amatory opportunities offered him. In the second novel a man is crazed by suspicions of his wife’s adulteries.

In all three works, Barnes’s tone is urbane, wry, and winningly worldly. Like John Fowles, Barnes combines erudition with emotion, elegance with warmth. The obvious counterpart to Flaubert’s Parrot is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), both literary parodies, both tales of passion told with complex resonances by pedants who construct dense, many-layered rinds of lists and commentaries. Yet one difference is crucial: Nabokov’s protagonist, Charles Kinbote, is an insufferable and insane ass, while Braithwaite is a sensitive, soundly balanced, dignified gentleman who acts as Barnes’s alter ego. If Barnes’s novel has a major flaw, it is probably the involuted brilliance of its many cross-fertilizing literary echoes, the occasional archness of its many witticisms. On balance, however, this is a distinguished and original novel by a highly gifted writer who bridges the gap between the nineteenth century’s sentimentality and the twentieth century’s self-mockery.