Julian Barnes published four works of fiction, including two detective novels under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh, before Flaubert’s Parrot, but he had the most success with the latter. The novel has remained his best-known and most admired work. From the beginning, however, debates have ensued about what sort of work it is. Some early reviewers had said it is not a novel at all, but “the antithesis of a novel,” and it is certainly an unconventional novel, containing such things as chronologies of the life of writer Gustave Flaubert, an examination paper based on Flaubert’s life and works, and catalogs of animals, trains, and commonly held ideas related to Flaubert. The novel also contains a denunciation of literary critics, but it also includes some sensitive literary criticism about Flaubert’s writing, especially of the story “Un coeur simple,” in which Flaubert’s parrot appears.
The parrot loosely unifies the novel, but only loosely. The book’s dislocations and mixing of genres, along with its emphasis on the difficulty of knowing the past, have led several commentators to classify it as a postmodernist novel, a view disputed by Merritt Moseley. He argues that while postmodernism posits a universe in which nothing can be known and in which all questions are undecidable, Barnes’s novel merely suggests that it is difficult, not impossible, to know things. Moseley notes, too, that the character in the novel who comes closest to the postmodernist view, and who states that “every so often we are tempted to throw up our hands and declare that history is merely another literary genre,” is not Barnes but Geoffrey Braithwaite. Braithwaite is a character whose slowly revealed story shows him to be someone who might have a special reason for saying the past cannot be understood.
There are actually two competing stories in the novel, or one story hidden beneath a series of philosophical explorations and conjectures. In the early parts of the novel, Braithwaite, who is so hidden that he does not reveal his name until the third chapter, muses about such issues as whether the past can be known, why an author’s admirers seek out relics from an author’s life rather than being content with his or her books, whether writers are like parrots, and why it is easier to feel close to a dead author than to one’s own friends. He...
(The entire section is 967 words.)