Geoffrey Braithwaite, an amateur biographer, is at the statue of writer Gustave Flaubert in Rouen, France. Braithwaite’s project, it seems, is to get to know as much as he can about Flaubert so that he can connect with him. He especially needs to establish which of two stuffed parrots at two rival museums is Loulou, the one who inspired Flaubert to write his short story “Un Cur simple” (1877; “A Simple Heart,” 1903). Braithwaite notes that Flaubert had disapproved of seeking out information about authors beyond what is found in their works, but Braithwaite pursues his quest nonetheless.
Braithwaite meets Ed Winterton, an American academic, at a book fair. Winterton acquires a book they both had wanted to buy. He later writes to Braithwaite to say that he has discovered some fascinating material related to Flaubert’s life. This news intrigues Braithwaite, who imagines that based on this material he will be able publish a groundbreaking study about a hitherto unknown love affair between Flaubert and his niece’s governess, Juliet Herbert.
Braithwaite meets Winterton to discuss the discovery. Winterton tells him that the material did indeed reveal that Flaubert had an affair with Juliet, but he also tells him the material also includes a letter in which Flaubert asks that the material be burned—Winterton has done that, and Braithwaite is furious.
Flaubert had compared himself to various animals, from lizards and camels to bears. Apparently, he most liked to compare himself to a polar bear, living far from civilization. There also had been many real parrots in his life. One contemporary newspaper story told of one man’s parrot obsession, which may have been the inspiration for Flaubert’s short story “Un Cur simple.” Talk of a parrot’s empty perch in Flaubert’s novel L’Éducation sentimentale (1869; A Sentimental...
(The entire section is 776 words.)