3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 20 June 2014
I can understand why this book was short-listed for the Booker Prize, but I can also understand why it didn't win. As one would expect from a work by Julian Barnes, it is masterfully written and crafted with great skill. So what's not to like? Well, for me the problem is that, however cleverly and wittily presented, these excessive details of Flaubert's life are BORING. If I wanted to know about Flaubert's life, the few paragraphs on the Wikipedia page are sufficient. A whole book on the subject is just too much. And however much information about him is unearthed, in my view this takes us no nearer to the essence of the man, which inevitably died when he died. Perhaps Barnes intends to make this point.
What is left of the book without Flaubert is Braithwaite, the narrator, whom we get to know bit by bit as the book progresses. But he is a little baffling. Is he the author's avatar? I imagine the author would deny this and say that their relationship is a little more "nuanced". I guess he is a channel for Barnes to express many of his own insights and opinions while pretending they are really someone else's. Towards the end of the book, Braitwaite reminiscences over the earlier death of his wife, and this parallels the author's own experience. So I finished the book confused by the hall of mirrors, in spite of the acute intelligence and wit displayed on almost every page.
For me, the parrot flew away.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 8 January 2009
Without a doubt this is one of the best books I've ever read. It is stylish, engrossing, informative and, best of all, not too lengthy. I particularly like the way Barnes' oeuvre is such a multi-coloured parrot of a book itself: a diary, love story, collection of musings, essay on literary criticism, parody, and affectionate celebration of a great writer. This book has already been highly acclaimed and has achieved great success commercially, so the wonder is why Barnes, or others for that matter, have not written more like it. Perhaps it has to do with traditional British mistrust of 'cleverness', manifested as disdain for dandified romanticism and sophisticated wit. The Barnes bird is not so shy about spreading its wings or displaying such plumage, which is what makes Flaubert's Parrot such a pleasure to read. Perhaps Barnes himself is Flaubert's parrot - he has the Gallic sensibility, and seems knows more about Flaubert than I would consider healthy in an Englishman.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 11 October 2007
Barne's 'Flaubert's Parrot' does not strike one immediately as a conventional piece of literature. It seems to be more a fascinating work of literary criticism, held together by the journey of Barnes' narrator, who delves deeply into the life and works of his idol Flaubert. There are even several chapters that support this idea, such as the various chronologies of Flaubert's life, and, especially, the mock examination questions near the end of the book.
Yet, despite this analytical emphasis on Flaubert's works, it is really the French writer's personality that is analysed and interpreted here. It is this suggestive, fictive element that I found most fascinating - the way that Barnes tries to work out the essence of this complicated, brilliant man through his own character. It is as if, despite all the facts that one can gain from his books and letters, the truth is that all efforts to work out a writer's life is just like creating a work of fiction.
And that is exactly what Barnes does in this novel. A clever, witty, really enjoyable read.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 24 April 2006
This is an interesting book in the way it is structured especially with the play of so drastically varying the way the chapters were written.
Nonetheless, I am not sure that the frame of Mr.Braithwaite, the narrrator and doctor, around the biography of Flaubert, works. I had to keep going back to what his sad tale was which gets muddled between the suicide of his wife and the loner adulterous life of Flaubert. This became more like a prop rather than a person to enhance the analysis of Flaubert's life. On the other hand, the parrot dilemma brings the book full circle.
I was held though by how Barnes created a dialogue with this early 19th century author and felt frustrated that I was not more familiar with Flaubert's writing and modernist presence so ahead of his time.
As an aspiring writer, a second career, I noted many quote/phrases from Flaubert. Barnes must have done incredible research and the excitement was to be inside Flaubert's person through Barnes's interpretation. Perhaps this reader wanted to feel less intellectual and more in touch with the soul of Flaubert's life, to feel rather than read of 'his passions'. Perhaps Flaubert could not show his heart, though Barnes speaks of how crying came easily.
Maybe parrots cry, even stuffed ones.
Definitely a great read by an inventive author.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
What I always keep in mind about Flaubert is that Raymond Chandler admired him. From my own distant recollections of Flaubert, I'd guess that what appealed to such a craftsman as Chandler was the workmanship - in both authors one has a similar sense that every sentence and indeed every word has been worked on with minute precision. On the other hand, Chandler was scathing about pretentiousness and affectation too. I never managed to finish anything by Flaubert because I found him a bit too literary in an offputting sense, and this was no doubt not his fault but mine. However I have to say that when it comes to Julian Barnes this is now the third novel of his that I have read, and for all his outstanding gifts he is beginning to get on my nerves slightly.
There is something rather preening and self-regarding about Barnes, I find. I don't deny him creative originality for a moment, but that comes across to me as being secondary to a wish to exercise and display his accomplishment as a writer. The way this book is put together is undeniably effective. Flaubert has a Dr Bovary , and Dr Bovary has a wife Emma who is unfaithful and kills herself. Barnes has a Dr Braithwaite who has a wife Ellen who was unfaithful and killed herself. Some combination of Dr Braithwaite and Mr Barnes (very skilfully alternated) research Flaubert's life, hanging their researches, cleverly but rather artificially, around the identification of a parrot called Loulou belonging to Flaubert's housekeeper. The significance of the parrot, I'd say, is principally to provide a good eye-catching title for the book rather than anything more essential. Dr Braithwaite is very lacklustre as a personality, and while I'm sure that was deliberate on the author's part I'm equally certain he thought his denouement was more effective and less predictable than I have just found it to be.
The way this kind of book takes me is that I find the factual material a lot more involving than the `human interest'. So far as I can tell, the research seems to have been meticulous, and I always like to see popular and superficial misconceptions put right. All the same, I could have done with less self-congratulation from Barnes and in particular with less sense of pettiness in the points he scores. Poor old Enid Starkey! I dare say she annoyed him and for all I know she might have annoyed me too, but the triumphs Barnes awards himself are not really very important. If Barnes wants to be as nitpicking as this I may as well point out to him that `ipsophagy' is a dreadful mixture of Latin and Greek roots, and if he wanted to coin such a term it ought to have been `hautophagy'.
Obviously, reactions of this kind are subjective on my part, but this is literature and I don't see any way round that. The author's personality as he projects it is not entirely a sympathetic one to me for the reasons I've attempted to explain, but other readers will doubtless react differently. What seems to me a lot less subjective is the sheer quality of what Barnes does. The man is a master and no two ways about that, I'm happy to agree. The book is all over in less than 200 pages anyway, and it is instructive as well as highly readable. Whether it has fired me up to read more by Julian Barnes is maybe doubtful, but it might just get me to have another go at Flaubert.
This quirky biography of Flaubert wrapped up in an eccentric almost plot-free novel from the viewpoint of Geoffrey Braithwaite, an uptight retired English doctor obsessed with the French author is unusual, often amusing and, as some reviewers have commented, at times too clever by half.
If I had not read in French "Madame Bovary" and "Un Coeur Simple", I would have found it much harder to appreciate this book, which further restricts an appeal already limited by its status as a "literary novel".
I have learned a good deal about Flaubert, which I wish I had known when studying him for A Level decades ago, only no doubt his penchant for whores, young foreign boys and smutty jokes would have been considered unsuitable by my teacher. I can see that he was an original and truly independent thinker, probably still don't quite grasp the contribution he made to the modern novel, but do not find him very likeable as a person. He comes across as immature and opinionated at times, perhaps because his epilepsy isolated him, although he seemed to think he needed to be set apart, an observer looking on, to be able to write.
With his quicksilver intellect, Julian Barnes lets slip in passing a host of fascinating details and anecdotes. Flaubert wished he could afford to burn every copy of the very successful but deemed scandalous Madame Bovary. Did he mean it? Flaubert was bothered by his tendency to use metaphors. Was the famous parrot one of these and, if so, was it meant to be a symbol of the writer's voice, his obsession with "the Word"? Sartre, in what I find a surprisingly intense desire to attack Flaubert, rebuked him for, as Barnes cleverly puts it, being the "parrot/writer" who "feebly accepts language as something received, imitative and inert".
Barnes's mouthpiece Braithwaite lambasts the critic who claimed that Flaubert was so careless about the outward appearance of his characters that he gave Emmma Bovary three different eye colours: deep black, brown and blue. Instead, he shows how Flaubert subtly described her eyes in different lights and situations. Barnes uses some entertaining devices, such as three different versions of the chronology of Flaubert's life, the first very positive, the second negative, the third a series of striking quotations from different years of his life - or I think it is, but it's hard to know when Barnes is quoting and when he is making things up, which the novel format permits him to do.
I particularly liked the chapter written from the viewpoint of Flaubert's longsuffering mistress Louise Colet, who seemed to want to be his wife rather than his Muse and confidante, although she must have had "better offers". In the excellent chapter, "Pure Story", the narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite explores with great poignancy his relationship with his wife, managing in the process to draw comparisons with Madame Bovary.
Although I found some of the middle chapters tedious and rambling to little purpose, the book contains so many sharp insights it deserves to be kept and read more than once.
on 30 January 2013
Blurb......... Geoffrey Braithwaite is a retired doctor haunted by an obsession with the great French literary genius, Gustave Flaubert. As Geoffrey investigates the mystery of the stuffed parrot Flaubert borrowed from the Museum of Rouen to help research one of his novels, we learn an enormous amount about the writer's work, family, lovers, thought processes, health and obsessions. But we also gradually come to learn some important and shocking details about Geoffrey himself.
Always a sucker for a smart cover, and add in the fact that it had been enjoyed and praised by no less than the likes of John Irving and Graham Greene, with a price tag of a whopping 30p in whatever charity shop I was browsing about 10 years ago and it was pretty much a given that I would be reading this sometime in the distant future.
After a previous start, stall, stop attempt to read this some years ago, I reopened it with a new found determination to read it start to finish and hopefully at the same time enjoy it.
Well in places it was okay, amusing and informative. In other places it was dull and tedious and though it is classed as a novel, it has a strange structure to it. One of the plus points was it was relatively short!
I've found some detail out about Gustave Flaubert that I previously didn't know; a French author of the 19th Century, who's first published work - Madame Bovary - brought him and his publisher up on immorality charges, of which he was acquitted. Flaubert is regarded by some as one of the greatest novelists of Western Literature. He never married, he took on average about five years or so on each book, plus he at some time borrowed a stuffed parrot.
I haven't been inspired to go and seek out anything from Flaubert to form my own opinion on his value as a great exponent of Western prose. Similarly neither have I been encouraged to seek out much else that Barnes has penned, apart from his recent book - A Sense Of An Ending - which I'll get to sometime, though it might be another 10 years or so.
On reflection, it was probably a bit better than a 2 from 5, but not quite a 3, but in the process of rounding up 3 from 5 it is.
As indicated earlier, I bought this copy second-hand.
on 26 July 2007
I embarked on Flaubert's Parrot not having read any Flaubert. The back cover hinted that the narrator's own life is as much the topic of the book as the famous French writer, but until the end, there was very little about the narrator. We learn early on that he's a retired doctor called Geoffrey Braithwaite whose wife is dead, and that he has grown-up children. His obsession with Gustave Flaubert is evident, and the book is a trawl through Flaubert's life, with the narrator visiting Flaubert's home town,exploring Flaubert's family life (privileged, surgeon father, overbearing over-protective mother, beloved sister, many dead sibs), seeking out the stuffed parrot that Flaubert borrowed from a museum and that perched on his desk during the writing of one of his books(in fact, there are two parrots claiming that honour) and even staying in the hotel where Flaubert used to meet his lover, the poetess Louise Colet. Braithewaite's homage to his idol is interspersed with facts about Flaubert and extracts from his writing, mostly pithy aphorisms and sardonic comments. Many of these are irreverent, refreshing and witty enough to be of interest even to readers unfamiliar with Flaubert.
The reader gains real insight into Flaubert's personality - his refusal to compromise his independence by marrying or even living with his lover, his disregard for convention, his casual infidelity with men and women, his loyalty to friends, and even his playfulness, the latter depicted in an anecdote about how he marched a five-legged sheep through his ill friend's apartment to cheer him up (he failed - the sheep left little mirth and copious droppings in its wake).
It is only at the end that we find out more about Braithewaite and how, despite his admiration for Flaubert, his own emotional life could not have been more different from his hero's flamboyant promiscuity and inability to commit.
Although the facts about Flaubert are interesting and his cynical, witty condemnations of the bourgeois fun to read, I found myself wanting to hear more of Braithewaite's life - after all, I had chosen to read a novel by Julian Barnes, not a biography of Gustave Flaubert. The parts of the novel dealing with Braithewaite show such potential for Barnes's sparkling wit and trenchant ability to tell a tale that I felt disappointed that they were so few. One of the most entertaining scenes is the one where Braithewaite receives notification from an acquaintance, Ed Winterton, that Winterton has some material that might interest Braithewaite about a woman called Juliet Herbert, who acted as governess for Flaubert's beloved neice. There is some discussion in academic circles about whether Flaubert and Herbert were lovers, and Braithewaite is almost apopoleptic with excitement, planning the papers he can write on Flaubert's relationship with Herbert. The lunch over which Winterton and Braithewaite meet to discuss Winterton's findings - a cache of letters between the two - is an understated comic masterpiece. Braithewaite's quiet seething through gnashing teeth is a wonderful study of the riled Englishman, as sharply droll a caricature of a repressed, neurotic, unreasonably furious Englishman as William Boyd's loveable protagonists in A Good Man in Africa and Stars and Bars. Barnes could have created copious copy from the rich mines of his protagonist's character, but chooses not to spin more such gems from his raw material. Without giving anything away about the conversation over that lunch, here is Braithewaite's uncharitable thought before meeting the low key American academic Winterton:
'Had Ed really discovered some Juliet Herbert material? I admit I began to feel possessive in advance. I imagined myself presenting it in one of the more important literary journals; perhaps I might let the TLS have it. 'Juliet Herbert: A Mystery Solved, by Geoffrey Braithewaite', illustrated with one of those photographs in which you can't quite read the handwriting. I also began to worry at the thought of Ed blurting out his discovery on campus and guilelessly yielding up his cache to some ambitious Gallicist with an astronaut's haircut'. As with much comic genius, the hilarity is in the detail - the horror of being pipped to the literary post by the clean-cut blandness of a pudding bowl shorn American hunk.
Elsewhere, Barnes's known affection for France comes to the fore in Braithewaite's eulogy to the country. Like Boyd in Bamboo, Barnes lists random facts about the culture of his adopted country which make its scents, tastes and smells come alive.
All in all, Flaubert's Parrot is an interesting stroll through the life of a great French writer folded into intriguing glints into the life of a fictional character. The promising sparks of the latter could have been ignited into an explosive blaze of a novel.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 11 July 2001
Part novel, part literary criticism, this delightful book presents an fascinating portrait of the life, art and aspirations of Gustave Flaubert. Intermingled with Flaubert's story, is that of the narrator, a retired doctor living in the wake of his wife's suicide. The narrator attempts to make sense of a world that is not entirely with reason or definite shape: his wife, though a good woman, was also an adulteress who was never fully happy with her marriage - although you couldn't necessarily say she was unhappy either. Throughout the novel, it is uncertain why the narrator is so interested in Flaubert. How does this obsession tie into the story of his dead wife? Why does a doctor have such an active interest in a dead author? As the narrator tries to make sense of Flaubert life - a process which he compares to the act of making a fishing net, where one is essentially tying together a bunch of holes - if not sense, than a certain type of understanding begins to unwind. The resolution of the book is ambiguous, although given the subject matter and spirit of the book, this is a good thing. Also within, you'll find one of the best university exams ever written. The book is worth reading for that chapter alone!
on 29 January 2014
This is quite an interesting book and is surprisingly readable considering that it isn’t really a novel at all, more a collection of essays and opinions by a fictional character, a retired English doctor by the name of Geoffrey Braithwaite who is obsessed with the life of Flaubert.
But it seems that this Braithwaite character must be a kind of mouthpiece for Barnes himself, otherwise what is the point of it all? How much can we learn about a real writer, Flaubert, when the information and opinions are sifted through three filters, as it were, the author, his narrator and whatever the original source might have been. How much is fact and how much is fiction?
But it does seem as if Barnes has been careful to give us the truth about Flaubert, where possible, so the book is actually interesting and manages to be quite entertaining too, though hardly a great novel.