EPS Review #156 - Flaubert's Parrot

Flaubert's Parrot , by Julian Barnes, Picador, 1984, 190pp.

Just a bit boring. Our book club read and tremendously enjoyed Madame Bovary, so we went for Parrot, too, after a disagreement whether we should read The God Delusion. Parrot is a post-modern biography of Flaubert, narrated by a fictional doctor, Geoffrey Braithwaite. The cover has rave blurbs from Germaine Greer, Joseph Heller, John Fowles, Graham Greene and others. Perhaps in the eighties the multiple styles (lists, test papers, multiple narrators and viewpoints) were very exciting. The most I can say about them is that they were not irritating. Flaubert felt that the author's life was irrelevant to his work and should be hidden. So we feel a frisson to read about his sex life, even though in good modern fashion all we learn is that Flaubert may have enjoyed Egyptian whores, boys in baths, and many women, or he may have made it all up and led a life in fear of real involvement. There's a section "written" by Louise Colet, who was either a great love of Flaubert's, or mostly an annoyance.

I will most remember a few factoids: that "parrot soup" in French means bread in red wine, that Nabokov supposedly gets the phonetics of the name "Lolita" wrong, that for a while one could rent a closed carriage by asking for a "Bovary", in reference to the famous scene of passion in one such, which we learn may have been quite cramped. The whole parrot angle, starting with which stuffed version is the one that sat on F's desk, is not too interesting, really.

Though I liked the Braithwaite character for being an obsessive scholar, his big revelation about his wife's infidelity and suicide is not really affecting, partly because you are left to wonder just how parallel this is supposed to be with Emma.

The writing itself is sometimes a pleasure. I liked the call-and-response of rattling tables on an off-season ferry.

P's book-club did both MB and F'sP in one session, but nobody finished them. Are they really men's reading?

What's the next best Flaubert novel to read? Perhaps Salammbo? The Amazon reviews are not kind.

Ed wrote: I read Flaubert's Parrot in the 80s, and even then it was tired. Julian Barnes went stale so quickly.

Salammbo is a yawn. Read Trois Contes instead for three bitingly concise short stories.

On The God Delusion, you should read Terry Eagleton's review from the London Review of Books. It's awesome! It was a masterstroke for the LRB to have an aetheist Marxist review this shrill and flimsy polemic. He begins "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology".

Brian wrote: Emma Bovary has always annoyed me. I much prefer Francois Mauriac's Therese Desqueyroux. As for Flaubert, having slogged through MB and F's P, you all owe yourself his Three Tales, a collection of 3 short stories.

Tim wrote: Odd, for you; you sat on the fence a bit, and only the three stars made me realize your overall verdict.

I replied: I thought "boring" was damning!