Kaph's Reviews > Flaubert's Parrot

Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes
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's review
May 16, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: 1000-books, less-novel-more-lecture, g1000-comedy
Read from January 20 to February 07, 2012 — I own a copy

Verdict: A really wonderful textbook for a course entitled ‘Gustave Flaubert & Assorted Literary Musings’. Not terribly useful beyond this context.

Written by a man whose last name begins with ‘B’ and classed (rather dishonestly) under the first Guardian 1000 books category of comedy, ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ made it onto the first page of my list of essential novels. From there it managed to worm its way into my subconscious so that, without making any deliberate note of it, I recognized the title as one I must eventually read as I cast my eye about the glorious wreckage of SKOOB, the best used bookstore in London.

The blurb on the back describes the main character, Geoffrey Braithwaite as ‘a retired doctor haunted by a private secret,’ and declares ‘In ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ Julian Barnes spins out a multiple mystery of obsession and betrayal, both scholarly and romantic.’ Having now finished ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ I can state with some authority that these are bald-faced lies. There is no haunting, no secret, and no mysteries; multiple, spun or otherwise. In fact, the whole summary is so ridiculous I would very much like to meet this blurb writer and demand to know if he really read the book. Or maybe just do him a small amount of physical harm. I hate blurbs. Never trust them.

That said, I’m not exactly disappointed to have missed out on the spinning multiple mystery betrayals, just appalled at the incompetence of the description. In fact, I thought this book began quite well. It is well written and knowledgeable. Witty too, at times even enough to deserve its ‘comedy’ label on the list. I laughed out loud when the narrator describes an implied outburst of ‘fuck Grosse!’ as ‘a comment that was deeply unfair to Mr Grosse, both as an author and a sexual human being.’ Also, early on someone finds previously unknown correspondence uncovering a deep and lasting relationship between Flaubert and some English nanny. In the final note there is a plea to return all the letters and destroy them. The modern discoverer of these game-changing documents promptly does so. As someone who loathed ‘Possession’, I heartily admired his moral code.

So yes, I warmed to this book initially and read merely along about Geoff’s trips to Normandy, about Flaubert’s statues and museums, about the heroic letter burning acquaintance, about what Flaubert thinks about animals, about buying cheese in Normandy, about Loulou the parrot, about Flaubert’s family, about how critics feel about the writers they study, about many many things. Eventually, and with creeping irritation it dawned on me that this novel was no slow starter, it was a no-starter. There was no story.

I suppose, under the circumstances, perhaps I can understand (but never forgive) the blurber’s impulse to emblazon the rear of this text with barefaced lies when faced with a book with no plot. It is a collection of personal musings and tales of Flaubert; his life and legacy. At times it was quite interesting, certainly very informative. I quite liked some of the digressions, like where Geoff makes up rules for new literature ‘There shall be no more novels about incest. No, not even those in very bad taste.’ Some are a bit tiring, like his defence of Flaubert to an imaginary disdainer. Instead of an ending, there is an exam complete with essay questions.

What can I say, this book is novel, but it is not a novel. (lol) I liked the writing. I’ve come away with some interesting insights into the nature of literature and considerable affection for Flaubert. Previously the most concrete fact I could offer on the subject was that Miss Piggy had an anteater named Flaubert in Muppet Treasure Island. I had a vague notion that he was a writer or maybe a poet, but now I’m actually looking forward to reading Madame Bovary. If I were ever teaching a course on Flaubert, this would be a brilliant addition to the reading list, but it’s not a novel.

Witty writing can only keep you going for so long and this book quickly turned into a slog without any sort of plot to drive it. It felt aimless and pointless and that is why I cannot recommend it and it gets a 2. Read it if you’re interested in Flaubert. Otherwise, there are better uses of spare time.

Title Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
When January/February 2012
Why Remembered the title from the 1000 books list, saw it at SKOOB
Rating 2
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Quotes Kaph Liked

Julian Barnes
Necessary in the nineteenth century for the contraction of syphilis, without which no one could claim genius.”
Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot

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Landis thank you! that is exactly how I feel - good not to be the only one!

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