Kay's Reviews > Flaubert's Parrot

Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes
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's review
Feb 09, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: british_lit, modern-fiction, fiction

Having enjoyed Arthur and George so much, I decided to give this a try. I'd forgotten that Flaubert lived in Rouen, but now that I think back on a visit to that city, I seem to recall having seen some references to him there. It's been so long since I read Madam Bovary that I was scarcely able to dredge up much more from my memory about him, but in the long run it didn't matter so much as this loosely structure novel, ostensibly the idiosyncratic ramblings of a melancholic doctor who was obsessed with all things Flaubert, didn't hinge on knowing much about Madam Bovary other than the fact that she committed adultery.

I found it took a bit of patience to sift through all the chaotic threads and unconnected bits and bobs of this novel. At times it was brilliant, but then it would hare off on some other idea or switch to another genre entirely. However, there was a "method" in the apparent madness -- I won't give that away as it was the wellspring of the plotless plot, but suffice it to say it was there. The chapter in which the doctor reveals his secret is wonderfully done and richly emotional, but then the next chapter suddenly reverts to more irritating trivia. I suppose that says something about how painful the doctor found it to really come to grips with his own life (and thus sought refuge in someone else's), but ultimately the Flaubert theme overpowered the development of the doctor, who appears more of an intrusion than a character per se. Perhaps it was my shortcoming, but I grew impatient with having to wade through more Flaubert trivia than seemed necessary to discover the true root of the doctor's odd Flaubert obsession. I couldn't help but compare Flaubert's Parrot to other novels in which a central character was crippled by an painful memory (such as Sophie's Choice) and wonder if a less erudite treatment would have cut closer to the bone.

One Flaubert quote I gleaned from the novel, however, that I've added to my commonplace book: "'Whatever else happens,' Flaubert wrote when the Franco-Prussian war broke out, 'we shall remain stupid." Funny, that's exactly how I felt on March 18, 2003...

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