The Pequod Review:
In Flaubert's Parrot, Julian Barnes mixes fiction, literary criticism, biography, memoir, and even elements of mystery to create an entirely unique and original novel. Narrated by Geoffrey Braithwaite, an obsessive amateur literary scholar, the novel describes Braithwaite’s investigation into real nature of the writer Gustave Flaubert, and specifically the parrot that Flaubert kept on his desk during his writing of A Simple Heart. The book has insightful sections on Flaubert’s work, but deepest parts question the entire exercise of literary studies and biographical history:
Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well alone? Why aren’t the books enough? Flaubert wanted them to be: few writers believed more in the objectivity of the written text and the insignificance of the writer’s personalty; yet still we disobediently pursue…
How do we seize the past? How do we seize the foreign past? We read, we learn, we ask, we remember, we are humble; and then a casual detail shifts everything. Flaubert was a giant; they all said so. He towered over everybody like a strapping Gallic chieftain. And yet he was only six feet tall: we have this on his own authority…
Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own.
In other sections, Barnes is at his aphoristic best:
He didn’t really like travel, of course. He liked the idea of travel, and the memory of travel, but not travel itself.
Women scheme when they are weak, they lie out of fear. Men scheme when they are strong, they lie out of arrogance.
Pleasure is found first in anticipation, later in memory.
And here is the narrator Braithwaite on the grief of losing his wife:
And you do come out of it, that’s true. After a year, after five. But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil-slick. You are tarred and feathered for life.