Book Review: Flaubert’s Parrot

by David Blake, Central Library, Fiction Department

Flaubert’s Parrot
Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes is a Flaubert fan-boy. Were he a Tolkien fan, he’d be the King of the Ringers, but nineteenth century French literature needs its knights, and few knights are as ready for battle as Barnes on behalf of Flaubert. Critics and academicians are the villains to be vanquished.

Flaubert’s Parrot is organized around the mystery of a stuffed parrot that resided on Flaubert’s desk, and became divine in his story "A Simple Heart." As he has researched Flaubert’s life, Barnes encounters two stuffed parrots, both credentialed as authentically Flaubert’s. Before we learn the truth of the parrots, though, Barnes takes us on discursive journeys back to the nineteenth century in long essays about the man himself: his mistresses, his train journeys, his friends, and his petty flaws.

The star of the show, however, is Barnes himself. One imagines an epic battle of epigrams between Barnes and Oscar Wilde, both doubling over with laughter. Opening Flaubert’s Parrot at random will yield plenty to dine out upon on any page. For example, at random, in the middle of a Barnes rant on literary coincidence we read, “One legitimizes coincidences by calling them ironies.”

Among the discursive essays we find a list of Flaubert’s personal nicknames and speculation upon the reason for each. We learn, at length, and with vehemence, the various ways Madame Bovary’s eyes are described by Flaubert, this in response to an academician who criticized the ways Flaubert, the famous realist, had been careless in his description of those eyes. Barnes is on it, and the academic critic is vanquished. We get an A to Z rundown of the great man’s friendships, and ferocious rebuttals of any and all criticisms that may have been directed towards Barnes’ hero. And, we get a telling of the story of Flaubert’s romantic relationship with the writer Louise Colet from his point of view, and from hers, in separate essays.

Julian Barnes received the prestigious Man Booker prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker on three other occasions: this book, Flaubert’s Parrot, England England, and for Arthur & George. His Something to Declare will serve as a welcome, entertaining sequel to Flaubert’s Parrot.

By the way, we do find out about the parrots, but not as we expect.