Flaubert’s Parrot – Andy gets in a flap with Julian

October 15, 2012

Not that Flaubert’s parrot had much chance to flap. Not when Flaubert knew it, anyway.

Flaw Bear. I’m reasonably certain that’s how it’s pronounced. And I completely disagree with the suggestion, made, apparently by one of Flaubert’s friends after the writer’s death, that Bovary should be pronounced Bovvery. To rhyme with bother, but with an “ee” at the ends. Bollocks to that. Alzhough I guess if you try it wizz a Fraunch acsaunt…

I really enjoyed this. I shall pre-empt Netty and let you know that she did too. She’s never read Madame Bovary. I have, but so long ago I’ve forgotten most of it. A detailed knowledge of Flaubert’s masterpiece will make Julian Barnes’s novel even better. But you don’t actually need to know too much about Bovary to enjoy the Parrot. It’s funny and enlightening and entertaining and – gobsmacking – even maybe sort of educational, and you don’t need to know who Emma Bovary was fucking on the side to appreciate all of this.

Arguably, a criticism: it’s arguable this is a novel. Although it is, I suppose. But then it’s also a piece of literary criticism, although you don’t necessarily have to know the book to appreciate the wit. And it’s also a critique of literary criticism – you certainly don’t have to have read the book to enjoy (and laugh at) the discussion of Emma Bovary’s eye colour. It’s rich in historical detail about Flaubert and his acquaintances and his time, and that detail is hugely interesting and entertaining (and sometimes obscene, which is both interesting and entertaining, and fine by me). But the emperor’s clothes Barnes puts all this in to call it a novel – Geoffrey Braithwaite, Flaubert afficianado, whose wife Ellen (EB, get it?) cheated on him repeatedly (get it?) and then topped herself (get it yet?), Geoffrey Braithwaite ( the G I suppose being as close to the C of Charles Bovary, Emma’s husband, as Barnes was prepared to go – Cyril probably wouldn’t’ve cut it) travels to France, to the places Flaubert frequented, and does some research. And gets obsessed with a parrot. That doesn’t actually appear in Bovary. I’m not sure that particular storyline passes muster.

So “novel” is arguably arguable. But it’s still damn good. Barnes is funnier than I expected him to be – he’s supposedly, notoriously much more serious than his former chum Martin Amis, something Amis apparently satirised viciously and bitterly and yes, I’m sorry, rather hilariously in The Information – and he’s also much easier to read than I expected. Like Murakami, I approached Barnes with some trepidation, assuming he’d be dense, difficult, dastardly. OK no one expected them to be dastardly, I just made that up. Barnes is a little denser and a little more difficult than Murakami, but ironically also makes a little more sense.

I’ve read one other of Barnes’s novels, The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize last year. It’s much more obviously a novel than the Parrot, and the first half especially is simply magnificent. It fails slightly, I think, in the second half, but it’s still an amazing work of fiction. The Parrot doesn’t fall into that category. But it’s cheekier than his Man Booker winner. And that’s a good thing. Barnes, like Murakami, joins the To Explore list.


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