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In which long-time bird lover Netty meets Flaubert’s Parrot …

October 20, 2012

ImageSo many books and so little time … that is the standard argument, and indeed précis, behind this Reading Challenge. But even still, having just read Flaubert’s Parrot – my first foray into the work of Julian Barnes – I am quite gobsmacked that it has taken me all of my 29 or so (ahem) years on this planet to getting around to reading this decorated English writer. Especially when I may or may not have had a copy of his A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters on my bookshelf for, ooh, about 15 years now … (loud sigh).

There’s not really a helluva lot I can add to Andy’s words (see below) on this book – we pretty much agreed on everything. It’s certainly one of my most enjoyable reads for the year. And what surprised me the most was the wicked vein of humour that runs through these pages – here I was assuming (and we all know what happens to those who assume) that Barnes was a bit of a dour, straight-laced Pom. I should have known better, really (and maybe should take a little less notice of Martin Amis on the subject!)

Now, I know I should have read Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 novel Madame Bovary by now, but to be perfectly honest, I am the first to admit I am not very well versed in the classics. It was on my radar at one stage a few years ago now when it formed part of the plotline of, interestingly, The Sopranos (the best TV show of all time, in my humble opinion). In season five, separated from Tony, Carmela has an affair with her son’s school counsellor, who recommends the book to her, seeing parallels between her and the title character. Note, I thought to myself, read Madame Bovary, stat. Then, of course, the intention got lost in the abyss somewhere …

But Andy is dead right when he says you don’t need to be familiar with Flaubert’s best-known work to enjoy Barnes’ Parrot (you also don’t really need a working knowledge of French, as Barnes – clearly a Francophile – scatters phrases “en francais” throughout the text, but I personally found it helpful). Indeed, I have not read any of Flaubert’s canon, but Barnes and his protagonist Geoffrey Braithwaite offer the reader a detailed history of the Frenchman’s life and times. The parrot of the book’s title refers to a stuffed parrot that sat on Flaubert’s desk as he wrote Un Coeur Simple; the main plot strand outside all of the hypothesising, rhapsodising and musing over Flaubert involves Braithwaite trying to track down the original parrot – two separate museums claim to house the bird.  Frankly, the final denouement in the case of the parrot is a bit of an anti-climax, and while initially an intriguing concept, it is probably the least interesting – as well as least successful thing about the book. But I can’t stress enough that this is a very, very minor quibble – in fact, the only one I have.

Everything else I loved – it is an extremely well-written piece of prose, with nary a wasted word (it clocks in at just under 200 pages). As I’ve noted, it is wittily snortable (I snorted regularly during my reading). It is terribly – and, most importantly, successfully – post-modern in its tone and structure (there is a chapter containing three alternate chronologies of Flaubert’s the life, the last of which is composed entirely of quotes from his journals; another entitled “The Flaubert Bestiary” identifies the writer with a veritable zoo of animals and examines their imagery in his work; there’s a train-spotter’s guide, the railways being such an integral part of 19th-century Europe and thus Flaubert’s life, even though he supposedly immensely dislikes trains; “The Case Against”, which, as the title suggests, reads like a court ruling; a chapter told from the viewpoint of Flaubert’s long-time – and long-suffering – love, the Parisienne poet Louise Colet; a “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas”; hell, there’s even an “Examination Paper”, with Barnes possibly pre-empting the fact that his book would one day land on English lit students’ reading lists?). In short, Barnes leaves no stone unturned in his examination and re-examination, through the eyes of Geoffrey Braithwaite – of Flaubert. You even get to learn a fair bit about Braithwaite – and possibly why he is so obsessed with the Frenchman.

Parrot was written in 1984, Barnes’ third book and the first of his four Man Booker Prize shortlistings (he finally won last year for The Sense of an Ending).  Now in his mid-60s, he has 11 novels under his belt, as well as several collections of stories, journalism, essays and a memoir. He has also penned a half-dozen-ish novels of crime fiction under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh (the maiden name of his late wife Pat, the English literary agent who also represented the aforementioned Martin Amis, but was famously dumped by him in the mid-1990s, triggering the severing of his friendship with Barnes. My research also tells me that Kavanagh left Barnes briefly in the 1980s to pursue a relationship with the writer Jeanette Winterson – who wrote a book about it, 1987’s The Passion – before returning to Barnes).

This is a smaller-than-normal blog (no, really!), but Andy pretty much said it all in his entry, and anyway, I’ve gotta run. There’s a certain copy of A History of the World whinnying (it’s spring racing carnival time, so I thought I’d get a horsey reference in!) at me from a distant bookshelf and demanding to have its turn. And let’s face it, on the strength of the Parrot, it’s way, way overdue.

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