Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot (Picador 2002, 190 pages) is the story of one man’s quest, his “project” to find the writer outside his writings, despite Flaubert’s insistence that the books should be enough, the writer should disappear and be left alone. Geoffrey Braithwaite, this amusing novel’s British protagonist, is a medical doctor about sixty. He pursues museums, letters, literary works, criticism, and Flaubert the person in a long quest as unofficial biographer and tireless seeker.
He raises the question why for this activity but doesn’t answer. We may suspect the project soothes him following the death of his wife. Finding the stuffed parrot used as model in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart is part of the quest, but a frustrating experience as to what is authentic. It occurs to him Loulou the parrot in Flaubert’s story might be “an emblem of the writer’s voice” (19). Less heroically, it could also be an emblem of critics and memorabilia hunters—gleaming eye but inert brain. Pursuing Flaubert the person leads to Flaubert the wild man, artist, nihilist. Nothing is to be left out.
As metafiction, Flaubert’s Parrot is a comprehensive vision of Flaubert in a form which may not please everybody. Students, writers, and admirers of Flaubert may be more pleased than those looking for conventional story telling. It concentrates on details of Flaubert’s personality, amours, ideas, and works, not on building dramatic narrative with characters embroiled in a plot.
Its most ordinary chapter, Chapter 3 (“Finders Keepers”), is a humorous account of how Braithwaite was fooled into thinking he would find out about Juliet Herbert, English governess for Flaubert’s niece. Were Flaubert and Juliet involved in something—a possibly romantic and physical something? Chapter 3 has setting, dialogue, rising action. A character named Ed Winterton meets with Braithwaite purporting to have studied letters. Winterton then drops many delicious hints, leading an excited Braithwaite along—until (eyes smiling) Winterton says he has burned the letters to honor the great man’s wishes. Braithwaite reveals some temper.
Additional chapters mount sundry information on Flaubert as with three chronologies of his life in brief notes associated with important dates; a discussion of Emma Bovary’s eyes in connection with the narrowness of an Oxford professor’s critique of Flaubert for inconsistency; a version of his relationship with Louise Colet using her point of view; a chapter titled “The Case Against” in which Braithwaite defends Flaubert against “the worst” that is known about him; Braithwaite’s own “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas”; and, near the end of the book, examination questions for the reader to ponder (or take on, although directions indicate “correctness” is essential to earning marks). The compendium is comical, interesting, digressive, and sometimes reads like a textbook. Some amazon readers have given it low evaluations.
Growling a bit in Chapter 6 (“Emma Bovary’s Eyes”), Dr. Braithwaite—he, too, something of a bear, the animal he says Flaubert is most likely to resemble (“Let me tell you why I hate critics”)—is annoyed with Dr. Enid Starkie, not a fictional character but an actual professor at Oxford circa 1930. Dr. Starkie criticized Flaubert for being “inconsistent” in his novel Madame Bovary with the color of Emma’s eyes (from brown to black to blue). Braithwaite then—in the manner of an efficient critic—examines the six and only references to Emma’s eyes in the novel, and destroys this criticism from Dr. Starkie thusly:
1. (Emma’s first appearance) “In so far as she was beautiful, this beauty lay in her eyes: although they were brown, they would appear black because of her lashes . . . “
2. (Described by her adoring husband early in their marriage) “Her eyes seemed bigger to him, especially when she was just waking up and fluttered her lids several times in succession; they were black when she was in shadow and dark blue in full daylight; and they seemed to contain layer upon layer of colours, which were thicker in hue deep down, and became lighter towards the enamel-like surface.”
3. (At a candlelit ball) “Her black eyes appeared even blacker.”
4. (On first meeting Leon) “Fixing him with her large, wide-open black eyes.”
5. (Indoors, as she appears to Rodolphe when he first examines her) “Her black eyes.”
6. (Emma looking in a mirror, in the evening; she has just been seduced by Rodolphe) “Her eyes had never been so large, so black, nor contained such depth.”
How did the critic put it? “Flaubert does not build up his character, as did Balzac, by objective, external description; in fact, so careless is he of their outward appearance that . . . “ It would be interesting to compare the time spent by Flaubert making sure that his heroine had the rare and difficult eyes of a tragic adultress with the time spent by Dr. Starkie in carelessly selling him short” (80).
Braithwaite’s search for Loulou, the stuffed bird Flaubert borrowed from a museum and which sat on his desk for several weeks during the creation of A Simple Heart, is a central, recurring preoccupation. It leads to his finding more than one candidate claimed to be the authentic stuffed item itself, plus compiling meticulous records of parrot references in Flaubert’s work and his life more generally. For Braithwaite, the bird becomes not merely a possible “emblem of the writer’s voice” with visionary implications, but at the other end of the speculative range a less flattering symbol of human activity.
A parrot is the most human of animals, along with its kin the parakeet, due to its ability to imitate human speech as well as other sounds. This ability may lead humans to think the parrot has supreme powers. On the other hand, its sounds are merely imitations, with no indication of brilliant brain activity. In fact these imitations might also be called “inane” or “stupid.” There is something uneasy about Braithwaite’s fixations. With this melange from the life of Flaubert, do we get a sense of Braithwaite doing Flaubert? If so we might imagine Gustave in heaven snorting, “Stupid! Stupid!” In short, Braithwaite is also targeted for satire in this work.
Braithwaite reports one of Flaubert’s favorite parrot stories, in which a man named Henri K, “afflicted with solitude,” gradually came to revere his parrot as possibly divine. The parrot died, Henri’s isolation increased, insanity grew. He tried to become a parrot, squawking like one, imitating its way of walking, and eventually perching in a tree. The only way to persuade him down was to build a gigantic parrot cage which he entered, and from there he was sent to a maison de sante (58). Braithwaite notes this story delighted Flaubert, and when he came to write A Simple Heart he had Henri K in mind for the creation of the Loulou-Felicite story.
However, whereas Henri K’s case is laid out in Parrot as amusing and fantastic, Flaubert tells Felicite’s story with tenderness and compassion. Felicite in the novella A Simple Heart is nothing like Henri. Felicite is not insane. She is a loyal and capable servant of her employer Mme. Aubain. Like Henri K she is socially isolated, and throughout a long life does not experience personal relationships or romance. At last Mme. Aubain casts off to her the parrot Loulou, and Felicite and Loulou have a fine relationship in which Flaubert shows intimate knowledge of live parrot behavior.
Loulou dies and Felicite has him stuffed but continues to live alone, with Madame also now deceased. She worships the animal, especially due to a light in its glass eye caused by the position of the sun in her room: “Sometimes the sun, as it came through the little window, caught his glass eye, so that it shot out a great luminous ray which sent her into ecstacies.” Years later at the time of her own death “she thought she could see, in the opening heavens, a gigantic parrot hovering above her head” (A Simple Heart, Penguin Books, 1991, 48). Henri’s insanity transfuses to Felicite’s pathos, an indelible image of isolation and suffering every human is aware of and seeks to resist. Felicite remains intelligent and lucid, although deaf, until her death. Her final moments in disposing of her stuffed pet and learning of her illness are calm and self-possessed. She compares to the long-suffering and brave Catherine Leroux in Madame Bovary.
With all Braithwaite’s dedication to parrot allusions and stuffed possible candidates for the bird that Gustave studied in long weeks of composing, the question of Flaubert’s parrot as “an emblem of the writer’s voice” remains to the end of this text. Gradually, the reader senses Geoffrey’s obsession compares to the sentimental illusions of both Henri K and Felicite herself. Whether Henri and Felicite, or Braithwaite, worshipping a stuffed bird is somehow suspect. Despite his passionate defense of Flaubert in everything else, Braithwaite appears vulnerable in his absorption with all this parrot paraphernalia. What would Flaubert think? Geoffrey is also teased near the end of this novel. Although he is the satirist’s mask, a comical voice and research authority, he too succumbs to being humbled. Julian Barnes is not averse to having the tail wag the dog.
In Chapter 13 (“A Pure Story”), as the novel concludes, Braithwaite comes to resemble Charles Bovary. Chapter 13 is the story of what has happened in his marriage and the death of his wife. Both Charles’ Emma and Geoffrey’s Ellen were adulteresses, both died relatively young in excruciating circumstances, both husbands loved them and remained faithful despite their wives’ affairs with other men. In speaking of Ellen’s “interests” in which she went her way quite transparently into her liaisons, Geoffrey offers a hint of his ambivalence regarding his fixation on all things Flaubert: “ . . . unlike me she didn’t have some rash devotion to a dead foreigner to sustain her” (166).
He also repeats lines he has a fondness for: “Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity” (161). This image belongs to Madame Bovary and connects to Braithwaite’s sad tale of his marriage. It embraces stupidity and sadness, littleness and strength, simplicity and genius. If Flaubert can be this profound, in effect defining himself in this single sentence, all the rest is scandal, gossip, and juvenile antics for the tabloids. Dr. Braithwaite’s purposes falter beside Felicite’s and Chapter 13’s pathos.
As with Charles Bovary, Braithwaite’s affection was not matched from his wife. He produces a comment from Flaubert dated 1847 which seems appropriate for both marriages: “Next to not living with those one loves, the worst torture is living with those one doesn’t love” (164). Braithwaite then sums up, again what might apply to both marriages: “We were happy enough; that’s what people say, isn’t it? How happy is happy enough? It sounds like a grammatical mistake—happy enough, like rather unique—but it answers the need for a phrase. And as I say, she didn’t run up the bills” (165).
But this last statement’s flippancy is surely “[l]anguage . . . like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” It is a cover for Braithwaite’s grief over his wife, for life’s endings, and “the black pit” more generally. It is the tragic side of the satirical. Flaubert-like, in this “pure story” of his wife, Braithwaite combines satire and tragedy to sit alongside each other as uneasy companions: smiles and tears, followed by inexplicable pausing and silence.
Finally, in Chapter 15 (“And the Parrot . . .”), pursuit of Flaubert’s parrot has chastened him. He has sought it amongst other Flaubert memorabilia, with at first two possibilities in separate museums, both claimed legitimate. But in this concluding chapter we learn the dubiousness of ever finding the real thing. Somewhat jovially, Monsieur Andrieu, secretary of the Societe des Amis de Flaubert, reveals how unlikely it is to keep a stuffed parrot more than a hundred years, speaks of a fad in France for parrots in the 1920’s, and reminds that Flaubert’s description of Loulou may have been embroidered by his creative tendencies. Braithwaite turns away and ends the book with a visit to another museum, which has three parrots on hand: “They gazed at me like three quizzical, sharp-eyed, dandruff-ridden, dishonourable old men.” He concludes, “Perhaps it was one of them” (190).
This image might suggest Flaubert himself gazing a little scornfully at Braithwaite’s behavior in his sentimental journey amongst the artifacts of the dead writer. The image also provides an emblem of Braithwaite. To review, in Chapter 1 (“Flaubert’s Parrot”), thinking he has found the noble bird, he has raised the question, “Is a reader wrong—worse, sentimental—to think of that parrot at the Hotel-Dieu as an emblem of the writer’s voice?” (19). Of course most important is how Flaubert would answer. The final chapter indicates a resounding Yes. Braithwaite as candidate for stuffed parrot—eye gleaming but vacuous, an effigy—seems here confirmed. It is very interesting when, Flaubert-like, a searcher and a writer—applied now to both Braithwaite and Barnes—can direct the sting of criticism toward himself.
Flaubert’s Parrot is extraordinary for a number of reasons: as satire and humor, enlightenment about Flaubert, 19th century writers, French landscape and geography, perspectives for history, and the brevity of life. It’s also extraordinary in form, whether like a textbook or playfully compiling categories and lists, or inserting character-driven scenes with figures both fictional and real. It’s full of ideas on writing and writers, it takes positions and challenges, and it pays humble and decent homage to the realism Flaubert sought after so diligently. Finished in 1984, this book continues to be interesting and valuable, and a great pleasure to explore.
–Peter Bollington, author of Mechanic of Fortune 2012