October 24, 2012 by Me and My Monkeys
Geoffrey Braithwaite concedes that his biographer’s net is “a collection of holes tied together with string”. He constructs Flaubert from fragments, shadows and reflections.
This is the “hesitating” narrator (Braithwaite) trying to save the Author (Flaubert) from the guillotine of Barthes, Foucault and other hit-men.
The power of this novel isn’t undermined by it also being as good a biography as you’re likely to read. As Braithwaite/Barnes says, “history is merely another literary genre: the past is autobiographical fiction pretending to be a parliamentary report”.
But Braithwaite’s report on “a foreign writer dead for a hundred years” is just one of ‘[t]hree stories that contend within”. The other stories – those of himself and of his dead wife – are so deeply submerged that the real motifs of the novel are avoidance and escape.
“Ellen’s is a true story; perhaps it is even the reason why I am telling you Flaubert’s story instead.”
The virtually unspoken depths of despair and confusion in Braithwaite’s life are vividly assumed amidst the Flaubertian noise. He is “seemingly absent” yet “hauntingly present”.
Awash with histories, love affairs, animals, minutiae and several layers of ironies, Barnes deserves the Legion D’honneur, if not a Booker, for Flaubert’s Parrot. He didn’t have to wait too long.
Out of 10? A very strong 8, with some moments of 10+.
My monkeys suggest:
- All three Schrödingerian parrots belong to Flaubert. And none of them do.
- Read Madame Bovary first.