Thursday, 15 March 2012

Review - Flaubert's Parrot

Oh readers, I am tired. As the wise man never said, but should have, if you fly to another country for 24 hours, and then immediately get on a train to the Midlands for another 24 hours, do not expect, when you finally get back to London, to be able to do anything more meaningful than sit and stare blankly at the wall. This week I had things to do and people to see, and I ended up just lying in a prone position and reading all 500 pages of Tipping the Velvet, because it was near me and I couldn't move and it turned out that my brain needed an enormous helping of delicious faux-Victorian literary comfort food to recover itself properly.

Whilst I was on my travels, though, I read something that (to continue the food metaphor) was not so much bountifully delicious as thin and sandy and requiring a lot of mental digestion. Flaubert's Parrot is by Julian 'Arthur and George' Barnes, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984 and appears on the (accursed) 1001 Books list. It is a book with pedigree, and from the very first page you can tell that it is going to be Very Clever.

To be fair to it, I think it required the kind of attention and brain-power that, at that particular moment in time, I wasn't able to give, and so it merely left me feeling Very Confused Indeed.

I have to admit, I thought Flaubert's Parrot was actually going to be about a parrot. Obviously, I am not postmodern enough. Fool that I was, expecting a linear story with a single viewpoint to the narrative! Actually, it's a clipped up and deconstructed let-me-dazzle-you-with-my-playful-erudition quasi-biography of Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary and also other less famous books.

Every chapter is presented differently - one's Flaubert's key dates done three ways, for example, and another's his life from the perspective of his mistress. The title comes from the fact that Gustave not only enjoyed comparing himself to animals, but may or may not have owned (or borrowed) a parrot, which may or may not now be on display in a museum, and may, in fact, be more than one parrot, which may (or may not) be in itself an amusing story. Julian Barnes thinks it is. I'm not so sure.

I think I found this book so difficult to like because of an early and never remedied failure to care about either Flaubert or his parrot(s). I suspect that Flaubert's Parrot would have worked an awful lot better had I come to it knowing anything at all about Gustave Flaubert apart from the fact that he wrote Madame Bovary. The reader (I think) is meant to experience a delighted recognition - ah! Flaubert, that old rogue! I never knew he liked camels/ wrote about soup/ went to Egypt! How jolly! - whereas all I experienced was a low-level but persistant annoyance and a general sense that I was Missing Important Jokes.

Flaubert's Parrot is one of those books in which an academic makes snippy, sniping in-jokes about other academics. This tends to either work beautifully (see: Possession) or go horribly, horribly wrong (see: most other books with this plot device). In this case, I think it went the way of the latter option. True, there are some good digs at critics who are needless nitpickers (I've read far too many articles like the 'What Colour are Emma Bovary's Eyes?' one he takes the rip out of), but the general effect is both elitist and oddly stressful. There's a particularly mad chapter where the narrator frantically defends Flaubert's honour as a writer against the (theoretically) hostile reader - but since I don't know anything about Flaubert, I personally don't have any complaints to raise against him. So why (I wondered) am I being yelled at? The whole project, in fact, comes over (or at least it did to me) as being just a little too cranky to be fun, too much of some random dude riding his weird little hobby horse all over my brain.

Actually, the narrator's slightly more interesting than I just made him sound. Geoffrey Braithwaite - a Flaubert enthusiast/maniac, of course - starts off seeming like he's just going to be a Julian Barnes avatar, an older middle aged white man who's a bit lonely and pedantic. But, just like in Arthur and George, Barnes pulls a smart little identity trick, and who Geoffrey is, and why he's writing about Flaubert at all, turns out to be, to some extent, the point of the book. I admit, it's clever, and when I finally got it I looked back on what I'd just read in an entirely different way.

But all the same, my overall impression of Flaubert's Parrot was of something far too clever-clever for its own good. I came out of it feeling, not that I was friends with Flaubert, but that Geoffrey Braithwaite was, and that Geoffrey Braithwaite was slightly crazy.

Not one to read lightly.

2.5 stars.

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