I seem to be having my troubles deciphering genre lately. First, I read two-thirds of Old School without realizing it was fiction, and then I read the opening pages of Flaubert’s Parrot, by Julian Barnes, and said to myself, “Well, that’s funny, I thought this was a novel, but it’s obviously a biography.” Fooled again! This wonderful, wry, intelligent book is a novel, a biography, a reflection on writing, reading, biography, and on epistemology, all at the same time.
The novel is narrated by a doctor: one Geoffrey Braithwaite. He is an amateur scholar of Flaubert, mildly obsessed, and provides not just the facts of Flaubert’s life, but the scandals, the whispers, the what-ifs too. “A shilling life will give you all the facts,” he says, “a ten-pound one all the hypotheses as well.” He draws heavily from Flaubert’s correspondence and literary works, takes trips to his hometown, and does careful analysis of secondary criticism to give us a real picture of Flaubert the man as well as the author. (I know it’s a real picture, because I studied a fair bit of Flaubert in graduate school. As far as I can tell, every word he says is more or less true — about the “more or less,” see below.)
As the biography progresses, though, we get a better and better picture of Braithwaite, too. His manner. His sense of humor. His philosophy. Why he’s drawn to Flaubert, and what he’d be likely to leave out of a biography — because something always has to be left out. And finally, we learn the most intimate details about him, about his marriage, about his secret life. But are these the things that truly matter?
For some, [he says] Life is rich and creamy, made according to an old peasant recipe with nothing but natural products, while Art is a pallid commercial confection, consisting mainly of artificial colourings and flavourings. For others, Art is the truer thing, full, bustling, and emotionally satisfying, while Life is worse than the poorest novel: devoid of narrative, peopled by bores and rogues, short on wit, long on unpleasant incidents, and leading to a painfully predictable dénouement.
The third thing that emerges as we get to know first Flaubert and then Geoffrey Braithwaite is… that no one is knowable. And how do we know what we know? No biography, no correspondence, no marriage is complete. Two quotations from Flaubert appear over and over: “Les unions complètes sont rares,” and another from Madame Bovary: “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.” No human being can ever quite connect fully with another. How can any biography — even one that is a novel — be accused more than another of being incomplete? And I’m not even going to get started on the parrot.
I was surprised over and over again as I read this book by how much I enjoyed it. The writing was terrific. It was dryly humorous without being smug or cold. It wasn’t shy about loving Flaubert, and it caught me off guard both with sheer interest and with pleasure. Whether you know anything about Flaubert or not, I would highly recommend you give this book a try — it’s well worth a read, and I look forward to more of Barnes’s work.