Many months after Rahul recommended it to me, I finally got around to reading Flaubert's Parrot, the second novel I've read by Julian Barnes. It's an interesting, well-written novel, and I'm still trying to process exactly what it was doing and how I feel about it.
I tend to be a big fan of stories-that-don't-look-like-stories, like many of Borges's and Barthalme's offerings (short stories disguised as recipes, or literary criticism, or instruction manuals). However, I'm used to just encountering them as short stories; this might be the first time I've read an entire novel that doesn't seem like a novel.
It isn't at all mundane or repetitive, though. Several sections of it read like a memoir. Others present an abbreviated, encyclopedia-style timeline of dates and events. There are counterfactual musings, wherein the narrator plays out what-if scenarios of alternate timelines, and impassioned arguments against straw-man questions that the narrator asks himself. There's even an essay test at the end, complete with multiple prompts and a three-hour time limit.
While the structure shifts multiple times throughout the book, it doesn't feel capricious. As you might guess from the title, the center of gravity for this book is Gustave Flaubert, the great 19th century French author of Madame Bovary, A Sentimental Education, and other fine books. The subject matter sometimes meanders, as the narrator pursues rabbits or drifts into reverie, but it keeps returning to Flaubert.
The book really isn't about Flaubert, though. The book is set in the present day and narrated by the character Geoffrey Braithwaite, an elderly English physician who cares passionately about Gustave. Even during the dry-looking portions of the book, where he lists the facts about Gustave's life, we're receiving those facts as delivered by Geoffrey. It isn't exactly a matter of a narrator being reliable or not; it's seeing the narrator as a human being, and understanding everything we receive from him as having first passed through and been processed by this other mind.
Barnes does some interesting things within the book, even in the sections where Braithwaite recedes from view. In one early example, he gives a dry recitation of Flaubert's life: his birth, childhood, first love, publishing success, maturity, death. You're left feeling upbeat and happy about his life. Then, immediately after, he gives yet another recitation of Flaubert's birth, childhood, love live, professional career, and death. This time, you're left feeling melancholy at his life and depressed by the world. Everything in both sections is (to the best of my knowledge) true, and nothing in one section contradicts the other. You're left to marvel at the immense power of editing: by deciding which facts to include, and how to gloss events, you can completely invert the impact of a true story.
I know that I have a habit of projecting aspects of myself onto characters in novels, so please forgive this, but I can't help thinking of Braithwaite as a bit of a nerd, and the way he approaches Flaubert reminds me a lot of the way I approach my own obsessions (authors, stories, games, subjects). We both find something that we love, and feel an intense need to discover all that we can about it. After devouring the immediate thing itself, we then go abroad in search of supplementary materials: letters, apocrypha, documentaries, eyewitness accounts, criticism. We begin to feel a weird sense of ownership or possession over our beloved, and lash out at those who dare denigrate their talents or character. (Of course, we feel free to offer our own small criticisms, since we know it's coming from a place of love.)
For all that I enjoy writing about Tolkien, or Dragon Age, I can't consider myself an actual critic, because I lack the necessary distance. They've touched me at a deep emotional level, to the point where my own sense of self-worth becomes weirdly bound up in them, and while I can aspire to become an expert on them, I can never consider their quality independently of how they make me feel. This seems to be the case as well with Braithwaite and Flaubert. He recognizes it, too, even as he meets with true scholars near the end of the novel. He just hopes that he can uncover something that scholarship has missed, that he can add to the sum of human knowledge about Flaubert.
Why is this important to him? Part of it might be a desire for acceptance and approval, that would elevate him from being merely an amateur fan to a professional scholar. Part of it might be a desire for self-justification, to prove to himself that all those hours and years spent obsessing over this author were not "wasted," but in service of a greater goal. Maybe he wants the excitement of something truly novel, to be the first person in modern times to know a certain thing. Maybe he hopes for a quiet kinship with the deceased novelist, just the two of them knowing one thing, without all those other Flaubert fans crowding around the published literature. I think it's some of all of these things, and Geoffrey himself can't exactly define it, even while he recognizes that he needs to try.
Geoffrey tries to keep the focus on Flaubert throughout the book, but over time elements from his own life begin to trickle into the narration. We start to get a rough picture of his life: much remains a mystery, but personal details and reminisces start to color our understanding of his background. The most poignant is his deceased wife, who is vaguely alluded to early on, goes away, comes back, leaves again, until at last near the end of the book he devotes a great deal of time to thinking about and mourning their relationship. This task is done with the aid of Flaubert, and Geoffrey can fall back on quotations from Flaubert's novels and references to aspects of Flaubert's personal life as he struggles to extract meaning from his own beloved, difficult marriage.
And, while I hate to crowd my own self in here yet again, it also seems appropriate to do so, since (if you've read more than a few posts on my blog) you know that's precisely what I do as well. I turn to examples in fiction when I try to explain events from my personal life, and I turn to examples from my personal life when I try to process fiction. I have no idea how widespread this sort of conflating is, but it feels familiar to me, and it's interesting that it's rarely portrayed in novels.
Oh! And, while I'm thinking of it, the part of the book that amused me most was probably the section shortly before this, where Geoffrey lists some common criticisms made of Flaubert, and then offers replies to each of them. It was funny because it feels true. That's exactly the sort of thing that runs through my head when, say, I'm on a three-hour-long hike: I'll mentally conduct long, elaborate arguments against imaginary debating partners, and of course I win every time, and utterly demolish the foolish points they tried to make. And, like Geoffrey, I often do this in "service" of something I love: why Tolkien shouldn't be considered racist, or why Dragon Age 2 should be praised for its original story, or why the ending of Pan's Labyrinth deliberately avoids resolving the question of reality, or why you should only own indexed funds, etc. (Which is kind of funny on its own, since I pathologically avoid as much arguing as I can in real life, but quite enjoy it when it isn't real.)
I'm left feeling pretty sure that I missed a lot of what this novel had to offer, but I enjoyed what I got from it. The varied styles and structure of the book were interesting, and the story it gradually reveals is pretty different from what you'd probably expect at the beginning.
Oh, and this feels almost like a philistine thing to say, but the stuff on Flaubert is gripping in its own right. I studied some of his books in college, but never really learned much about the man himself, and even if the rest of the book hadn't been so artful, it would have been worth it to learn more about his interesting life and very interesting relationships.