“Flaubert’s Parrot” by Julian Barnes

It is my ideal book. By saying that I do not mean that it is the best book in the world, kind of war-and-peace-or-crime-and-punishment masterpiece, because it is not. However, it contains everything I love in books. First of all, it is about another author – Gustave Flaubert. Since, apart from novels, I am a big fan of writer’s journals and biographies, I admire Barnes’ idea to put his own admiration for an author and knowledge which is a result of it into a novel. Second of all, this book, being written in 1984, is highly postmodern and metafictional. According to some critics, we no longer live in postmodernism and writing in this mode is passé. And I would have to agree with that but, despite my belief that postmodern techniques have probably petered away, I still find some of its examples interesting and entertaining. One of these examples is definitely Flaubert’s Parrot. In a way it comprises of two parallel stories. The first one is about Geoffrey Braithwaite – Flaubert’s expert who not only recalls his personal memories but also tells the account of Flaubert’s life – and this is the second story. Interestingly, these two parts are not separated; rather the opposite – they are meshed and one results from the other. However, what I find really attention-grabbing is the range of narrative techniques Barnes uses. There is a chronological biography told in three different versions, there is a dictionary, a bestiary, fragments of letters and journals and even parts of examination papers. I am not going to investigate why he actually chose these particular types of narrative. At some point in reading and writing about postmodern literature I realized that kind of choice is, most of the time, a consequence of writers’ inability-to-represent-the-complexity-of-our-reality-ble-ble-ble belief. I just think it is remarkable how efficient Barnes is in all these different styles of writing. Flaubert's parrot

And finally – his sense of humour. I have this old fashioned and rather naive habit of underlining quotes that somehow describe our experience in this world in a more general and objective way. I called it old fashioned since, considering aforementioned “inability to represent the complexity of our reality”, conveying this experience in words, not mention one sentence, is rather undoable; and if someone dares to do it, it comes out as rather Harlequin like. But that is not the case with Barnes. Because of his sense of humour, which I absolutely love, that kind of attempts to generalize world are funny, ironically true and close to reality. One of my favourite examples: “To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness- though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless” (Barnes 166-167). There is also a fantastic list of novels that should never be written again where Barnes ridicules the literary world he lives in. Point nine in the list reads:

There should be no more novels which are really about other novels. No “modern versions”, reworkings, sequels or prequels. No imaginative completions of works left unfinished on their author’s death. Instead, every writer is to be issued with a sampler in coloured wools to hang over the fireplace. It reads: Knit Your Own Staff (Barnes 99)

Luckily, there is nothing about immensely interesting and dead funny books about other writers so I am waiting for another one of that kind. Not a reworking or a sequel, of course, since these are forbidden.

Barnes Julian, Flaubert’s Parrot, London: Vintage Books, 2009.


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