A friend of mine from my book group of beloved memory (Philly, mid 90’s) said Julian Barnes was one of her favorite authors. So in 1999 I bought copies of Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters; they’ve moved with me twice and I still hadn’t read them. But I dusted off (literally) Flaubert’s Parrot after I read Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary this fall.
Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own. (168)
Barnes’ book is narrated by Geoffrey Braithwaite, a retired physician and amateur but obsessive Flaubert scholar. He discovers a puzzle no one else has: which parrot did Flaubert refer to in one of his books? The book follows his meandering thoughts as he moves in and out of Flaubert’s history and writing, and Braithwaite’s own life. It is an extremely clever book, with multiple meanings and purposes in its pages. The parrot of the title refers not just to a bird, but to Braithwaite, who shares a starting sound and last initial with Julian Barnes, whose entire novel is a parroting of sorts. Like Posy Simmonds’ Gemma Bovery, this is a modern riff on a classic and one that adds much to the reading of both. Good, good stuff. Not sure if it would be as good if I hadn’t just read Mme. B, though.