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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes 
9th-Aug-2007 08:20 pm
Apologies. I'm about six book reviews behind where I should be. Watch me try to catch up. >_<

Barnes, Julian. Flaubert's Parrot. 1984. New York: Vintage, 1990.
          Summary: Amateur Flaubert scholar Geoffrey Braithwaite on everything Flaubert and on the mystery of the stuffed parrot that appears in his writings. Which of two parrots with claims to authenticity is the real one? As it turns out, though both come from the same museum as the one Flaubert used, neither have an indisputable claim to authenticity.
          Comments: Whoa. Talk about a Flaubert fanboy. Overaged fanboy by my personal definition, actually--he is both old enough to know better, and his fannish devotion is distorting his perception of reality. Which, of course, is the whole point of this exercise. There is a sense that his interest in Flaubert and Madame Bovary stems from his unfaithful wife, but the central conceit of the novel (err...is this a novel?) is that standard post-modernist one: that reality is fundamentally uncertain. To that end, we have it all: three competing chronologies, the mystery of Juliet Herbert, a "Dictionary of Accepted Ideas" (Flaubert Universe Version), an imagined testimonial from girlfriend Louise Colet, and anal-retentive analyses of the most nitpicky of subjects in Flaubert's novels and other writings.
          In short, Braithwaite is arguing that art relies upon truth and that truth in turn is understood through art. Or, at least we make a good try of it all. Because, as noted earlier, it's all permanently up in the air. The primary narrative conceit, that of the two parrots, drives this message home beautifully. One of the parrots might be Flaubert's parrot, or neither of them might be. Either way, their respective authenticities were predicated upon Flaubert's description in his writing of the model parrot he used. Unfortunately, this only works if he in fact wrote a faithful representation of reality, which is not guaranteed. The answers--and the past--are ultimately unknowable.
          Thank goodness the novel was funny. If it hadn't been, all this maundering, about an author whom I haven't read since high school and did not find all that exciting back then, would have been unbearably tedious. I especially liked Braithwaite's hypothetical list of types of stories and themes that, if he ruled the world (or, at least, the literary world) that he would ban from the presses. Absolutely hilarious.
          Notes: trade paperback, 21st printing
          Rating: 7.5/10 - Erudite and entertaining. But if you aren't into the highest of highbrow literary fiction, avoid at all costs.
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