The critic and the fan share a tendency to project either what they relate to through their own experiences or what they want (hopes) onto their intended targets – the artists they respect, the artist they assess and/or criticize.
The retired widowed doctor narrator of FLAUBERT’S PARROT by Julian Barnes is an obsessive fan of the late French writer Gustave Flaubert author of MADAME BOVARY. In the first ¾’s of this book, his story is less important than Flaubert’s which primarily consists of his analyzing the writer through a number of odd criteria such as Flaubert’s sexual experiences, his hatred for trains and the burgeoning French railway system and his love for animals represented by the titular parrot, a stuffed bird that sat on his desk while he created his masterpieces. The parrot is part red herring part rosebud and the clever ending leaves it to the reader to make his own judgement which of the two better suits it as a description.
This was one of those books that start off in a loose, disparate way pleasant, nothing more but then the bolts slide into place and the whole contraption comes together like one of the traps in the SAW films.
I particularly was impressed by the chapter written in the fictional voice of Flaubert’s mistress, her tone and attitude was more than a little reminiscent of Molly Bloom in ULYSSES as was the chapter late in the book where the the narrator opens up and relates the story of his slightly unhinged wife another Molly Bloom acolyte.
At one point early on, Barnes presents us with three different timelines one after the other. The first one is the dashing version of Flaubert’s life, the life of a man of letters, a celebrity, a literary adventurer. The second one is the much less romantic, more prosaic ( and slightly depressing) “real life” version of Flaubert’s life. The third one is Flaubert’s life as told by his own quotes.
Those interested in the life of a writer they read for whatever reason also gets three versions or more of the truth. I feel this book was deliberately written in the voice of someone who actually doesn’t get it and who harps on trivialities and views Flaubert through the prism of his own personal issues. How this is brought out is just brilliant.
This book is deceptively brilliant-a cleverly laid out little trap-much to think about after reading it (such as what is the next Julian Barnes book I will read J ).