Friday 21 May 2010

Flaubert's Parrot

I came to this book at the perfect time. I had just recently read and enjoyed Madame Bovary. Emma Bovary gave me my first introduction to 19th century French literature, and wow, Flaubert certainly wasn't anything like Jane Austen or The Brontes! I am now rather intrigued by Flaubert, son of a doctor, who clearly learnt a lot of contemporary medicine growing up at the Hotel- Dieu.

In Madame Bovary there's an amazing chapter describing the tenotomy that Charles Bovary performs on Hippolyte, the village stable hand who has been getting around perfectly well with his club foot. Sadly, Charles isn't much of a surgeon and the operation does not go well. The account of his further surgery is harrowing. In that chapter Flaubert makes mention of Ambroise Pare and Guillaume Dupuytren.

Flaubert's fascinating tale of Madame Bovary combined with the tantalising glimpses into the history of medicine made it almost compulsory for me to fall into the thrall of Flaubert. I'd heard of Flaubert's Parrot but never been particularly interested because I've read one Julian Barnes book before, the incredibly awful England, England which was somehow shortlisted for the Booker in 1998. So it was with some considerable trepidation that I borrowed this book from the library. Only to learn that it was based around the parrot that featured in A Simple Heart (Un Coeur Simple). So, I read that too before embarking on Flaubert's Parrot. Turns out I didn't really need to. Barnes' gives a two paragraph summary early on to explain why Flaubert needed to borrow a parrot from the Museum of Rouen to help in his writing of Un Coeur Simple.

Flaubert's Parrot has perhaps the most bizzare structure that I've ever come across in a novel. Indeed, it makes one wonder if this really is a novel. Barnes himself said that he wanted to mix of fact and fiction, elastic and capacious, and expected a small audience.

A great article from the Guardian.

Flaubert's Parrot makes us ponder why we should chase the writer? Because it's so damn interesting is my basic response I suppose. And Flaubert is a perfect case in point. I so wish that our upcoming trip to France could include Rouen. I would take Flaubert's Parrot with me to reread, and to walk the locations of the book, to gaze at the Hotel Dieu, to find the pictures of Flaubert. Last months Good Reading had a great article on the Flaubert trail in Rouen.

Writers are interesting in a way that actors for example can never be, IMHO. I can't understand why week after week newspapers are filled with articles about actors. When almost any other profession is more interesting in and of itself. And most of the magazines that fill the supermarkets one week and then landfills the next are choc full of articles about actors.

I think it was in this book that Braithwaite said that he was going to "save Virginia Woolf til he was dead". Sage advice, think I'll take that on board too. I fact I already have. Perhaps it should be one of my daily affirmations just in case I feel my resolve slipping.


Anonymous said...

Well here you have commented on two that I have yet to read. I'm ashamed to admit that I still haven't read Madame Bovary and I bought Flaubert's Parrot not so long ago because I haven't read that either. Have to agree with you about England, England, I read this years ago and couldn't see what the Booker fuss was all about.

Louise said...

There are so many great books to read Lisa. I'm know that you've read tons more than I have. I was just really interested to read Madame Bovary last year when BGL did it. Because of my near total ignorance of such things I didn't know anything at all about the story, I merely wanted to read it because Flaubert was French. It's a good read, and a great contrast with the British writings of the same time. I borrowed Flaubert's Parrot from the library fully expecting to take it back unfinished, all because of the England, England terror. But it was so fantastic, it made me keen to try more Barnes at some stage. And I'm sure that both books would benefit from a rereading- at least for me. I didn't know anything about George Sand etc, so it was all very fascinating.

Hannah Stoneham said...

Louise - this is a wonderful post which I enjoyed reading a lot. I am very interested in life writing and especially literary biography. Like you I think that half the time writers just seem to have had a really interesting time during their lives - but also I think that there is something so tempting about the idea that you can trace connections between how they lived, what they did and what they wrote. Now, this idea is very dangerous as well. It would be, I think, wrong to assume that all fiction was in some way a reflection of the author's life - but at the same time, these patterns are very obvious in some writers.... anyway - I enjoyed Flaubert's Parrot a few years ago - the strange structure helps to get you thinking I think.
Fabulous piece, thank you for posting!


Louise said...

Thanks for your generous and kind comments Hannah. It's interesting but I rarely (if ever) read literary biography. I should be interested in it, much more than I am really. Perhaps if I had more time.... I usually just google authors a bit and read some newspaper interviews too. I find that fascinating, and it seems to be enough to satisfy my curiosity- as long as I can find something interesting, sadly for more obscure authors information can be hard to find. Very often you can see where the story has come from by understanding the author's life and circumstance. Obviously that isn't always true, but often it is, it gives the book context. The last book that I finished was Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, an American childrens book published in 1961. There are great parallels between the authors childhood and that of Billy in the book, who spends much of his time hunting racoons, running through the forest at night with his two dogs. Also amazing to learn that Rawls only had a very basic education as a child. He was embarrassed by his lack of formal education, and actually burnt his copy of the book before it was published and then rewrote it in 3 weeks after encouragement from his wife. Now that's a great story in itself and just makes the book so much more fascinating to me.