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Flaubert's Parrot [Paperback]

Julian Barnes
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 1990
A kind of detective story, relating a cranky amateur scholar's search for the truth about Gustave Flaubert, and the obsession of this detective whose life seems to oddly mirror those of Flaubert's characters.
--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Just what sort of book is Flaubert's Parrot, anyway? A literary biography of 19th-century French novelist, radical, and intellectual impresario Gustave Flaubert? A meditation on the uses and misuses of language? A novel of obsession, denial, irritation, and underhanded connivery? A thriller complete with disguises, sleuthing, mysterious meetings, and unknowing targets? An extended essay on the nature of fiction itself?

On the surface, at first, Julian Barnes's book is the tale of an elderly English doctor's search for some intriguing details of Flaubert's life. Geoffrey Braithwaite seems to be involved in an attempt to establish whether a particularly fine, lovely, and ancient stuffed parrot is in fact one originally "borrowed by G. Flaubert from the Museum of Rouen and placed on his worktable during the writing of Un coeur simple, where it is called Loulou, the parrot of Felicité, the principal character of the tale."

What begins as a droll and intriguing excursion into the minutiae of Flaubert's life and intellect, along with an attempt to solve the small puzzle of the parrot--or rather parrots, for there are two competing for the title of Gustave's avian confrere--soon devolves into something obscure and worrisome, the exploration of an arcane Braithwaite obsession that is perhaps even pathological. The first hint we have that all is not as it seems comes almost halfway into the book, when after a humorously cantankerous account of the inadequacies of literary critics, Braithwaite closes a chapter by saying, "Now do you understand why I hate critics? I could try and describe to you the expression in my eyes at this moment; but they are far too discoloured with rage." And from that point, things just get more and more curious, until they end in the most unexpected bang.

One passage perhaps best describes the overall effect of this extraordinary story: "You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on your point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define the net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with string." Julian Barnes demonstrates that it is possible to catch quite an interesting fish no matter how you define the net. --Andrew Himes --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


"Delightful and enriching... A book to revel in" -- Joseph Heller "A gem: an unashamed literary novel that is also unashamed to be readable, and broadly entertaining. Bravo!" -- John Irving "Endless food for thought, beautifully written... A tour de force" -- Germaine Greer "Unputdownable... A mesmeric original" -- Philip Larkin "A wry and graceful book... Unfailingly sharp and often very funny" Sunday Times --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
This may be the most unusual book I've ever read.
Sort of a philosophical treatise on art, writing, Flaubert, the French, compulsion and love presented under the guise of a very arcane literary detective story.
Barnes is a very quixotic and imaginative writer with a definitely skewed view of the world and an engaging and witty writing voice. The musings of the narrator are well formed and allow the reader move along at a brisk pace. It helps that Flaubert himself was a wacky and iconoclastic figure-one of those people we've all heard of but don't really know anything about unless you are some sort of 19th century French literature freak.
This was the first Barnes novel I read and it was so good I have been slowly working my way through his other books, which has proven to be an altogether delightful experience. All of his novels are good-this one stands out from the pack.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What color are Loulou's wings? Aug. 5 2001
You have to have read Madame Bovary (or maybe Cliff's notes on Madame Bovary) to understand the plot. You don't have to have read "Un Coeur Simple" but you probably will after reading this. It's not until three-quarters of the way through that you suddenly realize there's a plot. Until then it's a series of very clever biographical essays about Flaubert. Then you understand why the narrator it obsessed with Flaubert. Then you get equally clever essays about the nature of love and grief. Wonderful insight into the poignancy of bereavement combined with sharp and erudite wit. It may be too erudite and clever for some. It demands a certain amount of francophilia and anglophilia, and understanding phrases like "I might let the TLS have it." I'd always thought it was Nabokov, not Starkie who accused Flaubert of getting mixed up about the color of Emma's eyes. I think he did get get mixed up about the color of Loulou's wings in Un Coeur Simple- at least in the English translation I read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deeply Felt, Highly Literate, Highly Entertaining April 14 2001
By mp
Julian Barnes's novel/fictional biography/fictional autobiography, "Flaubert's Parrot" is a magnificent work. This is the first of Barnes's work that I have read, and it shall not be the last. In it, an admittedly mediocre, aging scholar, Geoffrey Braithwaite, professedly attempts to eschew the accepted notions of literary biography, while pursuing just the sort of minutiae he derides. In the case of Flaubert, Braithwaite becomes obsessed with two stuffed parrots - which is the one that inspired and annoyed Flaubert during the composition of 'Un coeur simple'?
Conventions of narrative, style, and form are dispensed with throughout this work - it is composed of a range of genres (mulit-voiced narratives, chronology, encyclopedia/dictionary, and even essay-exam questions). At the same time, the disparate modes are held together from the beginning by a deeper underlying drive - the uncovering of Flaubert's life and opinions operate as a function of Braithwaite's own unresolved issues with the death of his wife.
For all the Sartre-bashing that goes on in "Flaubert's Parrot," one notices striking resonances between Barnes's novel and one of Sartre's, to wit, "Nausea." In both, exasperated scholars find themselves feebly attempting to write intended biographies (for Sartre, the subject is Monsieur de Rollebon) while exploring their own relationship turmoils. Is this part of the much-discussed 'irony' that Braithwaite emphasizes as present in Flaubert's life and writings? Is Barnes, as the deus in absentia author, manipulating and ironizing Braithwaite's tumultuous search for truth about Flaubert to point out Braithwaite's own inconsistencies?
I digress.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nothing But Net Dec 12 2000
This is not the book that landed The Booker Prize for Mr. Barnes. I have read the novel that did win, "England, England", and I feel this is every bit as good. There are some familiar variants on phrases he has used before, and while not entirely new are not boringly repetitive. I also enjoyed the abrupt changes in point of view, a perspective change that altered the cadence of the novel.
Mr. Barnes has truly assembled this work as opposed to progressing from one chapter to the next. The first clever use of this is when you come upon a Chronology of Flaubert's life. Nothing-unusual here. However Mr. Julian Barnes is anything but another quick wit with a pen. So the reader is treated to 3 distinct Chronologies, the subject is essentially the same, however the only true commonality is on the date they end. The voice they are written in changes, and with this modification the mood as well.
We have a Narrator who loosely guides us through the tale, however a range of stylistic changes intrudes upon his narrative. Intrude is probably too strong a word for it all works, it all makes sense when placed in the complete context of the book. For one example, I cannot remember the last time I read a novel and found myself subjected to a test, complete with parameters, what is not acceptable regarding the form of answer, and finally a time limit. It did cause uncomfortable suppressed memories of literature exams, but the unpleasant moment is blessedly short. It will depend on how fond you were of written tests.
The Parrot is much more than a bird, and even when it does appear as an ornithologist would describe the creature, the number varies widely, as do the locations and clues to the one true bird.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant. Barnes knowledge and love of French Literature woven ...
Brilliant. Barnes knowledge and love of French Literature woven into a modern day context makes this unlike anything else I've ever read.
Published 3 months ago by farida kassum
5.0 out of 5 stars informative fiction
Lots of facts mixed up with fiction It is a must to read alongside Madame Bovary. An eye for detail all the way through and compelling analysis.
Published 19 months ago by elizabeth green
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant! My J Barnes Fav!
I wish I had enough of that literary critic vocabulary and style to convey how wonderfully rich FLAUBERT'S PARROT is. Read more
Published on Oct. 25 2007 by Kirtland Peterson
5.0 out of 5 stars Clever Introduction to Flaubert
This idea-driven novel is filled with brilliant observations, especially in the later chapters, that make me want to read Flaubert. Read more
Published on May 23 2001 by Ethan Cooper
5.0 out of 5 stars Lovely exploration of narrative, time, and life...
A previous reviewer found the use of "clever" literary techniques by the author too much. On the contrary, they form the center of the novel--the possibility of finding... Read more
Published on Feb. 14 2001 by Roger T. Whitson
4.0 out of 5 stars Who would of thought?
Who would of thought some dead French guy from the mid 1800's could be so interesting? I read this book on the recommendation of my brother but with the stipulation I read... Read more
Published on Jan. 14 2001
5.0 out of 5 stars In Search of Unfathomable Truth
At the first sight this book is a story of an elderly English doctor Geoffrey Braithwaite who tries to reconstruct the life of the great French writer Gustave Flaubert in order to... Read more
Published on Dec 1 2000 by Andrew Karbovsky
2.0 out of 5 stars Too tricky
I think that Barnes concentrated too much on being a clever little literary expert and that overshadowed the actual novel. Read more
Published on April 26 2000 by kimp
2.0 out of 5 stars This bok is very hard to read and enjoy.
I don't see why this book gets high marks. To me it is inconsequential, un-entertaining, confusing... It's like throwing a ball in the air and waiting for it to drop back. Read more
Published on Oct. 6 1999
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