Monday, November 02, 2009

Flaubert's Parrot (1984)

Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. 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.

One of the things I love about my friend St. Murse is that he will sometimes give or loan me books that he didn't like. This is actually not a bad system since I am a pretty forgiving reader and tend to like 91% of what I read. And, as suspected, I totally liked Julian Barnes' novel Flaubert's Parrot (1984), although I can understand why Murse and others might not like it as much.

Flaubert's Parrot is a kind of post-modern meta-novel that mostly discusses the life, work, and critical reception of Gustave Flaubert (who wrote Madame Bovary, among other things). But that isn't really what it is about. It is sort of about a retired doctor / amateur Flaubert historian. It is sort of about the doctor's wife. It is sort of about reading and writing and criticism. A lot of it is about adultery and marriage and being with someone and being alone. And some of it is about the identification of stuffed parrots and the exact color of red current jam in the 19th century. That Barnes manages to fit all this and more into 216 pages on the life of Flaubert (and to make those pages conversational, readable, and fun) is quite a feat.

If you have never read any Flaubert, hate Flaubert, or rankle at fiction that breaks the fourth wall and employs post-moderny conceits, then this is probably not the book for you. But I really liked it.

And one more quote, because I can't resist:

I can't prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell you one advantage we have over them. We can forget. [They] are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps that is why some critics develop a faintly patronising tone towards their subjects. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn't said anything new for years. Of course, it's her house, and everybody's living in it rent free; but even so, surely it is, well, you know...time?

Whereas the common but passionate reader is allowed to forget; he can go away, be unfaithful with other writers, come back and be entranced again. Domesticity need never intrude on the relationship; it may be sporadic, but when there it is always intense. There's none of the daily rancour which develops when two people live bovinely together. I never find myself, fatigue in the voice, reminding Flaubert to hang up the bathmat or use the lavatory brush...


St. Murse said...

I'm so pleased that you found value where I did not. I've been on a graphic novel kick lately (bless the Houston Public Library and their large collection) and will recommend/loan some absolute winners if you're so inclined.

Spacebeer said...

Some graphic novel loans would be greatly appreciated -- it's been awhile since I've read some comics, and they sound like just the thing...