When I chose Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes for a recent book discussion, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the discussion itself. As I read the book, I sensed there would be a strong reaction to it — it was so different from any of the other books we”ve discussed in the group. But by the time I finished it, I seriously wondered if any of my group members would actually come out to talk about it — it was that different.
If you’re not familiar with this title, let me start by saying that it’s not a long book — only 190 pages — so it should be a quick read. But surprisingly, it’s not, because there’s no strong plot line, and it doesn’t move swiftly; yes, each of the 15 chapters tells the reader something new about Gustave Flaubert, the celebrated author of Madame Bovary, but the approach to each section is strangely unique, and so the journey through the book is rather a bumpy ride. As we learn about Flaubert, we also come to know the tale’s narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, who is obsessed with the famous writer, and whose own life seems characterized by many vexing similarities to the literary lion he is relentlessly researching.
Well, here’s what happened. Nine readers showed up to talk about the book, which, by the way, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984, the year it was published. Usually the group numbers 20 or so — apparently the book’s reputation in the literary world didn’t have much of an impact. I started out by asking how many of the group members actually finished the book, and only four people raised their hands. (With me, that made five people in the room who were adequately equipped to talk about the book. Great!) One other person got almost all the way through the novel, but stopped reading before the final chapter. (Quitter!) And another admitted she’d resorted to checking out the Cliff’s Notes on Madame Bovary (so we immediately appointed her our resident Faubert expert!).
Flaubert’s Parrot, in my opinion, is an intriguing book — but obviously, it’s not for everyone, and maybe not the best choice for a book discussion. It’s unconventional in its structure — for instance, one chapter consists of three different Flaubert chronologies, all presented from different viewpoints with different shadings of emphasis, and another is a brief dictionary of the narrator’s accepted ideas. Then there’s the Flaubert bestiary, the train-spotter’s guide to Flaubert, and the Flaubert apocrypha — well, you get the idea. My own favorite is the section on Emma Bovary’s eyes, in which the narrator puzzles over whether they were brown, black, or dark blue — apparently, references in the novel are confusing. The thing about this book is that you definitely have to read all of it to appreciate it (or even to understand it!). Yes, it’s about Flaubert and it’s about Braithwaite, but it’s also about Braithwaite’s disasterous marriage and the terrible pain it brought him.
And it’s also about the parrot that inspired Flaubert while he was writing — whatever happened to it, and what did it really look like? I wanted to read this book because I was interested in sampling Barnes’ writing and also having the experience of getting inside his mind, which is always one of my primary motivations when I decide to read someone whose works I haven’t experienced before. Probably the more you know about Madame Bovary before you start the book, the better off you”ll be. There’s a lot of wry humor in the book — one of the people who did finish it proclaimed that she found it “laughing out loud funny.” But in the end, it may be too much of a challenge for most book groups, without enough of a payoff, in spite of the numerous bits of wisdom sprinkled throughout the pages. I’m still trying to make up my mind if it was worth the risk I took in choosing it.