Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Flaubert’s Parrot – Julian Barnes – A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 30, 2009

I have always kept away from biographical novels. This tendency to shun is especially pronounced  if the biographee is a writer. The only biographical work revolving around the life of a writer that I have read is Irving Stone‘s  “The Sailor on the Horseback” – which dealt with the life of Jack London. There are reasons for distrusting this genre of writing. Firstly, it has been my belief that biographical novels about writers can be better appreciated if and only if one is familiar with almost the entire oeuvre of the biographed writer. And in general my reading has been so limited and even within that so dispersed that I can never claim to have covered a meaningful share of the output of any known writer to appreciate the biography of that writer. Secondly, any life is so vast and so complex, that I was not willing to believe in the capability of a biography to capture this complexity in all its richness and detail. Thirdly, there has been an inclination to minimise my curiosity in a writer and countervail it with an enhanced curiosity in the written – this was driven by a belief that the latter will always be more interesting than the former. Lastly, I was also driven by the belief that biographies don’t make for entertaining reads when compared to general fiction. (Mis) guided by these reasons, I for a long while assigned a significantly lower priority to biographies on my reading lists. With the reading of Julian Barnes‘s “Flaubert’s Parrot“, – a biography of Flaubert, I have been conclusively proven wrong on all the counts

It is generally acknowledged that Flaubert is one of the key figures in western literary firmament. James Wood (considered as one of the most eminent critics in English literarture today) credits Flaubert with two important trends. Firstly, of bringing into prominence the first person indirect narrative style and secondly that of introducing the concept of flaneur –  an idle man-about-town – who does the detailed observation and narration wherever there is a need and especially in those situations when the need for authorial presence is forced to be minimal. Barnes highlights a third dimension:  Flaubert‘s pronounced impact in making the transition from romanticism to realism in fiction.  “Flaubert’s Parrot” – is the fascinating biography of this key figure

Written in the form of reminiscence of one Dr. Braithwaite – the book is full of wonderful details about Flaubert and written in an easy, lucid and humorous style. What makes the book fascinating is the meditative quality of Barnes‘s writing which not only captures Flaubert‘s life in its essence but also brings out the originality and freshness of his own thoughts and interpretation around the role of a host of peripheral aspects that surround the life of a writer e.g. critics, friends, family, life experiences, influence of other writers, political climate, personal philosophy, likes, dislikes etc. Barnes‘s quality of abstraction to present the essence and not drown the readers under a mountain of facts makes this book a superbly engaging read. As one reads through the book, one cannot but notice the great sense of reverence and love Barnes holds for his subject and the resulting thoroughness of his research. If I were forced to pick one shortcoming of the book, I would unhesitatingly say that Barnes could have dealt in more detail the third dimension that I alluded to above. For an uninitiated reader the key motivation and joy of discovery would probably also lie there

I would recommend this wonderful book not only as an introduction to Flaubert ( which indeed it was for me) but also an introduction to Julian Barnes the writer. Of Barnes large output, I have managed to read “Arthur and George” and “Cross Channel” in the past and now “Flaubert’s Parrot” — all three have been wonderfully entertaining and enriching reads

One sign of growing up is the ability to recognise past mistakes and biases and make suitable amends. I now have an altered view that well written biographies can make for thoroughly enjoyable reads. However, since one swallow does not make a summer and to test the view that biographies do make for interesting reads, I have now managed to lay my hands on Angus Wilson‘s biography of Charles Dickens viz. “The World Of Charles Dickens” –  I hope, I will be rewarded in equal measure


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