This is a funny, playful book. It most definitely does not seem like it should be.
It starts with a nameless narrator looking for a stuffed parrot. I know, I know. But specifically it’s the parrot that the French writer Flaubert used as inspiration while writing his short story “A Simple Heart”, which I also read before starting this. This parrot, we are led to believe, sat on the desk having been borrowed from a museum until Flaubert became so annoyed and frustrated by it he started to resent it. And then, despite this, he wrote a truly beautiful story about a woman who sacrifices so much in her life, only to die in obscurity, experiencing one final vision (or delusion) at the end, seeing a parrot in the sky that she takes for the Holy Spirit.
In this novel, the narrator then goes on to tell the various forms of history about Flaubert. He introduces himself as a physician, retired and widowed, who is an amateur scholar. There is no plot, and only the barest traces of narrative about this narrator seep through the pages. The story itself is what can we make about the life of a writer and how that influences or infects his or her work, and vice versa.
The Flaubert of this novel, whether accurate or conceived, is petulant and entertaining, flamboyant and mercurial. A figure of chaos surely, while the narrator is salty and satirical, but otherwise nondescript.
This novel has a real level of self-awareness and play about it. It’s like Pale Fire but the narrator is perfectly likable.
Here’s some samples about what made this a fun book for me.
From a list of novel tropes he ban as the above dictator:
“2 There shall no more novels about incest. No, not even ones in very bad taste.
3 No novels set in abattoirs. That is, I admit, a rather small genre at the moment; but I have recently noticed increasing use of the abattoir in short stories. It must be nipped in the bud.
6a) No scenes in which carnal connection takes place a human being and an animal. The woman and the porpoise, for instance, whose tender coupling symbolizes a wider meaning of those gossamer threads which formerly bound the world together in peaceable companionship. No, none of that.
b) No scenes in which carnal connection takes place between man and woman (porpoise-like, you might say) in the shower. My reasons are primarily aesthetic, but also medical.
7 No novels about small, hitherto forgotten wars in distant parts of the British Empire, in the painstaking course of which we learn, first, that the British are averagely wicked and, second, that war is very nasty indeed.”
“Let me tell you why I hate critics. Not for all the normal reasons that they’re failed creators (they usually aren’t; they may be failed critics, but that’s another matter); or that they’re by nature carping, jealous, and vain (they usually aren’t; if anything, they might better be accused of over-generosity, of upgrading the second-rate so that their own fine discriminations thereby appear the rarer.) No, the reason I hate critics–well, some of the time–is that write sentences like this:”
The modern mode: either the devil’s mark or the snorkel of sanity. Flaubert’s fiction poses the question: Does irony preclude sympathy? There is not entry for ironie in his Dictionary. This is perhaps intended to be ironic.”
This is not a whimsical book. It’s a witty one, if my distinction is clear. It’s erudite and funny, and very very very British. But I had a lot of fun with it, and now will read a bunch of Flaubert and inflict that on you.