Thursday, December 14, 2006

Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes

For a long time all I knew of this novel was the title and that it was post-modern and meta-fictional, so for some reason that led me to believe it was narrated by a parrot. And that led me to not read it for quite awhile (not that there's anything inherently wrong with a novel narrated by a parrot.) I really can't imagine why I leapt to that conclusion, but this is in no way a book about or by a parrot. It's a clever Kundera-ish expansion of what a novel can do. Some critics call it a satire of literary criticism, but if that was all it was it wouldn't be of much interest--what an easy target, after all. Instead it combines the first person woes of an academic while throwing in literary criticism, literary biography, and yes, satire. But it's simultaneously satire of lit crit (the grand puzzle that frames the novel is which of two stuffed parrots was Flaubert's inspiration) while working as a piece of lit crit (My favorite bit is the list of all the things the narrator would ban from literature) and as what seems to be a pretty sincere bit of author-love for Flaubert. Since it's told in first person it actually struck me as largely realist in that this guy would obsess about these things. This is the way he'd tell his life story because his life is so wrapped in Flaubert's. In other words, it would be less realist if bits of Flaubert bio were thrown into a third person narrative or a first person narrative of a non-Flaubert-related character. So the novel is post-modern metafiction but not randomly so.

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