Julian Barnes, the Parrot and the Albatross

Book Review by Tudor Rickards

Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes is widely recognised as a modern classic. It has already found its way on to courses of modern literature, and its author has indicated that he believes it one of his greatest achievements

I came to it only after reading his more recent work, this year’s Booker Prize winning Sense of an Ending. Both books reveal an author deeply aware of literary style. Barnes is a noted literary critic, and in some way I was left wondering if the critic sits like an albatross on the shoulders of the creative novelist.

Creative licence

I admired the intellectual effort which went into the crafting of Flaubert’s Parrot and (to a lesser degree) into Sense of an Ending. In the former, Barnes engages in quite a bit of prolepsis, anticipating and addressing naïve criticism that readers such as myself may incline towards. He challenges us to ask why an author should be compelled to tell a story holding to the established canons of narrative form. It’s an appeal to the creative rights of the artist, and there is quite a bit in the book to enlighten the reader about the nature of the literary issues involved.

The reader’s demands of an author

The book incorporates a melange of arguments (a manifesto?) of the merits and shortcomings of literary criticism. That is not to say the book is not worth some effort in the reading. It does have a story, but as I read, I increasingly wanted to develop more sympathy for the [fictionl] narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, an obsessive medical doctor and would-be novelist in search of unrevealed truth about his literary hero Gustave Flaubert. Barnes had not adequately engaged me (or maybe I had not adequately engaged myself) in the pursuit of the issue as to whether I had any right to make such a demand of the author.

But willy-nilly, in the reading, I had taken on board some of the author’s pre-occupations. I even found a wonderful image about perceptions of reality. The following is a slightly abbreviated quote from p101 [of my 2009 edition].

“The past is a distant receding coastline, and we are all in the same boat. Along the stern rail there is a line of telescopes; each brings the shore into focus at a different distance. If the boat is becalmed, one will seem to tell the whole, the unchanging truth. But this is an illusion. As the boat sets off again, we return to our normal activity: scurrying from one telescope to another, seeing the sharpness fade in one, waiting for the blur to clear in another. And when the blur does clear we imagine we have made it do so all by ourselves.”

Making sense of the past

It set me thinking about the way we attempt to make sense of the past. The meaning of leadership stories, but much more beside. How beliefs are less reliable than we tend to assume them to be. How anxiety sharpens the search for new meaning, which will always be prone to illusions and delusions.

You may also have noted the echo in the quote of the famous dictum from Mao about the sort of leader who influences events unnoticed, so that the followers afterwards believe they achieved things all by themselves.

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