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Flaubert’s Parrot de Julian Barnes : « Un symbole du logos ? »

Aïssatou Sy-Wonyu
Philippe Romanski
Antoine Capet

Precision and Uncertainty in Flaubert’s Parrot

Matthew Pateman

Texte intégral

1Much has been made of the formal ingenuity of Flaubert’s Parrot. The staggering array of genres and styles involved in the book certainly deserves appreciative commendation, but in itself does not account for the novel’s success. What makes a book critically and popularly acclaimed is a topic too vast (and fruitless) to engage with here, but an aspect of Barnes’s third work that seems to me to have been timely for its reception in 1984, is its engagement with notions that I am glossing as “precision” and “ambiguity.” These terms are not, in themselves, precise. I use “precision” to cover a range of notions such as accuracy, fidelity, and detail. “Ambiguity” is used to cover concerns such as relativism, obscurity and doubt. What interests me is the way in which the one group of concepts plays off the other in this novel. It is not the case that the terms are in opposition to each other, but rather that they have a productive and dynamic inter-relationship that allows for the dramatic force of the novel to veer off in unexpected directions.

2I am hoping simply to illustrate a number of those areas where this relationship is especially important or productive. These cover formal aspects of the novel, especially the position of the ostensible narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, in each of the chapters, and also, but more briefly, thematic and descriptive parts of the text, especially the opening few sentences.

3Clearly Flaubert’s Parrot is not alone in Barnes’s writing in expanding the possibility of narrative, of experimenting with a formal dexterity that means each novel seeks a new mode of story-telling, a new direction for narrative. Indeed, it is partly this formal ingenuity that has assured Barnes’s novels their status, especially, perhaps, Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.

4The dazzling diversity of Barnes’s books is not simply a modish whim. Each book, in its different ways, is asking us to reconsider how we view the world, and this consideration is both formal and thematic—assuming that the two can be bifurcated like that. Barnes’s novels are all searching for ways of knowing the world and each other; they all have characters who are striving for some way of finding meaning in an increasingly depoliticised, secularised, localised and depthless world. From the political quietism of Chris in Metroland, to the insane biologism of Graham in Before She Met Me; from the quiet despair of Braithwaite in Flaubert’s Parrot to the substitution of facts for wisdom in Staring at the Sun; from the failure of history in A History of the World in 10 Chapters to the relativism of the present in Talking it Over; from the clash of ideologies in The Porcupine to the death of ideology in England, England to the striving for mythic possibility in Love, etc., Barnes’s novels are a catalogue of the desire for, and the failure to find, a purpose beyond bland being and a position from which judgements can be made.

  • 1 Interview with Matthew Pateman, Leeds Student, 29 Oct. 1993.

5Barnes’s novels offer a polite rebuke to the platitudinous relativism of postmodern culture as well as to the failed pieties that no longer serve. Often regarded as witty and clever, Barnes’s novels are also subdued melancholic meditations. Detached and ironic, they are also softly passionate. Caught between the Beckettian pessimism of waiting “for nothing to happen” [Love, etc. 250] and the attenuated belief of “Such hope!” [Staring at the Sun 11], the nine novels written by Barnes in the last 21 years all ask the readers that they, like the novels, engage in “trying to find new certainties in a moral vacuum.”1

6These certainties, inevitably carry with them the threat of miscomprehension, of being muddled or ambiguous. What makes Flaubert’s Parrot such a rewarding and wonderful book is the extent to which these certainties are often born of ambiguity, and the ambiguities, in turn, give rise to new ways of thinking about certainty. Much of this negotiation revolves around the position of the narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite.

  • 2 John Gross, “Birds of a feather,” The Observer, 7 Oct. 1984.
  • 3 Ibid.
  • 4 Bernard Génies, “Un Anglais, Flaubert et les perroquets,” La Quinzaine Littéraire, 1 May 1986.
  • 5 D. A. N. Jones, “Irishtown,” The London Review of Books, 1-14 Nov. 1984.
  • 6 Michael Wood, “Bovary and a stuffed bird,” The Sunday Times, 7 Oct. 1984.

7Geoffrey Braithwaite is a gruelling narrator. He mixes irascibility with charm, pedantry with liberality, and presence with absence. Not only that, he seems at times to be a sardonic cipher for the author behind him, at others the author’s churlish uncle. So entwined do author and narrator seem to be that some readers of the book have proclaimed that Braithwaite is not really in control at all. So, for example, John Gross in his review of the book writes that “[E]ven our sense of him [Braithwaite] as being responsible for the narration tends to come and go...”2 More radically, the indeterminacy of Braithwaite’s position in the text has led many critics to elide Braithwaite as narrator with Barnes as author. There are references, among others, to “Braithwaite (or Barnes)...,”3 “M. Braithwaite, pardon, M. Julian Barnes nous tient par le bout du nez,”4 “Dr. Braithwaite—or Julian Barnes...,”5 and to Julian Barnes hiding “discreetly behind Braithwaite.”6

8Even without the spiky debate concerning Barnes’s intrusion into Braithwaite, there are good reasons to feel a little guarded about our responses to our erudite escort. His delight in the muddled and unruly is made clear when he states:

I prefer to feel that things are chaotic, free-wheeling, permanently as well as temporarily crazy—to feel the certainty of human ignorance, brutality and folly. [Flaubert’s Parrot 66]

9This emotional or even theological position is also, it would seem, a structuring principle of his narrative. Not that Braithwaite’s narrative is brutal or ignorant, but it is, in large degree, free-wheeling, even chaotic. More precisely, Braithwaite’s position as narrator is extremely uncertain. This is not just the case in the sense that he is sometimes hesitant or reluctant to impart information, although he is certainly, and self-consciously, that as he demonstrates when discussing novels: “As for the hesitating narrator—look, I’m afraid you’ve run into one right now” [Flaubert’s Parrot 89]. It is a more deeply embedded sense of uncertainty at the structural level that is of interest here.

10If we look at the chapters in sequence and try to discover Braithwaite’s influence as a narrator, it becomes clear that while we may be able to assume the presence of him, we cannot always detect the presence of him. Chapter one appears straightforward, with Braithwaite telling us of the discovery of the parrot. Even here, however, the very opening implies a third-person narration that only becomes clearly first-person after the quotation that opens this paper. Chapter 2, “Chronology” adopts an encyclopaedia-style format for the first two sections where impersonality of narrative voice is the norm, with the exception of the use of the first person plural as both subject and object, but the extent to which this includes Braithwaite is debatable. The first person singular usages are all quotations from Flaubert or his contemporaries. Chapter 3 is a simple case, with Braithwaite telling of his meetings with Ed Winterton. “The Flaubert Bestiary” operates as a list of animals followed by a discussion which, like chapter two, assumes a generally passive tone or uses the first person plural, and quotations that are sometimes glossed and are other times free-standing and without editorial intervention. This is the case until the entry for “parrot” where Braithwaite talks in the first person singular, and this continues in the next entry under “dogs.” Chapter 5, “Snap!” begins in the first person and then assumes a more “scholarly” demeanour in the discussion of the moments of irony. “Emma Bovary’s Eyes” is a splenetically-charged first person encounter while the next chapter, “Cross Channel” invokes an unnamed interlocutor who may be an assumed reader. “The Train-spotter’s Guide to Flaubert” has an avuncular-academic register but is still very much Braithwaite, and the academic note, although less avuncular, continues into the next chapter along with a voice that is Braithwaite’s even if the pronominal tags are not much in evidence. “The Case Against” has our narrator back at his irritable finest rebuking the italicised inanities of his platitudinous opponent. In response to one anti-Flaubertian criticism, “That he was beastly to women” [Flaubert’s Parrot 135], he asserts that he will reconstruct Louise Colet’s version of events. The very next chapter is “Louise Colet’s Version.” Clearly, there is a strong indication that this is the fruition of Braithwaite’s idea. To suppose otherwise is plausible but, to my mind, unhelpful. However, even if it is Braithwaite’s planned version, it is clearly the case that for this chapter at least, Braithwaite is not the narrator: he may well be its author, but he is to all intents and purposes absent from the text. He reappears as the maker of an ironic dictionary in the next chapter, and then he engages in a form of confessional in “Pure Story,” the chapter in which much of the anxiety relating to Ellen is addressed. “Examination Paper” returns to the quotation-list-cod academic register of other chapters, with Braithwaite’s voice very much to the fore, and the final, non-concluding chapter sees Braithwaite at its centre.

11The reason for this far from exhaustive, but perhaps already too long, description of Braithwaite’s various levels of presence in his narratives is to suggest that the novel’s structural design is as much a part of the probing of uncertainty as some of the more explicit comments in the text. I shall come to some examples of the thematic presentation of uncertainty shortly, but for the moment I would like to continue with the production of Braithwaite himself as a totem of uncertainty.

12As the previous quotations indicate, many critics regard Braithwaite as a version of Barnes, and they see the novel as an expression of Barnes on Flaubert and Barnes on contemporary debates about the status of knowledge and so on. Clearly, the author of the novel is at pains to distance himself from his creation, and this is seen initially by the claim that the translations in the novel are by Braithwaite who is, in turn, indebted to Steegmuller. If his structural unevenness and speculations on history, biography and knowledge all tend towards an articulation, even a celebration, of the uncertain, then his attention to detail, his wish for precision seem to pull in the opposite direction. He makes this explicit when he states, “Mystification is simple; clarity is the hardest thing of all.” Equally, however, clarity and directness “confuse” the issue [Flaubert’s Parrot 102].

13This confusion is evident in any attempt to locate Barnes unproblematically alongside his narrator. There are three episodes in the novel where Barnes’s relationship with his narrator is particularly interesting. The first two simply to serve to demonstrate the dangers of assuming any sort of direct correspondence between writer and narrator, of trying to secure a reading of the novel through recourse to author biography. The third episode demonstrates the ways in which the relationship between writer and narrator can be interesting in the effect it has on the stability of the text and on the narrator.

  • 7 J. Barnes, “The Giving of Offence,” Times Literary Supplement, 23 Oct. 1981, 1228.

14The first two episodes are related to Braithwaite’s accounts of literature, the first to do with Flaubert, the second with the Thirties poets. When defending Flaubert against the accusation “That he teaches no positive virtues” in “The Case Against,” Braithwaite berates what he calls the “tactical hypocrisy” [Flaubert’s Parrot 133] of some defence counsels in obscenity trials. In response to the question of whether a book is sexy or not, Braithwaite rejects the answer “No, M’lud, we hold that it would have an emetic, not a mimetic, effect on the reader.” in favour of the response “M’lud, we bloody well hope so” [Flaubert’s Parrot 133]. This position is very similar to the one espoused by Barnes when reviewing a book about the making of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. In response to the charge that the film was blasphemous the Python’s defence was that this was not the case and even if it were the case then true believers should have enough faith not to be worried by it.7 Braithwaite, and in this instance, Barnes would prefer the reply “For Christ’s sake, M’lud, the matter’s as clear as the loincloth on the Crucifixion” [Flaubert’s Parrot 133].

  • 8 J. Barnes, “To suit the Occasion,” Times Literary Supplement, 3 Feb. 1984,. 113.
  • 9 J.-P. Saigas, “Julian Barnes n’en pas fini avec Flaubert,” La Quinzaine Littéraire, 16 May

15It would be wrong to mistake this congruence as some sort of proof of author-narrator identicality, however. As part of Braithwaite’s version of the Mauriac game, he states his dislike of “[...] the Auden-Spender-Isherwood crew (preaching socialism as a sideshoot to homosexual law reform)” [Flaubert s Parrot p.97]. Here Braithwaite’s views and language are very similar to those expressed by Auberon Waugh in his Essays, Articles and Reviews. This book was reviewed by Barnes and heavily censured by him for Waugh’s espousing of these ideas.8 The extent of the discontinuity between writer and narrator was spelt out by Barnes in an interview with Jean-Pierre Saigas. When asked by Saigas if he shared Braithwaite’s opinion of these poets, Barnes replied “[...] j’aime beaucoup Auden, Spender et Isherwood.’9

16This simply demonstrates the ways in which a too-easy elision of writer with narrator is likely to unfairly limit the creative scope that the writer has demonstrated in the construction of his narrator. An episode which is more interesting in terms of the creation of narratorial voice is that in which Braithwaite is lamenting the poor state of Flaubertian scholarship. He mentions having read a recent novel in which the narrator discusses “[...] the first, suppressed edition of Madame Bovary” [Flaubert’s Parrot 78]. As Braithwaite goes on to point out, there was no first, suppressed edition of this novel and suggests to the author that he sort this anomaly out in time for the second edition. The book about which Braithwaite is talking is, of course, Metroland by Julian Barnes. At its simplest level what we have here is an author creating a narrator who chastises the author for a mistake in which a previous narrator said something factually inaccurate.

17This reference, once recognised, further illustrates the relationship between precision and uncertainty. The chiding of the author by Braithwaite indicates the level of precise knowledge he has about Flaubert, and about Flaubertian scholarship. This precise pique, however, has the dual function for the reader of establishing Braithwaite as a narrator of rare erudition, but also of calling attention to his fictional existence. This is the case to the extent that Braithwaite’s knowledge of his ostensible object of study, Flaubert, is recognised as being expansive and detailed. His role as narrator-biographer is, therefore, enhanced. Further than this, though, is his awareness of the responsibility of the narrator to his readers. He excuses William Golding’s mistake about the type of lenses Piggy would have had to have in order to make a fire in Lord Of the Flies as an “‘external mistake’” [Flaubert’s Parrot 77] which would hardly be noticed (as with the mistake in Metroland) and which, even if it were, would not “set fire to other parts of the novel” [Flaubert’s Parrot 77]. What he is less ready to excuse are “‘internal mistakes’” when the writer claims two incompatible things about his own creation [Flaubert’s Parrot 78]. The reader then is presented with this almost as a statement of intent, that Braithwaite will be as accurate and honest as he can be. We accept his integrity, his knowledge, his attempt at precision, accuracy and truth at the same time as having to accept that he is Barnes’s construction and that, through him, Barnes is playing games that promote ambiguity, distortion and uncertainty.

18If the structure of narration is such that the reader finds uncertainty in precision and precision in uncertainty, then this is augmented by the commentaries and opinions of Braithwaite. Not the least of these is the way in which Braithwaite attempts to make sense of himself. If the reader has a sense of him coming and going from the narrative, this is partly because Braithwaite is unwilling to disclose himself head-on. He prefers to reveal himself, if at all, through his relation with other people, Flaubert especially, rather than by asserting truths about himself. To this extent, he follows in the footsteps of Mauriac and his game [Flaubert’s Parrot 97]. He declines to play because he does not consider himself to be of great enough “importance” [Flaubert’s Parrot 97], although it would appear to the reader as if the entire Flaubertian discussion is simply one very focused version of Mauriac’s Mémoires. In those memoirs, Braithwaite tells us, Mauriac

finds himself by looking at the works of others. He defines his own faith by a passionate anger against Gide the Luciferian. Reading his “memoirs” is like meeting a man on a train who says, “Don’t look at me, that’s misleading. If you want to know what I’m like wait until we’re in a tunnel, and then study my reflection in the window.” [Flaubert’s Parrot 96]

19The sense of self, following this model, is contained by the continual reflection, deferral and difference from others. In this fashion the self can be discontinuous, although this discontinuity is supplementary to, as opposed to other than, a linear conception of selfhood. Braithwaite as narrator is intermittently present in his narrative as a definable “I,” and much of our perception of him is derived from his accounts of and glosses on Flaubert’s life. In this sense our knowledge of his self could be said to be discontinuous to the extent that we are piecing him together from the disparate bits of information with which we are provided. At the same time however, that piecing together occurs during the course of the novel, in a linear-sequential fashion. In other words the narrator seems to obstruct, or only partially allow, the construction of the character.

20This constant blocking of our access to Braithwaite is simply one symptom of the ways in which the novel produces a sense of uncertainty. As readers, many of the expected attributes of a narrative are attenuated or distorted. This warping, though, is not, for Braithwaite, a reason to forgo the details and subtlety of description and exegesis. Quite the contrary, in fact, there is an attention to accuracy and precision that verges on the pedantic, at times. I want to approach this aspect via what might appear to be the circumlocutory route of Roland Barthes. In his extraordinary work of self-criticism Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes he writes the following:

  • 10 Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes in A Roland Barthes Reader, ed. Susan Sontag (London: Vintage, 1993 (...)

I Like, I don’t like: this is of no importance to anyone; this, apparently, has no meaning. And yet all this means: my body is not the same as yours. Hence, in this anarchic foam of tastes and distastes, a kind of listless blur, gradually appears the figure of a bodily enigma, requiring complicity or irritation. Here begins the intimidation of the body, which obliges others to endure me liberally, to remain silent and polite confronted by pleasures or rejections which they do not share.10

  • 11 Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot (London: Jonathan Cape, 1984), 84.
  • 12 Susan Sontag, "Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes" in A Roland Barthes Reader xvi-xvii.

21Geoffrey Braithwaite does not endure Roland Barthes liberally. After the partial list of Barthes” likes that he quotes, Braithwaite comments, “[I]t’s enough to make you drive all the way to south-west France and strew beetroot on the lanes.”11 Barthes, of course, is not alone in inducing Braithwaite’s irascibility. Sartre, Ledoux, contemporary novelists, Enid Starkie: all of them, and a host of others, feel the poised opprobrium of our narrator. Yet, Barthes is an odd case in the novel. Whether Braithwaite is aware of it or not (and given that he has read at least his list of likes there is reason to suppose he is aware) Braithwaite’s preferred mode of narrative organisation shares a curious affinity with the French academic. For Barthes, the discontinuous form, the non-linear or, as Susan Sontag puts it, “serial” method is that which he favours.12 This would appear to be Braithwaite’s preferred mode, too. Much of the critical discussion that surrounds Flaubert’s Parrot has been focussed on the extent to which it is or is not a novel, and this itself has been partly predicated on the book’s structure which, following Sontag, I shall call “serial.”

  • 13 J. B. Scott, “Parrot as Paradigms: Infinite Deferral of Meaning in Flaubert’s Parrot” in Ariel: A (...)

22The book’s tangential and seemingly discontinuous narrative form has led a number of critics to question the novel’s status as a novel. The blurb on the jacket sleeve called it a “book,” not a novel, and the American publishers Knopf subtitled it “a novel (in disguise).” This disguise has been variously labelled as: “trans-generic prose text” by J. B. Scott; “part novel and part something else” by Richard Brown and “palimpsestically constructed” by R. Todd.13

  • 14 While a certain strained similarity might be seen between this book and Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécu (...)
  • 15 Flaubert’s Parrot 95.

23This “serial” construction, as has been described, allows Braithwaite the freedom to set ideas in motion, to hint at relationships and to organise his narrative in a way that is not bound to a simple tale-telling. And this, it might be thought, is odd. Braithwaite clearly admires Flaubert, both as a man and as a writer. One may have suspected that among the submerged references to Madame Bovary (the doctor and the unfaithful wife, the chiming of the initials to their names) there may have also been an attempt to emulate the structures of the great man’s great works.14 Yet Braithwaite is mùch more of a product of the world that Barthes grew up in than the one of Flaubert. Braithwaite is keen to assert that, whatever the structuring principles of Flaubert’s work, these arose out of the necessity of the themes (“Style is a function of theme” he says on page 88 and iterates a little later with reference to his brilliant discussion of lonely hearts advertisements.)15

  • 16 Flaubert’s Parrot 18.

24Braithwaite’s structure, then, follows a Flaubertian principle and this produces the need for the discontinuous, serial narrative that we are presented with. The Flaubertian principle produces a style that has affinities with Barthes, the French intellectual (or at least an example of the genus) who may have talked about “un symbole du Logos’16 much, it can be inferred, to Braithwaite’s irritation.

  • 17 Flaubert’s Parrot 118-19
  • 18 A Roland Barthes Reader 420.
  • 19 A Roland Barthes Reader 420.

25Not, of course, that Barthes should be read as an antithesis to Flaubert. The academic’s essay on the novelist is a deeply passionate engagement with the question of Flaubert’s style, especially, as its title suggests, with his sentences. Flaubert wrote and finished monumental novels but left unfinished Bouvard et Pécuchet, seemingly had plans for an autobiography, planned “Une nuit de Don Juan,” and also his “Flemish novel.”17 Barthes likewise, but more conveniently listed, has a number of planned books, most notably in the current context A Compilation of Visual Stereotypes.18 The interest in this lies in the example given after the projected title of the enterprise. Barthes uses, as an illustration of a visual stereotype the following, “Saw a North African in dark clothes, Le Monde under his arm, paying court to a blond girl sitting in a café.”19

26This potential for stereotype is one with which Braithwaite’s narrative opens. Far from the solitary semi-predatory figure of Barthes, however, Braithwaite’s North Africans are plural, there are six, and they are engaged in that most typical of French pastimes (to an English consciousness, anyway): playing boules. Moreover, they are doing this beneath a statue of Gustave Flaubert. The potential that the great semiologist saw for stereotype in the figure of the North African is here extended by our English medic.

27Indeed, the opening to the novel exposes in the most beautiful detail the clamouring voices that permeate this text (trans-generic or otherwise). Stereotype builds on stereotype in order to present a picture of something like authenticity. The North Africans, with their immediate resonance of recent French political history, colonial struggle and continuing significance in French cultural life supersede this too-easy reduction to a single mythic reading by appropriating one of the dominant mythemes of Frenchness. This assertion is itself too dogmatic, however. The real power of the opening of the novel to posit a number of different readings on the actors (ignoring for the time-being the possibility of there simply having been six North Africans playing boules that the narrator enjoyed and thought worthy of mention) is in the precision of the sentences used to describe them.

28Thematically, the opening invites speculation concerning recent French history, the relationship between this and the North Africa of Flaubert’s day and of his representations, the notion of Frenchness and so on. The opening is not a precise consideration of these speculations and there are many reasons to suppose that the passage is purposefully uncertain about how it wants the presentation to be read. It is however very precise in the description of the actions and posture of some of the people involved.

29Describing one of the players, Braithwaite (at this point still hiding shyly behind the pose of a third-person narrator) writes, “The thrower remained a stylish, temporary statue: knees not quite unbent, and the right hand ecstatically spread” [Flaubert’s Parrot 11]. We have here a number of precise and gorgeous moments of writing. There is the juxtaposition of the energetic, statuesque, vibrant boule player with the monument to Flaubert. There is the fleeting hint of rapture and mysticism (beautifully and bathetically aligned with the game taking place). And there is one of the most perfect descriptions of a stance in 20th century British literature (I haven’t done an extensive survey of “stance-writing” but it is hard to imagine a more delightful one). This description, precise though it is, is not without its own uncertainty, though. How unbent, exactly, does a leg have to be before it becomes bent? Is there a point at which the bent versus unbent position of the knee is indiscernible? Are both knees unbent to the same degree, and if not what might be the implications of this for the thrower? And so on. These questions may not rank highly in the great questions of literary criticism, but they are it seems to me pertinent in relation to Braithwaite. The great chaser after precision and fact (redcurrant jam, fatness, the size of carriages, the shade of blue) sets up his tale with a descriptive phrase that urges the reader to find a mental image equivalent to its exacting promise but that ends up a mathematical and physiological chaos. And this, of course, follows an opening sentence whose simplicity and seeming completeness (“Six North Africans were playing boule beneath Flaubert’s statue” [Flaubert’s Parrot 11) has itself acted as a lure to spectres of the semio-mythological, and thence, as we discover shortly, to Roland Barthes.

30The novel does not ultimately decide in favour of either precision or ambiguity. Indeed, one of the strengths of all Barnes’s novels is that they imaginatively engage with but do not seek to find answers for the questions surrounding precision and ambiguity—or, in a rather short-hand way—faith.

31Gregory in Staring at the Sun had stated that God does not need to be just, God only needs to be true. Stuart, in Love, etc., lacking a god, places love in its stead, but he discovers that true or not, just or not, the attainment of your desires (the fulfilment of your belief) is not an end, it does not provide contentment or relief. Braithwaite in Flaubert’s Parrot had paraphrased Larkin to ask about the wisdom of rushing into fulfilment’s desolate attic. In Love, etc. again, Stuart states that when “things were impossible, they were clearer” [Love, etc. 249]. Lacking or gaining truth, living with or without gods or their substitutes; neither position seems desirable.

32Oliver also in Love, etc., seeks a disappeared world and can never be happy in this one. He rejects science and business and is adrift in his mythological needs. Unlike Graham Hendrick in Before She Met Me who, with terrible consequences, welcomed genetics as an explanation for life, as a sort of religious principle, Oliver recognises but does not accept it:

Nowadays we just tippy-tip our toes in the circus sawdust to the whipcrack of DNA. What is human tragedy for today’s diminished species? To act as if we have free will knowing we don’t. [Love, etc. 197]

33Barnes’s novels have constantly probed the possibilities of “today’s diminished species,” provoking questions about how characters respond to the modern world with its enormous growth in science and technology, its shifting political organisation, the demise of old truths and the formation of new ones. Barnes’s novels are formally inventive, challenge questions of the true and the false, scrutinise history, dispute ideas of character and the self, and probe the line between precision and uncertainty.

34From opening sentence, to early description, to invocation of Barthes, to serial structure, to the narratorial evanescence of Braithwaite, to the teasing games of the author, to the discussions of subjectivity, history, literature, Flaubert, death and knowledge, to the competing chronologies, the letters of friends, the censure of critics, the nature of cheeses, the fate of piers, the role of lovers and, of course, the choice of parrot, Flaubert’s Parrot delights in overwhelming its reader with detail and fact in order to produce a final shadow of uncertainty. Precisely.



Barnes, Julian. Metroland. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980.

—. Before She Met Me. London: Jonathan Cape, 1982.

—. Flaubert’s Parrot. London: Jonathan Cape, 1984.

—. Staring at the Sun. London: Jonathan Cape, 1986.

—. A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. London: Jonathan Cape, 1989.

—. Talking It Over. London: Jonathan Cape, 1991.

—. The Porcupine. London: Jonathan Cape, 1992.

—. England, England. London: Jonathan Cape, 1998. Love etc. London: Jonathan Cape, 2000.

—. “The Giving of Offence,” Times Literary Supplement, 23 October 1981,1228.

—. “To suit the Occasion,” Times Literary Supplement, 3 February 1984,113.

Barthes, Roland. A Roland Barthes Reader. Edited by Susan Sontag. London: Vintage, 2000. Brown, Richard. “Barnes, Julian (Patrick)" in Henderson, Lesley, ed. Contemporary Novelists. London: St. James’s Press, 1991.

Génies, Bernard. “Un Anglais Flaubert et les perroquets," La Quinzaine Littéraire, 1 May 1986.

Gross, John. “Birds of a feather,” The Observer, 7 October 1984.

Scott, J. B. “Parrot as Paradigms: Infinite deferral of meaning in Flaubert’s Parrot.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 21,3:57-68.

Saigas, J.-P. “Julian Barnes n’en pas fini avec Flaubert,” La Quinzaine Littéraire, 16 May 1986. Wood, Michael. “Bovary and a stuffed bird,” The Sunday Times, 7 October 1984.

Jones, D. A. N. “Irishtown,” London Review of Books, 1-14 November 1984.

Pateman, Matthew. “The Trials of Julian Barnes,” Leeds Student Independent Newspaper, 29 October 1993.


1 Interview with Matthew Pateman, Leeds Student, 29 Oct. 1993.

2 John Gross, “Birds of a feather,” The Observer, 7 Oct. 1984.

3 Ibid.

4 Bernard Génies, “Un Anglais, Flaubert et les perroquets,” La Quinzaine Littéraire, 1 May 1986.

5 D. A. N. Jones, “Irishtown,” The London Review of Books, 1-14 Nov. 1984.

6 Michael Wood, “Bovary and a stuffed bird,” The Sunday Times, 7 Oct. 1984.

7 J. Barnes, “The Giving of Offence,” Times Literary Supplement, 23 Oct. 1981, 1228.

8 J. Barnes, “To suit the Occasion,” Times Literary Supplement, 3 Feb. 1984,. 113.

9 J.-P. Saigas, “Julian Barnes n’en pas fini avec Flaubert,” La Quinzaine Littéraire, 16 May

10 Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes in A Roland Barthes Reader, ed. Susan Sontag (London: Vintage, 1993), 418.

11 Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot (London: Jonathan Cape, 1984), 84.

12 Susan Sontag, "Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes" in A Roland Barthes Reader xvi-xvii.

13 J. B. Scott, “Parrot as Paradigms: Infinite Deferral of Meaning in Flaubert’s Parrot” in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 21, 3: 58; R, Brown, “Barnes, Julian (Patrick)” in Contemporary Novelist 79; R. Todd, “Confrontation within Convention: On the character of British Postmodernist Fiction” in Postmodern Fiction in Europe and the Americas 21.

14 While a certain strained similarity might be seen between this book and Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, it is clearly the case that Barnes has produced a strikingly new and original narrative form that is diminished if it is seen as simply a Flaubertian imitation. In interview at the conference, Barnes suggested that there may have been unconscious ways in which Flaubert’s unfinished masterpiece influenced the construction of Flaubert’s Parrot but that there was no explicit effort to do so.

15 Flaubert’s Parrot 95.

16 Flaubert’s Parrot 18.

17 Flaubert’s Parrot 118-19

18 A Roland Barthes Reader 420.

19 A Roland Barthes Reader 420.

© Presses universitaires de Rouen et du Havre, 2002

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