Nothing to be Frightened of

Thomas Jones writes:

The 21-year-old narrator of Julian Barnes’s first novel, Metroland (1980), suggests that ‘everyone has a perfect age to which they aspire, and they’re only truly at ease with themselves when they get there. I suppose with most people it’s between 25 and 35.’ For him, though, he imagines it’s ‘a sprightly 65’. The narrator of Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), Geoffrey Braithwaite, is a sprightly 65, or thereabouts. He’s a retired, widowed doctor, whose wife, Ellen (note her initials), was serially unfaithful: in other words, he’s a sprightly updating of Charles Bovary, however much he would resist the comparison. In his defence, Braithwaite might point out that ‘Charles n’était pas de ceux qui descendent au fond des choses,’ while he is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of which of two competing museums in Flaubert’s hometown of Croisset houses the stuffed parrot that the novelist borrowed from the Natural History Museum in Rouen to perch on his desk while he wrote ‘Un coeur simple’. The answer is almost certainly neither. ‘Do ironies accrete around the ironist?’ Braithwaite asks. It’s a rhetorical question, with – ironically – more facets than the man who asks it realises. The novel’s title has many, proliferating referents, but not the least of them is its narrator: Braithwaite himself is Flaubert’s parrot, not only because he’s always quoting him but also because he is living vicariously through his obsession with him, having already in his marriage recapitulated a bathetic version of the plot of Flaubert’s most famous book – but he lacks the self-awareness to see any of this.

(LRB 17 February 2011)

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