Enough bad books! I knew I could count on Julian Barnes and he did not let me down. I waited to read this book until I had read the Flaubert novelette upon which it was based. Un Coeur Simple is the story of a servant who despite her low position in life and the many losses she endures, maintains her placid ways and her love for those around her. She also maintains her faith, although towards the end she gets a little mixed up and prays to a stuffed parrot given her by a neighbor, as well as to the more traditional Catholic god. After all, she reasons, the Holy Spirit is shown as a dove, so why not a parrot?
The Barnes book is a first-person narrative by Geoffrey Braithwaite, a pedantic doctor whose interest in Flaubert leads him into a search for the actual stuffed parrot that sat on Flaubert's desk as he wrote the story.
First off, hurray! One main character, with layers and layers of complexity to unpack, even if he does talk more about Flaubert than about himself. Secondly, this is one smart book. Not just the details about Flaubert's life and works, but the way they are presented and woven into the narrator's life. By an odd coincidence, I had just finished reading the wonderful Henry James Goes to Paris by Peter Brooks which is about Flaubert's influence on James, well, Maupassant, Zola and Balzac, too, but mostly Flaubert, so I had just been thinking about the relevance of his stories to the way we live—and write—today.
In his final, unfinished book Bouvard et Pecuchet Flaubert stepped beyond the realistic narrative he helped develop and began to play with the structure of the book in a way we would now describe as post-modernist. Similarly, Barnes intersperses chapters of straight-forward narration (though brimming with allusions, of which I barely caught a fraction) with chapters of lists, chronologies, a dictionary, even a bestiary. And yet, amazingly, these games move the story forward, while making me want to laugh and cry from one sentence to the next.
And what is the story? Ostensibly, Braithwaite is trying to determine which of two stuffed parrots was Flaubert's, the one at the Hotel-Dieu in Rouen, where Flaubert spent his childhood and his father practiced medicine, or the one at the museum at Croisset, where Flaubert went to live with his niece at the end of his life. However, Braithwaite is constantly second-guessing himself and his motives. He undercuts his own research into Flaubert, with debates about the value of learning about the writer's life. “Why aren't the books enough?” he asks.
But this book is really about the difficulty of capturing the past. For all his research and reading, his placing of one detail against the next, there is really no way for Braithwaite to know for sure what happened or what someone was thinking. The same handful of facts can be shuffled and made to produce multiple, quite different storylines. Also, a new discovery can change everything, such as finding that the kind of cab used for Emma Bovary's seduction was actually so tiny that such a scene would have been awkward and ludicrous.
Braithwaite's attempt to sort out and understand Flaubert's history turns out to be the method he has chosen to understand—if not recapture—his own past. I found his quest profoundly moving. This is a book I will read again and again.