This Bird Has Hown

Flaubert's Parrot By Julian Barnes Alfred A. Koopf; 190 pp.; $13.95

FLAUBERT'S ARTISTIC rested on his well-known statement the "author in his book must be like God in his universe, everywhere present and nowhere visible." All of his efforts to refine himself out of existence would prove, on the surface, futile, however: his desire for incorporeality, that the "artist must manage to make believe that he never existed," is never quite achieved in any of his fiction and completely betrayed by his published correspondence. Flaubert's letters, in which profound statements on art and deeply personal confessions coexist with mordant wit and bloodcurdling obscenity, constitute as full a self-portrait of the artist as we are likely to get from any writer.

Still, the middle ground between life (with a small l) and Art (with a capital A) is slippery at best, and the debate about their relationship remains a moot point on which many commentators have impaled themselves. In Floubert's Parrot. Julian Barnes winds thin strips of fact and interpretation around Flaubert like gauze bandage in an attempt to fix a rough outline, a makeshift profile--to make the Invisible Man of letters visible.

In the literary bestiary, Flaubert's Parrot is actually a centaur--a splendid hybrid with the scholarly countenance of literary criticism and the powerful headquarters of a good novel. Such crossbreeding of genres is not mythical or even uncommon in 20th century literature--take Nabokov's career, for example, which includes a novel in the guise of an annotated poem. Pale Fire, and a literary biography that's also a comic masterpiece. Nikolai Gogol. What makes Julian Barnes's achievement so remarkable, however, is the sheer lack of artifice and pyrotechnics involved.

Novels about literary creation are often hermetic, closed like the library stacks of a writer's mind. To gain full access into Joyce, it would be necessary to know exactly the languages and to have read exactly the books he did--to become Joyce, in other words Flaubert's Parrot is formally challenging and richly allusive--French literary history is constantly invoked, even on the level of sentences like "Ed had pondered the menu as if he were Verlaine being brought his first square meal in months" --but it always includes the reader, even the one who may never have given Madame Bovary more than a quick once-over in high school.

GEOFFREY BRAITHWAITE, the narrator, a sixtyish widowed doctor and impassioned amateur Flaubert scholar, buttonholes us with a barrage of offbeat facts, quotation from Flaubert's letters, meditations on his art, and opinions on literature in general. He's obsessed with his subject, and gently craws the reader into his obsession:

"If you quite enjoy a writer's work, if you turn the page approvingly yet' don't mind being interrupted, then you tend to like the author unthinkingly. Good chap, you assume. Sound fellow....But if you love a writer, if you depend upon the drip-feed of his intelligence, if you want to pursue him and find him--despite edicts to the contrary--then it's impossible to know too much. You seek the vice as well."

Through its fictional conceit, Flaubert's Parrot illustrates, among other things, how scholarship can and should be an expression of passion, a declaration of love.

The novel begins and ends with an bit of literary taxidermy. The loose structure is contained within the story of Braithwaite's search for the stuffed parrot which served as the model for Loulou, the parrot of this housekeeper Felicite in Flaubert's tale "Us Center Simple" ("A. Simple Heart"). More than the trivial by-product of Braithwaite's loopy obsession, the quest for the real parrot becomes a tongue-in-beak metaphor for the essence of Flaubert:

"You could say that the parrot, representing clever vocalisation without much brain power, was Pure Word. If you were a French academic, you might say he was symbole de Logos. Being English, I hasten back to the corporeal: to that svelte, perky creature I had seen at the Hotel-Dieu. I imagined Loulou sitting on the other side of Flaubert's desk and staring back at him like some taunting reflection from a funfair mirror. No wonder three weeks of its parodic presence caused irritation. Is the writer much more than a sophisticated parrot?"

The novel crosscuts between Braithwaite's monologues and the fruit of his scholarly pursuits. "The Flaubert Bestiary" traces various animal metaphors and ancedotes in Flaubert's correspondence. "Emma Bovary's Eyes" uses that topic as a jumping-off point for a spirited polemic against various schools of Flaubert criticism. "Louise Colet's Version" is an imaginary reconstruction of the opinions of Louise Colet, to whom Flaubert wrote his greatest love letters, but whose replies are unfortunately lost forever. In "Braithwalie's Dictionary of Accepted Ideas," he indulges in a latter-day variant of Flaubert's favorite sport, bourgeois-bashing. And the penultimate chapter. "Examination Paper," is just that. This is all great fun, scholarship that's playful, clever, and not without a certain profundity to boot.

Braithwaite's hot pursuit of Flaubert trivia is the scholarly equivalent of a lover singing the praises of his beloved's toes, but it's also a statement about the ultimate futility of biography on a large scale. The second chapter, entitled "Chronology," gives a Rashomon-like series of perspectives on Flaubert's lifeline, all strictly factual and yet entirely contradictory. Once the big picture is safely relegated to the dusty attic of preceding scholarship, Braithwaite gives us his Flaubert--thin slices through the tissue of the writer's life along various thematic points. We can never know everything about a writer, but we can know nearly everything about his attitude towards trains, for example, which brings us at least that much closer to his essence.

IN HIS witty, self-effacing and very British way, Braithwaite also has a lot to say about contemporary fiction in general. His opinions are marked by their forthrightness, as in his assertion that he's "saving Virginia Woolf for when I'm dead," or his hilarious skewering of Marquezian pyrotechnics; "A quota system is to be introduced on fiction set in South America. The intention is to curb the spread of package-tour baroque and heavy irony....Ah, the daiquiri bird which incubates its eggs on the wing; ah the fredonna tree whose root grow at the tips of its branches, and whose fibers assist the hunchback to impregnate by telepathy the haughty wife of the hacienda owner; ah, the opera house now overgrown by jungle."

Of course, there's more to the novel than scaling the heights of Braithwaite's brow in pursuit of Flaubert. At the heart of Braithwaite's literary musings lies an attempt to come to terms with his own life, his failed marriage, and the death of his wife. The issue of the relation between Flaubert's life and art gradually dovetails into the narrator's biography. His attempts to understand are shot through with melancholy, as the past remains elusive: "My wife: someone I feel I understand less well than a foreign writer dead for a hundred years. Is this an aberration, or is it normal? Books say: She did this beacuse Life says: She did this." Barnes keeps the details of his narrator's life purposfully vague: the novel's complex and subtle design involves a sublimation of the personal into the scholarly, but Braithwaite's inner struggles remain the generating force.

In a broader way, Flaubert's Parrot also reflects the strange relationship with French culture that the British have always had, a profound--and mostly unreciprocated--appreciation existing under the shadow of centuries-old contempt and mistrust. (It's no mistake that France 1848-1945. The best and most comprehensive book on French culture, should have been written by an Oxford professor, Theodore Zeldin.) Braithwalie is a Gallophile as only an Englishman can be, revelling in the wine-tasting, the pharmacies, the road signs, the myriad facets of everyday, life with a delight unmediated by the ever-present chauvinism of the French: "The light over the Channel, for instance, looks quite different from the French side: clearer, yet more volatile. The sky is a theatre of possibilities. I'm not romanticising." The central chapter of the book, in which all the themes come together, is even symbolically cast in the form of a conversation during a Channel crossing between Braithwaite and the reader, his fellow traveler.

Paradoxically, Flaubert's Parrot is an extraordinarily successful novel about failure, about the emptiness that remains in the scholarly grasp of anyone who tries to completely recapture the past. At one point, Braithwaite says in an aside: "I know this. Sometimes the past may be a greased pig; sometimes a bear in its den; and sometimes merely the flash of a parrot, two mocking eyes that spark at you from the forest." Braithwaite's--and the novel's--wisdom lies in his realization that the overgrown byways of literary history may not lead anywhere in particular, but the stroll itself yields immeasurable self-understanding. He does find many guises of his subject along the way, just as he finds many stuffed parrots while rummaging through the museums of Rouca, but Flaubert probably succeeded in his artistic credo after all--this bird has flown.