Let’s start with the fact that although I have read Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, it was a long time ago. And that is the only Flaubert novel I have read. I have not read, most importantly, A Simple Heart, also known as The Parrot which winds up being central to the plot – or at least what there is of a plot. I had no idea about Flaubert’s family life, his philosophy, or his, shall we say, eccentricities. That didn’t actually detract from my enjoyment of the novel, because I found reading the biographical bits on Flaubert really fascinating. But it certainly may have impacted my ability to decipher the story.
The ostensible plot involves a retired British doctor and Flaubert aficionado, Geoffrey Braithwaite, touring through France in search of the answer to a mystery: which of two ancient stuffed parrots claiming to be so is actually the one that stood on Flaubert’s desk while he wrote A Simple Heart? What, in a nutshell, is the inspiration for genius, appeared to be the question to which Braithwaite was seeking an answer. But what the asynchronous narrative slowly reveals is that Braithwaite believes understanding Flaubert’s life and inspirations will help him understand his own domestic story – one that has the small, sad dimensions of a Flaubertian tragedy.
The book was slow-going, but it wasn’t as heavy as it sounds. In fact, there are quite a few very funny bits. One of the most interesting chapters in the book is entitled “Braithwaite’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas,” which encapsulates the conventional wisdom about Flaubert and his work with tongue-in-cheek encyclopedia entries:
WHORES: Necessary in the nineteenth century for the contraction of syphilis, without which no one could claim genius. Wearers of the red badge of courage include Flaubert, Daudet, Maupassant, Jules de Goncourt, Baudelaire, etc. Were there any writers unafflicted by it? If so, they were probably homosexual. (Kindle location 2525)The book is beautifully written, I’ll say that. But there was something of Joyce’s Ulysses in this to me, so think with literary illusions that I couldn’t get a fix on the book I was actually supposed to be reading. The book ought to come with The Parrot as a pre-req – maybe I would have understood it that way!