The Content of a Life: “Flaubert’s Parrot”


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What does it mean, to have lived? What have we left behind when we go? If someone were to tell the story of our life, which story would they tell? Which one is true? What does that all even matter?

These are the questions that Julian Barnes tried to answer in writing “Flaubert’s Parrot.” The title refers to a stuffed parrot Flaubert had on his desk, of which two authenticated versions are displayed in France. Which one is real? Who even cares?

Just as the narrator of the novel seeks to figure out which parrot is real, he spends most of his book turning the life of Flaubert over in his head, looking at it now from the angle of a critic, now from the angle of Flaubert’s longtime lover. Every dissecting piece of the novel is true, and yet not true–if everything’s true then what does true even mean after all?

I may be recounting this in a really confusing way, but I promise Mr. Barnes is way better at it then I am. He adds humor in unexpected places, poignancy where there could easily be silliness, and a fantastic sketch of life. Because in the end, the story itself isn’t actually about Flaubert. It’s about the narrator, the man who is spending his days thinking about a dead man, a writer, and trying to figure out what a “pure story” is.



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