Novel probes Flaubert

Flaubert's Parrot, by Julian Barnes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 190 pp. $13.95. In this free-form examination of the great French novelist's life and artistic practice, amateur scholarship, cranky partisanship, and a passionate effort at self-understanding are amusingly assembled into a resonant literary comedy.

Barnes's narrator, Geoffrey Brathwaite, is a recently widowed retired doctor. His late wife was herself a kind of English-village Madam Bovary; he's now satisfying his obsessive curiosity about Flaubert, visiting sites associated with the novelist, studying cruxes unresolved by previous scholars: How tall was Flaubert? Who was the aggressor in his vacillating love affair with the poet Louis Colet? What was the significance of the stuffed parrot that inspired his story ``A Simple Heart''?

Brathwaite's endeavors include a ``Chronology'' of his author's life, ruminative chapters on Flaubert's ideas about animals and his habit of irony, and several similarly crotchety approaches to comprehending his life. It gradually becomes clear that these amateur researches particularize our human urge to know our way inside others' lives -- and that Flaubert's lively fatalism offers consolation for our discovery that we cannot do so. This very literary book will perhaps mean most to those who know something about Flaubert, but its elegant elusiveness should fascinate even those who do not.

Bruce Allen reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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