What happened to the truth ... is not recorded

“Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well alone? Why aren’t books enough? [...] Few writers believed more in the objectivity of the written text and the insignificance of the writer’s personality” (Barnes, 1984: 12).

These words were written about Gustave Flaubert, a French writer who wanted “to make posterity believe that he never existed” (Barnes, 1984: 16). Ironically enough, it is Flaubert who, according to Brooks (1985), has been “the subject of a nearly obsessive number of biographies and critical studies," one of them being “Flaubert’s Parrot” by Julian Barnes. The book, however, is not an ordinary bibliography. It is, as Peter Brooks (1985) states, “a splendid hybrid of a novel, part bibliography, part fiction, part literary criticism”. This is a story of the obsession of Geoffrey Braithwaite, the narrator of the book, with the famous French writer.
Braithwaite’s obsession begins, as he (Barnes, 1984: 16) believes, when he sees a parrot, which, as he is told, was “borrowed by G. Flaubert from the Museum of Rouen and placed on his work-table during the writing of Un cœur simple,” and in which there was something that “made me feel I had almost known the writer.” However, Brooks (1985) suggests other source of Braithwaite’s obsession:
“Braithwaite’s immersion in the life of a past writer may remind us of Frederic Moreau, a hero of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, who finds serenity in writing history because, as Flaubert puts it, ‘by immersing himself in the personality of others, he forgot his own, which is perhaps the only way not to suffer from it.’”
Braithwaite, as well, seems to suffer. It is his wife who committed suicide that is the reason for his being in constant pain. He believes that “lovers are like Siamese twins, two bodies with a single soul; but if one dies before the other, the survivor has a corpse to lug around” (Barnes, 1984: 169). Searching for the details of Flaubert’s life, he tries to escape suffering. However, for all his attempts, Braithwaite cannot completely forget about it. A number of repeated remarks concerning his wife that he provides the reader with may suggest that he seems to feel guilty of her death. He tries to convince the reader (perhaps even himself) that it was not his fault: “No, I didn’t kill my wife. I might have known you’d think that” (Barnes, 1984: 97). Consequently, it is tempting to suggest that Flaubert is not, as it would seem, a central figure in Braithwaite’s life. Perhaps, his obsession with Flaubert is just a way to forget about his own life, a way to pass the time. After all, as he himself (Barnes, 1984: 160) observed, “Mourning is full of time; nothing but time.”

Apparently, the novel is devoted to Flaubert. However, the fragments concerned with the French writer are mingled with those in which the narrator of the book provides the reader with some facts concerning his own life. In this way, telling a story of Gustave Flaubert, Goeffrey writes his own autobiography. Furthermore, writing someone’s biography can in itself, to some extent, amount to writing one’s own autobiography. According to Braithwaite, “you can’t define yourself directly, by looking face-on into the mirror” (Barnes, 1984: 95). He states: “Well, you know I’ve got brown eyes; make of that what you will” (Barnes, 1984: 96). The impression one gets from someone’s appearance is very possible to be misleading. For this reason, Braithwaite distrusts personal advertisements. For the same reason, he seems not to pay attention to Flaubert’s looks. Finding it irrelevant in presenting somebody, he treats such elements of biography with irony:
“Flaubert was a giant; they all said so. He towered over everybody like a strapping Gallic chieftain. And yet he was only six feet tall: we have this on his own authority. Tall, but not gigantic; shorter than I am, in fact, and when I am in France I never find myself towering over people like a Gallic chieftain” (Barnes, 1984: 90).
Later he adds:
“Do you know the colour of Flaubert’s eyes?... Well, according to Du Camp, Gustave the Gallic chieftain, the six–foot giant with a voice like a trumpet, had ‘large eyes as green as the sea’” (Barnes, 1984: 95).

What Braithwaite is really interested in, are Flaubert himself, his opinions, works and details related to them . Only in this way, he believes, can we fully present a person. Giving us hints concerning Flaubert’s views, Braithwaite attempts to create a complete and reliable portrait of Flaubert. At the same time, the reader, in turn, being led through Braithwaite’s obsession, gains the access to his own personality. Writing about Flaubert, the narrator of the book reveals his own personality. Some statements intended to characterise Flaubert may say much more about a person who has uttered them, and in this respect, what appears to be Flaubert’s biography may as well be Braithwaite’s autobiography. On the one hand, he himself provides the reader with certain facts concerning his life, on the other hand, he, indirectly but more clearly, defines himself by commenting on Flaubert. Consequently, a tempting, although risky, conclusion might be that it is a fictional person, Geoffrey Braithwaite, that the book is concerned with. Perhaps, he presents Flaubert’s life as a pretext for referring to his own one.

The question whether it is a biography or an autobiography is obviously open. The answer depends on a particular reader. One can treat the book as a mere biography of Flaubert, or an autobiography of Braithwaite:
You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on your point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with a string” (Barnes, 1984: 38).
Of course, it appears also possible to treat the book as both.

Furthermore, being concerned with the past, the book also raises the question of selectivity and subjectivity of historical account. One can apply the above definition of a net to the process of retrieving somebody’s past:
You can do the same with a biography. The trawling net fills, then the biographer hauls it in, sorts, throws back, stores [...] Yet consider what he doesn’t catch: there is far more than that [...] But think of everything that got away, that fled with the last deathbed exhalation of the biographee” (Barnes, 1984: 38).
On the one hand, Braithwaite realises that “it is impossible to know too much” (Barnes, 1984: 127) about somebody. On the other hand, it is certainly impossible to know everything. Even if it was possible, it would not be helpful: „What do we need to know? Not everything. Everything confuses” (Barnes, 1984: 102). The knowledge we have about others is far from being complete. In consequence, having only partial knowledge about their biographees, biographers face the problem of selecting particular information that will be included in one’s biography. When Braithwaite (Barnes, 1984: 162) wants to provide the reader with a short biography of his dead wife, he starts as follows:

“She was born in 1920, married in 1940, gave birth in 1942 and 1946, died in 1975.
I’ll start again. Small people are meant to be neat, aren’t they; but Ellen wasn’t. She was just over five feet tall, yet moved awkwardly [...] I’ll start again. She was a much-loved only child. She was a much-loved only wife...”

Here it is visible how different a person’s definitions can be. All of them being true and about one person, they catch different aspects of somebody’s life, and therefore seem to have nothing in common. For this reason, according to Mick Sinclair (1985), “there can be as many definitions as definers.” Thus, it suggests the question how arbitrary a person’s biography can be. The problem of selectivity, and therefore, arbitrariness of historical account is also suggested in Braithwaite’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas on Gustave Flaubert. Having to choose the information that is to be included in a biography, a biographer has to apply certain criteria of selectivity. These, being subjective, may vary from a biographer to a biographer. This fact is stressed here in a very ironic way. On the one hand, Braithwaite includes in his dictionary such crucial entries as: Collet, Louise; Du Camp, Maxime; or even Whores (who also seemed to play a quite important role in Flaubert’s life). On the other hand, Braithwaite appears to ridicule any criteria of selectivity of important facts including in his dictionary ideas that have little or no relevance to Flaubert’s life:

“USA – Flaubert’s references to the Land of Liberty are sparing [...]
Xylophone – There is no record of Flaubert ever having hear the xylophone [...]”

Generally, the process of retrieving the past exactly, as it was, is very hard, if not impossible. Braithwaite compares the historical past to “a piglet which had been smeared with grease” (Barnes, 1984: 14); both of them are almost impossible to grasp. For this reason, Braithwaite casts some doubts on the reliability of some evidence: “Her feelings for him may be guessed at from a text she wrote decades later, after Gustave’s death” (Barnes, 1984: 70) (about Gertrude Collier). The historical truth can be deformed even unintentionally as a result of the temporal distance of a described event.

“He walks past barricades which have been torn down; he sees black pools that must be blood; houses have their blinds hanging like rags from a single nail. Here and there amid the chaos, delicate things have survived by chance. [...] It isn’t so different, the way we wander through the past. Lost, disordered, fearful, we follow what signs there remain” (Barnes, 1984: 60).

When we attempt to recall some distant facts, we, undoubtedly, are far from being able to reconstruct the past exactly as it really was. Our memories are usually partial and indistinct. In consequence, we tend to add some small details that not necessarily are true, but seem to fit the whole picture of the past event, all with the aim to have a complete and reliable picture of the past. As Braithwaite (Barnes, 1984: 94) puts it: “We look at the sun through smoked glass; we must look at the past through coloured glass”. Hence, what we treat as a reliable historical account may turn out as a part of historical truth mixed with invented fictional elements, which results in the fact that it is no longer a truthful account of what happened. It is reasonable, then, to claim, as Braithwaite does, that “the past is autobiographical fiction pretending to be a parliamentary report” (Barnes, 1984: 90). Worse still, the process of establishing the truth is based mainly on a biographee’s friends’ evidence, which can be very subjective as in the case of Maxime du Camp: “Our earliest substantial source of knowledge about Flaubert is Maxime du Camp’s Souvenirs littéraires: gossipy, vain, self-justifying and unreliable, yet historically essential” (Barnes, 1984: 80).

To sum up, the book is open to much more interpretations. It can be defined like a fishing net. One can read it as a biography of Flaubert, or as a story of an elderly man and his peculiar obsession. It can also be a course on, among others, literary criticism with a final examination included. Generally, Braithwaite is interested in the process of retrieving the past. He provides the reader with a number of different historical accounts in order to reconstruct the historical truth. In the face of the problem of numerous and varying versions of the past included in the book, just like parrots in the museum, he concludes: “Perhaps it was one of them” (Barnes, 1984: 190).


Barnes, J. 1984. Flaubert’s Parrot. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company.
Brooks, P. 1985. Obsessed with the Hermit of Croisset. Available [Online]: < >
Sinclair, M. 1985. The Mick Sinclair Archive – Julian Barnes. Available [Online]: < >
Hello Korin

It's a long time since I read Barnes's novel. But I find your essay very interesting. It doesn't seem to need revising.

On the 'dictionary': I would say that these two items –

“USA – Flaubert’s references to the Land of Liberty are sparing [...]
Xylophone – There is no record of Flaubert ever having hear the xylophone [...]”

– parody the style of the 'dictionary' (itself a parody) devised by Bouvard and Pécuchet, in Flaubert's novel of that name.

'Braithwaite' seems to me to write with one eye always on Flaubert, and how Flaubert would have written in his place. For instance, in the description of Ellen:

“She was born in 1920, married in 1940, gave birth in 1942 and 1946, died in 1975.
I’ll start again. Small people are meant to be neat, aren’t they; but Ellen wasn’t. She was just over five feet tall, yet moved awkwardly [...] I’ll start again. She was a much-loved only child. She was a much-loved only wife...”

– the revising seems to be a reference to Flaubert's own working methods: how he would spend an afternoon putting in a comma, and an afternoon taking it out again.

(Perhaps it would help to have a brief section that summarised Flaubert's theories about writing, and compared them with 'Braithwaite's' practice.)

Hallo MrPedantic

Thanks for your suggestions. I've just come to realise that you're right about:

('Braithwaite' seems to me to write with one eye always on Flaubert, and how Flaubert would have written in his place.)

Hence, given this is the case, a section devoted to the writing theories of both gentlemen appears to be justified. I'll try to work on it.

Thanks, Korin
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You're welcome, Korin!

Rereading the 'Ellen' quote, for some reason I'm reminded of the opening of 'Un Coeur Simple'. As I say, it's a long time since I read Barnes, and I don't have a copy here to check; but I wonder whether that's what 'Braithwaite' has in mind.

since i've read Flaubert's Parrot some weeks ago, i'd been interested in braithwaite (or maybe barnes). i guess flaubert was right, we always feel the need to chase the writer.

please just check on my blog and read "Braithwaite's Flaubert". i should've copied it in here but unfortunately, it doesnt allow it. and please also post on comments. thank u.