At last! The term is done and I have read a novel. Published in the last thirty years. Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot.
Avoid if you dislike narrative pretension or digressions or books which are not quite clear about their genres. Stay away if you dislike novels which point to themselves and their sisters, and which are called by their admirers post-modern.
[David Hockney's Felicite Sleeping, With Parrot: Illustration of 'A Simple Heart', for Gustave Flaubert, print, 1974]
Based on your qualifications, Flaubert’s Parrot may be only slightly a novel.. It is a pseudo-biography of the author of Madame Bovary, assembled by the narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, as he explores and problematizes literary biography, characterized by his search for the ‘real’ parrot which inspired Un Coeur Simple. It is a primer of how to experimentally collect and whimsically group the data of a literary life: by chronology (Braithwaite/Barnes includes an optimist’s and a pessimist’s chronology), Flaubert and animals, Flaubert and trains, people arranged by alphabet, facts grouped by academic subject. It is a book about France and a love of French things: the light from the view north, cheese, channel crossings, pharmacies, French literary circles, the dance of the language itself.
There are other real people in the book besides Flaubert and his menage: Christopher Ricks, Ted Hughes, and the Oxford academic Enid Starkie. There are also Barnes’ fictional characters which are submerged in Flaubertiana: Geoffrey and his wife Ellen, whose biography he does and does not want to relate (by is told in Chapter 13, ‘Pure Story’).
It is well written if only that it has the good sense to quote from a master stylist. It prompts, above all, the reader to find a copy of Flaubert’s letters, which are prominent in the novel.
The only other book I’ve read by Barnes is his meditation on mortality, Nothing to be Frightened Of, which, like Flaubert’s Parrot, I read nearly in one sitting. I can only conclude (with this evidence at hand) that Barnes is at home musing on the French. And his first-person tone matched Braithwaite’s: it is the measured but self-conscious and authoritative voice of the autumnal narrator, the amateur academic, the relentless reader, men who are interested in the bizarrities of lives and of Life.