Julian Barnes

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Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot

Sorbonne, 14th November 2001

bibliography Julian Barnes

Audio extract

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The full transcript of the interview, together with an introduction and a bibliography on Flaubert’s Parrot, was published in English by Études britanniques contemporaines: Gallix François and Vanessa Guignery. “Julian Barnes at the Sorbonne. 14th November 2001.” Études britanniques contemporaines 21 (Dec. 2001) : 107-32.


Flaubert’s Parrot formed part of the syllabus for the agrégation competitive examination in France in 2001/2002, an examination for students who want to become teachers in secondary schools or university. In previous years, The Buddha of Suburbia  by Hanif Kureishi, A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro were part of the syllabus and the Sorbonne research centre “Écritures du roman contemporain de langue anglaise”, headed by François Gallix and Vanessa Guignery, invited Hanif Kureishi (1997), Margaret Atwood (1998) and Kazuo Ishiguro (1999) to talk about their books. The debates proved extremely lively and stimulating. This year, Julian Barnes generously offered some of his very precious time by kindly accepting to come to the Sorbonne and talk about Flaubert’s Parrot, despite his general reluctance to take part in academic meetings. The debate took place on November 14th 2001 at the Guizot amphitheatre at the Sorbonne University in front of about 250 people and it lasted about 90 minutes. It consisted of an interview with Julian Barnes, led by François Gallix, professor of English contemporary literature at the Sorbonne, and Vanessa Guignery, senior lecturer at the Sorbonne and author of a thesis, two books and several articles on the work of Julian Barnes.

To answer François Gallix’s first question on the genesis of Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes explained that in 1981 he had been commissioned by a publisher to write a guide – that he finally never wrote – to the houses of French writers and artists. This led him to visit many houses, but also the two museums devoted to Gustave Flaubert in Rouen and Croisset. Julian Barnes had brought to the Sorbonne the travel notebook that he had kept on that journey and read passages related to the question of the parrots, which proved extremely close to some passages of the first chapter of Flaubert’s Parrot. Julian Barnes then answered a question on biography and gave several reasons for his suspicion of biography as a genre. He pointed to the fact that a biography is usually boring until the subject has grown up, argued that a biography is often reductive and tends to minimise the work itself, and suggested that it is a mistake to judge the subject of a biography from a contemporary point of view. Asked about the amount of control over his characters, Julian Barnes said that he sat in the middle of two extremes, i.e. between writers who strictly control their characters and writers who suggest that the characters are completely free. As Vanessa Guignery suggested that Flaubert’s Parrot might be considered as an original form of detective fiction, Julian Barnes concurred that there were mysteries in the book (about the parrots, about the narrator’s life), but argued that the book was not characterised by a thrilling narrative drive and was more based on diversion. Attention was then drawn to similarities between Flaubert’s Parrot and The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, which led Julian Barnes to explain why he deeply admired this book which is still undervalued. He explained the difference between John Dowell, the narrator of The Good Soldier, who defers telling his own story because he doesn’t understand it, and Geoffrey Braithwaite who defers telling his private story because of emotional blockage. Julian Barnes then said a few words on Something to Declare, the volume of essays to be published in January 2002, and In The Land of Pain, his translation into English of La Doulou by Alphonse Daudet which will be published in March 2002.

A member of the audience then raised the question of the influence of Gustave Flaubert on the style of Flaubert’s Parrot; Julian Barnes answered that he agreed with some of Flaubert’s positions but refused to acknowledge a word-to-word level influence. Asked whether he was a postmodernist writer, Julian Barnes was typically ironic and sarcastic, suggesting that the concept was no longer up-to-date and that he didn’t want to be imprisoned in such a box. He remarked that Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters certainly bent form but added that he also wrote more conventional novels. Matthew Pateman, senior lecturer at the university of Scarborough, author of a thesis and several articles on Julian Barnes’ work, asked whether Geoffrey Braithwaite was a Larkinesque character, which led Julian Barnes to claim his admiration for Philip Larkin, pointing to both his gloominess and his humour, and to define Braithwaite as a very British character. The debate ended with Julian Barnes saying that he hoped people read his books in ideal circumstances but arguing that he had no ideal reader in mind when writing.

Orders for the issue of Etudes britanniques contemporaines can be sent to Service des Publications, Montpellier III, Route de Mende, 34199 Montpellier Cedex 5, France. (email : The issue costs 10€ (approximately $10).


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