When I first read this, about 15 years ago, it bewildered me a little. I hadn't read any Flaubert yet, and I had only a vague idea of who he was, and no idea why he was significant. I had read one or two books by Barnes, and knew I liked his dry wit and control, but was a pretty unsophisticated reader (despite three years at Oxford studying English) I found Flaubert's Parrot a bit of a drag, and I can't recall noting the significance of the narrator, or anything else.
Now, though, having read all of Flaubert's significant works, I came to this better prepared, not that it's entirely necessary, although an appreciation of who Flaubert was does help. And I certainly enjoyed this far more the second time round.
This book was praised at the time for not being easily classifiable. It's sort of a biography, but not in a conventional way. It's also a fiction - the narrator is a character, Dr Geoffrey Braithwaite, who is an amateur Flaubert academic, diverting energy into his hobby in order to forget his wife's suicide. It's also a work of literary criticism, a discussion about the presence or abseence of the author, and of the role and responsibilities of critics and biographers.
Parrot is undoubtedly a clever novel. Barnes has an elusive narrator - we aren't aware that the narrator isn't Barnes himself until a few chapters in, and then the context of the narrative starts to move - at one point Braithwaite is on a Newhaven-Dieppe ferry, talking to an unidentified person, whereas previously it was assumed that it was the reader who was being addressed. So Barnes subtly moves the boundaries of narrator and reader, in a book that discusses the invisibility of the author, Flaubert's ideal, and the fallacy of the death of the author, the postmodern stance.
The main theme is the limitations of biography. An early chapter presents three chronologies of Flaubert's life - one detailing the happy moments, one the disasters, and one a selection of Flaubert quotations - his life as seen by himself. The point is that any biography is necessarily selective, and will choose from all three pots, and all will be incomplete. Who is to know what are the significant moments in a life, when often the subject himself isn't aware of them?
The parrot of the title is a slight macguffin, although the ending of the book does offer a resolution to a problem that only the narrator posed - which was the stuffed parrot that Flaubert had on his desk while he was creating Un Coeur Simple, which features a parrot which becomes a symbol? Braithwaite's frivolous search for the real parrot is a parody of the search for verifiable details in an author's life, or in his text, and the resolution - that the 'real' parrot might not be identifiable - is the punchline.
This was much more fun the second time round, now that I had an idea what Barnes was doing, but I think that the fact that Braithwaite is more a device than a character weakens the book. It's not a novel or a biography, more of a smart postmodern exercise.