I am terrible at reviews, so instead I present you with a collection of quotes from Flaubert’s Parrot that spoke to me particularly loudly while reading it.

“He died little more than a hundred years ago, and all that remains of him is paper. Paper, ideas, phrases, metaphors, structured prose which turns into sound.” (p.12)

“The writer’s voice—what makes you think it can be located that easily?” (p.22)

“I replaced the bird and thought: I am now older than Flaubert ever was. It seemed a presumptuous thing to be; sad and unmerited.” (p.22)

“It isn’t so different, the way we wander through the past. Lost, disordered, fearful, we follow what signs there remain; we read the street names, but cannot be confident where we are. All around is wreckage.” (p.60)

“I prefer to feel that things are chaotic, free-wheeling, permanently as well as temporarily crazy—to feel the certainty of human ignorance, brutality and folly.” (p.66)

“Do the books that writers don’t write matter?” (p.115)

“Flaubert teaches you to gaze upon the truth and not blink from its consequences…” (p.133)

“…he teaches you to dissect out the constituent parts of reality, and to observe that Nature is always a mixture of genres…” (p.134)

“Form isn’t an overcoat flung over the flesh of thought… it’s the flesh of thought itself. You can no more imagine an Idea without a Form than a Form without an Idea. Everything in art depends on execution: the story of a louse can be as beautiful as the story of Alexander. You must write according to your feelings, be sure those feelings are true, and let everything else go hang. When a line is good, it ceases to belong to any school. A line of prose must be as immutable as a line of poetry. If you happen to write well, you are accused of lacking ideas.” (p.136)

“Gustave mistrusted feelings; he feared love; and he elevated this neurosis into an artistic creed.” (p.150)

“Mourning is full of time; nothing but time.” (p.160)

“And still you think about her every day. Sometimes, weary of loving her dead, you imagine her back to life again, for conversation, for approval.” (p.161)

“Perhaps for Ellen love was only a Mulberry harbour, a landing place in a heaving sea. You can’t possibly live there: scramble ashore; push on. And old love? Old love is a rusty tank standing guard over a slabby monument: here, once, something was liberated. Old love is a row of beach huts in November.” (p.162-3)

“Perhaps this was Ellen’s weakness: an inability to gaze into the black pit. She could only squint at it, repeatedly. One glance would make her despair, and despair would maker her seek distraction. Some outgaze the black pit; others ignore it; those who keep glancing at it become obsessed.”

(All page numbers taken from the 1984 Jonathan Cape edition.)