Black Robe by Brian Moore and Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes

The Tennessean, April 21, 1985, page 14-D

BLACK ROBE. By Brian Moore. Dutton. $15.95.
FLAUBERT’S PARROT. By Julian Barnes. Knopf. $13.95

Novels Show Difficulty of Writing About Past
One Author Far More Successful Than Another at Feeling History

Reviewed by JOHN BETHUNE

To write well from personal experience is difficult enough; to write well of the historical past is so demanding that few novelists manage it successfully.

The task demands not only that the writer know the subject, but feel it too. If the past is to have any impact in a novel, it must be a living presence, not a dead abstraction.

Brian Moore is a writer of considerable power whose previous novels, particularly The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Great Victorian Collection, have been greatly admired.

But in Black Robe, a novel about Jesuit missionaries among the Indians of 17th-century Canada, he demonstrates his limits. Black Robe is a surprisingly flat and unconvincing novel.

The historical imagination perhaps requires a deeper sense of place and a closer connection to the particularities of the past than Moore can claim as a Canadian of Irish birth and upbringing who lives in California.

The great historical novelists, Scott and Tolstoy, even James Fenimore Cooper, wrote effectively about the past because they could feel it as a palpable force in their own lives. Not so Moore, despite his thorough research.

Moore’s story is entertaining enough. The black-robed Father Laforgue, a Jesuit priest of wavering convictions, makes a perilous journey in the company of Algonkin “savages” to relieve distressed missionaries in the wilderness.

The ensuing conflict between such radically different cultures and beliefs makes, as Moore says, for “a strange and gripping tragedy.”  But it is a tragedy we can only infer from Moore’s novel.

Where Moore fails is in his depiction of the spiritual lives of his subjects. Laforgue’s struggles with his desire and self-doubt are compelling, but surely reflect a modern psyche.

Moore suggests that the Jesuit missionaries spoke with a “voice of conscience . . . we no longer possess.” He is right.

Thus the effect is a little like that of a costume drama with 20th-century minds decked out in 17th century garb. It is not so ineptly extreme as, say, King David played by Richard Gere. It is, nevertheless, unsatisfying.

Black Robe represents a failure of the imagination, but it is an honorable failure by a fine writer.

Julian Barnes, a young English writer, avoids a similar failure by making it his subject in Flaubert’s Parrot, his third novel. Barnes’s narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, is a 60ish English widower and amateur scholar of Flaubert.

He attempts to recapture the true Flaubert by a variety of narrative approaches and research techniques, but particularly by trying to locate the stuffed parrot Flaubert used as a model for his transcendently beautiful story “A Simple Heart.”

As the novel proceeds, however, Braithwaite’s deeper obsession with his own dead wife emerges. Not until the end of his narrative does he directly address this painful subject, and only then to confess his inability to comprehend her or the circumstances of her death.

Flaubert’s Parrot is a relentlessly cerebral book, at once a faithful literary biography, a seriocomic work of criticism and a slyly subversive novel. It is the product of a post-modern, Nabokovian mind and will appeal mightily to kindred sensibilities.

John Bethune is a Sewanee, Tenn., free-lance writer.

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