Sly, quite witty, and very smart: an elegant meditation on the precincts of Art and Life, embodied in that great polar-bear of these two antipodes--Flaubert. English critic and novelist Barnes (Metroland) gives over the narration of this playful but quite serious literary investigation to a fictional retired doctor, Geoffrey Braithwait, an amateur Flaubert scholar whose wife (sporadically unfaithful to him in the past) has recently committed suicide. (This murmurous subtext flickers like a compass point beneath all the discussion of Flaubert's bachelorhood and misanthropy.) Braithwait is a dazzling, easy-going, discriminating guide--whether tracking down the stuffed parrot Flaubert kept on his desk or giving poor maligned Louise Colet (F.'s mistress) a rebuttal opportunity, whether discussing friends. . . or the place of trains in Flaubert's life. As criticism of criticism, too, the novel is deliciously sane and supple, especially when skewering critics from Sartre to Enid Starkie--who complained that the color of Emma Bovary's eyes changes on different pages of the novel. ("Eyes of brown, eyes of blue. Does it matter? Not, does it matter if the writer contradicts himself; but does it matter what colour they are anyway? I feel sorry for novelists when they have to mention women's eyes: there's so little choice, and whatever colouring is decided on inevitably carries banal implications. Her eyes are blue: innocence and honesty. Her eyes are black: passion and depth. Her eyes are green: wildness and jealousy. Her eyes are brown: reliability and common sense. Her eyes are violet: the novel is by Raymond Chandler.") And Braithwait's tangential dictates against fashion in fiction will delight anyone who knows the territory: "A quota system is to be introduced on fiction set in South America. The intention is to curb the spread of package-tour baroque and heavy irony. Ah, the propinquity of cheap life and expensive principles, of religion and banditry, of surprising honor and random cruelty." Indeed, Braithwait/Barnes is continuously entertaining and telling--as he acidly dismisses some of the many stupid "accepted ideas" about Flaubert, as he drily satirizes literary obtuseness in its assorted flavors. So--for connoisseurs of Flaubert or of fiction generally: an economical, balanced, gliding defense of the artist and his art--cast in an oddly undefinable form that's very special but never precious.