Flaubert: A Biography

Frederick Brown, Author . Little, Brown $35 (628p) ISBN 978-0-316-11878-1

At last, a biography commensurate with the outsize personality and genius of Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880). Brown, author of an acclaimed biography of Zola, offers a tantalizing, penetrating study that embeds the author of Madame Bovary in his time and place: a tumultuous Paris during the revolution of 1848 and the period of expansion and greed known as the Second Empire.

But even more than Paris, for all that he despised the provincial, Flaubert's place was his native Rouen, in Normandy. As Brown writes in a graceful opening paragraph: "It was the province that furnished his imagination.... It was the landscape of his youth and of all his seasons. It was the taste in his mouth and the verdant prison where he dreamed of deserts."

Brown achieves a kind of Flaubertian distance in describing his subject and his circle, a dispassionate objectivity that includes a subtle sense of the comic in their often neurotic, self-dramatizing behavior: he sees the bourgeois in a man who professed contempt for everything bourgeois, and he calls Flaubert's mistress Louise Colet his "antimuse." (Refreshingly, Brown takes no sides in the reciprocal torment that was their love affair.)

Brown illustrates the torrents of romanticism flowing through Flaubert that he had to dam up in writing Madame Bovary —which now appears as a near-epic feat of artistic self-mastery.

Rich, full of passion and tragedy, overflowing with keenly portrayed characters, this superb biography gives us an unforgettable portrait of a literary master: exuberant yet anxious, brilliant yet full of self-doubt, a man who best savored the women he loved in their absence, an artist who claimed to scorn fame but reveled in it once achieved, who couldn't bear loss but whose life was sadly filled with it. 24 pages of b&w photos. (Apr.)

Reviewed on: 03/13/2006
Release date: 04/01/2006
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 628 pages - 978-0-7126-6589-6
Paperback - 628 pages - 978-0-674-02537-0
Hardcover - 628 pages - 978-0-434-00769-1
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