SAVAGE REPRISALS: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks

Peter Gay, Author . Norton $24.95 (192p) ISBN 978-0-393-05118-6

It's tempting to treat novels as beautifully crafted and precise reflections of a society's social, political and psychological realities, but noted historian Gay (Schnitzler's Century, etc.) is having none of it: "whoever enlists fiction to assist in the hunt for knowledge must always be alert to authorial partisanship, limiting cultural perspectives, fragmentary details offered as authoritative, to say nothing of neurotic obsessions." In short, the most realistic novel is not an objective work of history. And yet Gay's fine analysis does not conclude on such a sour note; rather, he offers magnificent insight into how, by knowing a work's "maker and his society," one can evaluate the historical evidence a novel contains. Gay illustrates this through a close study of the three supposedly quintessential works of Realism in the subtitle. Dickens, he says, was an "angry anarchist," whose portrayal of the British judicial system in Bleak House owed more to his rejection of all government institutions than to reality. Madame Bovary, he continues, was less a true depiction of French provincial life than "a weapon of harassment" reflecting Flaubert's jaundiced view of society. And Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks was "an act of retribution," an expression of his "animus against his privileged family history." None of this, Gay states, detracts from the greatness of these books as works of art. In an epilogue, Gay offers a spirited rejection of the postmodernist denial of historical veracity; and these essays, based on his W.W. Norton/New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers Lectures, offer a valuable contribution to literary studies. (July)

Reviewed on: 06/10/2002
Release date: 07/01/2002
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 192 pages - 978-0-393-32509-6
Open Ebook - 192 pages - 978-0-393-34763-0
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