Kathrina's Reviews > Flaubert and Madame Bovary

Flaubert and Madame Bovary by Francis Steegmuller
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Aug 23, 11

bookshelves: essays-interviews, nyrb, memoirs-bios, french
Read from August 08 to 22, 2011

An idea comes to mind from George Stewart's Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States, that, when naming our nation's natural features, often Elm Creek would be named such because of the lack of elms, rather than their profusion; that's what made the creek distinctive -- that one elm tree that marked the creek crossing. In the same way, Flaubert is the father of Realism -- for that one novel he managed to write that changed the course of the modern novel. But Realism was quite the opposite style of his natural voice, and he struggled to suppress his romantic visions and narrative intercessions in order to let his characters tell the story themselves, through actions and attentions to gesture, landscape and dialogue. In fact, his later novels Sentimental Education and The Temptation of St. Antony were only published after he had exercised this discipline, but were originally drafted, and persuaded by his literary friends not to publish yet, in his earliest years as an author, and were almost entirely re-written with the goal of reigning in his romanticism. Madame Bovary was the "thunderclap" he had dreamed of marking his entrance to the literary world, but how easily it may not have been, had his confidant, Louis Bouilhet, not interceded.
I really enjoyed the way Steegmuller designed this work; his voice is a welcome pairing to Flaubert's, whose voice is very present throughout the biography. Part 2 is entirely a collocation of letters sent from Flaubert to his mother, his mistress and Bouilhet, as well as parts of a travelogue later published by his traveling companion, Maxime Du Camp, as they traveled through the Orient in 1849-1851. His impressions are delightful, and can be traced to his later writings and opinions. His ongoing relationship with poet Louise Colet reads like a soap opera, or maybe operetta. And what a treat to discover a correspondence between himself and Victor Hugo, who used Flaubert's assistance in forwarding mail during his exile from France.
I would recommend this title to any writers out there who struggle with defining their voice, as it will be comforting to befriend this eccentric, opinionated, self-doubting, reclusive mamma's boy and watch him become a pillar of the literary cannon.
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message 1: by Carol (new)

Carol Very interesting review. If finding one's voice is reason to read this one there are certain to be lots of takers.


Kathrina Sometimes it's hard to believe the life and struggles of an author 150 years ago could be relevant to an author today, but Steegmuller does such an excellent job in bringing Flaubert to life, a reader feels compelled to write Flaubert a fan letter and expect a response.


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