Perhaps the most valuable accomplishment of Brown’s biography is to situate Flaubert squarely amid his turbulent times, echoing the achievement of the biographer’s 1995 “Zola: A Life.” During Flaubert’s lifetime, France experienced both rapid modernization, seen most readily in Baron Haussmann’s radical re-altering of the Parisian cityscape, and constant political upheaval. Although Flaubert often made noises about being above this historical hubbub, he had a knack for landing himself smack dab in the middle of it. In 1848, a curious Flaubert and Du Camp were actually among the first to enter Tuileries Palace after Louis-Phillipe’s hasty abdication; during the disastrous 1871 war against Prussia, Flaubert was evicted from his beloved lifelong home Croisset by invading German troops, and later attended the court-martial of Communards after their unsuccessful socialist uprising in Paris. Despite being a stridently self-professed ‘bourgeoisophobe,’ however, Flaubert had little time for the revolutionaries. As Brown points out, the author, an “affluent bourgeois sustained by unearned income from [his family’s] farmland, had no use for egalitarian doctrine. Declaring that only three or four hundred men a century has historical weight, he regarded utopian socialism as the worst despotism. Inherently unintelligent was the mass qua mass.”
And in the New York Times Book Review, James Wood offers similar words of appreciation:
Brown’s biography will clearly be the Life for this generation, and it grandly swipes away — mentioning it only in the bibliography — its most recent rival, Geoffrey Wall’s rather academic and Freudian account of five years ago. Unlike Wall, Brown has no obvious agenda (he could in fact have benefited from one in his literary criticism); he simply opens himself up to Flaubert’s colossal contradictions. From his earliest days, Gustave Flaubert was both a romantic and a realist, a dreamer and a debunker. He was the son of the chief surgeon of the hospital in Rouen, and never shied away from looking at unclothed truth: no one ever forgets the grotesque comedy of Charles Bovary’s operation on Hippolyte’s clubfoot. Of “Madame Bovary,” the critic Sainte-Beuve would say in a contemporary review that Flaubert wielded his pen like a scalpel. But he also loved to surrender to romantic flights of fancy, to historical exoticism and erotic Orientalism. He was still unable to read at the age of 7, Brown tells us, because he was so enthralled by a local neighbor, an elderly man who told Gustave tales from “Don Quixote.” “I find all my roots in the book I knew by heart before learning how to read, ‘Don Quixote,’ ” he later said, and indeed the fantasist at war with reality is the dominant note of both “Madame Bovary” and “Sentimental Education.”
The hardcover of Flaubert: A Biography is pretty pricey, so I’ll have to wait until it’s out in paperback to get it.