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A Biography

A-FlaubertAn irrepressible romantic who eschewed romantic tendencies to write his most famous novel, Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert has long been a lush field for biographers. From his predilection for older women to his affinity for scatological correspondence, he certainly makes for interesting copy. But the popular impression of Flaubert as an isolated artist, holed away in a monastic search for the right word, doesn’t reveal the whole story. The author was also the gregarious host of a Parisian salon attended by George Sand, Emile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, and Guy de Maupassant, and he was a world traveler with a taste for foreign bordellos. Frederick Brown portrays his subject against the backdrop of tumultuous mid-19th-century Paris to reveal this paradoxical figure.
Little, Brown. 640 pages. $35. ISBN: 0316118788 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It has been a long time since so evocative and revelatory a literary biography has come down the pike, one that brings an iconic author so grittily to life. Flaubert’s literary stance might have been cache ta vie (hide your life), but after Brown is done with him, it is hard to imagine that anything about this extravagant, exacting, genial, and very human author remains masked from our view." Stephen Amidon

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[Brown’s] magnificent new book is at once a history of 19th-century France and a brilliant exercise in character animation. A huge amount of research is the private income that gives this book its well-dressed assurance, and that encourages the reader to absorb it greedily." James Wood

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Refreshingly, after so many post-Freudian biographies, Brown is content to present Flaubert’s life to us uninterpreted rather than shrivel down complexities of character with psychological ‘explanations.’" Charles Matthews

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Brown is as careful a narrator as his subject was—vigorous, stylish and thorough. … The biographer is also an excellent guide to the Paris of Flaubert’s time and to Rouen, where Gustave grew up and spent most of his life fastidiously reading and writing—when he wasn’t engaged in messy personal entanglements." Eugen Weber

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]he great feat of Mr. Brown’s new biography is its richly textured evocation of Flaubert’s 19th-century period and place. … For the first third—until he becomes the adult Gustave, the bear of Croisset—it’s often hard to glimpse Flaubert through the thickets of educational background and friends’ lives." Jerome Weeks

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Brown’s interpretations of individual works tend to be pedestrian, even term-paperish. But he excels at extended character sketches, and populates Flaubert’s surprisingly crowded world with a colorful group of literary all-stars." William Grimes

Critical Summary

Geoffrey Wall’s 2002 biography, Flaubert: A Life, sought to unwrap the inscrutable author through Freudian analysis, but critics seem to prefer Brown’s more straightforward approach. The literary biographer—see Brown’s Zola: A Life (1995)—delivers the earthier elements of Flaubert’s story with panache and marshals an impressive array of research on French history to provide rich context for his story. If Brown has a tendency toward an overwhelmingly detailed exegesis of Flaubert’s works, it’s not detraction enough to halt declaring this the biography of record.