Book: Flaubert

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Flaubert: A Life

Author: Geoffrey Wall
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux

A blond giant of a man with green eyes and a resonant actor’s voice, Gustave Flaubert, perhaps the finest French writer of the nineteenth century, lived quietly in the provinces with his widowed mother, composing his incomparable novels at a rate of five words an hour. He detested his respectable neighbors, and they, in turn, helped to ensure his infamy as a writer of immoral books. Geoffrey Wall’s remarkable new biography weaves together the inner dramas of Flaubert’s provincial life with the social intrigues of his regular escapes to Paris, where he became a friend to Turgenev and was praised by the emperor, and the flamboyant excitements of his travels throughout the Mediterranean, on which he kept company with courtesans, acrobats, gypsies, and simpletons.

Flaubert’s contradictory experiences nurtured his peerless novels and stories, and Wall’s dynamic interpretation of them gives us a new understanding of his sometimes pitiable, always unforgettable characters: an Egyptian hermit tormented by voluptuous visions, a melancholy doctor’s wife eating arsenic to escape debt and despair, an old country woman who worships a stuffed parrot.

Wall’s is the first full-fledged modern biography of this immeasurably talented and influential artist. Flaubert brilliantly re-creates the life and times of a writer who wrote to within an inch of his life and whose importance will never diminish.


Few modern novelists have been able to entertain and shock their readers in equal proportions quite as successfully as the author of Madame Bovary, the subject of Geoffrey Wall’s Flaubert: A Life. Flaubert’s famous heroine stands alongside Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina and Tess Durbeyfield as among the most brilliant creations of the golden age of the great novel. Yet Madame Bovary skirted the outer limits of bourgeois sexual morality with perhaps more dare and flair than other writers, and consequently, seems as familiar now as it ever has. As Geoffrey Wall shows in his well-researched and engagingly written book, Flaubert himself epitomised both the wilder side and the contradictions of French bourgeois literary life in the middle of the 19th century. The pampered bachelor second son of a surgeon, he kept homes in Rouen and Paris, yet worked himself into chronic illness by his devotion to his art. He treated some women—notably his niece, Caroline, and George Sand, the novelist, as his confidantes and equals—yet cruised predator-like through the brothels and fleshpots of Paris and north Africa. A progressive in matters moral, he nonetheless repudiated the republicans of 1848 and moved effortlessly in the salons of Louis Napoleon’s imperial regime. Wall is excellent on all this biographical detail, but rather at the expense of a proper appreciation of Flaubert’s oeuvre. It takes 200 pages to get to Madame Bovary, and even then the analysis of the novel is rather brief, leaving this reader anxious to leave behind the extraordinary Gustave Flaubert with his boils, syphilis and debts, but determined to read his work all over again.—Miles Taylor

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Geoffrey Wall, a British english professor and Flaubert translator, presents a look at the author of Madame Bovary that will amaze and edify. How did the many contradictions that made up Flaubert’s personality play out in his works? Wall has done new and exciting research for this biography, making it an indispensable resource for any Flaubert fan.

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