Flaubert and Madame Bovary

ISBN: 1590171160
ISBN 13: 9781590171165
By: Francis Steegmuller Victor Brombert

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About this book

Francis Steegmuller's beautifully executed double portrait of Madame Bovary and her maker is a remarkable and unusual biographical study, a sensitive and detailed account of how an unpromising young man turns himself into one of the world's greatest novelists. Steegmuller starts with the young Flaubert, prone to mysterious fits, hypochondriacal, at odds with and yet dependent on his bourgeois family. Then, drawing on Flaubert's voluminous correspondence, Steegmuller tracks his subject through friendships and love affairs, a trip to the Orient, nervous breakdown and tenuous recovery, and finally into the study, where a mind at once restless and jaded finds a focus in the precisely detailed reality of an imagined woman, utterly ordinary in her unhappiness, whose story was to revolutionize literature.

Reader's Thoughts


In my opinion, Madame Bovary is the best book every written because it is the best-written novel ever written. Flaubert was above all a stylist, believing (correctly) that style and content were inseperable. I have never read (and doubt I ever will read) a book as beautifully written as Madame Bovary. What I learned is that style is more important than content. Yes, the story is wonderful, but the telling transports this novel into greatness.


I loved this book. It might be due to a sad desire for vicarious identification with the driven, inventive and deeply creative souls on display, but I've really got a yen for literary biographies. Ellmann, Edel, etc, you want to make me a fly on the wall for a writer I respect and love and I'm glued to the page. See, more often than not, when I'm reading a book I compulsively turn to the back page or flap and intently examine the author photo. I want to see the author, look the sumbitch in the eye, because after all, before the computers take over, books are still written by human beings- people with livers and headaches and siblings and childhoods and vast, incoherent longings that keep them up all night. I really do buy into the Bloomian adage that reading a book is like meeting a new person, and that you can never know enough people. Flaubert's a perfect match for this kind of treatment. He's so literarily biographical that it just begs the question. This counts double since he is, after all, a pretty much universally respected writer and had such an impact on pretty much everything to come after him. I mean, how many career readers can you get in a room together who will admit to NOT having read Madame Bovary? And, sort of like the Velvet Underground, everybody who did read it (especially when it came hot off the presses and into the sweaty, hot little hands of the govt censors) started writing a novel of their own. Or, at least, re-thinking the one they had going. And Flaubert! Definitely the o.g. when it came to being a misanthrope with a heart of gold, or at least a very sentimental, bitter man, a dedicated stylist and also someone who was constantly, willfully at odds with his era, his class, his family, his lovers and friends and, at times, his very existence. The guy who can't stand boring, provincial, middle-class people from nowhere hunkering down to a lifetime of going very few other places than this leafy hell. I wanted to know about him- not necessarily to know him, mind- and I wanted to see just how far his famous Madame Bovary, c'est moi really went. Steegmuller, as the introduction points out, is the ideal curator for the Flaubert tour. He was someone who Flaubert would probably have actually liked, and this was a judgment kept at a distance and with a nigh-Olympian disdain by a guy who lived with his mother and pretty much made it his hobby to sneer at gentleman's taste: "the hatred of the bourgeoisie is the beginning of virtue"...oh, is it, now? Who you been hangin' round with, son? That's part of what makes this book so great, at least for me. You don't just get a cinematically vivid account of the Bear of Croisset, you get insightful and appreciative portraits of his inner circle, and it's not an entirely large one, at that. Poor Flaubert! To be young, gifted, and a hot little hater in how-do-you-do, keeping-up-appearances, wobbly Third Republic-era France. Nobody got him. His father, a prominent and obsessive doctor, would operate on patients all day most days within easy sight of the windows overlooking the courtyard where lil' Gustave and his sister would play, stopping to peer into the window at all the viscera and muck....not a bad training for the capital-R realist-to-be... Though it should also said that papa Flaubert nodded off after ten minutes of his son reading him his prose, sputtered awake, and mumbled something to the effect of 'the important thing is you tried, son' and ambled away... Seems the only thing an imaginative and sensitive young man has to do is to pass his hours reading the ultra-Romantics- Hugo, Chateaubriand, Byron, Shakespeare- by skulking around the rural countryside like frustrated malcontents of yore with no one for wavelength camaraderie but your self-pitying, grandiose, capital-R romantic school pal and puff your pipe amid some gorgeous, desolate ruins, cursing your bitter luck that you were born in the century where all the schmucks are. Then there's the crew- GF, of course, then you've got the practical, worldly, charming and sophisticated Maxime Du Camp and the studious, humble, tactful, perennially broke poet Louis Bouliet....all three of whom love the exotic, decadent and super-intense, operatic joys of antiquity and love composing deeply sarcastic parodies of all the hot writers of the day. The parts describing their weekly meetings was a combination Elks Club, faculty lounge, Bloomsbury, and jam session. Throw in some quasi-epileptic, psycho-somatic and deeply disturbing reactions to the boogey powers that be ("Augh! Dad! Jesus! Don't make me go to law school!") and a neurotic, helpless, grieving mother with a poetic groupie drama queen with an eye for talent who happens to be your first (and only) romantic love interest and whose affected self-regard and fairly delusional intimations of grandeur rival even your own and you've got all the apples to make a pie, you know? But it takes a while to ease into the whole thing. Gertrude Stein said that in order for an artist to create- and let's not kid ourselves, she's talking Picasso here- then one must empty oneself periodically of all the forms they have come to know, to master, to truly see in all their glory. G.F. has got to see some palm trees, soak in the Mediterranean air, check out some hieroglyphics and get himself laid, for once. Flaubert and Maxime score some bullshit journo credentials and take off for an 18-moth tour of the East- Egypt, Greece, Lebanon, Tunisia, all that good stuff. They see some real ruins, teeming marketplaces, snake charmers, naked dancing sexy courtesans, bootleggers, camels, ancient elder forests and did I mention sexy courtesans who would be much obliged to sweeten your night, given the proper procedure... Steegmuller rightly pulls back at this point, taking us out of his witty and perceptive and near-cinematically (have I said that before?) vivid narrative to let Flaubert's letters (always coming, always in constant supply, his circle of intimates is small but tight) do the talking. I'd love to quote from these, but I foolishly returned the book to library before I realized I'd wanted to save some quotes. Well, trust me, seeing the 'Orient' as through the eyes of an already world-weary, stubborn, laceratingly prose-obsessed chap is instructive in its own right. Reading his casual yet intimate account of spending the night with a Babylonian lady of night was odd, certainly, but at the same time I felt something similar to what good old Boliet must have felt when he anxiously tore open the daily envelope while buttering his bread in nowhere suburbia... So he comes back and he reads his so-called masterpiece to be to his friends with the strict instructions not to interrupt him for the 25 hours it takes to get through "The Temptation of St Anthony"...with some judicious hems and haws and some exasperated interpolation courtesy of the anxious, denial-drunk M.C. They say what any good friend would say after being subjected to some of the more tedious experiences of their lives. They say, in unison, and with great tactfulness, that Flaubert ought to knock that lurid nonsense off and try for something a little closer to home, something he knows a little bit better, something that isn't so far-fetched. Apparently, there's a lady who lived nearby who was married to this klutzy, unsuccessful doctor who was totally cheating on him and racking up huge shopping bills and who'd recently poisoned herself with arsenic... And then, boom. Months of arduous labor go by. Flaubert didn't write easily at all- he compared it to playing piano with lead weights on your fingers, why should I worry myself over these miserable, deluded pathetic little characters, what is to goddamn special about this miserable ho-bag and why should I give a shit, I got pagan torture scenes to write here... It's a good lesson for any budding writer, I think: keep it simple, stupid! No need to just leap off the edge into total florid prose land. The movement you need is on your shoulder. The greatest poem is the daily newspaper, after all. You think only art matters? Well, you're gonna have to hold the mirror to nature if you want to get anything done, there, chief. Less introspection and fantasy and more storytelling, please. Less talk, more rock.... But- here's the thing that pushes Flaubert over into the fascinating category, for me- he's feeling it. As in, starting to really get himself involved with the situation and the drama and the tractor beam that is the story of a sensitive, intelligent young woman who has read too many romance novels and is married to a sweet-natured, if hapless, doofus. One of my favorite quotes of all time from any writer on their work is the moment when Flaubert's writing one of his daily dairy/letters to a friend and he says that when he wrote the word 'tremble' (was it tremble? I think it was tremble...) he immediately felt dizzy, exhausted, all caught up in the whirlpool of what poor Emma was going through that he felt like someone who had fucked too much (italics in the original). Damn. That's some serious stuff. I mean, no tears for the writer no tear for the reader, am I right? He's really putting himself through some rigorous imaginative sympathy here. That wanton woman is really just a dreamer with an optimistic is naive soul who wants very much to be somewhere she's not and be doing something, anything, else than what she's doing, what her life is going to be; can, in a certain sense, only be. It's so ironic, because the 19th Century version of the comic book guy is dissolving his spite and hostility and constant defensiveness into the real live consciousness of another, albeit imaginary, being. If you want to get Jungian about it, Emma is his 'anima', his feminine side, his amanuensis and emotional avatar. Weeks and pages pass. His mother frets about her son's health and goes back to elaborate, muted self-pity. His friends start to branch out and slowly make some kind of a name for themselves in the Parisian literary world, which Flaubert visits infrequently and acts like kind of a douchebag when he does deign to join in the reindeer games... Finally, the thing is done- serialized, approved by his dedicated and supportive but critical and exacting friends- and the bigwigs decide to ban it. Something about wanton sex fiend caught up in a web of deceit and romance and adultery and spending too much goddamn money and with an author/creator who doesn't even have the common courtesy to punish or upbraid her for her indecency. The nerve! Flaubert corrected the grammar of the prosecutor during the friggin trial. One witness read the book aloud, causing appropriate chuckles and oohs and aahs of enjoyment to the assembled crowd. The whole thing was a total joke, a mighty pointless exercise in what-will-we-tell-the-children. Flaubert walked. Baudelaire and Victor Hugo sent their regards and distant support. Our hero is older now- bald, wrinkled, fat, dark circles under his eyes, sloppy mustache, nervous and exhausted. He went on to write some other books, of course, but this is the one that sort of took it out of him, made him a writer for real- meaning one who sits in a room all day (or night, in his case) and puts words on paper, hour after hour, working his fingers to the bone to get them just right. This was the bill he had to pay to get what was within him out- the millstone around his neck, his albatross; in his mind, a dirty book briefly outraging decent, middle-class taste for his legacy. Tourists would routinely spot him standing in the backyard of his mother's house clad only in a night gown, listening to the wind, staring at nothing in particular.

Rose Gowen

So so great. I'd recommend it to writers, especially.


This book is well-written and has a pretty good character description of Madame Bovary. She is just so cynical and always looking for something else to make her happy. I also don't like the fact that she is not loyal to her husband.

M. D. Hudson

The local library has been de-accessioning books by the ton, including lots of biographies, big fat ones from 1900-1950. At five for a dollar, or a quarter apiece, these are hard to resist, but many of them are kind of sad – not that they are out of date, exactly, but you just know they are not exactly current either, and the worst of them marred by the author’s contemporary judgements and moralizing. Which means I have added to the overall mass of my library without always enhancing its utility or ability to please…O but I do not include this book among the failures! Francis Steegmuller does a wonderful job (despite the rather corny title). The book is basically an account of Flaubert’s life, as described in his letters to friends, friends’ letters to him, and various contemporary accounts and bits of expository connecting tissue provided by Steegmuller. To his eternal credit, Steegmuller is open-minded, has a subtle wit, and adores his subjects. Even Flaubert’s mistress, the poetess and romantic intriguer Louise Colet is treated sympathetically and with respect (although she often doesn’t deserve it). The best part is Flaubert’s own words, not surprisingly. He was, like all of us, flawed, but what a genius he was! And although he suffered all the writer’s agonies, he never really doubted this genius. What this book shows is how Flaubert developed, and how this development was fostered by two solid, honest friends (Louis Hyacinthe Bouilhet and Maxime Du Camp) and Flaubert’s strength of character to believe them when they told him he was writing poorly. Du Camp flaked out on him, eventually, but not before publishing Madame Bovary in his influential literary magazine. Flaubert is a puzzle, of course. Madame Bovary is a masterpiece, but his other work is so different – Sentimental Education is understandable, but Salammbo? The Temptation of St. Anthony? These works are addressed, especially St. Anthony, which Flaubert wanted so much to be his masterpiece. How this peculiar oeuvre came to be emerges from this book, and it is done economically and naturally, without any theory-mongering of the literary or political or psychological sort. How rare this is in any literary biography, especially one from the mid-century. As a bonus, you get to follow Flaubert and Du Camp on their travels to the fleshpots of North Africa and Asia Minor. Although Steegmuller does not include Flaubert’s graphic descriptions of his own venereal diseases, there is enough debauchery here to keep their journey from feeling neutered. It brought me much pleasure to see this book has been reissued by New York Review Books. Great! It deserves to be a classic. My copy is a first printing from 1939, stoutly rebound in bright red buckram, I feel compelled to mention this, pitying you in advance for having to make do with a crummy paperback.


A captivating account of Flaubert and his creation. A novelistic look into both Flaubert's circumstances and his psychology, with long excerpts from his letters that give a good idea of what the man was thinking. Plus, there's a blurb from F. Scott Fitzgerald on the back!


Love a little more insight into this man and his lady relations and creations, and the print is really old school and fun to read. Thanks NYRB for the printing, thanks bro for the book.

Rebecca Reid

Madame Bovary was a landmark book in the ways it blended romanticism and realism. Yet, its author, Gustave Flaubert despised the minutiae of everyday life, as well as the traditions and morals of society. The story of his life and how he, who despised realism, came to write a monumental novel of realism, is particularly interesting.Francis Steegmuller wrote his classic biography Flaubert and Madame Bovary, which he calls a “double portrait,” in 1939. There were plenty of things I didn’t like, but this mostly was because of Gustave Flaubert himself. In my opinion, M. Flaubert seemed a particularly nasty individual. He despised people of his everyday life and the morals imposed by society.Mr. Steegmuller’s inclusion of lots of M. Flaubert’s personal correspondence gives the reader a better understanding of the author himself. I found this a great way to give the reader a feel for the author’s personality and his writing style. I’m glad I read Mr. Steegmuller biography before I begin rereading M. Flaubert’s most popular novel. More on my blog


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.




A perfectly written and extremely readable double-biography of Gustave Flaubert and his fictional alter ego, Madame Bovary. This was the ideal companion for my re-reading of Lydia Davis' new translation of Madame Bovary, and I recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in Flaubert, French literature, or the process of writing a great novel. Well done, Steegmuller.


This is a book that needs to be read for many reasons. First the Steegmuller translation is very good, critics have said it as well as my comparing the translations. I enjoyed the story it was one that caused you to have many feelings about the characters. You can see the dreaded problems that will come from dangerous decisions, the main character Emma Bovary is probably a person a million women or men could Identify with which in and of itself is a problem. Her personal life crazy and sometimes infuriating made up bad choice, selfishness, lust, spite and maybe you'd say hatred of those who don't give into her. You will no doubt feel sorry for Emmas husband and may even have a life like theirs. Flaubert got a lot of grief for writng this provacative novel but sometimes I think these writings could also awake someone to the dangerous paths they are going down. It held my interest all the way through and I enjoyed the prose very much as well it was icing on the cake


This novel created one of the most compelling yet unlikeable female characters in literary history. Emma Bovary is a study in the vast contrast between what we think life owes us and what it has actually handed us. Flaubert's attention to detail is the key to the originality of this character.


This was the most intellectually challenging book I read this year. It was dense reading at times but in the end I am glad I persevered and finished it.


A very long read...

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