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


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.


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


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.


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.


An excellent reminder of what is important in life.

Rose Gowen

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


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

Joe Montgomery

A great person gave me this book. What a momma's boy. What discipline. A good look at the influence of life on art, what permeates your studio and what stays without...


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!

Justin Evans

Caveat: this is not the book 'Madame Bovary.' It is biography of Flaubert focused on explaining how he came to write Madame Bovary.This book gives you the best of both worlds: Steegmuller did a lot of research, and has interesting things to say about the origins of 'Madame Bovary,' both the book and the woman; on the other hand, it reads like a nicely written novel, except that at the end, instead of 'dear reader, i married him,' you get 'dear reader, he published it.' My only complaint is that it doesn't engage in much discussion of the Madame Bovary the book's actual contents and structure, although he quotes Baudelaire's review, which says something like that you could write about Madame Bovary for ever. I'd love to read Steegmuller's analysis of Bovary, or of the novels that followed it for that matter.



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.


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.


A very long read...

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