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by Michel Winock, Nicholas Elliott (Translator)

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Michel Winock’s biography situates Gustave Flaubert’s life and work in France’s century of great democratic transition. Flaubert did not welcome the egalitarian society predicted by Tocqueville. Wary of the masses, he rejected the universal male suffrage hard won by the Revolution of 1848, and he was exasperated by the nascent socialism that


Michel Winock’s biography situates Gustave Flaubert’s life and work in France’s century of great democratic transition. Flaubert did not welcome the egalitarian society predicted by Tocqueville. Wary of the masses, he rejected the universal male suffrage hard won by the Revolution of 1848, and he was exasperated by the nascent socialism that promoted the collective to the detriment of the individual. But above all, he hated the bourgeoisie. Vulgar, ignorant, obsessed with material comforts, impervious to beauty, the French middle class embodied for Flaubert every vice of the democratic age. His loathing became a fixation—and a source of literary inspiration.

Flaubert depicts a man whose personality, habits, and thought are a stew of paradoxes. The author of Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education spent his life inseparably bound to solitude and melancholy, yet he enjoyed periodic escapes from his “hole” in Croisset to pursue a variety of pleasures: fervent friendships, society soirées, and a whirlwind of literary and romantic encounters. He prided himself on the impersonality of his writing, but he did not hesitate to use material from his own life in his fiction. Nowhere are Flaubert’s contradictions more evident than in his politics. An enemy of power who held no nostalgia for the monarchy or the church, he was nonetheless hostile to collectivist utopias.

Despite declarations of the timelessness and sacredness of Art, Flaubert could not transcend the era he abominated. Rejecting the modern world, he paradoxically became its celebrated chronicler and the most modern writer of his time.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Winock’s unremarkable—though nicely detailed and elegantly translated—life of Gustave Flaubert adds nothing new to the ground already covered better and more entertainingly by Frederick Brown’s Flaubert: A Biography and Geoffrey Wall’s Flaubert: A Life. In straightforward fashion, Winock narrates Flaubert’s life from his early years living on the grounds of a hospital (he was the son of a renowned surgeon) and his youthful decision to become a writer (“to write, is to take hold of the world”) to his amorous on-again-off-again relationship with Louise Colet, his intellectual friendship with George Sand, his fascination with Egypt, and his brush with financial ruin. Winock offers close readings of Flaubert’s writings: in Madame Bovary, “Flaubert had turned the trivial into art”; in Salammbô, “he satisfied his need for beauty with horrifying and monstrous scenes.” Winock suggests that Flaubert’s Sentimental Education is perhaps the novelist’s true masterpiece because, in presenting the lives of ordinary people, it escaped “the ruins of the heroic novel—a genre to which Madame Bovary still belonged.” Winock’s serviceable biography paints a familiar portrait of the “hermit of Croisset” as the artist who elevated the art of writing above the fray of the modern world, becoming the “most modern writer of his time.” (Oct.)
L’Express - Grégoire Kauffmann
Michel Winock has written a great biography, bringing Flaubert down from his stylistic Olympus, to paint a portrait of a character grounded in history, pulsating with blood and life.
Victor Brombert
Winock is a first rate historian, with a fine literary sensibility. This is an intelligent book, rich in references to contemporary opinions, containing lively evocations of literary figures, friends, and political events.
Roger Pearson
Well-researched, elegantly written, and particularly good in discussing Flaubert's work as well as his life.
Literary Review - Benjamin Ivry
It is stately and plump, like its subject, as well as thought-provoking. To be sure, [others] have in recent decades produced English-language biographies of Flaubert, but Winock has the depth of knowledge and familiarity with Flaubert’s times to add something new.
New Yorker
This generous study ingeniously builds a narrative around Flaubert’s own words—from not only the novels but also voluminous correspondence and unpublished work. Adding light background and analysis, Winock allows the mind of the Master to shine.
London Review of Books - Tim Parks
Winock’s many quotations from Flaubert’s early writings—his Memoirs of a Madman, written at school, his letters, Intimate Notebook, and [November]—will be a revelation to those, like me, who knew only the masterpieces…Winock, a historian by profession, is excellent at building up the political context of Flaubert’s life, particularly the back and forth between liberal revolution and reactionary repression.
Choice - C. B. Kerr
The present volume offers a remarkable portrait of ‘the life of a man in his century.’ …[Winock] provide[s] a brilliant, sweeping view of the 19th century that allows for a far better understanding of both the major developments of the period (triumph of the bourgeoisie, industrialization, shift from constitutional monarchy to democratic republic) and the tangled life of the ‘Janus-faced,’ ‘conservative anarchist’ who was Flaubert.
Times Literary Supplement - Kate Rees
Winock’s achievement is to treat [Flaubert’s] works themselves with clarity and insight…This is a compelling account of a writer who, Winock reminds us, has become ‘an unavoidable reference’ in literary history.
Irish Times - Matthew Adams
What [Winock’s] biography really affirms is that practically all of the life in Flaubert is to be found in his work. This he documents with care, industry and insight. His discussions of the novels and letters are especially valuable and informative, and offer a suggestive sense of the ways in which his subject’s character relates to and informs his work. Flaubert would often ask himself why man’s heart felt so big when life felt so small. This book comes close to supplying an answer.
New York Review of Books - Peter Brooks
Others, like myself, will be grateful that it places Flaubert within the fevered history of his time.
Library Journal
The 1856 publication of Madame Bovary launched author Gustave Flaubert to fame.While many works related to the novelist exist, noted French historian Winock's (professor emeritus, Institut d'études politiques de Paris, France; Madame de Staël) biography succeeds in presenting a fresh portrait of a man plagued by paradoxes. Winock employs sociologist Émile Durkheim's term homo duplex to describe Flaubert's chronic contradictions. For instance, he criticized the bourgeoisie but always lived like one and encouraged his beloved niece to marry in a middle-class fashion. He socialized with notable individuals (Ivan Turgenev, George Sand, Guy de Maupassant) but preferred his solitude. Flaubert despised politics and tried to remain apolitical, yet momentous events in his lifetime (the 1848 French Revolution, the rise of industrialism) prevented him from staying neutral. Winock provides absorbing background related to the country's social and political scenes that occurred during his subject's lifetime. His descriptions of the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune are particularly interesting when juxtaposed with Flaubert's indignant reactions. Winock thoroughly cites other biographies and Flaubert's correspondence and includes a critical anthology. VERDICT An attractive volume for readers interested in French history and literature, especially Flaubertian scholars.—Erica Swenson Danowitz, Delaware Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Media, PA

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Michel Winock is Professor Emeritus at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po).

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