Having been acquitted of the charge of “outrage of public morals and religion” brought against him upon the publication Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert found himself, in 1857, a celebrity and one of the most admired literary men of his day.
Francis Steegmuller’s volume of Flaubert’s letters from the years culminating in that triumph was hailed by the New York Times as “brilliantly edited and annotated…a splendid, intimate account of the development of a writer who changed the nature of the novel.” It went on to garner widespread critical acclaim and to win an American Book Award for Translation.
Now, in the second volume, we see Flaubert in the years of his fame—the years in which he wrote Salammbô, L’Éducation sentimentale, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Three Tales, and the unfinished Bouvard and Pecuchet. In writing the novels, Flaubert followed his precept, “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere,” but in these letters of his maturity he gives full scope to his feelings and expresses forceful opinions on matters public and private.
We see Flaubert traveling to Tunisia to document the exotic Salammbô, then calling on his own memories and those of his friends to bring to life the Revolution of 1848 and the loves of his hero Frederic Moreau in the pages of L’Éducation sentimentale, which many today consider his greatest novel. Flaubert is taken up by the Second Empire Court of Napoleon III and Eugenie, and becomes a lifelong friend of Princess Mathilde Bonaparte. But the most powerful feminine presence in this volume is the warm, sympathetic George Sand, with whom he maintains a fascinating correspondence for more than ten years. This dialogue on life, letters, and politics between the “two troubadours,” as they called themselves, reveals both of them at their idiosyncratic best.
The deaths of Flaubert’s mother, of his closest friend and mentor, Louis Bouilhet, and of Théophile Gautier, Sainte-Beuve, and other intimates, and Flaubert’s financial ruin at the hands of his beloved niece Caroline and her rapacious husband, make a somber story of the post war years. Despite these and other losses, Flaubert’s last years are brightened by the affection of Guy de Maupassant, Zola, and other younger writers.
Together with Francis Steegmuller’s masterly connecting narrative and essential annotation, these letters, most of which appear here in English for the first time, constitute an intimate and engrossing new biography of the great master of the modern novel.