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  • Gustave Flaubert: une manière spéciale de vivre
  • Kate Rees
Gustave Flaubert: une manière spéciale de vivre. By Pierre-Marc de Biasi. Paris: Grasset, 2009. 492 pp. Pb €21.50.

'Madame Bovary, c'est moi.' Flaubert never wrote those words. In his new biographical and critical study of Flaubert's life and work Pierre-Marc de Biasi tracks the sources of this famous citation, which speaks of the intense relationship between the writer and his created world. Like the story of a man who met a man who met a bear, Biasi chases down a trail of rumours: the quotation was first recorded by the critic René Descharmes, who knew someone who knew Amélie Bosquet, the correspondent to whom Flaubert reportedly made the claim about his affinity with his Normandy heroine. Biasi may show that Gustave Flaubert never did announce he was Emma Bovary, but in this book he nevertheless examines links between the life of the so-called hermit of Croisset, and the processes of writing. Despite — or perhaps because of — his renowned insistence on the impersonality of the author, the life of Flaubert has received much biographical attention in recent years. Biasi's study follows the publication of Geoffrey Wall's psychoanalytical biography in 2001 and Frederick Brown's mammoth 2006 volume, not to mention the thousands of debunking pages Sartre wrote in the 1970s. For Biasi, though, Flaubert-the-writer remains the central concern, and his study is a quirky, revealing, and affectionate amalgamation of perspectives. Drawing on his years of genetic research using Flaubert's notes and manuscripts, Biasi's book roughly follows a chronological approach to Flaubert's life, but is enlivened by essays and interviews. The result is a new form of biography, part detective story, part literary criticism. Always at pains to draw links between the writing and the life, Biasi, for instance, describes the sequence of events leading up to Flaubert's nervous attacks of 1844, but also notes the references to a burnt hand suffered around the same time. He puts together, detective fashion, a possible chain of events that could have threatened the writing ability of the 'novelist's novelist'. A chapter on the references to 'nous' in Madame Bovary illustrates further connections between writer and text: 'nous' is a reference to the bourgeois classmates of Flaubert's own generation; when the voice fades after the first few pages of the novel, it suggests the way in which each member of a school year-group seems to disappear, almost anonymously, into society and into history. It also, of course, raises destabilizing questions about the narrating 'moi', and Biasi comes up with a range of answers, including speculation that the implied 'je' of the opening pages of Flaubert's most famous text might, in fact, belong to Charles Bovary himself. In this way Biasi interweaves questions of biography and literary criticism. One of the recurrent images of Biasi's work is the emphasis on Flaubert as a horseman: the energy of the rider parallels the energy of the writer. Biasi also considers writing as Flaubert's hobbyhorse, his 'dada'. This study represents Biasi's own 'dada': a preoccupation with Flaubert, his life, and his writing. Not so much a portrait or a psychoanalyst's report, but a vibrant vision of a writer astride his literary steed, this is a book that expresses much about the life of Flaubert, providing a newly dynamic purpose for biography in a post-structuralist world.

Kate Rees
The Queen's College, Oxford


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