Allan Massie

A First-Rate Education

Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris: The Story of a Friendship, a Novel, and a Terrible Year


Basic Books 208pp £25 order from our bookshop

Biographers and critics often have a problem in determining how far remarks made in conversations or letters represent a settled serious opinion. The starting point of this acutely intelligent and enjoyable book by Peter Brooks is a good example. Returning to Paris in 1871 after the bloody suppression of the Commune and touring ‘the still smoking ruins of central Paris, where the seat of Government and many public buildings had gone up in flames during the final agony of the Commune’, Gustave Flaubert ‘commented to his friend Maxime Du Camp that if only his contemporaries had understood Sentimental Education, this – the devastating denouement of the Terrible Year – never could have happened’. ‘His remark’, Brooks writes, ‘claims an exceptional role for the novel in the writing and understanding of history.’

Well, up to a point. Clearly Flaubert, even while displaying an unusual degree of authorial vanity, wasn’t speaking altogether seriously. For one thing the novel was published only in November 1869. It was impossible that many could have read it

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter