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Description de l’éditeur
A revelatory work that examines the intricate relationship between history and literature, truth and fiction—with some surprising conclusions.
Focusing on three literary masterpieces—Charles Dickens's Bleak House (1853), Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857), and Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks (1901)—Peter Gay, a leading cultural historian, demonstrates that there is more than one way to read a novel.
Typically, readers believe that fiction, especially the Realist novels that dominated Western culture for most of the nineteenth century and beyond, is based on historical truth and that great novels possess a documentary value. That trust, Gay brilliantly shows, is misplaced; novels take their own path to reality. Using Dickens, Flaubert, and Mann as his examples, Gay explores their world, their craftsmanship, and their minds. In the process, he discovers that all three share one overriding quality: a resentment and rage against the society that sustains the novel itself. Using their stylish writing as a form of revenge, they deal out savage reprisals, which have become part of our Western literary canon. A New York Times Notable Book and a Best Book of 2002.
It's tempting to treat novels as beautifully crafted and precise reflections of a society's social, political and psychological realities, but noted historian Gay (Schnitzler's Century, etc.) is having none of it: "whoever enlists fiction to assist in the hunt for knowledge must always be alert to authorial partisanship, limiting cultural perspectives, fragmentary details offered as authoritative, to say nothing of neurotic obsessions." In short, the most realistic novel is not an objective work of history. And yet Gay's fine analysis does not conclude on such a sour note; rather, he offers magnificent insight into how, by knowing a work's "maker and his society," one can evaluate the historical evidence a novel contains. Gay illustrates this through a close study of the three supposedly quintessential works of Realism in the subtitle. Dickens, he says, was an "angry anarchist," whose portrayal of the British judicial system in Bleak Houseowed more to his rejection of all government institutions than to reality. Madame Bovary, he continues, was less a true depiction of French provincial life than "a weapon of harassment" reflecting Flaubert's jaundiced view of society. And Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks was "an act of retribution," an expression of his "animus against his privileged family history." None of this, Gay states, detracts from the greatness of these books as works of art. In an epilogue, Gay offers a spirited rejection of the postmodernist denial of historical veracity; and these essays, based on his W.W. Norton/New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers Lectures, offer a valuable contribution to literary studies.