Améry was born Hanns Chaim Mayer and fought in the resistance against the Nazis in Belgium; having survived internment at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Belsen, he changed his name and wrote a number of books including an acclaimed disquisition on torture entitled At the Mind’s Limits. This backdrop may explain Améry’s sensitivity to the political implications of Flaubert’s novel, which he calls out as not only reactionary but also unpatriotic. He maintains that the glory of the French republic was built on the types of men who form the butt of the joke in Madame Bovary. By ridiculing “the historical progenitors of those who rightly stood with Zola and Clémenceau on the side of Captain Dreyfus”, Flaubert betrayed the principles of the French revolution, insisting that “the once-poor must remain poor forever, and as such must be irrevocably stupid”.
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Because of its peculiar form as both narrative and essay, Charles Bovary is unlikely to appeal to readers who are not already familiar with and fascinated by Flaubert’s masterpiece. But for the many readers who are, Améry’s daringly imaginative and moving book is a provocation to rethink much of what we thought we knew about one of the most important and widely discussed works of European literature.