Sunday, June 05, 2016

Madame Bovary (1856)

You have to give credit to Madame Bovary first for being so meticulously done. I can't think of any other novel so thoroughly turned out, down to the paragraphs and sentences, short of The Great Gatsby. And this is in translation even (in my case, by Alan Russell, circa 1950). I have an idea about writing generally that too many revisions at some point begins to deaden the language, and that's how I took Madame Bovary my first time through about 10 years ago. This time I just gave into that ahead of time and planned to read it slowly and patiently, and yes, there were many rewards. The character of Emma Bovary has some analog in the portrait of Mona Lisa—forever mysterious, receding from understanding. She's more often compared with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, but I see something much more desperate and raw in Mme. Bovary. At the same time, it's all about the petty bourgeoisie, for whom author Gustave Flaubert evidently had little more than contempt. Well, who can blame him? Thus, part of the implicit tension is Flaubert's detachment from his subject, his dispassion. The novel is now considered a milestone in the development of the realist novel, which inevitably leads back to the petty bourgeoisie. Subtitled A Story of Provincial Life (compare Middlemarch, 15 years later: A Study of Provincial Life), Madame Bovary details in episodic fashion the marriage of our hero and her subsequent affairs. As much as anything it is about boredom, and so leaning already toward the modern. Her husband is a fool, her first lover is a cad, her second merely another lover. As much as sex this story is about foolishly going into debt to support a style of living you can't afford. No one is very likable here but some are more culpable than others for all the trouble. The most important feature of this novel for me, for good or ill, remains the language and its poetic clarity. It advances methodically from one still place to the next, lingering and observing small details closely, even as a runaway train of personal disaster unfolds. According to Francine Prose, the Geoffrey Wall translation is the one to read—I will have to look for that next time. For now, the Russell version in the Penguin paperback with the Monet portrait of his wife on the cover was a pleasure to read too. Though things go hard on Emma Bovary, others are guilty too and get away scot-free. It's not a scolding book at all, in spite of Flaubert's avowed feelings, nor misogynist either I think. But the people it focuses on, small-time merchants in a small town, can be reckless or cruel or both in ways we know too well.

In case it's not at the library (as if).

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