RSS

Tag Archives: Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary, Part 2

I felt reading this time to have more sympathy for Charles (and Berthe, who pays the highest price in the end). It’s no crime to be mediocre. Actually, that’s a strength of the novel and Vargas Llosa in The Perpetual Orgy, a book of essays on his favorite novel contends that this is the first modern novel because it centers on the ordinary in a way that other novels hadn’t. Other novels dealt with ordinary characters and circumstances but always made them heroic is some way. Flaubert didn’t. Ironically, that is what annoyed me most about Emma. She was so ordinary, so overly appraised by her husband and in different ways her lovers, even Rodolph overestimates her in the beginning. I saw her like Daisy Buchanan, a pretty, but empty vessel.

Flaubert wrote a lot about the ordinary in his letters. He wrote to his lover that “Beautiful subjects make mediocre works” and “It is not in fact great misfortunes that are to be feared in life, but minor ones. I am more afraid of pinpricks than of saber blows. . . . we have no need of continual acts of devotion and sacrifices, yet constantly need from others at least the outward signs of friendship and affection, in a word, kind attentions and politeness.”

But I want to say to him, Emma’s problem was living in a society that preferred appearances and her own desire for a sophisticated life that really existed only in her dreams.

Actually, a lot was in my head as I read the book this time. I was in my early twenties the first time I read it and aside from the good style and character descriptions, I didn’t get that much out of it. I just hadn’t lived that long and I don’t think I really had any life experience that informed my reading.

Then I read it again with a book group at a Barnes and Noble. I recall our discussion as centering around the humor in the book and one guy quipped that Madame Bovary shows that reading can be detrimental. We forget how people looked down on reading novels the first century or two they were around.

This reading I still appreciated how funny parts were and how well Flaubert writes, but it wasn’t as easy to read, I had to think more about the themes and Emma and the author’s aim and I’m still mulling all this over.

Then there’s the predatory lender Lheureux, who basically bundled Emma’s loans adding to her financial troubles. Talk about timely. It’s interesting that money and love go so hand in hand in Madame Bovary.

I was harder on Emma than I had been before because now I’ve known people who’ve lived through infidelity and I’ve seen the pain it causes. I can’t trivialize it. I wanted to tell Emma, “Okay, your life isn’t what you dreamed, but nothing is. Thank God, you’re not begging in the street or stricken with a disease.”

I do think she needed community. She had no one in her corner who’d also be real with her. In part, she didn’t seem to seek that out. Was life like that in small town France? The Bovary’s didn’t live on a prairie miles and miles from neighbors. I do feel I need to know more about the culture of the day before I judge her, but she really isn’t sympathetic or heroic. I suppose as Vargas Llosa points out she’s the first anti-hero.

I wonder about Flaubert. He had a long time affair, and a few trysts, biographers now think. Emma takes a lot of people down with her and this seems so at odds with his living. I know it’s not the first time for such a tension within a person and I actually think it may be essential to having an affair, this kind of double life.

Finally, Vargas Llosa makes some interesting points about beauty and violence. He points out that there’s a lot of violence in the book, not just Emma’s suicide but the disastrous surgery, the spiritual violence of Lheureux preying on the Bovary’s “down to their last sou,” the derogatory murmuring criticizing Catherine at the agricultural fair for donating her winnings to the church when she desperately needed money, all the prejudices, envy, and intrigue presented in the book. Vargas Llosa says he really doesn’t like stories that don’t contain violence; they don’t come across as real to him. What do you think? Do you agree?

Advertisements
 
2 Comments

Posted by on August 5, 2012 in classic, French Lit, World Lit

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

Madame Bovary, Part 1

My online book club read Madame Bovary for July. This was my third time through the novel and each time I have a different experience. I found a book of essays on Madame Bovary by novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called The Perpetual Orgy. Vargas Llosa has a real thing for this novel and credits repeated readings with saving his life. (I’ll review The Perpetual Orgy next week.)

What about Emma Bovary? Is she a heroine? Does she deserve our pity? Scorn? Sympathy? I’d say she’s an anti-hero. She’s an outsider who makes such bad choices. She is her own worst enemy.
This time around I wondered why Charles was such a weak person. I find I get drawn in more to stories where all characters are strong as they tend to be in say an argument between two Aaron Sorkin creations. Here Emma just isn’t a good match for Charles. Yet does is she justified in her infidelity? What is Flaubert’s aim here I wondered.
I did learn that Flaubert had an affair for several years and based Emma’s character on his lover,
I also found a little background information from The Writer’s Almanac:
. . . Gustave Flaubert (1821) (books by this author), born in Rouen, France. He was a notorious perfectionist in his work, and once said, “I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.” In 1851, he began what would become his first published novel, and his masterpiece. Five years later, Madame Bovary (1856) appeared in La Revue de Paris in serialized form. It’s the story of Emma, a doctor’s wife, who is dissatisfied with her life and longs to experience the passion, excitement, and luxury she has only read about in novels. She has two long-term affairs, accrues insurmountable debt, and ultimately takes her own life with arsenic.
From Madame Bovary, chapter nine: “Deep down in her heart, she was waiting and waiting for something to happen. Like a shipwrecked mariner, she gazed out wistfully over the wide solitude of her life, if so be she might catch the white gleam of a sail away on the dim horizon. She knew not what it would be, this longed-for barque; what wind would waft it to her, or to what shores it would bear her away. She knew not if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, burdened with anguish or freighted with joy. But every morning when she awoke she hoped it would come that day.”
A month after the final installment of Madame Bovary was published, the French government banned the book, and hauled Flaubert up on charges of offending public and religious morality. Flaubert and his lawyers defended the book, saying that, by exposing vice, the novel was actually promoting virtue. Flaubert was narrowly acquitted, and Madame Bovary was published in book form two months later. The publicity and scandal of the trial contributed to its success.
Flaubert wrote: “It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.”
I’ll add more tomorrow.
 
1 Comment

Posted by on August 4, 2012 in classic, French Lit

 

Tags: , , , , , ,