Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I thought I’d read Bovary a long time ago. That’s probably because I have read Anna Karenina (and to a lesser extent Chekhov’s “Lady with a Dog”), the other great adulterous novel of the mid-19th century, and I have also read Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” (in French, no less, thank you Madames Nichols et Bork). It’s also because it’s so entwined in other literature and art that you feel you know it already. It casts the kind of light that makes you think you’ve spent more direct time on it than you have.

So, news flash: this is really good. Flaubert has the gift of the great sentence (even in translation) that he’s famous for. He’ll find the perfect detail or the perfect metaphor. Or, other times, he’ll find the perfect sentence to sum up reveries of one sort or another, and often that sentence will turn what’s come before it on its head.

If Tolstoy is the great Romantic, celebrating the passion that drives Anna’s unhappiness forward, then Flaubert is already a Modernist, someone as intrigued by irony as by the subject before him. That’s true with many of those staggering sentences, of course (he’s like a master painter with brush strokes that speak a consistent language apart from and yet constituting the work as a whole) but it’s also true of his view of Emma. I’d always assumed that we’d be called to root for Emma, that she would be (as Anna in many ways is) a proto-feminist figure whose unhappiness demonstrates the need to reimagine the role of women in society. I think it’s possible to read this that way, but I’m not convinced Flaubert was polemicizing. (And Tolstoy, great as he was, generally was polemicizing about something.)

Instead, I think we are often supposed to judge Emma. I think we are supposed to see her as self-centered and, to take an old-fashioned word then current, immoral. She is scandalous, and she leaves destruction in her wake. Flaubert seems unafraid of her sexuality – there’s great passion here, and it’s fun to imagine the good people of the 1860s and 1870s shocked by its explicit scenes – but he’s also unafraid to judge it. Sure, Charles is a dope, a mediocrity who can’t match her beauty or her intelligence, but we seem to be told here that everything would have turned out all right if only she’d managed to make herself satisfied with what she had. She had the materials for happiness before her, but she had to keep pushing, had to grab for more than was her allotted share.

Anyway, I have almost nothing original to say about this, but then I doubt I’d have anything original to say about visiting the Louvre, something I still hope to do some day. In each case, we’re talking about masterpieces, so there’s nothing wrong with just standing before them, mouth slightly agape, and admiring what’s there.

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