My classic for September was one of those books that are so ingrained in the canon you most likely know the basic story line even if you’ve never read a word Gustave Flaubert wrote. I’d happened to read a fair bit about Madame Bovary (1857), mostly via Julian Barnes, and had also encountered some modern novels that might be said to be updates (Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum and perhaps even George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl), but never picked up the book itself until earlier this month. While the essential turns of the plot were indeed familiar to me, there was also plenty that surprised me in terms of the details and the mechanics. I’ve set this out in nine points below; if you’re determined to avoid anything that seems like spoilers, I’d suggest skipping over #6–8.
#1. We open with Charles Bovary.
And in the first-person plural: “We were studying when the headmaster came in, followed by a new boy”. I suppose I assumed the book would open immediately on Emma Bovary, already married to Charles. Instead, we get a quick tour through Charles’s adolescent schooling and independent medical studies.
#2. There are two “Madame Bovarys” before the one we’re interested in.
The original Madame Bovary, and the only one to survive the book, is Charles’s mother. Charles also has a brief first marriage to Heloise, an older widow. Conveniently, she dies by the end of the second chapter, in which Charles met Emma when he went to set her farmer father’s broken leg.
#3. There’s a lovely Hardyesque flavor to the novel.
Flaubert’s original subtitle was “Provincial Morals,” and the scenes set among country folk – especially Emma and Charles’s wedding procession and reception and the later agricultural fair – reminded me of Far from the Madding Crowd.
#4. Emma has a child.
Despite all I’d absorbed about the book, I never knew Emma had a baby girl, Berthe. They lodge the infant with a wet nurse and servants do most of the hard work of raising her, so Berthe has only a tiny role. The scene in which Emma violently pushes the little girl away from her is meant, I think, to reflect her fundamental unfitness for motherhood.
#5. In the world of the novel, literature is a danger and religion is no balm.
On the advice of Charles’s mother, he cancels Emma’s lending library subscription lest novels exacerbate her discontent. Manual labor is what Emma needs, Old Madame Bovary proclaims. When Emma goes to the parish priest for advice about her angst, he tells her she must be ill if she benefits from all the physical comforts she could need yet cannot be happy. (An excellent and wrenching scene.)
#6. There’s a strong medical theme.
Charles is a doctor, of course, but I didn’t know his profession would enter into the plot. There’s a crucial sequence in which he performs a groundbreaking operation on a stable boy with a clubfoot, but gangrene sets in and the leg has to be amputated. (Emma guiltily buys the boy a false leg.) Emma’s somewhat prolonged death by poisoning, and the appearance of her corpse, are also described in recognizable medical detail.
#7. Emma’s death isn’t the end.
There’s still two more chapters to go, and things only get worse. It’s as if Emma is still a negative influence after her death: pushing Charles on to extravagances he can’t afford, and sending him deeper into despair when he finds undeniable evidence of her two affairs.
#8. Homais, the arrogant pharmacist, is triumphant.
Monsieur Homais is one of the key secondary characters in Yonville, this small town near Rouen. He’s a middling community member who’s gotten above himself, yet he succeeds whereas Emma is crushed. The very last line of the novel goes to him: “He has just received the Legion of Honor.” In the introduction to my Signet Classic edition, Mary McCarthy suggests that Homais is “not just Emma’s foil; he is her alter ego.”
#9. Madame Bovary went on trial.
Appended to my copy is a 78-page transcript of the novel’s trial. As I skimmed it, I was reminded of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity case, which took place just over 100 years later (1959–60). Flaubert and his publisher were accused of “offenses against public morality and religion,” specifically of portraying Emma as lascivious and making adultery appealing compared to the banality of marriage. The defense countered that Charles receives all the reader’s sympathy and Emma all the reader’s revulsion. Flaubert was acquitted (as was Lady Chatterley), but the judge’s ruling was essentially “Naughty boy, don’t you know literature has a mission to exalt the spirit, not to hold up vice as an object of horror?”
Now for what doesn’t surprise me about Madame Bovary: the beautiful writing and the enduring power of what is ultimately a rather commonplace story line. The percentage of novels with an adultery subplot must be very high nowadays, but Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina were two of the first to consider the female experience.
Flaubert famously declared “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (“Madame Bovary is me”), and I think every reader must see something of him-/herself in this character: the lure of a romantic and luxurious life, the boredom of the day to day, the longing to make something more out of existence, and an increasing desperation to cover up one’s mistakes. A book that has had meaning for generations, Madame Bovary is a true classic.
Some favorite lines:
“But her life was as cold as an attic with northern exposure, and boredom, that silent spider, was spinning its web in all the dark corners of her heart.”
“Mealtime was the worst of all in that tiny room on the ground floor, with the smoking oven, the creaking door, the damp walls, and the moist flagstones; all the bitterness of her existence seemed to be served up to her on her plate, and the steam from the boiled beef brought up waves of nausea from the depths of her soul.”
“No one can ever express the exact measure of his needs, or conceptions, or sorrows. The human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we hope with our music to move the stars.”
(Isn’t that last sentence incredible?!)
I read a Signet Classic edition of Mildred Marmur’s 1964 translation.
See also Susan’s review of Sophie Divry’s recent update, Madame Bovary of the Suburbs, at A life in books.
Taking a lead from Laura over at Reading in Bed, I’ve trawled my shelves and my current library pile for some blissfully short books. For this challenge I limited myself to books with fewer than 150 pages and came up with four fiction books and two ‘nonfiction novellas’.
The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry
This one-sitting read is a monologue by an embittered librarian who arrives one morning to discover a patron has been locked into the basement overnight—a captive audience. Responsible for Geography, she hopes for a promotion to History, her favorite subject. Alas, no one seems to appreciate this library as a bastion of learning anymore; they only come for DVDs and a place to keep warm. That is, except for Martin, a young PhD researcher who’s caught her eye. But he doesn’t even seem to notice she exists. In one uninterrupted paragraph, this celebrates all that books do for us but suggests that they still can’t fix a broken heart.
My verdict: There are lots of great one-liners about the value of books (“You’re never alone if you live surrounded by books”), but overall it’s a somewhat aimless little experiment and not particularly well translated.
The All of It by Jeannette Haien
When this won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction in 1987, the author was in her sixties. It’s since been championed by Ann Patchett, who contributed a Foreword to this 2011 edition. Father Declan de Loughry, fishing for salmon, reflects on the recent death of parishioner Kevin Dennehy. Before he died, Kevin admitted that he and Enda were never properly married. Yet Enda begs the priest to approve a death notice calling Kevin her “beloved husband,” promising she’ll then explain “the all of it” – the very good reason they never married. As she tells her full story, which occupies the bulk of the novella, Father Declan tries to strike a balance between the moral high ground and human compassion.
My verdict: Enda’s initial confession on page 27 is explosive, but the rest of this quiet book doesn’t ever live up to it. I was reminded of Mary Costello’s Academy Street, a more successful short book about an Irish life.
Favorite passage: “One thing I’ve learned, Father—that in this life it’s best to keep the then and the now and the what’s-to-be as close together in your thoughts as you can. It’s when you let gaps creep in, when you separate out the intervals and dwell on them, that you can’t bear the sorrow.”
Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann
This starts off as the simple story of J. Mendelssohn, an octogenarian who wakes up on a snowy morning in his New York City apartment, contemplating his past – Lithuanian/Polish ancestry, work as a judge and marriage to Eileen, whom he met as a boy in Dublin – and planning to meet his son at a restaurant for lunch. But all of a sudden it turns into a murder mystery on page 24: “Later the homicide detectives will be surprised…” In 13 sections headed by epigraphs from the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” McCann flits through Mendelssohn’s thoughts and flips between the events preceding and immediately following the murder. A late interrogation scene is particularly strong – “unlike our poetry, we like our murders to be fully solved.”
My verdict: This is the first I’ve read from McCann, and it’s terrific. He stuffs so much plot and characterization into not many pages. Mendelssohn’s thought life is rich with allusions and wordplay. I was particularly intrigued to read about the autobiographical overlap in the Author’s Note. I haven’t yet read the short stories included in the volume, but for the novella on its own it’s .
As We Are Now by May Sarton
On the surface this is similar to a novel I reviewed earlier in the month, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old. But where spunky Hendrik determines to outwit his care home’s sullen staff, Sarton’s narrator, seventy-six-year-old Caroline Spencer, has given in. A retired high school math teacher, she’s landed in a New England old folks’ home because during her recovery from a heart attack she failed to get along with her brother’s younger wife. She finds kindred spirits in Standish Flint, a tough old farmer, and Reverend Thornhill, but her growing confusion and the home’s pretty appalling conditions drive her to despair.
My verdict: This is enjoyable for the unreliable narrator and the twist ending, but overall it struck me as rather melodramatic. However, I appreciated a lot of Caro’s sentiments.
Favorite passages: “Am I senile, I wonder? The trouble is that old age is not interesting until one gets there, a foreign country with an unknown language to the young, and even to the middle-aged. I wish now that I had found out more about it.” & “And what is left of you? A lapis lazuli pin, a faded rose petal, once pink, slipped into the pages of this copybook.”
And two short works of nonfiction:
Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary by Rebecca Brown
Brown is a novelist from Seattle. This is an account of her mother’s death from what sounds like stomach cancer. The disease progressed quickly and her mother died at home, under hospice care, in New Mexico in 1997. As the title suggests, the brief thematic chapters are arranged around vocabulary words like “anemia” and “metastasis.” My favorite chapters were about washing: her mother’s habit of reading while taking long baths, and the ways Brown and her sister tried to care for their mother’s disintegrating body, including a plan to prepare the corpse themselves. Clinical descriptions of vomiting alternate with magical thinking to accompany her mother’s hallucinations: “You’re packed, Mom, but all of us aren’t going, just you. But you’ve got everything you need.”
My verdict: Brown covers a lot of emotional ground in a very few pages, but I prefer my medical/bereavement memoirs to have more of a narrative and more detail than “when she died it was not peacefully or easy, it was hard.”
Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
This 1996 memoir was sparked by reading a quote from a Chinese Buddhist in a New York Times article: he suggested that reading is dangerous as it imposes others’ ideas on you and doesn’t allow you to use your own mind freely. Schwartz, of course, begs to differ. As a novelist, reading has been her lifeline. She looks back at her childhood reading and her pretentious college student opinions on Franz Kafka and Henry James, and explains that she lets serendipity guide her reading choices nowadays, rather than a strict TBR list: “reading at random – letting desire lead – feels like the most faithful kind.”
My verdict: It’s a bibliomemoir; I should have loved it. Instead I thought it unstructured and thin. There are some great lines dotted through, but I wasn’t very interested in the examples she focuses on. Five pages about a children’s book by Eleanor Farjeon? Yawn!
Favorite passages: “Like the bodies of dancers or athletes, the minds of readers are genuinely happy and self-possessed only when cavorting around, doing their stretches and leaps and jumps to the tune of words.” & “How are we to spend our lives, anyway? That is the real question. We read to seek the answer, and the search itself – the task of a lifetime – becomes the answer.”