I read Madame Bovary because of de Maupassant and I read de Maupassant because of Maugham. I was not disappointed in Bovary. I’m not sure if everything of Flaubert’s is like this but Bovary was everything I hoped it would be and some things I didn’t expect. Some observations.
Madame Bovary is a surprisingly modern novel in that it identifies a problem familiar to modern readers. It’s about an unfulfilled woman, a woman who yearns for some kind of actualization but, denied this, seeks it instead first in fantasy, in “emotional affairs” and then in outright physical adultery. You can argue all you like if Emma Bovary does this because she is stupid or cruel, fed by romantic notions, confusing material affluence with intellectual and spiritual achievement or if, as I see it, her time and place, 1800s France, left her no options – Emma’s choices are to become a nun or a wife, and the maker of a modest home at that. Her husband, Charles, spends his days as a country doctor traversing the land helping people and being a figure o f importance. Emma sews.
Not the kind of plot I usually dig, but what really kept me turning the pages is what usually keeps me turning pages: the language. My God, the language! I don’t know how Flaubert reads in his original French but in the English translation of Lowell Bair it is…
Not too beautiful. It’s clear, has a nice flow, is relatively simple, makes terrific use of observation, of detail, of what I think is called le mot juste, “the right word.” Isn’t that how it’s done, whether you’re Flaubert or anyone else, whether you’re producing capital-L Literature or advertising copy? At times it is plain, at times soaring, Flaubert simply puts it together in a way that I love. He describes Emma:
Accustomed to peaceful sights, she was drawn to scenes of contrast and unrest. She liked the sea only because of its storms, and verdure only when it was scattered among ruins. She had to be able to extract some kind of personal benefit from things, and she rejected as useless anything which did not contribute to the immediate gratification of her heart, for her temperament was more sentimental than artistic and she sought emotion, not landscapes.
Again, with just the right detail, he so perfectly captures her character and state of mind:
Her carnal desires, her longing for money and the melancholy of her unfulfilled passion merged into one vast anguish, and instead of trying to distract herself from it she concentrated her attention on it, stirring up her pain and always looking for a chance to suffer.
It’s also wonderfully erotic in that restrained 19th century way. This is among its sexiest passages:
The bed was a large mahogany one, shaped like a boat. Red silk curtains, curved at the bottom, hung down very low from the ceiling beside the flaring headboard; and there was nothing in the world so lovely as her dark hair and white skin against that crimson background when, in a gesture of modesty, she brought her bare arms together and hid her face in her hands.
I think I also didn’t expect the book to be so wise. It’s full of knowing observations about the world and the psychology of its characters.
What next? An investigation into Zola. Then, perhaps, more Flaubert? More de Maupassant surely? And who are Flaubert’s great–grandchildren? Who is continuing to turn out prose and stories like that? Maybe what’s on display are the principles of writing and storytelling that I enjoy in anyone’s hands.