Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, Penguin 1950, 361pp. tr. Alan Russell
Book clubs are great for reading classics, but classics can go either way. I shocked and saddened some friends when I admitted that I could not finish Middlemarch. The writing was fine, but the plot annoyed me, especially when Dorothea's big marital argument occurs offstage, in Rome. So it was a relief when, like Moby Dick, Bovary turns out to be a ripping read.
The book had two personal things going for it. One is the Normandy setting, that we have visited so often. Another was my success in tracking down Friedrich Wilhelm Schlaikier's dissertation on ulcers in Latin at the British Library. Our genealogy shows him as marrying in 1860, six years after his publication, and then having six children, one of whom was Hans' grandfather. This put me in the the 1850s mood, with a tinge of Babette's Feast in rural Denmark.
I really liked Alan Russell's introduction, which succinctly relates Flaubert's history and his disgust with the bourgeois class to which he belonged, as well as his commitment to objectivity and rhythmic prose style.
Emma's attractiveness struck me early: "Her high heels made her taller, and as she walked in front of him the wooden soles sprang up with a smart clack against the leather of her boots."
In the book group, Tim pointed out how many great scenes have fantastic ironic juxtaposition: the agricultural fair interleaved with Emma's first dalliance with Rodolphe ("I've stayed with you because I couldn't tear myself away...." "Manure!"); burning her wedding bouquet, followed immediately by news of her pregnancy; the chemist's boy visiting her grave, and the old verger deciding he had found the scoundrel who had been stealing his potatoes.
The book group also loved the scenes in Rouen: the fashion-mag-fantasy dinners in the hotel room, the all-day dirty cab ride! What did they do for contraception? Oh, and the first sex scene with Rodolphe reminded me of the nodding fronds in Ryan's Daughter.
The protracted death scene felt real - Flaubert lived in the countryside, after all.
How rarely do we get great lines in books these days. Here are a few I liked:
If she had passed her childhood in the back room of a shop somewhere in the middle of a town, she might now have awakened to the lyric call of Nature, which usually reaches us through the medium of books.
Idols must not be touched; the gilt comes off on our hands.
Every bourgeois in the ferment of his youth, if only for a day or a minute, has believed himself capable of a grand passion, of a high endeavor. Every run-of-the-mill seducer has dreamed of Eastern queens. Not a lawyer but carries within him the débris of a poet.
What about Emma in the end? I don't know. In one way you sympathise with her, in another you can't believe how selfish she is, particularly considering her daughter. Men come off surprisingly badly in this book, contrary to what you might expect from a Frenchman. And thank goodness Lheureux wasn't Jewish. Whatever you think, the pleasures of this book are many many many. And France certainly has had some great writers.
My next guidebook purchase?
On a related note, you might be interested in a graphic-novel take: Gemma Bovery as mentioned in review #80 by my thoughtful and interesting friend, Bill Takacs, who died just recently but is still in my thoughts.