I know: I’m way behind here. Consistently lauded as one of the two or three greatest novel of all time, frequently the precedent to whatever book I’m reading (can one write about adultery without some root in Madame Bovary?), but I thought I knew everything about it because it’s one of those stories one cannot help but have touched upon somewhere. Why read it, then? Well, it’s a bit awkward in conversation when I admit that I’ve never read it. And then my wife read it a few years ago and has been coaxing me to open it up. And, honestly, after reading another critical essay about a contemporary book that has its roots in Madame Bovary (1857; tr. from the French by Margaret Mauldon, 2008), I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.
To begin with, I should say that another reason I avoided reading Madame Bovary is because I hate reading classics in translation unless I’m sure I have an excellent translation. The edition my wife read had several awkward sentences — and even used the word “freaking,” as in “I’m freaking hungry” — so it was hard to believe that it was faithful to the flow and passion of Flaubert’s language. I feel it’s such a disservice to the author (and myself) to read a poor translation of her book: how many people have been put off of world masterpieces because they read some publisher’s cheap edition with the cheap or archaic translation? At that point it’s all about getting the plot line across, even if the sentences are syntactically convoluted. Furthermore, I think that Nabokov’s translations of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is bad because he believed in translating the Russian into its strict literal equivalent in English, sacrificing the poetic melody of the original (incidentally, when Nabokov’s friend Edmund Wilson reviewed Nabokov’s translation in the New York Review of Books, it caused their falling-out). There is value in Nabokov’s style of translation, obviously, but I find that value comes mostly when one wants to delve into scholarship, not into reading for reading’s sake. For me, at that point, it’s necessary to find a skilled translator who succeeds in getting the meaning, form, and poetry across. I think we’ve got one great translation of Madame Bovary here. Margaret Mauldon has been translating French classics since 1987. Her translation of Madame Bovary appeared in 2004, and it’s beautifully rendered. I can’t think of a single sentence where I thought, boy, is she trying to write English? And I was looking.
Now, enough about the translation. While reading the book, I discovered another reason to read Madame Bovary: it is more than just a good story. More than most authors, Flaubert manages to make his form perfectly complement his substance. In other words, on a sentence level, each word and comma serves to not only express a thought but also a certain pacing and emotional journey, so the reader feels very involved. It is to Flaubert that is most applied the phrase he made famous: le mot juste, meaning the author searches for not just the word with the correct meaning but also for the word with the correct sound and shape. This strategy is also carried out on a paragraph, chapter, and on the book as a whole. We go up and down with Emma; when she is bored, the sentences are longer and contain more tedious detail. When she is excited, the sentences push into one another, barely ending before the next one begins, building crescendo by the syntax. It’s beautiful. Proust and Joyce acknowledge a debt to Flaubert.
The story begins not by introducing Emma, the soon-to-be Madame Bovary, but her soon-to-be husband, the bumbling Charles Bovary, or, as I now prefer to call him, charbovari. I did not know it before reading, but before Charles marries Emma he marries an older widow “with more pimples on her face than a tree has buds in springtime” but who did not lack suitors. When as a young physician, newly married, Charles meets Emma, he is instantly charmed by her. Before too long Charles’ miserable wife dies, and Charles can marry Emma. (For some reason, though he lusts after Emma while already married to the widow, readers tend to forget Charles’ own tendencies to be unfaithful when Emma makes him a cuckold.)
Charles is happy immediately upon marrying Emma. Here is a passage about Charles’ early days of marriage with Emma (the passage was just suggestive enough — look at the last phrase — to be one of the pieces of evidence against Flaubert in the obscenity trial that elevated this book to a must-read):
And then, on the endless dusty ribbon of the highway or in the sunken lands under bowering trees, on paths where the grain stood knee-high, with the sun on his shoulders and the morning air in his nostrils, his heart full of the night’s bliss, his spirit at peace, and his flesh content, he would ride along ruminating his happiness, like someone who, after dinner, goes on savouring the taste of the truffles he has eaten.
It seems that when Charles consumates his marriage he feels he has already achieved all there is in life, so he stops trying too hard. Not that he had a lot going for him anyway. Here’s how Flaubert introduces the couple after their wedding night:
The next morning, by contrast, he seemed a different man. He was the one you would think had been a virgin, whereas the bride gave absolutely no sign that meant anything to anybody.
Charles quickly resembles the awkward school boy we met in chapter one, “walking half bent over her with his arm round her waist and his head crushing the front of her bodice.” Emma, who thought that marriage would be all excitement, rapture, and everything she’d imagined after reading her books, becomes despondent and depressed. After coming to the conclusion that since she was unhappy that she must not have ever loved Charles, she despises him.
So it was upon him that she focused the multifaceted hatred born of her unhappiness, and every attempt she made to conquer this feeling only served to strengthen it; for the futility of her efforts gave her another reason to despair and intensified her estrangement from Charles. Even her own meekness goaded her to rebel. The mediocrity of her home provoked her to sumptuous fantasies, the caresses of her husband to adulterous desires. She would have liked Charles to beat her, so that she could more justifiably detest him, and seek her revenge. She was sometimes astonished at the appalling possibilities that came into her head; and yet she must go on smiling, go on hearing herself repeat that she was happy, act as if she were, and let everyone belief it!
Emma is ripe for for some dashing Frenchman to take her away — and there are many willing candidates. Flaubert has just begun to dissect this marriage and the concept of love. My preconception of this novel was that Flaubert, not a particularly faithful man himself, had some qualms about the notion of “love.” Indeed, when many of his characters express love or longing for each other, Flaubert mocks them; what they say is contrived, pure cliché. Here is a wonderful scene where Rodolphe, who’s had his eye on Emma for a while, begins to pursue her at the county agricultural fair. This scene also captures the way Flaubert comments upon his characters indirectly, allowing external elements to do the description and the criticism, as Rodolphe’s declarations of love are separated by an awards ceremony at the fair:
And he seized her by her hand; she did not withdraw it.
“Prize for all-round excellence in farming!” proclaimed the chairman.
“The other day for example, when I came to your house . . .”
“To Monsieur Bizet, of Quincammpoix:”
“Did I know then that I’d come here with you?”
“Time and again I’ve intended to leave, yet I’ve followed you, I’ve remained by your side.”
“Just as I’d remain at your side tonight, tomorrow, day after day, my whole life!”
“To Monsieur Caron of Argueil, a gold medal!”
“For never before have I felt so utterly enchanted by anyone . . .”
“To Monsieur Bain, of Givry-Saint-Martin!”
“So that I’ll cherish the memory of you forever.”
Nothing Rodolphe says here is original. “Manure” is indeed le mot juste. And Rodolphe himself knows it’s manure; he doesn’t truly love Emma at all. Ironically, later on Flaubert revisits the idea that the language of love — and perhaps love itself — is somewhat vacuous. Here Emma has proclaiming her undying love to the bored Rodolphe, but . . .
Because wanton or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he only half believed in the sincerity of those he was hearing now; to a large extent they should be disregarded, he believed, because such exaggerated language must surely mask commonplace feelings: as if the soul in its fullness did not sometimes overflow into the most barren metaphors, since no once can ever tell the precise measure of his own needs, of his own ideas, of his own pain, and human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when what we long to do is make music that will move the stars to pity.
The beautiful way Flaubert describes the way Emma is truly feeling, though inadequately expressing, shows how the book roams around the nuances and subtleties of love (and many other things), at one time critical, at another time with deep esteem. The characters of Emma and Charles are similarly difficult to measure. One desires to blame someone for the tragic course this book takes, but at once all and none are blameworthy. Not only did I find this book worth reading once; it could very well reach the rarified heights of being one of my perrenial reads.