Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary

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.

madame-bovary

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?”

“Seventy francs!”

“Time and again I’ve intended to leave, yet I’ve followed you, I’ve remained by your side.”

“Manures:”

“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.

32 thoughts on “Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary

  1. Steph says:

    I must also admit that I have not read Madame Bovary, although I have pondered doing so in the past. Your thoughtful review has encouraged me that I should attempt it in the future, though I will be certain to be cautious when it comes to selecting the translation.

  2. My own Madame Bovary experience, and it is only two years old. I finished reading it the first time and thought “why does everyone think this is so great?” (And I don’t think I can blame the translator –sorry, I forget who it was.) So I decided, quite quickly, to read it again — and was stunned from page one at how much I had missed the first time. All of which is just a warning that this is a complex but incredibly good book — very good review too.

  3. adevotedreader says:

    This is a book I re-read every few years, so am glad you enjoyed it Trevor. A Sentimental Education is also well worth reading.

  4. You know, adevotedreader, I often mistakenly assume that since a particular author has one or two really well known works, I assume the rest aren’t worth much. I know very little about A Sentimental Education but will need to check it out. Thanks!

    Steph, this one is worth checking out sooner rather than later. It’s not too long, and it really shows what literature is capable of achieving.

    Thanks for the kind words, Kevin. I’m very interested to see what I pick up on another read.

  5. Your review captures why I needed to read this book twice. One of my failings as a reader is that I tend to pay attention to social context, sense of place and characterization on the first time through — often at the expense of appreciating style and language. (This would explain why I became a journalist rather than a poet.) Madame Bovary has all those things, but even more important, as you note, is Flaubert’s style (whatever the translation may be). I think it was only on the second time through that I started to appreciate that — and must admit that until I read your excellent review I didn’t understand that that was what the difference was. Thanks.

  6. Fantastic review Trevor, I hadn’t picked up the way the sentences altered to fit the desired tone and it’s a great insight.

    Madame Bovary is, for me, the greatest novel I have ever read. I consider it pretty much peerless, a spectacular work of great literature which shows just what the novel can aspire to. Put another way, I quite like it.

    I’m glad you quoted the cracked kettle section, it’s wonderfully written, as indeed is the section in the fair with its cruel banalities. But then, as is the whole work really. I do think you picked very apposite quotes for your review though.

    On translations, I read the Penguin Classics translation, which I enjoyed (obviously given my comments here). I must dig it out and compare the passages you quote to see how they compare.

    Anyway, enough gushing, delighted to see you review this Trevor. Nicely done.

  7. Kevin,

    For me Madame Bovary is a triumph of style and language. There is social commentary and other observation, but I don’t think that’s where it’s greatness lies.

    Trevor, forgot to ask, is there a Eugene Onegin translation you would recommend? I have the Penguin Classics again, but haven’t yet engaged with it.

  8. John Self says:

    Trevor, you are to be praised for taking on such a Big One and coming out of it so well!

    My own Madame Bovary experience, like Kevin’s, is only a few years old, and like you (and unlike Kevin!) immediately I realised why this was one of the great novels. It was also I believe Richard Yates’s favourite novel, after or alongside The Great Gatsby.

  9. Trevor:

    Good luck with the move. Since I am sure you are still fine-tuning, I do have one problem — your screen is wider than the image I get on my computer so I have to navigate to get to the right hand sidebar, where the latest comments are posted (a part of the screen that does interest me). You have joined PGA Tour.com in a “most annoying” category — I have to manipulate my screen to see what I most want to see. Other screens I frequently visit have the same problem — the left sidebar, which is pretty constant and of marginal value, is always there in full, the right, which changes the most, is the one I have to work at to get to. So when you finetune, as I am sure you will, do me a favor and take this into consideration. Even just swapping left and right would work for me.

    Other than that, great.

  10. Another small problem — for some reason, my first comment got moved up in the comments section.

  11. Trevor says:

    Kevin, the great thing about this is that I can fully manipulate my column widths. However, it sounds like you might have a screen set at low resolution. I’ll get on here later to see what width would best fit screens like yours.

    As for your comment, I finally switched my time from GMT to my own EST, so this thinks your early comment is later. Once this initial time change of five hours has passed, that problem will go away.

    Thanks for the feedback. I hope to do quite a bit of revision here so it all helps.

  12. John Self says:

    Very odd Trevor – my comment appears in the middle of the comments even though I posted it after all the others from Kevin and Max. Technological teething troubles?

  13. Congratulations on the move Trevor, I’ll be interested to see how you develop the place.

    For the moment, so you know, I’m getting the same screen size issue as Kevin. I’m not technologically sophisticated to know why I’m afraid.

    I’ve updated my blogroll to include your new address. Good luck with the new site!

  14. As a frequent victim of time zone changes (my wife travels internationally a lot), I have ever intention of playing these five hours as a game as much as possible. This is serve one, there may well be others to disrupt you.

  15. Trevor says:

    Ohhh . . . Kevin. I’m afraid your serve hit the net. The five hours are apparently up and all is on track for the future!

    By the way, I modified the column width. How is it now?

  16. Laura says:

    Nice new blog! I’ve updated my feed reader, as well as your participant link on The Complete Booker.

  17. Modification works fine for me — thanks. It is also not the first time a serve has hit the net.

  18. tuesday says:

    Congratulations; the new site looks great! If there’s one thing wrong with WordPress, it’s the inflexibility of the templates.

    I have yet to read Madame Bovary, but I’ll be sure to return to this review after I have.
    As for the matter of translations, I agree completely with what you say. I’ve been put off so many times by poorly-written – and outdated – translations. Initially, I planned on completing Garnett’s ‘Anna Karenina’, but I think I will be reading the Pevear-Volokhonsky.

  19. Trevor: Sorry about being a techie complainer. The comments link on the NBCC post doesn’t seem to be working — given that some us may well want to comment later today…..

    Oh, the problems of setting up a new site…..

    Cheers,

    Kevin

  20. Trevor says:

    Hmmmm, thanks Kevin. I’ll try to see if I can find and fix the problem. I’m sure it’s something easy.

    By the way, I’m hoping to expand those pages and have individual pages for discussion on each of the books on the shortlist. Hopefully I can get it working!

  21. John Self says:

    I meant to say Trevor, that I like the new design very much, now that I’ve worked out what happened with my comment appearing in the middle like that.

    And the NYRB spines too. Do I get a prize for naming them all? The Slaves of Solitude, In Hazard, That Awful Mess on the Via Somethingia, something by Leonardo Sciascia, and Beware of Pity. Well, three and a half out of five isn’t bad.

  22. Trevor says:

    Excellent job, John. I’m sure there aren’t many others who could name them all on sight. The Sciascia book is The Name of the Owl. And it’s That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (a very strange but gratifying book).

  23. _lethe_ says:

    Hi Trevor,

    I’m having trouble with the blog width. My screen resolution is 1152×768. The text of the review is cut off to the right and the right-hand sidebar is completely invisible. I wouldn’t mind if there was a horizontal scroll bar, but there isn’t, so I have to move the window way to the left and then extend the right hand side, which is rather a nuisance. Hopefully you can do something about it?

    (Oh my, “I’m freaking hungry”?! Flaubert probably turned in his grave.)

  24. Isabel says:

    Great new look on your blog. Congrats!

    Question on the widow: Was she very rich?

    I saw a couple of versions of Madame Bovary (PBS and an old movie.) I think that I will tackle it in 2011.

  25. estelle says:

    What a good review — it had me raring to have another go with Mme. B. I tried when I was too young for it — not that I think there’s a particular perfect age for the novel, but I definitely wasn’t in the right frame of mind to read it then. But now…let’s see.

  26. Trevor says:

    When you read it again, estelle, please return to let me know if it is better than before. I definitely don’t think I would have appreciated it had I read it when I was younger. I don’t think I would have understood it, for one thing. I don’t think I would have enjoyed the writing, for another. Then again, maybe had I read this when I was younger I would have caught on to this whole literature thing much sooner : ).

  27. Trevor says:

    For any interested, the University of Rouen has just posted the complete manuscripts of Madame Bovary.

  28. Four times I started Madame Bovary and failed to get past the first third. But I read Sentimental Education and thought so highly of it that I tried MB again — and the fifth time I finally “got it.”
    My problem had been that I went into the novel with preconceptions that were false. It’s no Anna Karenina, where the main character is sympathetic. Emma Bovary is a horrid person and Flaubert is merciless toward her.
    It’s a brutal book, but it’s also a great one.

  29. Trevor says:

    Emma Bovary is a horrid person and Flaubert is merciless toward her.

    And I quite feel sorry for Emma (and, interestingly enough, perhaps less so for Anna Karenina — until that heartbreaking scene with her child). Sure, Emma was idealistic and felt romance was her destiny, but to get saddled with charbovari! who just ceases to do anything for their relationship. And, in her attempts to get that romance she ends up with others only in it for the thrill. I agree that Flaubert is brutal (and I feel bad for charbovari!, too.

    Ahh, it is a rich, wonderful book. Thank you for bringing it to mind today, Phillip — apparently I do have a desire to read the new Lydia Davis translation.

  30. At least Anna loved her children, and part of her depression is due to losing them. Emma can’t stand Berthe, never could.
    The debts Emma runs up lead to the financial downfall of her husband; after he dies, Flaubert sends little Berthe to work in a cotton factory.
    I reread few novels, but I think I read a clunker of a translation of Bovary. Let me know if Davis did justice to Flaubert — he worked so damn hard on getting it right, so I owe him another reading.
    BTW, Tolstoy grew mightily sick of his heroine.

  31. Trevor says:

    At least Anna loved her children, and part of her depression is due to losing them. Emma can’t stand Berthe, never could.

    True, and certainly remembering those passages makes me less sympathetic to Emma. In fact, after I posted my comment above my wife reminded me of those parts and I thought I might should come in here and amend. So thanks!

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