From the moment I first read about him in the opening chapter of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the pathetic Charles Bovary has been one of my favorite characters in literature. The man, who becomes a doctor in spite of himself, is so awkward that he can barely speak when asked his name, so he blurts out “charbovari.” There is so much packed up in that diminutive self-appellation. To me, though, it suggests an intense self-awareness, not bumbling mediocrity. To me, in that word, Charles Bovary becomes one of the richest and understated cuckolds in literature. That kind of self awareness suggests this pathetic man knew so much more than appears to be the case, though Flaubert does little more to bring charbovari’s inner world to us.
Austrian essayist Jean Améry seemed to agree and wrote an entire novel-essay-critique devoted to Charles Bovary and Flaubert’s unjust dismissal: Charles Bovary, Country Doctor: Portrait of a Simple Man. In it’s blurb for the book, NYRB Classics said Améry had a “sympathy for failure” and, therefore, Charles (and that has me wondering why I have always felt an affinity for charbovari!). The book is a reconsideration . . . no, that’s not strong enough. It is an exoneration of a Charles Bovary, and a condemnation of Flaubert, advanced in a variety of forms.
First, we get a piece of short fiction called “Threnody”: Améry presents the chapter that follows the final chapter in Madame Bovary. Here we find Charles working through the solemnest of industries. Here’s the mail he’s received, each piece taking readers back to various acts of deception enacted against Charles (and Emma):
. . . I have the honor of submitting to you an invoice for the last six piano lessons of the unfortunately deceased Madame Bovary.
. . . I am compelled, along with my condolences, to submit an invoice for outstanding sums relating to the champagne breakfasts with pastry and sorbet enjoyed by Madame Bovary, with my sincerest respect, Madame Veuve Duchamp, Hôtel de Boulogne, Rouen.
. . . Madame la Veuve Dupuis has the honor of announcing the engagement of her son Léon, a notary in Yvetot, with Mademoiselle Léocadie Leboeuf of Bondeville.
I really could have read a whole novel about Charles trying to deal with the knowledge he tries to keep hidden from himself: that Emma was having an affair and committed suicide. Here we see his discomfort, and we can see that Améry also feels like there are depths to Charles’s personality that Flaubert merely suggests.
Ah, but Améry doesn’t leave it there. In a chapter entitled “The Reality of Gustave Flaubert,” Améry engages in literary criticism to take Flaubert’s lauded “realism” down a peg. Here’s his premise as the chapter begins:
But how is one to rescue from the morass of enigma, where it lies in disarray, the reality of Charles Bovary, from whom everything — love, his beloved, his possessions, even his memory — is taken away, just as he comes to realize he has lived badly? And what does this even mean: the reality of a figure of art?
Soon Améry examines the portion of the novel in part three where Emma convinces Charles to let her take piano lessons in Rouen, meaning all the while to use this time to meet with her lover Léon. When Charles runs into her purported piano teacher, who doesn’t know Emma, he asks her about it. Immediately defensive, Emma tells him there must be another teacher, and, if he’s so insistent, she’ll find the receipts when she’s not so tired. There’s no need for that, Charles admits. But Améry is not satisfied with this, or with the series of deceptions to follow.
No. That doesn’t work, no one believes that, the novelist’s invention is a bad one — this one, and so many more! That the country doctor failed to notice his wife’s first playful flirtations with Léon, that he eagerly advised her to go out riding with the notorious ladykiller Rodolphe Boulanger, that he, a bourgeois, didn’t worry more over the bills piling up, that nothing awakened suspicion in his heart — the reader can hardly accept all that. The masterpiece conceals from us what was real and determinate in the imagined life of poor Charles Bovary. How, then, shall we find some trace of what is hidden?
To be honest, it never occurred to me that Flaubert meant for me to think Charles harbored no suspicions. I always felt more there, but I may have been supplementing with my own fascination with charbovari. Améry, after all, says: “But no, there is nothing! Charles Bovary, country doctor, is the uncouth weakling his wife takes him for; and the morsel of compassion the author patronizingly offers him now and then is a pittance.”
Later in Améry’s books, Charles himself confronts his maker, in a beautiful rant I’ll quote at length to show how Améry’s sentences beat against the shore.
You denied me the right, Flaubert, my wicked, taciturn schoolmate, master of a tale that became the icon of realism, and yet you intervened peremptorily in my own field of competence. Thereby, and with unprecedented insolence, you shattered the contrat social with everyday reality and replaced it with an arrogant poetic reality of your own. That may have worked for your account of the blood and grandeur of Carthage — who gives a damn about Salammbô? — but it was a punishable offense to write in this way of a certain occurrence in a Norman village by the name of Ry or Yonville-l’Abbaye. You birthed me out of dust, as the Lord is alleged to have done with the first man. You let me lapse into guilt, because I longed for a belle who knew how to shine at the ball at Château de la Vaubyessard. Then you abandoned me, without sending me a savior or even a friendly bit of advice, for Homais cared for nothing but progress and honorary crosses, the Abbé wanted only to force me to my knees, where I already was in any case, first before her, then later on the burning country road between Argueil and Yonville. I contend that you have inflicted, Monsieur Flaubert, unnatural, unrealistic perversions upon me — and upon many others who populate our tale.
Wonderfully, though, Améry’s book is not merely an attack. I was delighted to see a beautiful shape forming on the page: Charles’s love for Emma, the woman who deceived him, while he knew it, and why he was willing to help her by deceiving himself. Améry’s Charles Bovary, Country Doctor, it turns out, is a suitably rich companion to one of the greatest novels ever written. And, regardless of his feelings toward Flaubert, we know Améry has reverence for the novel, for Charles, and for Emma.