by Gustave Flaubert
"Ce qui me semble beau, ce que je voudrais faire, c'est un livre sur rien, un livre sans attache extérieure, qui se tiendrait de lui-même par la force interne de son style, comme la terre, sans être soutenue, se tient en l'air, un livre qui n'aurait presque pas de sujet, ou du moins où le sujet serait presque invisible, si cela se peut. Les oeuvres les plus belles sont celles où il y a le moins de matière".
["What seems beautiful to me, what I would like to do, is a book about nothing, a book without external ties, that would hold itself together by the internal force of its style, like the earth, without being propped up, suspending itself in the air, a book which would have nearly no subject, or at least one where the subject would be nearly invisible, if that is possible. The most beautiful works are those where there are the least amounts of subject matter."]
--Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance, II, 345, as cited by Bernard Ajac in his introduction to the GF Flammarion edition of Madame Bovary, 20 [my translation].
As late as a third of the way into Madame Bovary, I was still admiring Flaubert's technique from a distance more than I was sinking my teeth into his story. Provocative narrative point of view? Check. Credible insight into the emotional and psychological states of his characters? Check. Gripping reading? Well, let me get back to you on that, I thought. Yet somewhere between then and the end of Part II, the guy began to just work me over with regularity with his writing. Here are a few of my favorite examples. In Part II, Chapter 9, Emma finally succumbs to temptation with the cad Rodolphe. Flaubert initially merely says that Emma "s'abandonna" (228) ["gave herself up to him" in Lydia Davis' translation (141)]. In the masterful paragraph that follows, however, he adds a tour de force of a descriptive passage linking Emma's interior world with the exterior or natural world:
"Le silence était partout; quelque chose de doux semblait sortir des arbres; elle sentait son coeur, dont les battements recommençaient, et le sang circuler dans sa chair comme un fleuve de lait. Alors, elle entendit tout au loin, au-delà du bois, sur les autres collines, un cri vague et prolongé, une voix qui se traînait, et elle l'écoutait silencieusement, se mêlant comme une musique aux dernières vibrations de ses nerfs émus" (228).
["Silence was everywhere; something mild seemed to be coming forth from the trees; she could feel her heart beginning to beat again, and her blood flowing through her flesh like a river of milk. Then, from far away beyond the woods, on the other hills, she heard a vague, prolonged cry, a voice that lingered, and she listened to it in silence as it lost itself like a kind of music in the last vibrations of her tingling nerves" (Davis, 141).]
While I don't think it's necessary to pin down whether this is Emma's orgasm being portrayed as a form of out of body experience witnessed by her or if nature itself is having an orgasmic response on the character's behalf, that, my friends, is some attention-grabbing writing!
As astonishing as that scene is, note how ruthlessly Flaubert--the writer as hooded executioner--manages to bracket the big moment. In Part II, Chapter 11, the clubfooted Hippolyte is about to have one of his legs amputated because of a botched operation performed by Charles at Emma's urging. The narrator tells us that:
"Au milieu du silence qui emplissait le village, un cri déchirant traversa l'air. Bovary devint pâle à s'évanouir. Elle fronça les sourcils d'un geste nerveux, puis continua. C'était pour lui, cependant, pour cet être, pour cet homme qui ne comprenait rien, qui ne sentait rien! Car il était là, tout tranquillement, et sans même se douter que le ridicule de son nom allait désormais la salir comme lui. Elle avait fait des efforts pour l'aimer, et elle s'était repentie en pleurant d'avoir cédé à un autre" (253).
["In the midst of the silence that hung over the village, a harrowing cry rang out through the air. Bovary turned so white he seemed about to faint. Her brows contracted in a nervous gesture, then she went on. Yet it was for him, for this creature, for this man who understood nothing, who felt nothing!--for there he was, quite calm, not even suspecting that from now on, the ridicule attached to his name was going to soil her as well as him. She had made efforts to love him, and she had repented in tears for having yielded to another" (Davis, 162).]
In the earlier scene, a cry of joy accompanies the moment where Emma yields her body to another for the first time. In the latter scene, a cry of pain accompanies the moment where Emma finally gives her heart and soul away as well. The narrative calls attention to the betrayal with the blink-and-you'll-miss-it shift between the protagonists' points of view right after the scream (first Bovary's and then his wife's) and from the fact that the quarreling Emma and Rodolphe are reunited a page later. One senses that Emma's latest rejection of Charles is final.
Of course, Emma herself will be rejected by Rodolphe by letter before too long. Rodolphe's letter-writing scene, which takes up the first half of chapter 13, is one of the most vicious things I've read all year. It's also more than a little bit funny given what we know about Emma's lover's "true nature." Yet as flamboyantly meanspirited as the scene is, Flaubert manages to play off of it and even surpass it with an altogether different type of tone later in the chapter. Note, for example, the build-up to the sequence where Emma is contemplating jumping off a balcony as a solution to feeling trapped and jilted:
"Le rayon lumineux qui montait d'en bas directement tirait vers l'abîme le poids de son corps. Il lui semblait que le sol de la place oscillant s'élevait le long des murs, et que le plancher s'inclinait par le bout, à la manière d'un vaisseau qui tangue. Elle se tenait tout au bord, presque suspendue, entourée d'un grand espace. Le bleu du ciel l'envahissait, l'air circulait dans sa tête creuse, elle n'avait qu'à céder, qu'à se laisser prendre; et le ronflement du tour ne discontinuait pas, comme une voix furieuse qui l'appelait" (274).
["The ray of light that rose directly up to her from below was pulling the weight of her body down toward the abyss. It seemed to her the ground in the village square was swaying back and forth and rising along the walls, and that the floor was tipping down at the end, like a vessel pitching. She was standing right at the edge, almost suspended, surrounded by a great empty space. The blue of the sky was coming into her, the air circulating inside her hollow skull, she had only to give in, to let herself be taken; and the whirring of the lathe never stopped, like a furious voice calling her" (Davis, 180).]
Considering that the very landscape of Yonville-l'Abbaye seems to be approaching Emma Bovary here, inviting the character to kill herself, this is absolutely chilling stuff. It gets even more chilling when you stop to think about the parallels between Madame Bovary, suspended in space between life and death, and the book that's named after her, a work "suspending itself in the air" in Flaubert's aesthetic conception of the beautiful. While I'm not entirely sure what the novelist's end game is yet or whether Madame Bovary could be considered "a book about nothing," suffice it to say that it's writing like this that makes up for Flaubert's somewhat "banal" theme. Wow. (http://www.editions.flammarion.com/)