jueves, 21 de octubre de 2010

Madame Bovary, deuxième partie

Madame Bovary (GF Flammarion, 2006)
by Gustave Flaubert
France, 1857

"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/)


Blogger extraordinaire Frances of Nonsuch Book is hosting the Madame Bovary readalong that I'm participating in.  Click here for her round-up of all readalong posts on Part II and/or here for my comments on Part I.

12 comentarios:

  1. I really enjoyed the correspondence you include here, and your last point regarding Emma and the work itself. It is haunting in a lot of ways, and I would venture to say the moment with Rodolphe with the voice in the night and later with Hippolyte bookend not only what you mention but also the significant loss that will accompany each.

  2. I think you are in love! With a heartless malcontent with genius writing skills. Thrilled to see you loving it since I would have felt really (ok, a little) guilty if you had hated the book since I may have twisted your arm a little.

    "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."

    Now that is a sentence, Richard. I agree that the book floats in the air full only with nothingness, meaninglessness. Beautiful garments that cover bodies without souls. Just gut wrenching in a way. "The writer as hooded executioner." Extra inspired post.

  3. *Jenn: I agree that the two cry scenes probably have to do with various kinds of loss and damage even though at first glance one would seem overtly "romantic" and the other just horrifying. Glad you enjoyed the Flaubert quote on books--the little I've read about his artistic sensibilities thus far has helped me start to get a sense of what I think he's going after in this novel. In the meantime, thanks for the visit!

    *Frances: Ha! Although I've been laughing all night at your opening salvo here, I think you nailed my, uh, appreciation for the "heartless malcontent with the genius writing skills" fairly accurately. Also love your line about the "beautiful garments that cover bodies without souls." It's a fascinating book in that regard, even though I guess we're both more likely to return to Life a User's Manual for some genius comfort reading out of France the next time around. Until then, thanks so much for your kind words about the post and for kickstarting such an interesting series of discussions these last two weeks. Cheers!

  4. Oh, I agree with you about the scene where Rodolphe writes to Emma...vicious, heartless, and even a little bit funny.

  5. I have also been impresed by the writing in Part II. There are several things I could mention, including the quotes you included (I had underlined all of them), but I'll just mention one of my favorite lines: "It was then that Emma repented!" (pg 152, when her romance with Rodolphe is not quite a passionate as at first.) So much sarcasm loaded into that simple statement, and the addition of the exclamation point is brilliant!

  6. *Audrey: I quite like the way you describe that, but I have to tell you that that was just one of many scenes where I felt like Flaubert was putting on a writing clinic. What a doozy!

    *Shelley: That fave line of yours and what you say about the effectiveness of the exclamation point are so typical of Flaubert in Part II. Quite brilliant! Like Frances above and in her own post on her blog, though, I do wonder how much the genius of the writing might be covering up the hollow man/novel/message at its core (will find out about that in the next 100 pages or so, I guess). Cheers!

  7. "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"

    This whole paragraph is remarkable. Flaubert brings the elements in the forest alive, almost in an animistic way. She merges with the environment. In the end I decided that cry was in her head, but also external as she is one with the forest, the light, the shadows. It invests oily 'Dolphy with the Power. And his experience? He is smoking a cigar and mending a broken bridle, just another day.

  8. It's interesting to me that you say you were, "admiring Flaubert's technique from a distance more than I was sinking my teeth into his story" because for me? Madame Bovary has always been only ever about story. The first time I read it I was seventeen years old, 'recovering' from what I felt to be a very powerful love affair (people tend mock seventeen year old emotions, but I still remember it acutely). For me, Madame Bovary's despair and wants made perfect sense to me at that time.

    Now, many years later I am able to see her more clearly; she her foolish choices, and her selfishness. But I think that one of the most wonderful things about this book is that no matter when I've read it, and it's been several times over the course of my life, I always glean something new from it.

    For me, that is the power of Flaubert's writing.

  9. I wondered how the short and "meaning-everything" "elle s'abandonna" could be translated in English. Now I have the answer. thanks.
    I'm glad you like it, it's one of my favorite books from that time.
    Emma is foolish and selfish, I never liked her but being married for life to Charles Bovary gives her excuses.
    This ridiculous custom to educate girls in convents ended up in throwing in the world inadapted, ignorant and innocent young women. That's were Emma's unrealistic vision of life comes from. Balzac describes this very well in "Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées" (Letters of two brides)

  10. *Anthony: I reacted to that scene with almost the exact same interpretation you've mentioned here--to the point that I even debated whether or not to comment on the animism in my post. How spectacular...and then jarring...to see what Rodolphe was up to at the end of the paragraph. Absolutely tremendous writing!

    *Bellezza: While I understand what you're saying here, I think the point I'd hoped--and maybe failed--to get across was just that the story wasn't as riveting as the writing to me in the beginning. It didn't touch me in the same way somehow nor did it affect me the way you describe it in your experience with the book. Of course, now that I'm more of a convert, Frances and some others have me wondering whether I've fallen for a genius writer without much of a soul. Thankfully, part III awaits! P.S. I think adults often make fun of young people's emotions at their own risk...

    *Bookaroundthecorner: Thanks so much for the info on the Balzac work and for bringing up the matter of convent-educated women. I have to confess I hadn't given that part of the novel much thought up till now because I'm still seeing where things are heading (i.e. I know how it ends without knowing why) and because Flaubert gives you so much to think about in each chapter. I read some snippets from Bouvard et Pécuchet earlier in the year and, the quality of the writing notwithstanding, am finding it hard to believe that the deadly-serious novelist of Madame Bovary is the same one who's so comical in the other novel. He was a man of many talents, I guess!

  11. I took an unexpected weekend-long internet break & so am super-late getting to blog comments, but this was a fantastic entry! Love what you've been saying here and elsewhere about Flaubert anticipating magical realism with the melding of inner and outer worlds - a comparison I would never have thought to make, but one that's apt, I think.

    I kind of loved Rodolphe's letter-writing scene. Actually, weirdly I kind of love Rodolphe. He's the closest thing to self-aware we get in the whole novel. Also the closest thing to a craftsmanly artist, which is pretty sad. Maybe a comment on Flaubert's own heartlessness?

  12. *Emily: Thanks so much for your kind words--it was def. a fun section to write about given all that was going on! As for Rodolphe, I like what you say here about him being "self aware" and the closest thing to a "craftsmanly artist" out of all the characters (for better or worse). I still have a handful of chapters to go before finishing Part III, but if things remain the same, I can definitely see your point and conclusion re: Flaubert. Must...find...good Flaubert bio soon!