jueves, 14 de octubre de 2010

Madame Bovary, première partie

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

Messieurs, M. Gustave Flaubert est accusé devant vous d'avoir fait un mauvais livre, d'avoir, dans ce livre, outragé la morale publique et la religion.  M. Gustave Flaubert est auprès de moi; il affirme devant vous qu'il a fait un livre honnête; il affirme devant vous que la pensée de son livre, depuis la première ligne jusqu'à la dernière, est un pensèe morale, religieuse, et que, si elle n'était pas dénaturée (nous avon vu pendants quelques instants ce que peut un grand talent pour dénaturer un pensée), elle serait (et il reviendra tout à l'heure) pour vous ce qu'elle a été déjà pour les lecteurs du livre, une pensée éminemment morale et religieuse pouvant se traduire par ces mots: l'excitation à la vertu par l'horreur du vice.

Messieurs, M. Gustave Flaubert is before you charged with having written an evil book, and of having, within this book, outraged public morality and religion.  M. Gustave Flaubert is at my side.  He asserts before you that he has written an honest book; he declares before you that the conception of his book, from the first line until the last, is moral and religious in nature and that, if its meaning had not been distorted (a few moments ago, we saw what might be considered a great talent for distorting a meaning), the book would be (and it will instantly appear to be) for you what it has already been for its readers, namely an eminently moral and religious one able to be expressed in these terms: the excitation to virtue by the horrors of vice.
(M. Sénard, from the Actes du procès against Flaubert [my translation, excuse the clumsiness], p. 461)

Whatever you make of Flaubert's lawyer's defense here, I think it's fair to say that the first part of Madame Bovary only hints at the "outrages" against morality to come in the rest of the novel.  It's a prologue in nature, but one with enough provocations to suggest why such an "honest" work might have gotten under so many people's skin over the years.  From the outset, for example, it's clear that Flaubert intends to toy both with his readers' expectations and their sympathies.  Madame Bovary is introduced, not with a biography of the title character, but with the back story of the man who will eventually become her cuckolded husband.  Then there's that whole matter of how, as if complementing this narrative misdirection, the novelist introduces the reader to the young Emma Rouault: she's actually a fellow reader in love with the escape provided by literature.  As the first part of the novel winds its way down to the unmercifully jarring conclusion juxtaposing the burning of a wedding bouquet with the news that Emma Bovary has become pregnant, the reader will be forgiven if he or she doesn't know where their sympathies lie.  With Charles?  Emma?  With both?  Neither?  Complicating matters, it's also not clear at this point where the narrator's sympathies lie in this novel subtitled Provincial Ways.  Introducing himself as a schoolmate of the young Charles Bovary who helped welcome the country bumpkin to his new school by razzing him, the storyteller quickly disappears into an omniscient narrator role to tell the story of the Bovarys' dysfunctional marriage.  Should the tale be seen as a further mockery of Charles by a provincial who knew him?  Hard to say at the moment.  In any event, I'm enjoying the novel up to now--more for its psychology than its prose, truth be told--and thank Book Temptress Frances both for my giveaway copy of the new Lydia Davis translation of Madame Bovary (Viking, 2010, below) and for the opportunity to read it in such fine company with her readalong group.  More commentaries, details and opinions over at Frances' blog.  (http://www.editions.flammarion.com/)

A quick, possibly self-indulgent language note...
Since I haven't read anything book-length in French in ages, I was happy to see that Flaubert's 19th century grammar isn't as complicated as I'd feared.  Vocabulary, now that's another story!  While the vocab isn't necessarily "complicated" either, there are so many words I have to look up...that I feel like Charbovari!  Charbovari! with his remedial Latin.
Will continue trying to keep up with Madame Bovary in the original language.  Have been reading that first and then following it with up Lydia Davis' swanky new English translation.  The pace of the readalong is about to pick up substantially, though, so we'll see how the plan goes.
In the meantime, the secret word for the day is redingote.  A very useful word if you ever want to compliment somebody's frock-coat en français.

22 comentarios:

  1. Wow, that GF Flammarion cover is the only one I have ever seen that actually fits the argument of the book. The photo on the Lydia Davis edition is much too tasteful.

  2. Kudos to you for attempting to read the book in its original language! I have considered giving it a go as well en français, but like you I worried about outmoded vocab and grammar. I might have to work my way up to reading Flaubert in his native tongue.

  3. I admire you for reading this in French. I always dream of relearning French by reading more in the language, but I'm so afraid to start.

  4. And are you wearing a frock-coat now, Richard? I like to think that you are.

    Agree that the psychology of the book is now more interesting than the prose but also think that the clipped precise prose is another reflection of the psychology of the book (or the author) in it's passive aggressive display of contempt for the bourgeoisie. As in, will not dare offer a direct criticism but allows to accumulated incidents of tastelessness to speak for themselves. If that makes any sense?

    Also like how you mention Emma's love of the book but am waiting to see how good a reader she turns out to be. And her taste in books seems a little suspect. :)

    Hats off to you for reading in French! Very impressive from both you and Emily. And very useful too as it has already answered some questions of vagueness.

    It is still a bit of a muddle though, right?

  5. Oh man, I agree with you on the vocab. I think it's not just the 19th century but also the precise nouns involved in passages like the wedding-cake description, Charles's hat, etc. I started way early in the knowledge that I would not be able to read 200 pages/week in French, and I'm glad I did. But was also pleased to find that the grammar isn't hard - weird, sometimes, but not hard.

    I spent a lot of time on that question of where the narrator's sympathies lie (and to what extent the narrator is or isn't Flaubert, and where Flaubert's sympathies lie, if anywhere) - all fascinating. He seems remarkably modern to me in terms of his narrative playfulness and BITTER BITTER IRONY.

  6. This is at least the third time through the course of my life that I've read Madame Bovary, and I still am not sure where my sympathies lie. Sometime I want to slap her, most frequently that, but at others I do feel a certain compassion for her disappointments. I'm not sure that I'd chalk them all up to real life vs. romance in literature...I think she genuinely became disappointed in the passive man that Charles is and the quiet life he gave her. For some women, that would have worked. For Emma, she needed much more fulfillment than being a wife, mother and home-maker could provide. I wonder what she'd complain about if she was married to someone like Rhett Butler, or if she was a competent business woman; would her need for excitement then be assuaged?

  7. *Amateur Reader: I like that GF Flammarion cover more and more the further I get into the novel. It was a bit too "flowery" for me at first, though, what a laugh!

    *Steph: Thanks, I thought I'd give it a go since I've been promising to try and bring my French back from the grave for about a year now. The grammar in Madame B isn't difficult at all, so I encourage you to give it a shot if/when you have the time. Bonne chance!

    *Iris: Thanks! While I understand your hesitation all too well (it can be really hard to return to a language once you've been away from it a while), I hope you "follow that dream" some day. It's such a lovely language, and there's so much great literature to choose from. Cheers!

    *Frances: I think you make a wonderful point about the psychology of the book being intimately tied up with Flaubert's passive-aggressive prose. And another interesting point is the one you raise about what kind of a reader Emma Bovary is and what that might mean. However, whatever the answer to that may eventually turn out to be, it still strikes me as rather subversive to have an author pick on a character who's a reader for being a reader! On the psychology/prose divide more generally, I guess what I meant to say is that I find the interior drama more arresting than the language thus far. No knock on the prose really (i.e. far from a muddle), but Flaubert hasn't dazzled me like a Proust or made me laugh at his brazen insolence like a Lautréamont (which might not have been his goals anyway). P.S. I wore my frock-coat during the typing of my post, but now I have returned to more standard American dress, ha ha!

    *Emily: Vocabulary-wise, I should have started early instead of just thinking about starting early. Don't know if I'll be able to keep up with the upcoming frenetic pace! The Flaubert/narrator question certainly leaves one a lot to ponder, so it'll be interesting to see if anything on that front is cleared up during part two. In the meantime, I agree that the "BITTER BITTER IRONY" you mention makes this feel all too modern, ha ha!

    *Bellezza: Your concentration on the complexities of Emma's character here make me very eager to see where Flaubert leads her next. Although my initial reaction is/was to view her as a bit of an easily-bored ingrate, all the things you touch on tend to confirm my suspicion that there will be no easy answers or moralizing the rest of the way. I find this a very provocative gambit on Flaubert's part at the same time as I'm intrigued by his hint at a moral message during the court proceedings against him. Was that something he just said to have the charges dropped or is there something more subtle at play here? Will be interested in finding out--in the meantime, please let this newby know if you have an opinion on the moral nature of the work!

  8. Emma's taste in books includes Chataubriand's The Genius of Christianity! What could possibly be suspect about that. Morally serious, canonical French literature.

    The novel contra reading - that should take us back to Cervantes.

    Maybe it's worth mentioning that, at the exact same time, Baudelaire was shouting loudly about how The Flowers of Evil was profoundly Catholic, and he did not understand how readers, judges, for example, could not see that.

  9. *Amateur Reader: The Flowers of Evil parallel certainly is worth mentioning and one I unfortunately forgot to include in my post. 1857 was a busy year in French courts! Don't know enough about Baudelaire or Flaubert to know how serious they were about the morality claims vs. how serious they were about just having their creations left in print untouched, but the basic argument (presenting evil to inspire people to do good) goes back to medieval times at least. Juan Ruiz claims that in his c. 1343 Book of Good Love, in fact! Anyway, thanks for the reminder and for weighing in on Madame Bovary as a reader and Madame Bovary vs. readers...interested to see where Flaubert goes with those two things.

  10. Thanks for posting the lawyer's defense. I'm also beyond impressed that you are reading in French!

    This is my third time through Madame Bovary. Barely remember a thing from college, was mostly neutral 5 or 6 years ago, and will be curious to see if the new translation changes anything.

  11. I'm so glad that a couple of the readalong participants are reading this in French. It is something I will likely never even be capable of doing, so I know I will appreciate the insight!

  12. "Should the tale be seen as a further mockery of Charles by a provincial who knew him?"

    I appreciate your having drawn attention to the novel's subtitle; I had overlooked that layer, but I'll definitely be eyeing this element of the storytelling as the novel progresses.

  13. Her taste in books seems suspect only in that they do not appear to match her emerging sensibilities in this short first section. What she takes from them does not hold a sharp resemblance to their actual content. So I wonder as I read further in if a portrait of her as a reader will emerge.

  14. Do I have to use the sideways smiley to show I'm joking. Never. Never!

    Emma's reading is more than suspect - it's a travesty. The end of I.VI. is just a scream - the songs of the dying swans ("les chants de cygnes mourants"), that giant pink-winged bird ("un grand oiseau au plumage rose planant dans la splendeur des ciels poétiques").

    "Her temperament was more sentimental than artistic" - there's unsentimental Flaubert's indictment of Emma in one line.

    The Chateaubriand book is a defense of the truth of Catholicism, which sounds ordinary enough, except the argument is entirely aesthetic! Catholicism is the True Faith because it is beautiful. There's a magnificent little chapter just about the beauties of church bells. The book is a foundation stone of French Romanticism, and thus another corrupting influence on sentimental Emma, a source not of religious fortitude but "the sonorous lamentation of romantic melancholy" ("la lamentation sonore des mélancolies romantiques").

  15. Cuckolded husband!!?! Should've put a spoiler alert on that, Richard! ;-)

    But "dysfunctional marriage" -- is there really all THAT much evidence of it in Part 1? I mean, it's a bit drab, and not perfect, but I think "dysfunctional" is a bit strong. At the risk of putting my own relationship under scrutiny, I'll say I think there's a lot of "normal" going on in this marriage (at least to this point in the novel) -- life and love is not a romance novel.

    Note to Steph: French hasn't changed as much as English has over the last couple centuries, so "outmoded vocab and grammar" isn't as much of an issue as you might think.

  16. *JoAnn: If you saw how many words I need to look up to understand more than just the gist of the story, you would be instantly less impressed with my "accomplishment" of reading Flaubert in French! In any event, thanks for the note re: the lawyer's defense (I look forward to seeing how "moral" vs. how "amoral" Madame B really is...) and good luck with your reread. Cheers!

    *Shelley: Thanks for the visit! While I think reading the author in the original language is almost always the way to go (i.e. where possible), it does require a time and patience investment that is sometimes lacking chez moi. And since Lydia Davis' translation just seems so...readable, temptation is always right around the corner!

    *Buried in Print: While I suspect that the subtitle will prove to be irony-laden in some manner, I'm interested in seeing where Flaubert goes with that. This is my first time reading Madame B, though, so I'm kind of in the dark about a lot of things only 60 pages in! In any event, thank you for your visit (I'm excited about seeing your post and more from others later in the day). Cheers!

    *Frances: As I think I've said before, I too am very curious about what type of a reader Emma will turn out to be and how/how much/if that bears any relation on her "downfall." In the meantime, "Lives Ruined by Literature: The Theme of Reading in the Novel" is the awesome-sounding name of an awesome-sounding course at the university where I work. Love that title!

    *Amateur Reader: I can't speak for the others, but I think it def. might be expecting a bit much from a bunch of non-French majors to understand the subtleties of your Chauteaubriand cracks once in a while! In any event, [insert smiley face here]. Ha, ha. Do love the idea of an aesthetic defense of any religion, though, esp. since I'm generally fond of literature deemed "corrupting." I'm an Emma Bovary in the making, I guess, and I look good in slacks. Cheers!

    *Isabella: I think you're right--to a point--about the normal vs. dysfunctional marriage thing in part one, but even people like me who haven't read the book before know what's coming in parts two and three. A marriage where a spouse feels trapped, serially cheats on the partner, burns a wedding bouquet in anger--well, that sounds plenty dysfunctional to me! Of course, the "normal" stuff I think you were talking about hits pretty close to home, I agree. Am looking forward to your post, so I'll be by in a while!

  17. I missed that MB is subtitled Provincial Ways. Is that edition specific or am I missing something?

  18. *Anthony: Moeurs de province was apparently the subtitle of the first edition of Madame Bovary, which Davis retains as Provincial Ways in her translation. My French edition of the novel doesn't actually carry the subtitle on the title page, but it was mentioned in the 1857 immorality proceedings against Flaubert that follow the novel in my edition. Not sure how relevant this all is just yet, though!

  19. You know, this is the great thing about French, that it has been standardized very early and did not change much after that. You can very easily understand a text from 1600. Vocabulary might be another story. Go and try to understand 1800 German. A nightmare. And I am telling you this as a native French/German speaker.
    I am not a Flaubert fan per se but from the point of view of style you can hardly find anything better. I prefer Balzac but he has some very flawed works (Think of Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes...That is one poorly written book).

  20. Hey, I just remembered: George Eliot's Middlemarch is similarly subtitled "A Study of Provincial Life" -- quite the theme for books of the mid 1800s. Now I'll be on the watch for other parallels between these books...

  21. *Caroline: I have a couple of things by Balzac I'd like to get to this year (one novel and one novella), but in the meantime I'm looking forward to experiencing more of Flaubert's style over the next two weeks. And although older French has tended to trouble me at times, I'm encouraged to hear what you say about the standardization of the language. Merci pour votre commentaire!

    *Isabella: How interesting--I wasn't aware of that. Will be curious to see if you discover any parallels between the two novels!

  22. Tres bien. I missed reading this in French in college but I really should give it a try.