jueves, 28 de octubre de 2010

Madame Bovary, troisième partie

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

"Madame Bovary itself neither praises adultery in order to condemn marriage nor attacks adultery in order to defend marriage.  It creates instead a drastically unstable social and ethical universe in which as fundamental an opposition as that between adultery and marriage threatens to become a distinction without a difference.  Emma's real tragedy is that little of substance differentiates her husband from her lovers, her ordinary reality from her imagined one.  Seeming opposites become deadly repetitions of one another, and the despised husband seems in the end to be the only one who loves her.  Not only does he keep an adoring vigil at her coffin while others sleep or are absent; he ends his life imitating hers as he establishes Emma as an undefiled romantic idol despite all evidence to the contrary."  --Dominick LaCapra, "Two Trials," 729, in Denis Hollier, ed., A New History of French Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

True story.  I was so shaken when I finished Madame Bovary the other night that I almost immediately e-mailed Frances thanking her for recommending the book but warning her that I might not have my emotions in check in time for this post.  A slight exaggeration, of course, but really, what a stupendous read!  In any event, the Dominick LaCapra quotation above (part of a short but incisive article dealing with the twin obscenity trials brought against Flaubert and Baudelaire in 1857) calmly touches on a couple of things I thought were key to the novel's success.  First, there's that whole business about the "unstable social and ethical universe" created by Flaubert.  This, in conjunction with a lack of moralizing in the novel, made the characterizations feel richer, more unpredictable, more lifelike to me.  Secondly, I think LaCapra is right on target in pointing out that the "real tragedy" in Madame Bovary isn't the fact that Emma feels trapped in an unfulfilling marriage but that Charles--for all his flaws as the despised husband--is also the one "true" love in Emma's life.  At the very least, this notion, just as much as the disturbing scene where the title character calmly ingests a mouthful of arsenic to achieve peace with the universe, is one of the things that really, really got to me as the novel wound down to its unforgiving end.

Madame Bovary rough draft

The unique qualities of Flaubert's EpiPen style prose and storytelling notwithstanding, I'm not sure he could have gotten under my skin with such a misanthropic tale about adultery and unrequited love on technique alone.  I think I finally sensed a hint of the soul behind the ruthless wordsmith.  That having been said, there's no denying that the writing did another number on me here.  I loved, for example, how the "moral" instability alluded to above also extended to the style of writing itself--for, like the scenes late in Part II where Emma's imagination or POV seemed to either merge with or actively be at war with nature by turns, the one in III, 8 where she's leaving Rodolphe's estate after he's rejected her plea for financial assistance seems to go beyond mere "realism":

"La nuit tombait, des corneilles volaient.

Il lui sembla tout à coup que des globules couleur de feu éclataient dans l'air comme des balles fulminantes en s'aplatissant, et tournaient, tournaient, pour aller se fondre dans la neige, entre les branches des arbres.  Au milieu de chacun d'eux, la figure de Rodolphe apparaissait.  Ils se multiplièrent, et ils se rapprochaient, la pénétraient; tout disparut.  Elle reconnut les lumières des maisons, qui rayonnaient de loin dans le brouillard" (388).

["Night was falling, rooks were flying overhead.

It seemed to her suddenly that little flame-colored globes were exploding in the air like bullets bursting and flattening, and spinning over and over, then melting on the snow, among the branches of the trees.  In the center of each, Rodolphe's face appeared.  They were multiplying, coming together, penetrating her; everything vanished.  She recognized the lights of the houses, shining from a distance through the mist" (Lydia Davis' translation, 278).]

In addition to these wonderful set-pieces, I was also impressed by Flaubert's often biting use of one-liners for dramatic "miniaturizations" and Tacitean summations of character.  Three in particular struck a chord with me:  "Ce furent trois jours pleins, exquis, splendides, une vraie lune de miel" ["They were three full, exquisite, splendid, days, a real honeymoon"] we read in III, 3, on the subject of one of Emma's and Léon's adulterous trysts (328 in Flaubert, 227 in Davis); "Mais le dénigrement de ceux que nous aimons toujours nous en détache quelque peu.  Il ne faut pas toucher aux idoles: la dorure en reste aux mains" ["But vilifying those we love always detaches us from them a little.  We should not touch our idols: their gilding will remain on our hands"], we're warned in III, 6, after a lovers' quarrel (355, 250 in Davis); "Et il la regardait avec des yeux d'une tendresse comme elle n'en avait jamais vu" ["And he looked at her with a love in his eyes that she had never seen before"], we read in III, 8, finally encountering a scene where Charles is at last appreciated in a way by his spouse--on her deathbed (391, 281 in Davis).  Whilst I'm still not entirely sure what Flaubert's treatment of his characters reveals about his worldview as a person, I have to say that this quintessentially depressing novel of his maintained my interest down to the very last line (itself a master stroke of bleakness, by the way).  Génial!  (http://www.editions.flammarion.com/)

18 comentarios:

  1. I've had an interesting conversation with Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers on the morality in Madame Bovary. (Her blog is in my blog roll if you're interested)
    Flaubert is French and was unhead of his time. We don't judge adultery nowadays. It is a private matter and has nothing to do with society. To me it is an unfortunate event that can happen to anyone maintaining a long time relationship with someone.
    It is because Flaubert never judges Emma that this novel is still overwhelming.

  2. I thought the writing was just beautiful. He balanced the tragedy, humor and self-involvement of the characters so beautifully!

  3. It's interesting that the instability of the moral universe made the characters seem more lifelike to you, Richard. I can relate; this is definitely a stronger novel for its lack of condemnation or glorification of the marriage institution.

    To me, though, by the end of this novel the narrator's unremitting contempt toward all the characters, and their stubborn collective inability to think for themselves, was actually undermining how real they seemed, particularly as a group. Overall I think I was more exhausted by that question of "what Flaubert's treatment of his characters reveals about his worldview as a person"—and, particularly, his view of human creativity and imagination. I guess I hit a point beyond which I just couldn't go with him. I missed that glimpse of soul. Definitely appreciated this one, but just as definitely am not as ecstatic over it as some folks. So glad you are, though!

  4. How can LaCapra say this, "Emma's real tragedy is that little of substance differentiates her husband from her lovers, her ordinary reality from her imagined one" and then go one to say that Charles is the only one who loves her?! That's a huge difference between her husband and her lovers, and one I'll always admire Charles for. As I said in my post.

    I promise you, no matter how many times you read Madame Bovary, it will strike you differently, with something new, and it will always touch your core.

    I love this novel.

  5. I'm so glad to hear that you enjoyed this book so much! I haven't had tons of luck with French literature, I'm sad to say, but when I read this last year, I really loved it. I was blown away by the prose and the complexity, and knew it was one I would have to revisit. I have been swamped with so much real life stuff of late, but I'm really looking forward to sinking into the Lydia Davis translation.

  6. *Bookaroundthecorner: I so agree with this point of yours: "It is because Flaubert never judges Emma that this novel is still overwhelming." I also think that the writing is so technically advanced that Flaubert makes it easy to engage with the characters emotionally and psychologically even as we might criticize them for their lapses in logic. Will look for your conversation with Lisa since the novel's alleged morality or immorality was one of the topics that really interested me going into the novel but that I had little time to pursue in my posts. Merci!

    *Avid Reader: I completely agree with everything you say here! Will be over to check out your post this weekend, but I wanted to save it till after I was done with MB. Cheers!

  7. *Emily: I can definitely see your point about the narrator's "unremitting contempt toward all the characters" undermining how real the work felt to you. I felt the same way for much of the novel, but I eventually came around to my current position/feelings because a) the anguish Charles and Emma felt about their losses felt plenty real to me (i.e. I suspect Flaubert must have known a thing or two about unrequited love to have portrayed that so convincingly), and b) I think Flaubert was aiming for a stylized "realism" rather than a naturalistic one (hence, I was willing to make some allowances for the impression he might have been trying to make). I also think Binet with his neverending lathe work might be a self-parody of sorts of Flaubert and his writing process (one of the reasons I threw in that graphic of the manuscript page of Flaubert's), but I ran out of steam before I could think that over and it never made its way into the post. In any event, if the novel has a serious flaw, I think you've hit on the one that would be at the top of the list!

    *Bellezza: While I can't speak for LaCapra, I think the point he was making was the one you make here: it is a huge difference that Charles loves Emma, but Emma doesn't see it that way because she's obsessed with looking for that something from someone else and never really finding it. I, too, have grown to love the novel, and I hope to reread it again as many times as you!

    *Steph: Although I've apparently had better luck than you with French lit (it's one of my national favorites!), I'm glad we found a French novel that excites us equally. I agree with everything you say about what makes the book tick, and I'm sure you'll have a fine old time with the Lydia Davis translation when you get around to it. She seems to have done a wonderful job with it. P.S. Thanks for letting me know you read this last year--I look forward to reading your review this weekend!

  8. Perhaps there are other characters who loved MB more than Charles. How about Justin, who weeps over Emma's grave? But more tragic, what of poor Berthe? Her character is so incidental, I wonder why Flaubert bothered.

  9. Flaubert is often quoted as having said "Mme Bovary c'est moi". I often wonder how a woman would have written this novel. I am curious to know what Steph read. How can you not be lucky in finding a great French novel? I am very tempted to organize a French read along now. The missionary in me.
    Thanks for sharing quotes as well Richard. It really makes me feel as if one can open any page of Mme Bovary and find marvels of style. His use of the passé simple as well... Lovely.

  10. Sorry for commenting again but I forgot to write that I was actually quite touched by your being this moved by the novel. It is such a nice thing when we like something so much and to share this.

  11. "Secondly, I think LaCapra is right on target in pointing out that the "real tragedy" in Madame Bovary isn't the fact that Emma feels trapped in an unfulfilling marriage but that Charles--for all his flaws as the despised husband--is also the one "true" love in Emma's life."

    I felt this as well and was so choked up by Charles after Emma's death. But I also agree with Anthony, that Justin's crying on her grave was equally touching as he did not have the same illusions about Emma as her husband who was so tragically deluded. So sad that some recognition of Emma's reality comes after it is too late and even then his mourning resembles idolatry. Sigh.

    Loved the book but then you know that. Many thanks for indulging the big emotions with me.

  12. Richard,

    You write in your comments that "Charles loves Emma, but Emma doesn't see it that way because she's obsessed with looking for that something from someone else and never really finding it." I would think there's also a bit of the feeling that "if you love me so much, you can't possibly be worthy of my loving you." And also, of course, in the case of someone you can't have, you never have to get to the (inevitable) stage of dealing with the quotidian, which can do in most any romantic ideal. But ultimately, I think that Emma's lack of self- and social-awareness would be enough to send her to the arsenic. She can't seem to get to an understanding that would come from macroscopic observation rather than microscopic self-absorption. Then again, I might cynically maintain that the whole unrequited love bit is a reflection of the same problem (a statement I make which also casts aspersions upon myself, having once been in that mindset).

    Anyway, wonderful review, as always!

  13. To me, Charles is in many ways one of the few real victims in this book (Berthe perhaps being the #1 victim), although much of his misery is brought on by his inability to really see things as they were. His death is as touching, if not more so, than Emma's.

  14. Justin's crying on her grave is touching, but I don't think it's pure, he doesn't really know Emma, he's in love with the idea of her. He gets his notions from books, too, remember. He'll grow up to be like Leon.

    Berthe is the biggest victim, but condemned to repeat the cycle to rise above her humble beginnings.

  15. *Anthony: I'm sure other characters loved Madame Bovary, Justin included. I (and I think LaCapra as well) was speaking about true love in the sense of the love "shared" between members of a couple, though, and Emma never seemed to take Justin's affection seriously in that regard (because of his age, his status, or whatever). Also, I think Justin's gravesite weeping--while honest in terms of his sense of loss--had to also be compounded by his role in Emma's death. He provided access to the poison to the lady of his dreams and then didn't say anything about it until it was too late. Berthe's ending was definitely tragic, and the "incidental" way Flaubert treats the matter and the character in general to me seems to compound the effect (the narrator is as negligent as Emma in this regard). Too bad we can't all discuss this in person--such a wealth of topics to mull over. Cheers!

    *Caroline: I think the gender question you bring up is terribly interesting, and I'm a little surprised that it wasn't discussed more during the course of the readalong (i.e. here or on other readers' posts). For my part, I felt Flaubert tended to treat all his characters equally (without sexist attitudes intruding from the authorial point of view)--but it'd certainly be interesting to hear what you and others might have to say about this! Thanks very much, by the way, for your second comment. Sometimes I don't feel as if I'm as easily emotionally moved by certain books as many other people seem to be, but the works that do get to me (this one, Bolaño's 2666, Lampedusa's The Leopard, etc.) REALLY get to me to the point that I'm almost not comfortable with my own reactions afterward! (Madame Bovary's ending made me feel both jittery and traumatized, for example, but I was also "uplifted" [so to speak] by how Flaubert managed to pull all that off.) Then, it's hard to know how to acknowledge those feelings in a post without getting all "mushy" about it, ha ha. A story for another day. P.S. I think your idea for organizing a French readalong would be a splendid idea. Please keep me posted if you do!

  16. *Frances: Ha ha, thank you for "indulging the big emotions" with me! Was actually happily surprised by just how upsetting the book turned out to be because, from early on, I thought Flaubert was prob. a cool customer entirely devoid of emotion. Wrong! Also love what you have to say about Charles and Justin and the differences between the two here. Very perceptive, my friend.

    *Jill: Well, the quotidian certainly is capable of harming the ideal, just ask anybody! Seriously, though, I think you make a great point about Emma's self-awareness being more self-absorption than inwardly-directed in any helpful way. Of course, Charles acts much the same way after Emma's death, which is why I think he's almost as much to blame for what happens to his child as Emma in the final analysis. In any event (and at the risk of you calling me Oprah again for a while!), I found this a fascinating novel both for the writing and the psychology--though I'm afraid Flaubert comes too close for comfort in capturing the agony of being on the losing end of unrequited love.

  17. *Amy: I agree with everything you say here. Like Frances, I was majorly choked up when I read about Charles' death. Masterfully narrated scene!

    *Isabella: I guess I side more with those who felt Justin knew Emma and loved her in spite of her flaws than you with what you say here, but that doesn't mean that he himself couldn't turn into another Léon in the end. Interesting! Re: Berthe's tragedy, I have to say that the narration of her downfall and Homais' ascension at the very end hit me as hard as The Part about the Crimes scenes in 2666 last year. Just brutal.

  18. Lampedusa is right here on my night stand. I hardly get very emotional over books but Italian authors managed quite a few times (Bassani, Pavese, Tabucchi).
    Either a French or a European read along would be nice. 12 countries/12 months. How would that sound?
    The problem for the second are the translations though. Hungary is a country I haven't read enough but they have such fine authors.
    As I am writing quite a lot myslef it is always a question whether to write with a male or a female POV. The French writer who is said to pull it off best is actually Mauriac (Thérèse Desqueyroux).