Tuesday, June 26, 2012

There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him - but this week is "during"

The idea seems worse the more I think about it, but I am going to spend the week writing about Madame Bovary (1856).  I mention Gustave Flaubert frequently, but the only book of his that I have really written about is his overheated Salammbô, surely a special case, except that Flaubert’s vulgar historical epic was as much fun to write about as anything I have done here, and I was thrilled to see Mario Vargas Llosa have his fun, too:  “I remember a number of Olympian discussions I had, in that summer of ’59, with friends who laughed when I heatedly asserted that ‘Salammbô is a masterpiece, too.’”  My concern is that writing about Bovary will be less fun.

Less enjoyable because, just as an example, I have read too much about the novel.  The Vargas Llosa quotation is from p. 31 of The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary (1975, tr. Helen Lane), a model study, specifically from the fifty page love letter to the novel and to the title character with which Vargas Llosa begins his book before turning to more technical questions.  All I want to write about are technical questions which, if they have not been covered by Vargas Llosa are likely to be at least glanced at in How Fictions Works (2008) by James Wood:

There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him.  Flaubert established, for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible.  (39)

That first sentence is at once trivially true when taken literally, and mostly false when taken as a metaphor, only true in the sense that we can retrospectively see the split which was created not by Flaubert but by later writers reacting to and against him.  But when I invoke Flaubert, I am using him as a shorthand reference for exactly the break Wood identifies.  My idea for the week is to try to write out what I mean.

One word I will not use is “realist” or any variation.  Absolutely useless as a designation, I have concluded, in fact pointlessly confusing.  Best to ignore it entirely.

I plan to ignore the sympathy question, too, even though it is central and has been productive to later writers.  Meaning, the author clearly despises his heroine – and in letters says he does – except often it is anything but clear how he feels about her, and what a reader is “supposed” to feel may well have little to do with what the cantankerous author feels.  The ambivalence is built into the novel.  Vargas Llosa claims that the first time he read the novel, at the end of Part II (the opera scene), “he knew that from that moment on, till my dying day, I would be in love with Emma Bovary” (9).  I align myself with Vladimir Nabokov, who, opening his lecture on Madame Bovary, calls the novel a “fairy tale” and reminds his sensitive Cornell undergraduates that “Emma Bovary never existed” (125).

So that will be my approach, I guess.  Form, style, imagery, language, when not necessarily expunged by the valiant but helpless translator.  Delight.  We’ll see.  Or just some goofing around with the parts I like best; that would be all right, too.

Scott Bailey has, by coincidence, just written something about Madame Bovary.  Perhaps he will gently correct my worst errors as I move along.  Thanks in advance!


  1. I'm pretty sure Flaubert dislikes every character in Bovary, and I'm also pretty sure that doesn't matter the slightest bit.

    Nabokov was surely onto something when he called the novel a fairy tale. There's a suspension of reality there, no matter the "realist" (sorry) label. There's also (in the uncredited translation I'm reading, at least) a sort of chattiness in the narrator that reminds me of the fairy tale narrative tone.

    I hope you write about this novel all week. I hope you ignore all the literary theory you've read and talk about the book; talk about the household goods or the amount of skin showing in each scene or whatever else catches your eye: the Flaubertisms that Flaubert didn't see in his own work. Or you could talk about Varas Llosa. Or French novels about doctors in general. And stuff.

  2. A common conceit is that Flaubert, like Vargas Llosa, fell in love with Emma at some point. Another conceit is that it was self-love, to the extent that Emma is a sort of shadow version of her creator. Emma and Gustave have a surprising amount in common!

    Also, Gustave likes Justin all right. There are a couple of other examples. There's an argument for Charles, too, actually.

    The multiple narrative strategies were a way for Flaubert to maintain his own distance from the characters. Whatever he feels, the omniscient narrator is a cool cat.

    I have strong doubts that there are any Flaubertisms that Flaubert did not see. Flaubert's greatest, most dangerous innovation was not some refinement of free indirect style but the idea that a writer could have complete artistic control over a prose novel.