Thursday, January 16, 2020

I Meet Emma Bovary Again

I met Emma for the first time maybe 15 or 20 years ago. Catching up on my education, I took the Teaching Company course on great books, and of course Emma was rightfully there. I didn't like it much. Such disagreeable characters and such a confined, judgmental society.

But that was then and this is now – and as Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” For one thing, this time around I read it in French, in a dual language book with French on the left hand page and English on the right. (My edition's English translation was from 1886 by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Karl Marx's daughter – imagine their dinner table conversations about the bourgeoisie!)

This second time through I liked it a lot more! I'd like to say that reading it in French made all the difference, appreciating Flaubert's style and his famous “le mot juste.” But truthfully, since I'm still just an intermediate French student, hopefully on the way to advanced, I have to say that the real difference was probably that I had to go slower, and had time to think and notice and to wonder. And then there's the “me” part of it. They say you decline with age, but I actually feel smarter and wiser (except for math), and I've read a lot more literature and experienced a lot more life since I first met Emma et al.

It's an amazing book. You always want to keep reading, but all the characters, emphatically including Emma, are famously unsympathetic. Julian Barnes called Madame Bovary “the greatest shopping and fucking novel of all time,” which is of course a great line. “Great novel” paired with “shopping and fucking” is a master statement, certainly more overt than Flaubert's more subtle combination of base characters and masterpiece prose. It's really amazing: no character wishes anyone else well, no one thinks of helping anyone else, no one expresses any ideals or much ambivalence about anything, no one seems to empathize or understand anyone else.

Maybe this is Flaubert's “realism.” Forget the ideals, forget the melodrama, what are people really like, what really happens? Flaubert paints them as all underside, always looking out for themselves. Emma inflates her first love affair, with her first lover Rodolphe, into a great passion with a dramatically envisioned course of running away and living on love, but he is already thinking how he will get rid of her before he has even bedded her. Homais the pharmacist eggs on Emma's physician husband Charles to try an experimental surgical cure on a servant's club foot that costs him his whole lower leg, all in the hopes of admirable postings about their fair city of Yonville in the regional newspaper. The base villain Lheureux (the happy one? Come on, Gustave, give me a break!) lures Emma into debt, bankruptcy and suicide in pursuit of filthy lucre. The gossips of the town spy maliciously. The justly famous public holiday scene displays the fatuous mediocrity of speaker and listeners without compassion – only the peasants get off easy as mindlessly happy at an event. No one, no one helps anyone else, except Emma's deadly dull physician husband Charles who, in the process of doing good and working hard, and I don't know if Flaubert suspected this, couldn't do much good at all in an era of medical ignorance – and neither could the self-important uncaring consultant physicians and surgeons who appear. My God, what a group of no-goodniks! Only the ignorant peasants are happy in their simplicity. You can understand why “bourgeois” is an epithet.

I guess most people are very critical of Emma – prideful, deceitful, adulterous, shallow, selfish, cruel, and worst of all, an unloving mother. It's warranted, although I would give her a pass on what the book makes the most of, adultery. But still, for all her shortcomings, I found myself being sympathetic to Emma. I thought, what were the alternatives offered to a spirited, highly-sexed, not naturally conforming woman in 19th century provincial France? What else was she supposed to do, being who she is, and living where she does? Raised in the provinces, reading romances secretly as she is educated in a convent, reading the Parisian ladies' magazines after that, is she going to let life go by, her with her dull husband and some needlework? She grabs what the winds of chance provide her. She is criticized for being self-conscious when she sees her reflection and the physical signs of her fulfillment and says, “J'ai un amant ! Un amant !” In other words, “I did it!” Well, good for her, I say! Give it your best! It's not an aberrant reaction. I remember my son Pete when he got his first acceptance to a law school – he looked at me, he looked at the sky, he said with some wonder in his voice: “I'm going to be a lawyer.” It's not that big of a difference, and I don't mean as a cynical lawyer joke. Dreams are dreams, who are we to judge?

It turns out the guy Emma chooses first is a turkey, but that's life. Then she tries again with the younger Léon, where they have a regular room at a hotel in Rouen. I've often thought we should have the right to health, education, and sexual fulfillment. Why not? I'm on her side. Again it works out badly, but again, you do what you can do in the circumstances you find yourself, with whatever resources you have. At least she tried. I remember my wife's comments when Clinton got into his Lewinsky trouble – she said, if he wanted some action on the side, couldn't he have found someone with class, who knew how to keep a secret? You do what you can do.

(Just as aside, I wondered what the clerks at the hotel thought, what their views of life were as they saw all that happened in their hotel. Maybe it was like Love Boat. I remember that when I was first in practice the older pediatrician who was my office mate had certain patients that his staff booked for longer visits, calling them GLM visits – good looking mothers. Propriety can be just a question of how far you go.)

And the fact that Emma was lured into being a spendthrift just makes me sad, and angry at the perpetrator. I thought, at least Flaubert didn't make him Jewish. I think about Emma being led down the garden lane by this slime – who was there to help her? Who was there to consult with, someone who knew more and wished her well? What do you do when no one prepares you, when your parents were no help at all? It's so sad when you are all on your own, YOYO. What a wasteland when no one cares for anyone else or helps anyone else.

Of the millions of words that must have been written about Madame Bovary, I sampled some on Google. I was surprised that my readings didn't emphasize the feminist issue more – I just missed them in my cursory search, I'm sure. But the plight of the woman in provincial society is so obvious. Talk about oppression! I mean, what were the choices?

(Just one more by-the-way comment before I set out what I thought most interesting of the comments I read – how come there isn't more talk about pregnancy, not here, not in The Red and the Black, nowhere. What did these people do? Propriety reigns not only in the provinces but on the page. To be fair, in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the sixteen year old does get pregnant.)

I enjoyed the articles I read on Google, and here are a few for your interest:

Nick Fraser, The Guardian, 2010

But I also know that I shall never really comprehend the full extent of the damage done to our illusions by Flaubert's great book.

Are we capable of being truthful? Do human beings ever really tell the truth about the things that really matter?

Me: I guess others feel this way, but I don't. My problem is always the opposite – I do good things, and then I'm suspicious I did them for selfish reasons that I am hiding. I suspect my own generosity. Flaubert's conceit was that he revealed the selfishness by finding it everywhere, pervasive, and exclusive. I think that's excessive. What would he have done with righteous gentiles who hid and saved Jews, who must have existed even there in Normandy?

"... None of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs," he observes in what must be the book's most celebrated mot, "or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat our tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity."

Me: Reminds me of Robin Williams saying “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

Me: I don't know where I got these quotes below, which speak for themselves

The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.

acknowledged before anyone else: that the single-most important character in any novel is the narrator.

the very last stages of composition when, in a portentous gesture, Flaubert excised what had long served as the novel’s opening sentence in favor of a first-person plural pronoun that suddenly emerges out of nowhere. It’s arguably the world’s most famous last-minute revision of a canonical text’s opening line: What in the copyist’s final-stage typescript is still “The school clock had just struck 1:30 when the Prefect came in followed by a new boy” becomes, in the novel’s published version: “We were in class when the Prefect came in followed by a new boy”: Nous étions à l’étude quand le Proviseur entra suivi d’un nouveau (included below). The impersonality of the classroom clock is replaced by an unidentified we, not because the narrator wants this particular classroom to appear any less depersonalizing, but because he wants all of us all inside that classroom even as the author himself, slyly, cruelly, maintains his distance from the proceedings under way, like a clinician who registers but does not judge.

Reading Madame Bovary in the Provinces, Birger Vanwesenbeeck LA Times 2016

Madame Bovary is in part a long novel because boredom, and how it so fatally affects its protagonist

For what’s beautiful about Madame Bovary is ultimately less its stylistic bravura than its author’s deeply felt ambivalence about provincial life.
Me: Interesting point that boredom is best portrayed in a long book. I didn't get the ambivalence about provincial life, I thought Flaubert just skewered it, but on second thought, ambivalence is probably right.

Book Blog in Considering the Classics Madame Bovary, c’est toi!Dorothy Reno June 12, 2017
But as critics have pointed out, these are Flaubert’s thoughts, not Emma’s. And as the book carries on, the humor feels increasingly weaponized. Had this cutting wit been her own, Emma might have used it to better forge a resolve against the confines of her unhappy marriage. Instead, she takes herself all too seriously amid the grunting weasels and plopping sounds of overripe fruit. Emma Bovary lacks the comic instinct to cope with life’s follies, so it’s only natural she’ll eat arsenic.
The nothingness at the center of most hearts can be spontaneously filled with delight and the occasional act of kindness. But there is none of this in Flaubert’s masterpiece. What we find instead is a world not so much real as hypo-real, a dimension sapped of joy where misery is never instructive, where authentic human connection — of which even the unhappiest among us can experience — is missing. Madame Bovary is at once a painful correction to the romantic movement and an ever-relevant stripping down of middle-class hypocrisy.
Me: Interesting in pointing out the lack of humor of Emma, and indeed all the characters. What a vital thought. Also, apparent lack of being able to view themselves objectively, judge themselves, second guess themselves. I guess you could say all the characters are pretty stupid. I really like thinking of the book as hypo-real. I don't know if she thought of this word herself, but I find it very interesting.
Well, that's it for Emma and me. Great books can be talked about forever. Emma has certainly met that test. I'm so glad I read it again.

Budd Shenkin

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