April 16, 2010


by Gustave Flaubert

Review by Bill Kirton

There are some novels worth revisiting many times over. They change as we grow, offering different themes and perspectives. For me, perhaps the greatest example is Madame Bovary. I first read it as a young student, an enthusiastic romantic. I deplored how badly Emma was treated by her lovers and knew that, if only she’d met me, we’d both have been blissfully happy ever after. Instead, she sighed after the wimp student Léon and the chauvinist pig Rodolphe, a worthless, egocentric individual who didn’t deserve to share a planet with her. (Flaubert notres that he has ‘that natural cowardice that characterises the stronger sex’.) She lived amongst crushingly tedious bourgeois citizens and values and, in the end, her suicide was an extended, grotesque agony which led to her transformation from the beautiful heroine of fantasy to a convulsing, vomiting heap. Damn, we could have been so good together.

It took Flaubert five years to write it and his manuscripts are amazing, near indecipherable things – covered in corrections, deletions, insertions and lots of evidence of his search for ‘le mot juste’. Famously, he claimed ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’ and he’s classed as a realist but while he did chronicle the lives of Emma and her husband, lovers and neighbours in careful detail, the real impact of his work lies in its subversive nature. The romantic encounters with Léon and Rodolphe end in anti-climax and absurdity and even in their most intense effusions, Flaubert is frankly taking the piss. Listen to Léon as he establishes his romantic credentials.

‘A cousin of mine who travelled in Switzerland last year told me that it’s impossible to conceive of the poetry of the lakes, the charm of the waterfalls, the gigantic effect of glaciers. There are torrents spanned with pines of incredible size, cottages hanging over precipices, and, a thousand feet below, whole valleys when the clouds clear. […] I no longer marvel at that celebrated musician who, the better to activate his imagination, was in the habit of playing the piano before some imposing site.’

(The italics and the translation are mine. I should also have indicated Flaubert’s classic use of bathos. All these wonderful (impossible) sights are only there ‘when the clouds clear’ and the idea of the musician dragging his piano up some mountain to get inspiration is excellent. By the way, I have no idea which translation to suggest. With Flaubert being so careful with his choice of words, it needs a real writer to get near to his richness, themes and allusions.)

There’s no space to go into the sort of detail the novel demands so some quick indicators of its real, perhaps unnoticed power will have to suffice. There are the narrative tricks. The narrator is actually a member of Charles Bovary’s class when he first comes to school. The novel begins ‘We were in class when the headmaster came in, followed by a new fellow.’ But this narrating pupil first describes Bovary’s awkwardness in detail then, a few paragraphs on, says ‘It would be impossible for any of us to remember anything about him today’ before giving a full biography as well as an exhaustive description and analysis of his wife’s fantasies and actions. It’s a challenge right from the start.

And what about Charles’s school cap?

‘It was one of those composite hats, with traces of the bearskin, shako, billycock hat, sealskin cap, and cotton night-cap; in fact, one of those wretched things whose mute ugliness has the depths of expression of the face of an imbecile. Oval in shape and stiffened with whalebone, it began with three round knobs; then, one after another, some lozenge-shaped pieces of velvet and rabbit-skin separated by a red band; finally there was a sort of bag that ended in a cardboard polygon covered with complicated braiding, from which hung, at the end of a long thin cord, small twisted gold threads in the shape of a tassel. The cap was new; its peak shone.’

What the hell sort of object is that? And why that pathetic wee sentence at the end? It’s part of how Flaubert continually challenges us. We’ve already mentioned bathos, but how’s this for an example of a sentence dribbling off into nothingness to stress the inconsequentiality of what’s being described – it’s the end of a diatribe about lost dogs. (The oblique strokes are there to separate the various diminishing elements that are added to what seems like a sentence devoid of structure.)

‘Another had gone one hundred and fifty miles/ in a straight line,/ and swum four rivers;/ and his own father had possessed a poodle,/ which,/ after twelve years of absence,/ had/ all of a sudden/ jumped on his back/ in the street/ as he was going out to dine/ in town.’

But there are two features above all which make this a work whose density is as great as that of Proust: its use of images of liquidity, expansion and contraction; and the fact that the substance of the novel is what happens between events.

The liquidity takes the form of ice, rivers, water, fogs and mists and it makes the whole novel a shifting, insubstantial experience; objects are robbed of their outlines and the material and abstract worlds overlap. Emma loathes the repetitive tedium of meal-times when ‘all the bitterness of life seemed served up on her plate, and with the steam from the boiled beef, sickly odours rose from her soul’.

As for the events, the novel is famous for its set-pieces – the first ride with Rodolphe, the helter-skelter carriage ride through Rouen, the Comices agricoles, Charles’s operation on the club foot – but the real ‘action’ happens between them as Emma listens to the angelus, dreams, frets, feels the pressure of time and life’s monotony. It’s in these ‘gaps’ that the book breathes, swelling, rolling, contracting, crawling inexorably towards dissatisfaction and frustration.

And if you don’t have time to read it, treat yourself to a leisurely stroll through just one or two pages – there are gems of all sorts everywhere.

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