Monday, March 7, 2011

Flaubert exposes himself

I have spent the last hour writing a short piece on Madame Bovary. It has been a swift explosion of my thoughts over many years. I am posting this before I edit it for its commissioned purpose--to capture the raw work of morning. It may contain errors, forgive me. I touched the pages of the book as I wrote this. I wish I could write all day.

 I offer to you the great French novel Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert. I have enjoyed it, studied it, taught it, learned from it. There are nights when I lie awake thinking of Flaubert trying to work out how to make these scenes. No one before had ever focused on description and dialogue as he did. He wanted the events in his book to have the sensation of reality, and to hide the hand of the author. If you read the letters he wrote while composing the book, a seven year full time project, you will empathize with the effort, the endless work, of trying to figure out how to put on paper what he imagined. Many of the techniques he used and the effects he created had never been made before.
Flaubert was an inventor, both of literary form and of himself. His friends were becoming famous and he wanted to join them, so he moved from Paris to his mother's house, where he'd both have no distractions and be taken care of, and he wrote his book. He took the subject from a conversation he'd overheard at a party--a provincial doctor's wife had killed herself. Writing about French country village life wasn't his dream; he hoped to write a classic that spoke to the classics of the ancient world; he considered Madame Bovary a practice book.
In the US there is a tremendous emphasis placed now on having the protagonist be a likable character. I cannot hear this request without thinking of President George Bush spoken of as a man with whom you'd like to drink a beer. We have lost our way with this notion of likeability; Flaubert didn't abide by it. Madame Bovary is never likable, though in moments she arouses empathy. Her portrayal is deeply knowing and honest. The likable person couldn't be so rash, so reckless in the name of desire, so destructive, so certain of her right to her own impulses. Does the truly likable person want so much to be someone and somewhere else? When I am told of the necessity of likeability, I hold her up to make the opposite point. Look at Emma. She isn't good, kind, friendly, pleasant, thoughtful, caring. There is nothing about her that would appeal to a town now and any more than she did to the Rouen of the 1850s. Yet there are moments when she shows the side of her character attracted to spirituality and beauty. They aren't particularly emphasized, and they do not win the day as they did for Lily Bart in The House of Mirth; Flaubert intended to write a Realist novel, not a dream. Yet she is moving in her struggle. These glimpses of the possibility for her to be more reflect the truth of most humans. We might be more, yet we rarely are.
Flaubert said "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." I interpret that to mean that Emma Bovary is a proxy for him and his desires, including the drive to express himself in language. There is much here about the influence of novels; at one point Emma is forbidden by her husband and mother-in-law from reading them, as they are clearly contributing to her depression. Letters are written between the pairs of lovers with great self-awareness about the project of influence via words. There is an ambivalence toward writing throughout, its attraction and limitations. Madame Bovary is a reader and a writer of love letters, a writer of her life. The relation between her and Flaubert is knowing. Few of us have the nerve to examine ourselves with such an open eye, to expose our shallowness and sentimentality, our materialism and our passion for people who don't deserve it, our cruelty.
Yet it seems to me that every book does exactly this. We see another person, an author, through the scrim of his words. The choices are either false or true, craven or noble. Rarely are they completely honest. Flaubert wasn't particularly good, but he was shockingly honest. If you copy this book by hand, you will learn how to write a novel.


  1. How delicious. Yet another reminder why I reread the novel last summer. Scrim. Scrim. Scrim. Love that word. Thanks, Alice

  2. I love this post Alice, and I am going to find my copy and read it again--it's been 20 years at least. You've inspired me to look more closely. The last time I read it was in response to Nabokov's worship of Flaubert's process (my memory is fuzzy on this)--but it is a little interesting that two such extreme stylists were so committed at the same time to a kind of deep realism. In that vein the quote"Madam Bovary, c'est moi," seems to me to be a kind of ironic declaration of his aesthetic--like the Sun King declaring "l'etat, c'est moi," the author is declaring that he dominates his subject absolutely. Emma is not a proxy of his person nearly so much as she is a servant of his will.

  3. That's interesting, Wabisabi. I never thought of it that way, and it disturbs me greatly to do so. I'm going to put my mind to it. I have the feeling if I accept it I will have to reconsider the themes of the book. But I am thinking of his letters to his muse, Louise Colet, a person whose separateness he failed to adequately recognize and therefore treated most shabbily. How grim, how grim.

  4. And yet I adore Emma, despite her shallowness and cruelty. Or rather, I find her enormously moving. I identify. It is the strength of her need, even as she keeps making a mess of things, even as reality keeps disappointing her, even as the cost of things mounts. She reminds me of the character Paul in Willa Cather's "Paul's Case," unwilling to return to Pittsburgh, unwilling to continue with life, once the cost of reality becomes to high. This is most how I think Flaubert resembled Emma: the desire for romance, for beauty, for rapture, and the incessant disappointment that the world provided, with its absurdly pompous village surgeons who attempt to correct a gimp leg, etc. I don't believe Flaubert meant his "c'est moi" in the same way an exalted king might, for I don't believe he felt his command over his materials was so absolute. No, I believe he identified with flawed, struggling Emma. As, alas, do I.