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
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.
"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.