Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (tr. Lydia Davis)

Title: Madame Bovary
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Translator: Lydia Davis
Genre: Fiction, classics


Although lately I have been leaving off star ratings in my blog, I will admit that on Goodreads, I gave this book 3 stars, which Goodreads labels “I liked it.” There are different components that go into how much I “like” a book.

As far as a reading experience, Madame Bovary was often merely a 2 (“it was okay”) and sometimes even a 1 (“I didn’t like it”). The writing itself was not really to my taste. For all the focus on the style and beauty that Flaubert purportedly writes with, I often found the telling flat and boring, but I am very much willing to believe that this is in part due to the translation, as Flaubert was famously obsessed with how his sentences sounded when read aloud. Still, I have an opposite reaction to many reviewers (and Flaubert himself); they say “oh the subject is so banal, how boring, but what writing! so much beauty! true style!” and I’m here thinking, dude she is having affairs and financially ruining her family and she’s sneaking around and having emotional meltdowns, psychotic breaks; basically it’s juicy drama, but it reads so dry. It’s so weird to me that so many of Flaubert’s contemporaries and he himself classed this as just so boring and “about nothing”: I’m pretty sure most people would find this story the opposite of banal or boring if it happened to them. Many of the things that happen in this marriage/novel happened in my own family while I was growing up. I would describe none of it as boring. In writing this out now, I’m getting a growing sense of “fuck those snobby city assholes for thinking that rural people’s pain is nothing.” Of course, Flaubert did decide to actually write about it, and it has been embraced as a great and enduring novel, which belies the notion of its being banal; and yet, it is clear that Flaubert and his contemporaries thought the subjects covered were ~just, like, so tedious, man~

For a story where the characters’ lives are so seriously circling the drain–one of them completely unaware of the fact, and the other urging on destruction at every turn (even with occasional pangs of disgust at herself)–there is so much opportunity for tension, but it’s hardly ever present. The subtitle of Madame Bovary is Mœurs de province, translated as “provincial manners,” “patterns of provincial life,” etc. Similarly, Middlemarch, written in English ~15 years later, has the subtitle “A Study of Provincial Life.” In many ways, the events of Middlemarch seem on the face of them to be less notable and more boring than those of Madame Bovary, and yet there is so much more tension present. But then, it’s clear George Eliot has compassion for her characters and is truly interested in them. Flaubert hates his characters and, worse, actually seems completely incurious about them, instead opting to put his energy into laying on his floor and shouting out sentences to make sure they were pleasing to the ear. This doesn’t bode well for the book, and after reflecting on reading experience, I’m tempted to lower my opinion of it.

But… I don’t “like” books on their reading experience alone. I have thought about discarding some of my very favorite books at some point during the reading. I’m also very much interested in how an author explores a theme, what they are trying to bring attention to, what they say about certain things. I feel mixed with this one. I think Flaubert did really well with examining the trouble that comes out of confusing romance and love. He shows how striving after an impossible ideal or fantasy makes our real lives that much bleaker, and he does it effectively: Emma experiences even the heights of emotion through cliches. It reminds me how people are increasingly living through their phone, unable to taste a meal or enjoy a view until they’ve photographed it and put it online first. Emma’s experience shows that our way of grasping at things we covet just pushes them farther away from us, and I think this novel performs admirably on that score.

But with other subjects, like the boredom and pitfalls of bourgeois life, I’m less convinced: I just think Emma is too extreme an example to be the basis of any real argument. Flaubert claimed that there were thousands of Emma Bovarys in France, or women who wished they were. I can believe that there were thousands of women who were bored in their marriage, thousands who despised their husbands, even thousands who had affairs, but thousands of Emma, thousands who wanted to be Emma? She’s heckin’ miserable, dude; nobody wants to be that miserable. I think it’s probable that the majority of women who had affairs conducted them in a more discreet way without doing as much damage to their children or family unit, and that many women who lusted after and purchased luxurious material goods didn’t have this huge tendency toward self-destruction. I don’t know if Flaubert actually realized how cartoonish Emma is. Many people (all people?) have shades of Emma in them: we all have impulses to destructive, unkind, ineffective behavior, so yeah, whatever, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” But she’s such a caricature in so many ways that it actually undermines the argument that she’s typical or can somehow represent what she’s intended to. It’s not a true examination of ~provincial life~ because it’s so off-the-rails. Emma is not the average housewife, this is not the average failing marriage, she is not even the average adulterer. (On the other hand, as a portrayal of someone with borderline personality disorder, Emma works; however, I don’t think that was Flaubert’s intent, and giving Emma a mental disorder hardly sticks it to the bourgeoisie, which was his apparent purpose.)

On other subjects or questions it raises (women’s place, language/connection/communication, etc.), the book is ambiguous enough that you can make opposite arguments, and it does that ambiguity well, which is something I do appreciate.

I think that a year or two from now, it is unlikely I will have forgotten this book and its characters, and that definitely counts for something. I could see myself revisiting this one at some point in the future; I find the ambivalence it provokes in me interesting. In summing up my feelings for it, I earlier hit on the crux of why I’m more firmly on the “it’s okay, I liked it” side of a 3-star rating than the “I liked it, it was really good!” side: Flaubert just doesn’t like his characters that much, and it shows; he does not seem interested in them as actual people, and as such they all seem like cardboard: stereotypes of the boring husband, stereotypes of the manipulative wife, stereotypes of the blowhard, etc. He is a misanthrope and his novel suffers for it, but so many of the ideas he explores in the book are worthwhile.

The majority of this review was previously posted by me as part of a discussion group on The Hemingway List subreddit.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Title: Don Quixote
Author: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, translated by Edith Grossman
Genre: Fiction, classics

Rating: 1 / 5


I picked Don Quixote up last year because I was kinda trying to follow a do-it-yourself classical education kind of thing. I’ve read so widely and although I get a lot out of it, I know I could be getting more out of it. So many great books make references or allusions to or build upon other great books. When I checked out The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer, Don Quixote was the first book on her reading list, as chronologically it’s supposedly the birth of the “novel.” The first attempt, I made it through the prologue and thought, ehhrrrrnnn maybe not right now. Then a couple months later I felt somewhat revitalized about the task, and lo, there was a discussion group on Goodreads starting right then to read Don Quixote! And breaking it up into sections, taking about four months to get through it. Doable, I thought.

Yes, doable–except for one thing: I had crucially underestimated how boring Don Quixote is. It is bad. It ranks right up there with Naked Lunch and A Discovery of Witches as among the most tedious books I’ve read. It’s more enjoyable than the former’s edgelordyness and definitely has a more important point than the latter, but seriously, I’ve read forest management textbooks for fun (and edification! that too), and I’m here to say: Don Quixote is hella monotonous, y’all.

Everyone knows the story of Don Quixote, right? Eccentric old guy attacks windmills thinking they are giants? Obsessed with his ideals and living up to them to the point of delusion? Everything everyone knows about Don Quixote happens in the first couple chapters. I’m not sure if this is because people give up reading it just a few pages in…maybe? But it hardly matters, because if you’ve read that episode, you’ve read them all–he just does the same shit over and over again, and apparently it’s slapstick and a lot of people think it’s funny, but I was mostly unmoved. Then again, I think the Three Stooges suck and it makes me cringe that it’s supposed to be funny. This book is a lot like that. It does have its moments, though. For instance, Sancho tried to take a surreptitious shit in the dark right next to our titular character, afraid that if he left him for even a moment he’d run off and get himself into trouble. It’s funny. But it’s too far in between that and all the tiresome monologues and all the “adventures” that start the same, progress the same, and end the same.

I do think the book raises some interesting questions. What is truth? Do intentions matter? At what point does satire become the thing it’s supposedly satirizing? Does playing along with someone’s delusions allow you to manipulate them in “reality,” or does others playing along cause the fantasy to become more real? Is the whole thing comic or tragic? But. The way the book does it is just drudgery to me (and it’s also not entirely clear to me that the author intended to raise these questions, or at least not all of them). The second part of the book, written 10 years after the first, I found slightly more interesting from a thematic and literary point of view, but still. Too much blah blah blah with not enough to make me care. The discussions about the book on the group were great; lively and enlightening, and I learned a lot about the book and the history of the time. In this respect, mission accomplished–I am learning about literature! But it was one of the least pleasant reading experiences I’ve had, so. :\ In balance, I would say reading this was “almost worth it” for what I got out of the discussions.

The book has a rating of 3.87 on Goodreads. I’m a little miffed because many of my favorite books have a lower rating than this. While I can appreciate it for its historical value and the discussion and questions it stimulates and raises, it is just so repetitious and, well, boring.

You Belong to Me by Colin Harrison

Title: You Belong to Me
Author: Colin Harrison
Genre: Fiction / thriller


I finished this thriller in about two days, which for the version of me that doesn’t work full time is not a very big deal; but for the version of me that does work full time (which is the actual version, sadly), it’s rare. I’ve been reading lots of 19th century literature lately and the prose style in this one pretty much flies by in comparison while still being fairly “literary.”

One day, map collector Paul is attending an auction with his neighbor when she is stunned to see someone from her past and totally ditches him. Back at his apartment, he can see through their window, and yep, they’re doin’ it. Her super rich and super high powered lawyer husband isn’t going to be pleased.

I liked a lot about this book: the writing, the pacing, and it definitely held my interest. It was fun, and it felt kind of “smart,” too. Some critical reviews of the book say that it is “racist” or “misogynist.” While I wouldn’t really slap those labels on this book, I did wonder about some of the decisions regarding race and gender in this novel from time to time. Almost every single character in this book is morally ambiguous (at the least) or highly imperfect in some way; the only exceptions are a few very minor characters. But I have to admit that among the main players, the one who is written to come out looking the best is a middle aged wealthy white lawyer dude. Also the author’s jacket photo makes him look like a more fit, more urban version of Doug LaMalfa, my very conservative Representative, so there’s that. But, on the other hand, I don’t think any of the women or people of color came off as complete caricatures. The author takes a somewhat sociological view of things (sometimes explicitly, as when he talks about the decline of the US) and of how life circumstances shape people, and he is telling a global story of wealth and power. I saw one reviewer complain that he uses misogynist stereotypes like women only being able to survive because of physical attributes and willingness to engage in light prostitution, but I’m not sure that’s accurate; the women this sentence refers to could certainly have survived in other ways, but she chose to engage in light prostitution at one point, like she chose to live in New York City. Is it really misogynist to portray that? Some women do engage in light prostitution or sugar-baby arrangements; some because they want to, some because it’s convenient, some out of fear or necessity. Like any type of work, it can be degrading or satisfying, exploitative or not. While the gender/race/class messaging could probably be improved on in some ways, it wasn’t enough to detract from my enjoyment of this novel, which I really liked.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Title: Anna Karenina
Author: Leo Tolstoy, translated by Pevear & Volokhonsky
Genre: Fiction


Based on the beginning of Anna Karenina, I was expecting to really like it. As it ground on and on, I liked it less and less. This mirrors the way Tolstoy himself felt about the novel, which he abandoned partway through and only started working on again because he needed some cash. Published in serialized form, it suffers from the same ailments as many television shows today, where the first season or two is great and by the fifth you’ve given up even on your favorite characters because it’s turned to drivel. Not that Anna Karenina doesn’t have redeeming qualities, because it certainly does. But in the end, it was…just okay. Which is quite a better review than Tolstoy’s own view of this novel, which at one point in time he referred to as “vile.”

I have to say I’m not a fan of Tolstoy’s writing style, and although Tolstoy fans might try to implicate the translation, I sampled multiple translations. Despite many readers citing excellent characterization as one of Tolstoy’s strengths, I found the writing to lack emotion or immediacy. It’s interesting because often this seems to be one of the things people praise him for, but his writing choices seemed to put a distance between this reader and the events it described in such a way that I didn’t really “feel” much about them. Perhaps the pace I was reading has something to do with it as well, but so often the scenes just felt flat and lifeless. After being initially into the story, I was surprised how hard it was  for me to work up any sense of investment in the characters or their doings. After spending 800 pages with these people, that is definitely its own sort of accomplishment, though I’m not sure I find it particularly praiseworthy.

One thing that is great about this book is how much there is to talk about, how many events happen, how many characters there are to compare and contrast. I read this as part of as a chapter-a-day readalong, and there has been ample discussion. I tell friends and family often that I’ll read anything if it means I can talk to somebody about it, so while I didn’t necessarily love Anna Karenina itself, I did like talking about it with people, and of course considering others’ thoughts on the book leads to a deeper appreciation. Anna Karenina is often lauded as ~the best novel ever~ and while I’m in the “lol no” camp on that, it is firmly lodged in “the canon” and I do enjoy hearing others’ thoughts on it.