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.